Sunday, December 21, 2008


I've gone from ha to hau (snow). It seemed appropriate since Portland has been buried in snow off and on for the past week, with the weatherman promising about a week more of this arctic weather. In fact, both hula class and 'ukulele class got canceled because driving to class would have been foolhardy, if not impossible.

I wasn't sure if I'd find much information about hau in Hawai'i. As it turns out, there's even a Hawaii Ski Club, based on O'ahu. But the club, numbering about 100 skiers, seems more interested in meeting for pau hana (happy hour) and planning trips to ski resorts in Canada, the mainland and Japan than in skiing in Hawai'i.

Skiing in Hawai'i really happens, though it seems like a lot of trouble. And the Hawaii Ski Club actually advises against it because it's dangerous and foolhardy -- kind of like trying to drive in Portland lately.

The only places it snows in Hawai'i are at the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai'i [pictured above in a satellite photo] and Haleakala on Maui. All three are volcanoes. Mauna Kea, which means white mountain, is 13,796 feet high. Compare that to Mt. Hood, just east of Portland, with its elevation of 11,240. At Mt. Hood, there's skiing all year. But at Mauna Kea, if conditions are just so, skiing is possible during the months of January or February.

However, there are no lifts and no services of any kind. People who are just dying to say they skiied in Hawai'i have to either have a patient friend or hire someone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle who will drive them to the top, then drive down to where the snow ends to pick them up and maybe repeat the process.

The only way to the top is along a service road built for astronomers. The summit of Mauna Kea, it turns out, is the world's largest astonomical observatory. There are 13 telescopes operated by 11 countries.

I read that the astonomers are sometimes called upon to rescue the foolhardy skiers. At that elevation it's common that someone not used to the thin air would get altitude sickness. Another problem skiers encounter is that when the snow runs out, there's volcanic lava rock below. People who don't brake in time can get pretty banged up.

But even the people who advise against skiing up there do recommend the view, just because it's so amazing to see in one glimpse the blue sky, the blue ocean, the white snow, the dark lava and the lush vegetation beyond.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Here is my Fun Fact for the week.

Ha! What a great Hawaiian word. What could it possibly mean?

How very logical of the Hawaiians. Of course, this expellation of air means a breath, to breathe, even divine breath.

At last night's hula class I pointed out to my classmates that the word ha is hidden in a few other common words, such as aloha. Alo means facing and ha means breath. In the old days, Hawaiians said hello by coming face-to-face with each other -- nose-to-nose, in fact -- and expelling their breath. My first Hawaiian language teacher, Tuti, claimed that it was a very practical greeting: in one moment you'd know if your friend was feeling well or not.

Tuti also explained the origin of the word haole, which is the somewhat derogatory term for non-Hawaiians. She said it originated with the first contact of Hawaiians with European voyagers, such as Captain James Cook. Captain Cook (who ultimately lost his life in Hawai'i) no doubt greeted the native people in a rather stiff and formal British manner. A warm handshake was probably the most intimate he and the other Brits could manage when meeting the chiefs. (Greeting the ladies was quite another matter.)

Ha means breath; ole means without. Thus, haole means "without breath." Originally, the word described people who failed to greet others in the Hawaiian way.

Ha appears in many words. I read that 'ohana, the word for family, means "many breaths," as in a whole bunch of heavy breathers, a clan. I haven't found a good source of Hawaiian etymology, so I can't vouch for that, having come to learn that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. For example, one Internet source claimed that Hawai'i meant "divine breath, divine water." However, according to my Hawaiian dictionary, the word Hawai'i comes from "Hawa Iki," which was the name of the legendary homeland of the Polynesian people who eventually set out in their sea-faring canoes and settled their new home, Hawai'i.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Feather Leis

We are back to hula class after a Thanksgiving break. My Fun Fact for the week is related to a show-n-tell our kumu (teacher) gave us during our last class. She had just returned from a hula and craft workshop in Honolulu, the International Waikiki Hula Conference, where she learned how to work with feathers for making leis or headbands.

I learned about Hawaiian feather craft when I visited the Bishop Museum in Honolulu last spring. Pictured here is a museum exhibit of a feather lei that also bears a hook, traditionally carved from a whale's tooth, to indicate that the wearer was ali'i, or royalty.

No birds were harmed (well, not TOO much) in the collection of feathers for royal garments. The royal bird catchers, known as kia manu, spread sticky tree sap or gum from a tree upon branches where birds were likely to alight. Once the bird was stuck, the catcher would pluck just a few colorful feathers and then clean the sticky goo off the bird's feet and let it go. The red and yellow feathers were the most rare and therefore the most prized. However, any bird feather was considered special because birds were thought to have a great deal of mana, spiritual power. And because birds could fly, they could get closer to the gods.

Our kumu not only brought back from the conference new skills in feather craft (which she will teach us), but a new dance. I couldn't believe it when she said it was a mele ma'i, or genital chant. I talked about these chants when delivering my last Fun Fact, and I later wondered if I had gone a bit over the top. After all, I don't know my hula sisters (and one hula brother) THAT well. But as it turned out, kumu was happy that I had introduced the concept.

The dance she learned at the conference is called Ka Ua I Hämäkua, which means, "The Rain at Hämäkua." Although it's identified as a mele ma'i, the term is translated as a procreation chant. The subject is the conception of King Kamehameha the Great and now I better understand about the layered meaning of the Hawaiian language. See if you can get a sexual spin off of these lines -- "You are pierced at the mouth of the forest, By the thrust of the needle" -- and you'll understand why the most innocuous sounding poetry often merits a little wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

Kumu taught us a new step called the ne'e, for which we sort of stick our butts out and swing them back and forth. When we're not doing that we're doing the ami, which is basically a hip grinder. At one point in the chant, kumu calls out, "'Auhea ia?" (Where is it?) Then we cradle our hands in front of our (ahem) ma'i, if you get my drift, and shout, "Eia ma'ane 'i lä!" (Here it is!) This ain't "Lovely Hula Hands," folks, but I like it. Learning this mele ma'i deepens my understanding of hula. The words and the movements carry a world of meanings.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I wasn't sure how this Fun Fact went over with my hula class this week. I talked about the different type of mele (pron. MEH-lay), which means music, song or chant. I think I lingered too long over a particular type of chant known as the mele ma'i, or genital chant.

Back in the old days, before the missionaries introduced that interesting concept of shame, Hawaiians were pretty darn comfortable and friendly with their bodies and, for that matter, with other people's bodies. The birds and the bees were something they told their kids about early on. In fact, the kids' dolls probably had genitals, unlike poor Ken and Barbie. (Aw, Hawaiian dolls have all the fun!)

When a Hawaiian child was born, family members might compose a mele ma'i to celebrate the kid's genitals and to look forward to the day that the celebrated genitals would play their part in furthering the family line.

As I told my class, my grown son and daughter (who are both still single and childless) would swear off children for good if they knew their goofy, Hawaii-obsessed mother was learning about a certain type of ditty customarily composed by a doting grandparent. I think they'd prefer I knit booties instead.

The reason I chose to talk about mele was because our class is learning a hula that accompanies a mele inoa (IN-o-wa), a name chant. It's called Käwika (David) and it was composed to honor the name and achievements of King David Kaläkaua.

There are many different types of mele, which are usually recited in a sing-song voice and accompanied by the beating of a gourd or drum. Those that I mentioned were mele koihonua, geneology chants, by which the Hawaiians learned their history in the era before written language; mele kanikau, chants to grieve someone who has recently died; and mele kähea, chants to request admittance, for example, to a hula class. Oh yeah, and mele ma'i, the genital chant. How could I forget? Guess I was distracted by my bootie knitting.

Monday, November 17, 2008


I went to my 'ukulele class yesterday. There are now just four of us in the class, thanks to the usual attrition after a year of weekly meetings. We had a much larger group when we gave our first recital in April.

Our teacher volunteered to be the halau's official 'ukulele instructor. She also organized the halau band comprised of a guitar player, a couple of 'uke players and two vocalists.

She teaches music to elementary school students and leads a very musical life. But she tells us that teaching us how to play the 'ukulele is what has made her feel truly fulfilled as a music teacher.

It's good for us, too. How could you not love the 'ukulele? What a happy sounding instrument! It was originally introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1870s by a group of Portuguese workers, who had sailed all the way from the Island of Madeira, off the shore of Northwestern Africa, to work in the sugarcane and pineapple plantations. They played a little four-stringed instrument called the machete or braguinha, which was immediately embraced by the fun-loving King Kaläkaua. The instrument was given the name 'ukulele, which means jumping flea. It's how observers described the players' agile fingers leaping over the strings. The happy little instrument was soon used to accompany many of the new style hula dances.

A Honolulu instrument maker named Samuel Kamaka decided to improve upon the instrument and in 1916 began selling the koa-wood 'ukuleles he made by hand. Kamaka is credited with producing the first true Hawaiian 'ukulele. The Kamaka company, now run by Samuel's grandsons, still makes the top-of-the-line, gorgeous instruments in gleaming koa wood with two inlaid mother of pearl K's in the mahogany neck. The K's represent Samuel's sons, Samuel Jr. and Fred. When I was in Honolulu in March and visited the Kamaka factory, 84-year-old Fred, pictured above playing one of his father's priceless pineapple 'ukes, was my tour guide.

Our teacher has a Kamaka 'ukulele and sometimes she lets us play it. A heavenly experience! So why didn't I buy a souvenir after touring the factory? The "budget" model is $650. For the time being, I'll stick with my Flea 'ukulele, which cost about a fourth of that but still does a fine job of producing that happy sound.
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Saturday, November 15, 2008

King Kaläkaua

This is the Fun Fact I shared with my hula class this week.

One of the steps we do in hula is called the kaläkaua, which was the name of Hawai'i's last king, David Kaläkaua. He reigned from 1874 until his death from hard living in 1891. He loved to party. Robert Louis Stevenson, who became Kaläkaua's close friend during his Hawaiian sojourn, wrote how the king thought just about every occasion was worth celebrating with bottles and bottles of Champagne or gin. He often stayed up all night drinking and gambling at the Royal Boat House in Honolulu Harbor, not far from the palace he had built, 'Iolani Palace. So when he died at age 55, cause of death was not surprisingly cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure.

Although he is known as the Merrie Monarch for his love of a good party, he's remembered more for his talent as a composer and one who encouraged interest in the musical traditions of Hawai'i. Until he came to the throne, traditional music and dance had gone underground, because of the missionaries' disapproval of "lascivious" movement and lyrics. But nine years after becoming king, Kaläkaua decided a coronation party was in order, and he used the occasion to reintroduce the hula to public life. He also started the tradition of what is known as hula 'auana, or modern hula, which was accompanied by the relatively new instruments, guitar and 'ukulele. When he turned 50, Kaläkaua threw another huge party, which he called his Jubilee. It lasted for two weeks, with many dancing groups coming forth to dance the hulas that had long been forbidden.

Kaläkaua is remembered for bringing about the first Hawaiian cultural renaissance, the second one having begun in the 1970s and 80s. The dance step, kaläkaua, was used in the opening of a hula that was performed in his honor at his coronation party. Every year, in Hilo, the grand hula festival known as Merrie Monarch is held to honor the memory of King David Kaläkaua.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'Olelo Hawai'i (Hawaiian Language)

Here is the Fun Fact I shared with my hula class last week:

This year is the 30th anniversary of the year Hawaiian was made an official language of the state of Hawaii. But in 1978, when the Hawaiian Legislature made that law, it was still illegal to teach in the Hawaiian tongue in public and private schools.

That English-only law had been on the books since 1896, a souvenir of the influence of the missionaries. Indigenous children were disciplined in school if they slipped and used their native tongue. As a result, even though Hawaiian was made an official language in 1978, less than 1 percent of the population could speak it.

The law was finally repealed in 1986, thanks to the founding three years earlier of 'Aha Punana Leo (Language Nest), a Hawaiian immersion preschool. The preschool concept spread rapidly from Kaua'i to other islands. The thirst of the Hawaiians to hear their language again caused lawmakers to reconsider the restrictive law.

Now Hawaiian immersion schools are common and the University of Hawaii has college- and graduate-level Hawaiian-only academic programs. Hawaiian-language songs are so popular that the Grammy Awards now have a special category for them. And the Language Nest preschool model is widely used by Native American tribes in an effort to revive their native languages that were in danger of becoming extinct.

My Fun Fact provoked a spirited discussion among my hula sisters. Those who had lived in Hawai'i could only nod sadly at the recollection that the original language of the islands was once forbidden by strict Christian missionaries from New England and their descendants. One Oregon woman was outraged and did not understand how speaking a language could be made illegal. A Hawaiian woman said to her, "Let me put it to you this way: it has taken this long for the United States to elect a black president." The outraged woman was not taking racism against the brown-skinned Hawaiians into account. Older Native Americans who were forced to attend boarding schools and adopt the English language and American clothes and customs would understand how the Hawaiian language and culture almost died out.

Hula halaus all over the world are doing their part to keep 'olelo Hawai'i alive by learning the dances, songs and chants of this beautiful language.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Aloha, Oregon, that is . . .

I've been a student of hula for almost two years at the Bally's gym in Aloha, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. I am not Hawaiian, rather, I am pretty much German, except for a wee bit of Scottish and Irish. I trace my initial interest in hula back to my honeymoon, when he and I visited the Polynesian Cultural Center on O'ahu. I do remember being quite taken with the Tahitian dancing -- hips revving from zero to 60 on the very first drum beat -- more than the relatively sedate hula.

But when I first observed the hula class in Aloha, I remember thinking that the dancing was more athletic than I'd remembered from watching the sedately swaying ladies in Hawai'i. Now that I'm a member of the class, I can attest to that fact. It's a workout. I refer to our weekly class as Hula Boot Camp.

Last year I took a week-long Hawaiian language class when a teacher came from O'ahu to teach members of our halau (hula group). About a year ago I joined a 'ukulele class that began at our halau. I'm still hula'ing, playing the 'uke, and speaking Hawaiian as best I can. Lately I've been sharing with my class some of the fascinating things I've learned about Hawaiian culture.