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.

1 comment:

kab said...

Considering that "successful procreation," that is, the bearing of child, was no doubt critical to the survival of the culture, I kind of get why they'd create a fertility dance. Especially when it produces a great leader like Kamehameha.

Thanks for the tidbit!