Years and years ago, I took Gregg shorthand. It’s a system of stenography which uses loops and straight lines to represent words for taking dictation. Since the advent of machine stenography, and the almost universal use of personal computers by business executives, Gregg shorthand seems antiquated and unnecessary. And what about Siri and other apps which allow you to use your voice to enter data into a digital device such as a mobile phone or iPad?
Well, this week I had to take “musical dictation,” as it were, because I am playing for a funeral today at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church. The family requested a piece for which there seems to be no sheet music available — most certainly not organ music. So I had to find a performance of “Kanaka Wai Wai” on the Internet and transcribe what I heard into musical notation. If you search for “Kanaka Wai Wai,” you’ll find lots of websites which have the lyrics and chord symbols, plus lots of YouTube performances, but no sheet music for this favorite Hawaiian song. Aggie Kusunoki, a teacher at St. Andrew’s Priory and singer in the St. Andrew’s Cathedral choir, sent me a hymnal version of the song, but when I played through it, I realized the melody was vastly different from the one I was familiar with and had heard before.
The song refers to the Bible verse about Jesus saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. You can read about the origin of this beloved song by clicking here. Johnny Almeida has been credited with the song, but I found out that the melody may have originated from the island of Ni’ihau as far back as the 1800s by the grandfather of Hawaiian entertainer Moe Keale. Apparently Almeida wrote a version of it for the Mormon Church because it seemed too much like a hula song.
For college music students, taking musical dictation is part of required music theory classes. The teacher gives you a pitch from the piano as a point of reference, then plays a short passage of music. You are then expected to be able to notate the melody and rhythm correctly. With my perfect pitch, this task was a cinch in so far as the melody. Notating the rhythm, though, can be a little tricky, especially if there is syncopation, with notes off the beat. I remember that in my entrance exams for graduate school, the musical dictation was too easy for me since it was the opening passage from Bach’s “Wo soll ich fliehen hin (“Whither shall I flee?”), BWV 646 from the Schübler Chorales, which I had previously played on the organ.
So, in case you’re interested, here’s the version of the song I transcribed, and then arranged for organ. It was sung at the Unity Church of Hawaii, where I used to play for Japanese weddings occasionally.
P.S. When I was practicing my version yesterday at the church, the Altar Guild ladies who were there said they had never heard “Kanaka Wai Wai” played on the organ before, but remarked at how beautiful it was.