For a belated Mother's Day gift, my daughter took me to the annual lü'au at Portland State University. Students from Hawai'i, Tonga, Samoa and Tahiti performed dances after everyone enjoyed the traditional lü'au foods.
As we were finishing our dinners, someone came to the mike and called our attention to a corner of the gym where a group of young Polynesian men were enjoying bowls of kava. Anyone who wanted to try it was invited to join them. So, of course, I did, squatting down on a grass mat and accepting a half-shell of a coconut full of the cloudy drink.
Kava, also known as 'awa in Hawai'i, is a traditional drink throughout the Pacific, imbibed socially before events such as meetings, weddings and hö'ike (shows), such as the one we were about to watch. The drink is made from pounding the root of the kava plant and mixing the resultant powder with water. The drink was in a large bowl and people were taking turns drinking from the shells. With a quick prayer that none of the other kava drinkers had swine flu, I took a drink. Well, actually, I drank the whole bowl.
The taste was not unpleasant, though not really pleasant, either. It tasted sort of like a very flat beer or watery gruel at room temperature. I felt a little numbness around my mouth, which I later learned was normal. After about 20 minutes the effect of drinking kava is said to be calmness, clarity of thought and a sense of well being. I wasn't consciously looking for those results, since I didn't know what to expect. But looking back, I felt quite pleasant during the show and wasn't the least bit annoyed that it ran over by about an hour. So maybe the kava did its job for me.
I learned that kava is not addictive and does not cause hangovers. Until we get out of this recession, I may become a regular kava drinker!
Our halau often practices singing "Hawai'i Aloha," which is sort of an anthem in Hawaii, sung while standing (sometimes even holding hands) at the conclusion of public events. Our occasional hula shows also end with the singing of this uplifting tune.
The history of "Hawai'i Aloha" is pretty interesting because it involves a very rare thing: an American missionary who actually respected the native culture. The Reverend Lorenzo Lyons, a Congregationalist minister from Massachusetts, made a point of learning the Hawaiian language. He became fluent and even composed poetry and hymns in Hawaiian.
His rather sizable congregation on Hawai'i Island felt great affection and respect for him. They called him "Makua Laiana, haku mele o ka 'ä'ina mauna" (Father Lyons, lyric poet of the mountain country).
King Kamehameha IV, who reigned from 1855 to 1863, really liked the tune of the Scots hymn "I Left It All With Jesus." The king asked Rev. Lyons to compose a song in Hawaiian to fit the tune. The result was "Hawai'i Aloha." Click here to see the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (Bruddah Iz) sing and play this beautiful song.
Rev. Lyons lived on the slopes of Mauna Kea at Waimea on the Big Island from 1832 until his death in 1886. He converted thousands of Hawaiians to Christianity and built a total of 14 churches to accommodate them all. He also translated hundreds of Christian hymns from English to Hawaiian and published a hymn book which he supplied to churches throughout the Islands.
She said in previous years, elders in the hula community found themselves dismayed by the dances performed. Nothing about them was familiar to them. Traditional dances were being ignored in favor of newer variations.
But this year the küpuna (elders) were delighted. In the kahiko (ancient) portion of the competition there were four mele ma'i (procreation chants) performed. Of the four, two were top winners: "Tü 'Oe,"performed by the Ke Kai O Ka Hiki halau, led by kumu hula O'Brian Eselau; and "He Ma'i No Kalani Ha'u Ha'u E," performed by Hälau Nä Mamo O Pu'uanahulu, with kumu hula Sonny Ching.
I was glad to see that mele ma'i is the in thing now. After all, my halau has by now become quite adept at dancing "Ka Ua I Hämäkua," a procreation chant (also known as a genital chant) honoring Kamehameha the Great. As I told my class, by now we are veritable gynecologists of the mele ma'i.
In other news, I'm excited about the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, which has been created in Portland by the Ford Foundation to support and promote the arts and cultures of the American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native communities. The new CEO of the foundation is a native Hawaiian, Tara Lulani Arquette, formerly the executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, who is moving from Honolulu to lead the organization. 'E komo mai (welcome) to Portland, Tara!
I studied hula for three years in Aloha, Oregon, and along the way developed a passion for all things Hawaiian. I also studied 'ukulele and the Hawaiian language.
When I'm not hula'ing, 'uking or practicing 'olelo Hawai'i, I am a professional writer with years of experience writing for local, regional and national publications. Most notably, I was a regular for The Wall Street Journal for 17 years.
Someday I hope to write a book about my obsession with Hawaiian culture.