NEA Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow James Ka'upena Wong

Man sitting down holding a gourd
James Ka'upena Wong sharing his art form during the 2005 NEA National Heritage Fellowships concert in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Michael G. Stewart

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) acknowledges the death of Hawaiian chanter James Ka'upena Wong, of Mākaha, Hawai'i, recipient of a 2005 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

James Ka'upena Wong was known in Hawai'i as a master chanter, a "keeper of the word" and thus the language, but he also was recognized as a composer, instrumentalist, and tradition-bearer. Hawaiian cultural aspects were a big part of Wong’s upbringing. His mother was an accomplished hula dancer and exposed him to the poetry and visual delight of the hula. His father was a singer and his uncle knew all about the luau.

Upon returning from college in 1959, Wong began a serious 12-year apprenticeship with Mary Kawena Puku'i, a master teacher of Hawaiian cultural heritage. Through this training, he learned the five primary styles of ancient poetic chant, mele kahiko. Wong also mastered the basic instruments accompanying chant and hula including the pahu (drum) and the 'ukeke (musical bow). He was one of the few masters of the full spectrum of ancient instruments, many of them rarely used today. Listen to Wong performing an Oli style chant.

Wong had an encouraging outlook for sustaining the traditional Hawaiian culture, saying in an interview with the NEA in 2005, “I’m confident that something as good as chant and hula will never die, never be lost.” Remembered as a teacher and mentor, Wong, along with Professor Barbara Smith, helped establish a program in Hawaiian chant and hula at the University of Hawai'i, the first representation of Hawaiian culture in higher education in the state, which is active today with a series of ensemble classes.

In 1964, Wong was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in what is generally acknowledged as the first presentation of Hawaiian chant as an American folk tradition. He performed in 1969 in Washington, DC for the dedication of the statue of King Kamehameha I in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol. He received the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 and was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

When asked about how he felt to be awarded the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, Wong replied, “I am pleased and proud. Pleased that Hawaiian poetry is being honored through the voice of the chanter, proud because the honor is an acknowledgement of the knowledge and skills of my teachers. Because this award honors Hawaiian chants, it honors all teachers and practitioners—past, present, and future—of ‘Naleo Beli,’ the chanter's art. The award is also a testimonial to our nation, a nation that believes in the richness of diversity.”


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