By Kapiolani Ching
“The Sound of the Islands,” a song written and composed in 1975 by the late Nancy Gustafsson-Rittenband, was inspired by Hawai‘i’s cultural diversity. The chords are meant to reflect the many distinct ethnic groups that make up Hawai‘i’s population—groups that, when combined, create a beautiful harmony.
In writing and composing music, beloved hapa-haole Hawaiian music connoisseurs Nancy Gustafsson-Rittenband and her husband Victor Rittenband wrote songs that entertained and encouraged listeners to think of Hawaiian music on a deeper level. More than 40 years later, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa alumnus, performer and educator Zachary Lum is doing the same.
“To think of mele (music) as a source of entertainment is only scratching the surface of its value in education, culture, politics and many other realms,” said Lum. “I grew up with Hawaiian music, and over my years of education and experience, its sentimental value has grown into an appreciation for its importance.”
A recipient of the Gustafsson-Rittenband Endowment Scholarship Fund, Lum has made a career of Hawaiian music. From arranging and directing to studying and performing, his passion can be traced all the way back to his childhood, through his years as a Kamehameha Schools song contest director and onward. But it wasn’t until he came to UH that he was able to fully immerse himself in Hawaiian language as well as study the more fundamental and technical aspects of music. Having double majored in Hawaiian language and music as an undergraduate, Lum is now focusing on ethnomusicology for his graduate studies.
“The countless lessons and experiences I’ve gained from my education have become tools to create, express and educate others on Hawaiian music,” said Lum, who now teaches music at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, his alma mater. When he’s not studying or teaching, he can be found putting his knowledge and skills to work as a member of the Hawaiian music trio Keauhou.
With ample performance experience and penchant for learning in hand, both Lum and the Rittenbands have shared a belief in the value of Hawaiian music and the importance of giving back. In 2009, the late Victor Rittenband spoke of the impact Hawaiian music had had on his life.
“Nancy and I weren’t lucky enough to be born here, but we were smart enough to come here,” said Rittenband. “Our lives were greatly enriched by the people and culture of Hawai‘i. We wanted to give back and give thanks for what Hawaiʻi gave to us.”
As a way of giving back, Victor Rittenband established the Gustafsson-Rittenband Endowment Scholarship Fund to support students studying Hawaiian music. He also established the Nancy Gustafsson-Rittenband and Victor Rittenband Endowment for Hawaiian Music to support the UH Mānoa Music Department’s Hawaiian Music program. As for Lum, he aspires to bring his love and appreciation for Hawaiian music full circle.
“As a mele practitioner, I hope to contribute to this soundscape, honor traditions in a contemporary environment, while also contributing to the traditions of the future,” said Lum. “As an educator, I hope to instill and inspire both talent and knowledge in my students so that they too may be equipped to breathe life into our mele, and thus, our lāhui.”