Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Voice of a King

Last week I gave my hula class a book review as a new form of my usual Fun Fact presentation. The book was "Bird of Another Heaven," by James D. Houston. The novel has a Hawaiian theme and was written by a man who made Hawaiian culture his passion.

Actually, I didn't know about James Houston until after he died from cancer at age 75, in April 2009. I came across an obituary which portrayed him as a fascinating figure. He and his wife lived in Santa Cruz, California, but made frequent trips to Hawai'i, where he had made numerous friends. For more than 20 years he was a close friend of Eddie Kamae, one of the original musicians in the seminal "Sons of Hawai'i" group. The group, which featured the singing and slack key guitar playing of the legendary Gabby Pahinui, was given much credit for the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s and 80s. Eddie Kamae, in particular, did extensive research and field work in order to find and revive the songs and music of Old Hawai'i.

Kamae also made a number of documentary films about Hawaiian culture, and Houston was his partner in the film making by helping to write the scripts. I have seen their film, "Sons of Hawai'i," about the musical group, which was fascinating.

Houston wrote a biography of Kamae, as well as a book about surfing. But as far as I know, "Bird of Another Heaven," was his only Hawai'i-themed work of fiction.

The story is based on historical fact, dealing partly with the final voyage by Hawai'i's last king, Kalâkaua. While staying at San Francisco's beautiful Palace Hotel (still standing and still beautiful), the king fell ill. One day he felt well enough to welcome a visitor from Thomas Edison's lab, who wanted to record the king's voice on the new-fangled recording device Edison had invented, a wax cylinder that could be played on a gramophone. The actual cylinder is at Honolulu's Bishop Museum.

Kalâkaua made the recording, a greeting to his people in the Hawaiian language, but just a few days later, on January 20, 1891, died in his hotel suite. He was 54. The circumstances of his rather sudden death are still questioned, and, in fact, Houston depicts a murder scene in his novel, showing a villain delivering poisoned tea, while greedy American businessmen in Honolulu wring their hands in happy anticipation of freedom from the king's trade restraints.

Houston creates a half Hawaiian-half American Indian character as Kalâkaua's young lover. The novel moves forward in time to introduce a young man who discovers a side of his family that was hidden from him. When he finally meets his grandmother, she gives him her mother's journal, all about her affair with the king and the final days they spent together before his death. She also gives him a wax cylinder that her mother had kept, a second recording that no one else knew about.

In the novel an archivist at the Bishop Museum advises him to take the cylinder to a lab in California that would have the appropriate technology in order to retrieve the king's voice. At the lab, the scientists do their darnedest, but are unable to retrieve more than a few indecipherable sounds, not even entire words.

As I gathered my facts for my Fun Fact presentation, I quickly Googled the book title, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything really important. Down the page, my eye caught a small news item.

In May 2009, one month after the death of James Houston, Hawaiian Airlines gave the Bishop Museum a grant to cover the cost of taking the Edison wax cylinder bearing the king's message, which had been in the museum since 1918, to a lab in California in order to recover the spoken words.

Life imitates art! I was blown away. This sounded almost exactly like the scene Houston had created in his mind when he wrote the novel, which was published in 2007. But this episode actually occurred in real life one month after the author's death. The existence of a second cylinder was pure fiction, but in describing the analysis of the one existing cylinder, Houston seemed to be a fortune teller.

I Googled and Googled and Googled and could find no follow-up story. According to the article, having the cylinder tested with laser technology and retrieving the recording would take no more than five months. So the results should have been available by October.

There were just a few hours before I had to leave for my hula class. My hula sisters had to know! I picked up the phone and called the public affairs office of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. The director told me he'd been at his job only two months; he had never heard of this project. He asked me to email him and he'd reply when he found an answer.

I was so impatient for information. It was two hours earlier in Honolulu. The archivists at the Bishop Museum would still be on the job. I called the museum and asked for the head archivist, a man with a name that is one step up from Indiana Jones. His name is DeSoto Brown.

Mr. Brown's phone message stated that trying to reach him by phone was futile; he left his email address. I wrote him a message, asking for information about the cylinder. He never replied.

A few days passed and I heard back from Berkeley Lab. A woman wrote and said that a team from the Bishop Museum had come and gone. The results were disappointing: the 118-year-old wax cylinder had deteriorated so much that no discernible word could be retrieved, just a few disparate sounds.

She referred me to the vice president of public operations at the Bishop Museum. He has a less interesting name than DeSoto Brown, but I was hoping the Blair Collis would take my call or answer my email. I was so curious and had so many questions. But alas. Apparently the Bishop Museum doesn't want to talk about it. I never heard back from anybody.

Still, it is pretty amazing that almost identical circumstances occurred in a novel written a couple of years before the cylinder made its futile journey to the Berkeley Lab. And by the way, I highly recommend "Bird of Another Heaven." It's quite a convincing story!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Aloha in Scotland

Last week I was in Scotland, my main purpose being to attend the first screening of the documentary film for which I'm script writer, "Finding David Douglas." Douglas was a Scottish botanist who explored the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s before meeting an ignominious fate on the Big Island in 1834.

In February I went with my film cohorts to Hawai'i to see the site of Douglas's demise (a cattle pit on Mauna Kea) and I wrote about it then.

The Forestry Commission of Scotland, being one of the sponsors of the film, asked for the first screening, though we have lots to do before the film is ready for its official premiere in April. Six of us, including David Milholland, the head of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, went from Portland to the town of Pitlochry, where more than 200 people attended the film and gave it pretty high marks.

My other purpose was to write a travel article for Alaska Airlines Magazine called "A Tale of Two Cities," about my impressions of Edinburgh and Glasgow. I confess that I was particularly eager to visit Edinburgh because of its connection with Hawai'i, in that it is the birthplace of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson, who was always frail and prone to illness, spent the last years of his life seeking better health by sailing with his family around the Pacific.

In January 1889 Stevenson anchored at Honolulu. He went to 'Iolani Palace to introduce himself to King Kalâkaua and the two hit it off immediately. In Edinburgh I visited a lovely little museum devoted to the three most famous Scottish writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Most of the Stevenson exhibit was comprised of photographs and artifacts from his years in the Pacific. There were numerous photos of him and Kalâkaua, as well as group photos that included both Stevenson's and Kalâkaua's families.

Kalâkaua was eager to have the eminent Scottish writer meet his brother-in-law, a fellow Scot who also hailed from Edinburgh. Archibald Scott Cleghorn had married Likelike, the sister of Kalâkaua and Lili'uokalani. His wife had died in 1887 at age 36 and he was raising their daughter, Ka'iulani, who was expected to reign as queen of Hawai'i someday. At the time she met Stevenson, she was just 13. But in a few months she was to depart for England. Her father felt that she should have a European education in order to be an effective monarch in modern times. She was reluctant to leave her island home, so Stevenson tried to encourage her by telling her exciting tales of Scotland while the two sat under the banyan tree at her father's garden estate, 'Ainahau.

Stevenson wrote a poem for her, which begins: "Forth from her land to mine she goes, The Island maid, the Island rose; Light of heart and bright of face: The daughter of a double race."

Ka'iulani would never see her writer friend again. He and his family eventually settled in Samoa, where Stevenson was known as "Tusitala," teller of tales. In 1894, at age 44, Stevenson died suddenly (while opening a bottle of wine) of a brain hemorrhage. Ka'iulani died five years later, at age 23. She had returned to Honolulu after her aunt had been deposed and the monarchy abolished. It was said she died of a broken heart, though typhus was the more likely culprit.

Her father's estate, 'Ainahau, no longer exists, but its site in Waikiki is marked by two streets with familiar names: Cleghorn and Tusitala. Ka'iulani's memory is honored in the popular name of the Chinese jasmine flower, her favorite. Because she loved peacocks and kept many of them at 'Ainahau, the flower associated with her is known as pikake, the Hawaiian word for peacock.

A lasting memorial to Cleghorn, the father of the princess, is Kapiolani Park, which he planned and landscaped. It is fitting that Kapiolani Park is the site of the annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games, on the first weekend in April.

Since the late 1700s, many Scots came to Hawai'i and made lasting contributions. But I'm partial to one adventurous and imaginative Scot, the man known as Tusitala.