Friday, April 24, 2009

Brother Taro

My Fun Fact this week was about the taro plant. In Hawaii, that's an ancient topic. It's said that the first Polynesians to settle the islands actually brought the taro plant with them. Once cultivated, taro -- and poi, made from boiling and pounding the root of the plant -- became a staple.

My Fun Fact was actually a current event report. Last week, the Hawaiian Legislature voted to prohibit genetic modification of Hawaiian varieties of the taro plant. Taro is already the official state plant, but proponents of the bill felt it was necessary to protect the plant from being altered through scientific tinkering.

Botanists at the University of Hawaii opposed the bill, saying that genetic engineering can actually protect plants from disease. But others argued that allowing scientists to change the plant was in effect biopiracy. That was a new one on me. But as I learned, the definition of biopiracy is an attempt by organizations, such as food-producing corporations and universities, to patent or otherwise claim the rights to native-grown foods of indigenous peoples.

One reason many Hawaiians were adamant about protecting the taro is that the plant is considered sacred. According to myth, Wakea, also known as Sky Father, created the islands and the Hawaiians. But his first-born son, whom he named Häloa, was badly deformed and stillborn. From the dead baby's grave sprang a plant, the taro.

The next-born son, also named Häloa, was the first Hawaiian. The growing plant was considered to be his elder brother. And that belief, that the taro is the elder brother of all Hawaiians, has been held for generations. It's said that when a Hawaiian eats poi, he or she actually ingests the mana (power) of Häloa the elder brother. We could all use some big brother power from time to time.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sticks and Stones

I missed hula class last week. I got seduced by promises of bright lights, hot spots and being in with the in crowd. So I attended a play, "I Am My Own Wife," and the after party at Departure, the ultra-hot new rooftop restaurant at The Nines Hotel, that was thrown by Portland celebrity, Thomas Lauderdale, leader of Pink Martini. Ho hum. No hula for me, thanks. I can't dance with a glass of champagne in my hand.

But I got back into the hula groove on Saturday morning when my hula sister Debbie invited the class to her house to commemorate the last day of the 2009 Merrie Monarch Festival by watching her DVD of last year's festival. More champagne, this time in mimosas, and a potluck brunch to enjoy while we watched the kahiko (ancient) dance competition, with halaus from Hawai'i, Las Vegas, Oakland and L.A. To reach the level where they'd be invited to compete in Merrie Monarch, they would have to be very good to begin with. And these groups were downright inspiring -- dancing in synch, keeping their lines straight, loudly vocalizing their kaheä (refrains from the chant).

We hula sisters, perhaps loosened up a bit from the mimosas, were loud in vocalizing our approval of the kane (men) dancers, and we had a few choice words for the hunky men that were adorned with malo (loin cloths) tied with big bows in front. From the safety of Debbie's couch, we voiced some bold ideas about untying those bows.

But what we really liked were the sticks and stones. We loved a dance performed with long sticks, about four feet long or so, that the dancers shook fiercely and pounded on the floor. It was very dramatic. I learned that the name for stick dancing is kälä'au.

Another great performance was by a group of women who all held two rocks in each hand and clicked them like castanets. The rocks used in this fashion are called 'ili'ili. (As a longtime Portlander, I couldn't help but think of the old elevator operators at Meier & Frank -- now The Nines Hotel -- who'd attract riders with a click of their castanets. Ah, memories . . . )

We also liked the groups that equipped each dancer with her own ipu, or gourd. In our experience, the ipu has been used only to beat time in our dances. But these women waved them around in a kind of gourd ballet. Their ipus were not small, either. It was great upper body exercise! We were so impressed by their exertion that we poured ourselves another mimosa.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Going Hawaiian in Portland

I had a super Hawaiian weekend here in Portland, starting with the Hapa concert at the Aladdin Theater. I got tickets for me and my friend Rod, who grew up on O'ahu. We planned a whole Hawaiian evening, starting with dinner at the Ohana Hawaiian Cafe.

Of the Hawaiian restaurants I've tried in Portland, that's my favorite. It's a small and simple cafe run by a friendly young couple. She does the cooking; he makes sure the customers are happy. Rod and I were very happy with our meal. He chose the teriyaki chicken and I had the teriyaki beef and both meals came with the requisite scoop of rice and macaroni salad. We had Hawaiian fruit juice with our meal and for dessert we both had haupia, coconut custard. Rod said the haupia at Ohana was the best he'd ever tasted. The fact that it was topped with whipped cream and toasted coconut didn't hurt.

The place was packed and I told the owner I assumed everybody there was filling up on Hawaiian food before going to the Hapa concert, but he said it's always packed on Friday night.

But because it was so busy, our plan of getting to the Aladdin shortly after doors opened so we could sit up front was foiled. We got there 10 minutes before the concert began. Like the restaurant, the theater was packed. It appeared that most of the audience were Hapa regulars and never miss seeing them when they pass through Portland. I had only seen them perform once before, when Rod and I saw them at the Oregon Zoo last summer. But the zoo crowd is so rowdy that we could hardly hear the music.

The Aladdin was the perfect setting and even though Rod and I were sitting toward the back, we felt swept up in the intimacy of the space and the mutual affection the three band members and the appreciative audience felt. I was most looking forward to seeing Charles Ka'upu, who chants and talks story throughout the performance. He wasn't able to make it to the show at the zoo last year, but I soon heard his voice when he began walking down the aisle to the stage, chanting a welcome oli. I actually met him a couple of years ago at a luncheon for Portland travel writers put on by Maui tourism. He came along and did a welcome chant for the journalists. I had no idea he was part of Hapa and had an international following.

The singing, chanting and the hula dances by Miss Aloha and guest dancers were all quite wonderful. A truly magical evening.

But the very next night I was at it again. I decided it was about time I attended Pacific University's annual lu'au and hula show. This was the 49th annual event put on at the Forest Grove university by its considerable population of Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. Guess I shouldn't complain about the lu'au part, since it's for a good cause, but the school tray with kalua pig, teriyaki chicken, rice and chicken long rice in the little compartments wasn't particularly inviting, especially with a plastic fork to eat it with. But I was game and even ate my serving of poi.

The hula show, however, was fabulous. The costuming alone, as shown in the above photo, was a major production. There were separate costumes, all amazing, for the almost 20 numbers. And the costumes really ran the gamut, from more traditional ensembles to ultra-modern and flashy outfits. The dancers were accompanied by their own musicians, a very talented lot who played guitars and 'ukuleles and sang. The kid who played the 'ukulele was a virtuoso!

The event includes one dance performed by non-Hawaiians. There is a hula course offered at the university so non-Hawaiians can learn the basics, enough to have their own dance in the show. All the dancers were quite wonderful.

Now that I know what an outstanding event it is, I will be sure to mark my calendar and buy my ticket in plenty of time for next April's major event, the 50th annual Pacific University Lu'au. It promises to be a great show.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hula Costuming

It's that time of the year again when our halau starts planning for summer hula performances and ordering all the necessary fabric, dresses and accouterments for our costumes.

We need two costumes, one for the 'auana, or modern hula, and one for the kahiko, literally ancient, but meaning the more traditional hula. The basic difference between the two styles is that 'auana hula is more carefree, with lots of smiles and "modern" instruments, namely ukuleles and guitars.

The costume is usually a long, figure-fitting dress in a pretty Hawaiian print. We usually order our dresses from CC Fashions in Honolulu. I stopped by there when I was in Honolulu in February and it was clear they cater to the Japanese hula dancers, with all signs in Kanji and sales people fluent in Japanese.

For our kahiko dance, accompanied only by the ipu gourd drum and chanting, we will probably sew our own costume, basically a skirt and top in cotton/poly fabric, with lots of elastic here and there. But what really completes the kahiko costume is the küpe'e, or adornment.

We wear leafy bands on our wrists, ankles and head, sometimes neck, as well. In Hawai'i, there are really gung-ho halaus that seek their küpe'e in the forest and string the leaves together. We order silk leaves already strung together with elastic.

For my Fun Fact at our last class, I shared some information about how hula dancers costumed in days of yore. Don't tell my beloved dog Daphne this, but in the old days küpe'e often were constructed from dog teeth. The choppers were pierced and then strung together, sometimes on fiber netting to make six or so rows of clinking, clanking teeth. This garment was tied on the calf right under the knee. It was an adornment as well as musical instrument, for the noise of the chattering teeth contributed to the performance.

The purpose of the küpe'e was to draw attention to the movements of the hands and feet. After all, that's where the hula story is told.

Back then, the skirt, called a pä'ü, was not poly/cotton, but was made of kapa, which was pounded bark. The resulting fabric was decorated with stamped and painted patterns.

The men wore a malo, a loincloth made of kapa. And they and the women dancers went topless. Ah, the good old days!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Pele and the 'Ohia Tree

After last week's Fun Fact about Pele's little sister, Hi'iaka, my hula sister Kepola (who, in 'ukulele class is known as plain old Debbie) suggested I share the story of the 'ohia tree and the lehua blossom. As you may recall, Hi'iaka enjoyed dancing the hula in a grove of 'ohia trees and she wore the red lehua blossom strung in a lei.

Wouldn't you know, Pele had something to do with the origin of the tree and the flower.

Kepola sent me the story, which I shared with hula class last night.

For reference, here are some photos I took on Hawai'i Island in February.

The top photo shows the steam billowing from the caldera of Kilauea, said to be the home of Pele, goddess of volcanoes. In the lower left corner is a twisted little 'ohia tree adorned with the red lehua blossoms.

Here is a closeup of the lehua blossom. And here's the story:

One day Pele met a handsome warrior named 'Ohia. Being a fiery lass, she immediately found herself burning with desire for him. She wanted him, then and forever. She announced that she planned to marry him.

'Ohia was surely flattered that such a powerful goddess had fallen for him. But it was too late. He had already fallen for the beautiful maiden, Lehua. 'Ohia had pledged his love to Lehua and nothing Pele could say or do would change the feelings of his heart.

He was probably as diplomatic as possible when he explained this to Pele. No one really knows because within an instant he was a twisted tree. You just don't say no to Pele without serious consequences.

Alas! Poor Lehua. Her boyfriend now was a crummy little tree. And he used to be so handsome! Lehua cried and cried. Hanging out with him just wasn't the same. And when she kissed him, she got bark in her teeth.

The gods took pity on her and told her she would never have to be parted from 'Ohia again. Zap! She was the pretty flower on 'Ohia's branches. Be careful what you wish for. Maybe Lehua should have asked for a new boyfriend, a non-tree one. But the lovers are still together. And it's said that when someone picks a lehua blossom from the 'ohia tree, the sky will weep because the lovers have been separated.

Pele, who caused all this misery, still pretty much gets whatever she wants. All along the crater at Kilauea we saw fruit set out as offerings to her. Our Hawaiian guide, Jeff DePonte, told us that the Japanese always leave fruit. The Hawaiians, who apparently know Pele better, leave booze. Gin seems to be Pele's favorite. It's mother's milk to her.

Pictured above is an offering of gin left for Pele along the rim of the volcano's crater. And if I'm not mistaken, it's nestled in an 'ohia tree. The lovers' triangle lives on!
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