July-August 2007

A Feast of Hawaiian Festivals

L.A.-Honolulu Round-Trip

By Audrey Coleman

The pitch was mid-range, the tone full, yet somehow fragile. It reminded me of a Native American flute, yet the sound had a unique, delicate quality I couldn't define. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that the breath was coming from the player's nose.

Mike Kalikolani Wong, maker of Hawaiian nose flutes, was one of several workshop leaders demonstrating traditional Hawaiian arts at the annual E Hula Mau Competition held Labor Day weekend. Visiting the canopied "Hawaiian Village" on the mall of the Long Beach Convention Center, I came upon Kalikolani chiseling holes into a small, dried, hollowed-out gourd. Moments later, he picked it up in the palm of his right hand and pressed it to his right nostril while blocking the other nostril with his left index finger. Then he made this marvelous music. He spent over a half an hour showing me the rudiments of nose flute technique and made an instrument for me to take home.

Cultural workshops and demonstrations add an important dimension to E Hula Mau, There is an exciting difference between attending an event purely as a spectator, wandering among performance stages and craft booths and having opportunities for meaningful encounters with cultural practitioners such as Mike Kalikolani Wong. This gives an event the quality of a folk life festival, even if it doesn't bear that name.

A Top-Notch Folk Life Festival in Honolulu

Last March I had the good fortune to attend the Great Hawaiian Folk Festival, held in Waikiki at Kapiolani Park, the nearby the Outrigger Hotel, and Queen's Park. Over a four-day period, the Festival offered cultural workshops, music and dance performances and artisan and community exhibits, all free of charge. Surprisingly, it was the first festival bearing that name. Now it is destined to be an annual event. So, if you want to vastly alter your preconceptions about Waikiki, consider coordinating your trip with this feast of Hawaiian culture. Here are some highlights.

Another Nose Flute Encounter

Ohe ano ihu (o-hay ahno ee-hoo), instrument maker Calvin Hoe repeated several times until the participants in his workshop at the Outrigger Hotel correctly pronounced the Hawaiian words for nose flute. While he also makes nose flutes from gourds and coconuts, this session focused on flutes made from Chinese bamboo, plentiful in Hawaii. "Get the flute really close to your nose," he advised, "Blow some of the air into the flute and some across the hole. If it's too far away, the sound will be unfocused. Hold it perpendicular to your face."

With his wispy grey hair tied back in a pony tail and his thoughtful, slow-paced delivery, Calvin encouraged us to play our new nose flutes creatively. "I like the inspiration of nature. I like to wake up with the sunrise and play my flute. I like the sound of the waves when they come up on the beach, the sound of the wind blowing in the trees."

Making a Hula Rattle

In an adjacent space, another instrument maker, Michael Kop, was showing a group of children and parents how to make an uli uli (oolee-oolee)- the rattle used in implement style hula dancing. Provided with hollowed out gourds, participants in Michael's workshop filled them with small pebbles, then plugged the holes with strips of long leaves from the hala tree, softened in water.

When my sheaf of hala leaves was resisting, Michael coached me, "This one you have to pinch to get through the holes. You almost have to twist it and with the other hand you pull..." I came away with my uli uli rattle, adorned at the mouth with a thick sheaf of lau hale. It occurred to me later that Michael could have completed the process for me in half the time, but instead fulfilled his mission as a teacher of culture.

Slack-Key Grandmaster

A third workshop held at the Outrigger was a gift to any guitarist aspiring to play in the Hawaiian slack-key style known as ki ho alu. This is the practice of relaxing the tuning of the guitar strings so that the thumb and index plays a bass line while the other fingers can take on the melody. Ki ho alu has no greater proponent than Ledward Kaapana whose flawless lightning technique, soulful interpretations of slack-key classics, and playful spirit have brought him acclaim world-wide. (His recent Grammy-nominated CD, Grandmaster, provides a fine introduction to his talents.) With patience and good humor, he played a classic slack-key piece very slowly, over and over, while the workshop participants followed on their own instruments.

Led spiced up the workshop with reminiscences, sharing, for example, the influence his uncle, Fred Punahoa, had on his musical career. "My uncle could play anything. (When he was a boy) seven nights he dreamed how to play the guitar. He sat under a coconut tree and these girls in white with red sashes, he couldn't see no faces, they taught him to play guitar. And after the seventh night, he told his dad. He said his dad knew because every morning while he was making him lunch before he went to school, his dad heard him playing. Then after that he never had that dream. That was a gift."

Performance Highlights

The following Sunday afternoon, Led Kaapana was up on the bandstand at Kapiolani Park, playing to an admiring audience on the last day of the Great Hawaiian Folk Life Festival. Among the artists in addition to Led were veteran songwriter-slack key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi with his son David on ukulele, the spirited relatively new trio Maunalua, and honey-voiced Natalie Ai Kamauu. Interestingly, Natalie's daughter danced hula during one of her numbers at the bandstand and later Natalie and her husband accompanied their daughter in the hula performance space. While the bandstand concert was going on, over a dozen hula halau were dancing on the other side of the park.

Creating Hawaiian Cloth

While strolling among the booths in Kapiolani Park on Sunday, I heard a regular tapping sound - wood on wood. Was this some type of percussion instrument? It had the pitch of a woodpecker striking a tree with its beak. Walking toward the sound, I discovered a pretty, forty-ish woman with dark wavy hair, kneeling before a wooden board. Ka'iulani DeSilva is well known in the hula community as a dancer, kumu hula (master teacher) and commentator at hula festivals. Today she was demonstrating the ancient Hawaiian process of converting fiber from the wauke plant, a paper mulberry found across the South Pacific, into kapa, the prized cloth that Hawaiians traditionally used for clothing, blankets, wrapping bones, and many other things.

Ka'iulani let me try my hand at beating the kapa while she continued to explain the process. "You beat the strips on top of each other to bind them. At the last beating, you beat it with a special square beater, ie kuku, that has a watermark on it and you will see when you hold it up that it has a watermark. That is unique to Hawaiian kapa. After it's watermarked and dried, you can dye it with different natural dyes found from berries, dirt, soot, all kinds of things in the environment and then a final printing is done." Another hands-on activity allowed visitors to actually practice printing on the cloth with traditional patterns.

Mainland Inspiration

Born from a collaboration of the City and County of Honolulu, the Outrigger Hotel, the Hawaiian Civic Clubs, the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, and various business sponsors, the first Great Hawaiian Folk Life Festival took its model from a mainland festival. "Fifteen years ago the mayor (Mufi Hannemann, when he headed the state's Department of Economic Development) came up with the money to take 40 people to Seattle to participate in the Northwest Folk Life," Festival producer Milton Lau recalled. "It was a great event. It opened my eyes up to the possibilities and I've always had it in the back of my mind to do something like this. We're showcasing aspects of our culture in a positive way. This is going to be an annual festival so we encourage people to schedule their vacations around it."

Back to L.A.

In the meantime, consider attending these local Hawaiian events: Ho'olaulea, a showcase of hula halau from the region accompanied by plenty of Hawaiiana displays, takes place July 21 and 22 at Alondra Park in southwest Los Angeles (Lawndale). It's free to the public. Also free is the Aloha Expo in Santa Fe Springs, a smaller-scale festival happening the weekend of August 18-19. Then on Labor Day weekend you'll find the event that most resembles a folk life festival, E Hula Mau, at the Long Beach Convention Center and Terrace Theater. You need tickets for the hula performances but not for the Hawaiana displays and demonstrations on the mall. Purchase tickets on-line at namamo.org

If you attend E Hula Mau, who knows? Maybe you'll come home with a nose flute.

Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional folk music and world culture.