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.