Saturday, March 28, 2009


We've been learning a new dance in hula class, a kahiko (ancient) hula called Makani O Kona (Kona Wind). One of the lines of the mele is, "'Ike ia a Hi'iaka au i ke kai." (We see Hi'iaka who travels the seas.)

Hi'iaka, it turns out, is the little sister of Pele, the volcano goddess who resides in the crater of Kilauea, the currently active volcano on Hawai'i island.

Legend has it that Pele left Tahiti with the other Polynesians who were seeking a new home and eventually settled on the Hawaiian Islands. She carried with her an egg bearing her little sis. Once they were safe in their new home, Hi'iaka was hatched.

Although another one of Pele's sisters, Laka, is considered the goddess of hula, all three sisters were patronesses of the hula and Hi'iaka loved to dance with her best friend, Hopoe, in a grove of 'ohia trees near the beaches of Puna on Hawai'i Island.

The flower of the 'ohia tree is the 'ohia lehua, the red flower pictured in the illustration above growing on the trees and worn on Pele's head.

One day Pele's spirit left her body and traveled to Kaua'i, where she met and fell in love with the handsome young chief, Lohi'au. After making love with him for days (phew!), she had to leave him and return to her body, back on Hawai'i. But she asked her little sister to go fetch Lohi'au and bring him back to her so they could pick up where they left off, this time with Pele fully in her body. But poor Lohi'au missed out on that treat. When Hi'iaka arrived on Kaua'i she learned that Lohi'au had died of grief shortly after Pele left him. But with time and great effort, Hi'iaka managed to bring him back to life.

Meanwhile, temperamental Pele assumed that because Hi'iaka was taking so darn long, her sister had betrayed her and was doing the old 'I'm the better sister' thang, by demonstrating her charms with Pele's man. Unfortunately, Pele was the type to get mad and ask questions later. So she flew into a rage and caused hot lava to flow over Hi'iaka's beloved 'ohia grove. Oops! Seems she zapped her sister's best friend, too. Poor Hopoe had been hanging out in the grove, waiting her her hula pal to return.

I love the fact that the Hawaiians imbue their gods and goddesses with mortal traits and flaws. In fact, with three sisters of my own, I identify strongly with the story of Pele and her sisters.

I, of course, am the good one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Racism in Paradise

I remember my big sister walking through the house when she was a teenager, singing, "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair." She had some other favorite tunes from what was a blockbuster movie in 1958, "South Pacific," and she probably sang those around the house too, because I recognized most of the songs when I at long last watched the movie myself, compliments of Netflix.

To my sister, it was just a romantic story: Navy nurse meets suave and handsome French plantation owner on a beautiful Polynesian island. They overcome problems presented by the war in the Pacific and their minor cultural differences and by the movie's end they happily face their future as a married couple.

I became interested in watching it when I learned it was filmed on the north shore of the island of Kaua'i. I was curious to see if I would recognize any landmarks after my brief visit there a year ago. But when I watched South Pacific the other night I was surprised to learn that the underlying theme of this romantic musical is racism.

I read that the story, first presented in a Broadway musical and later in a film, was considered quite daring in its day. After all, there are scenes in which a W.A.S.P. Marine lieutenant passionately kisses a Polynesian woman. Whoa!

And one of the barriers the cute nurse and the plantation owner face is her horror over the fact that he was once married to a Polynesian woman and fathered two dusky little children. In fact, as soon as she learns this fact, she breaks off the romance and tries to get a transfer off the island so she'll never have to see him again. But before she learned that he'd once been married to a "colored" woman, she had been professing her love and dreaming of their life together.

The Marine lieutenant was in a similar pickle. He was hopelessly in love with beautiful Liat, inspiration for the timeless Rodgers & Hammerstein song, "Younger than springtime." When Liat suggested they take their relationship to the next level and marry, Lt. Crane flatly stated, "I can't marry you." It was because she was of another race.

The song, "Carefully Taught," is Lt. Crane's explanation of his own upbringing, how the beliefs about propriety were pounded into his head from childhood. You sense that he's on the verge of rebelling against the rules of society that dictate he will marry the nice girl from Philadelphia and join the family firm. But, alas [spoiler alert!], he is felled by a Japanese machine gun.

Perhaps the idea of a movie marriage between two races was not palatable. Instead, the silly nurse decides that the Frenchman, after proving himself a selfless hero in the war against the Japanese, is worthy of her love, in spite of his (ahem!) past.

I'm glad that before I watched this film I followed the recommendation of a friend and watched a PBS documentary on The Massie Affair. It was the rather disquieting story of an unstable and immature Navy wife in Honolulu who, after a quarrel with her husband, stormed off and later reported that a group of young Hawaiian men had gang raped her. The 1931 incident became a cause celebre, attracting the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow to Honolulu to defend Thalia Massie's husband and mother, who took it upon themselves to defend the nutty woman's honor by kidnapping and killing one of the innocent "suspects."

From the documentary I learned that the admiral in charge of the naval force stationed in Hawaii in the 30s was an incorrigible racist from the American South, who freely used the "N-word" to describe Hawaiians. In fact, American officers had easily adopted the South's racist attitudes in relation to the native people. The Hawaiians, who had already endured years of subjugation and degradation at the hands of the American Christian missionaries, were basically denied any sort of civil rights by the U.S. military.

I must say, after learning about the Massie Affair and after watching South Pacific, I have a greater sympathy and understanding for the undercurrent of resentment against haoles in Hawaii.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Aloha 'Aina

Alas! I didn't get to share a Fun Fact at our last class. We are approaching our performance season, so most of the class time is devoted to getting our dances down so we can move in elegant unison when we actually have an audience for our dancing. So all the nonessentials are getting stripped from the schedule, and I'm afraid that includes my Fun Facts.

But never fear. I'll continue to post new Fun Facts every week.

As is usually the case, I was inspired for the latest Fun Fact by one of the dances we are practicing. The song title is "Kaua'i Beauty" (evidence of Kaua'i's beauty is in my photo to the left) and the first line is "Hanohano Kaua'i Manokalanipö," or "Glorious Kaua'i of Chief Manokalanipö."

But that's the only mention of the chief. I wondered why his name even came up because the song goes on to laud the beautiful vegetation and fragrances of the island. A bit of Internet research revealed the reason why the chief was even mentioned. The author of the song was using Kaua'i's poetic name or, as it's also know, its aloha 'äina, or a sort of loving land name.

The poetic names for the islands are to me similar to the nicknames for the U.S. states. Calling Kaua'i "Kaua'i of Chief Manokalaipö" is not much different from calling Illinois "land of Lincoln," or, to quote from the Oregon state song, calling Oregon "land of the empire builders."

Thus, each of the eight Hawaiian islands has a poetic name that refers to a great chief, god or goddess.

Kaua'i's poetic name is Kaua'i-o-Manokalanipö, a reference to a chief born in about 1430. When Kaua'i was invaded by combined forces from all the other islands, Manokalanipö's father wrote it off as a lost cause and didn't even bother to mount a defense. He told his son to give it a try. But somehow young Manokalanipö managed to defeat the invaders. To honor his great victory, his name will always be associated with Kaua'i's name.

The poetic name of Ni'ihau is Ni'ihau-o-Kahelelani. All I could find about Kehelelani was that he was an ancient chief. But the beautiful little white shells that are made into Ni'ihau's prized lei became known as Kahelelani in the chief's honor.

O'ahu's poetic name is O'ahu-o-Käkuhihewa after a 16th-century chief who was renowned for his brilliance and talent in all the kingly arts. He had a long reign marked by peace and prosperity.

Moloka'i's poetic name is Moloka'i-Nui-a-Hina, or the great Moloka'i of Hina. Hina is a goddess, considered the mother of the island. She also is said to live in the moon. So if you thought there was a man in the moon, you're wrong. It's Hina.

Maui bears the name of a chief who had an ignominious end after unsuccessfully invading Hawai'i. Maui-Nui-a-Kama means the great Maui of Kama, after Kama-lälä-walu, a 16th century chief who quickly went from prisoner to human sacrifice after being captured. His death was said to be prolonged and painful and was grieved by his dogs, a white dog and a black dog that whined and howled long after he died. To this day people claim to see the ghosts of these dogs, still looking for their master.

Läna'i has a fun history behind its name, Läna'i-a-Kaululä'au. Kaululä'au literally means the ulu (breadfruit) grove and it's the name given to a chief who was banished from his home on Maui to Läna'i after goofing off to excess and somehow destroying his father's ulu grove. Dad thought it would teach the lad a lesson to live on an island inhabited only by spooky spirits. But to everyone's surprise, Kaululä'au was accepted by the spirits as their chief. Later the chief returned to Maui, where he became chief there too.

The uninhabited island of Kaho'olawe is known as Kohe-mälamalama-o-Kanaloa, or "the shining beacon of Kanaloa." The god Kanaloa is the god of the sea and of fishermen.

Hawai'i's poetic name is Hawai'i-Moku-o-Keawe. The name Keawe was shortened from the chief's actual name, Keawe-i-kekahi-ali'i-o-ka moku, which means Keawe, first chief of the island. He reigned in the 17th century and was the great-great grandfather of Kamehameha the Great.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Pëpë Shower!

No Fun Fact at class last night. We had a baby shower instead!

Stephanie (the pregnant lady sitting in a chair) is going to have a pëpë (baby)!

So we cut class a little bit short to enjoy some refreshments and watch Stephanie open her gifts.

Before we scattered, someone had the presence of mind to suggest a group photo. So here we all are, the Hula Hälau 'Ohana Holo 'Oko'a.

Aren't we purty in purple?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Falsetto Singing

Last week, my Fun Fact for hula class was about falsetto singing in Hawaiian music. I started reading about it as I learned more about the song that we are dancing to now, "Kaua'i Beauty." The song was written in 1929 by Henry Waia'u. It celebrates the beauty, the plants, the flowers and the fragrances of the island of Kaua'i and thus is known as a mele pana, or a song about a legendary or special place.

Kaua'i Beauty is also a classic of falsetto singing. In the version we dance to, Kalei Bridges begins singing in his natural (low) voice, but after a few measures his voice begins to soar.

Falsetto is the type of singing when the voice goes from the lower register to the upper register. In Western, or European music, that transition is meant to be as smooth as possible. But Hawaiian singers make a point of catching their voice just as they make the move to higher octaves. That catch is called ha'i.

There are various falsetto singing contests around the Hawaiian Islands. One of the areas in which singers are judged is how they make the ha'i. That catch of the voice is meant to convey deep emotion.

Falsetto singing is not traditional, although traditional chanting, which sometimes features a tension in the vocal chords that sounds somewhat like yodeling, is said to be an influence. Other influences were Christian hymns that Hawaiians learned from missionaries, and the cowboy yodeling of the paniolos, the cowboys who came from Southern California and Mexico in the 1830s to help round up the feral cattle left on Hawaii Island by Capt. George Vancouver.

The Hawaiian term for falsetto singing is leo ki'eki'e, literally high voice. It was originally practiced almost exclusively by men, but women singers have made their mark. The late Genoa Keawe (pictured above) was famous for her soaring voice. These days, Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom is carrying the torch for female falsetto singers.