Hawai’i by Songs: Post-Journey Report
On April 11, 2017, we set out for Honolulu, Hilo, and three spots on Maui to immerse ourselves in music, hula, balmy weather, tropical landscape, and local culture. Michael and I found these and more, but not always where expected. In Honolulu, we knew where to look. As mentioned in the previous column, one of our favorite bands, Maunalua, has a weekly late afternoon gig on the patio of the Outrigger Waikiki. Several years ago, when the group had just won its first Na Hoku Hanohano (Hawaiian Grammy) award, I interviewed founder/leader and truly old-style slack key guitarist Bobby Moderow for an article in Dirty Linen (a sadly missed folk magazine). On a different trip, I had even danced hula to their music at the Marriott Waikiki. As expected, the three members of Maunalua were brimming with joyful energy, interpreting beloved Hawaiian mele in gorgeous harmonies. Great news! Maunalua will be performing in Southern California on December 9, 2017, for the prestigious Aloha Concert Series at the Shannon Center, Whittier College. Although most seats are claimed by longtime subscribers, single tickets go on sale starting July 12. More information is available at shannoncenter.org.
During previous Honolulu visits, we also had listened to the exquisite voice of Robert Cazimero at Chai’s Bistro, where the pioneering musician of the Hawaiian Renaissance sang and played piano each week. Unfortunately, this gig has ended. But after returning home in May, we heard him at the Shannon Center. Next May he will perform again in the Aloha Series. As usual, the Center begins selling single tickets after filling Aloha Series subscriptions.
Another day brought a new kind of musical experience. We visited a store that has occupied the same spot in downtown Honolulu for about a century. It belongs to the Kamaka family of ukulele crafters. In fact, 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of Sam Kamaka founding a business whose name that became synonymous with quality craftsmanship. I traced the history of the Kamaka ukulele for an article in Ukulele Magazine and was fortunate to attend the Kamaka 100th anniversary celebration held at NAMM that year where famed “Kamaka artists” such as Benny Chong and Herb Ohta, Jr., performed. What I had not done yet was visit the place where the famed instruments are made and sold. Tours are given once a day, Tuesday through Friday. Ours began in the store at 10:30 sharp. The tour began with a presentation by 92-year old Fred Kamaka, Jr. Standing behind the sales counter, a wall of ukes behind him, he spent a lively half-hour sharing family history and insights on what makes a quality instrument. What a delight! Then a Kamaka from the next generation, yet another Fred, ushered us into the factory adjoining the back of the store. In each work area, he explained the steps in the construction of their instruments. Quality control is so strict that no ukulele leaves the factory until master luthier Chris Kamaka examines and plays it. One day I hope to own a Kamaka.
Michael and I like to visit hotel bars along Waikiki where great Hawaiian musicians often get gigs. It seemed that our timing was off. Even singer-songwriter Jerry Santos, one of our favorites, was not doing his ongoing Friday and Saturday evening stint at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. He was recovering from injuries sustained from falling off a ladder, poor guy.
Non-musical cultural sidebar: The Hilton Hawaiian Village is the only location on Oahu where you can find unsurpassable Lappert’s ice cream, which originated on Kaua’i. But they were all out of the Mother of All Flavors, coconut-macadamia nut-fudge.
Recovering from this disappointment, we managed to catch the red-hot stylings of ukulele jazz master Benny Chong at a bistro downtown in the Aloha Tower. And at the Mai Tai Bar of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, we watched a wonderful hula dancer move with grace accompanied by so-so musicians. Perhaps due to our rapt attention, Kamoe Arola came to our table. Mainly chatting about hula, we shared that we would be attending the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo a few days later. She was excited for us. After her last performance of the evening, Kamoe seemed to leave, but re-emerged with two purple orchid lei. Placing them around our necks, she wished us a happy 25th anniversary.
Hula had dictated the timing of our celebratory trip. The, Merrie Monarch Festival international hula festival and competition ran from Sunday April 16 until Sunday the 23rd. While the competition itself took up three evenings, a variety of exhibits and performances filled up the week. Most prominent among them was the massive arts and crafts exposition. This was a cornucopia of Hawaiiana – from pahu and ipu drums that artisans were fashioning on site, to quality shell and silver jewelry, to tightly woven straw hats sporting intricately designed feather hatbands. Some items were not strictly arts or crafts. We saw a vinyl edition of the legendary Sons of Hawai’i “red album” – Folk Music of Hawaii – complete with a hardcover book about Hawaiian traditional music. We didn’t even know it existed anymore except in archives. After talking about it with us, the exhibitor offered to lend us the collector’s item during our stay in Hilo. Touched, we graciously declined. That night our iPhone came in very handy: we located one – and only one – on eBay.
Each evening began with a procession representing Hawai’i’s last royal couple, their immediate family, and attendants, all sumptuously attired. Three young singers performed The Star-Spangled Banner in creamy harmony followed by the Hawaiian national anthem, Hawai’i Pono’i, composed by King David Kalakaua in 1876. A respected elder of the world hula community delivered an uplifting pule, translating the prayer into English afterwards.
All three evenings of hula were absolutely enthralling. Since this was a competition, we tried to pick our winners. But with some 30 halau and 10 soloists competing in modern auana and ancient kahiko categories, we soon lost track. Nor could we really decide which performances most amazed us. Furthermore, the judges based their selections not only on the quality of the dancing. They also took into account the craftsmanship and historical accuracy of the costumes and adornments worn. The kumu of each competing halau had to present in advance written and spoken commentary to show they understood the cultural significance contained in the hula their students performed.
The hard, backless benches didn’t interfere with my attention to the stage. The only distraction was the extreme heat and humidity. This combined with the body heat from the 1,000 or so spectators crammed into Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium to make me feel like a warm wet washcloth that needed wringing out. It was remarkable that while I sweated in my tank top and shorts, so many women in the audience were wearing long, clingy dresses adorned by elaborate lei around their necks and clusters of flowers pinned by their ears! Locals, perhaps?
On the Saturday morning before the final performance, Hilo residents lined the downtown streets to watch the annual Merrie Monarch Parade. It seemed to last as long as Southern California’s famed Rose Parade and was, in its own style, every bit as impressive. The event unfolded under the intense Hilo sun, women clad in gowns of gleaming silk and royal velvet passed by on horseback. Representatives of Hawai’i’s many ethnic groups, dressed traditional costumes, waved to onlookers while walking or dancing in careful formation or riding colorful floats. Band upon marching band – armed forces, first responders, local high schools – tooted patriotic tunes. Teenage drum majorettes did cartwheels. A lone clown cavorted to the delight of children. Employees of Mauna Loa gave out free chocolates.
“And so… (as the old-time movie short narrates) …we leave Hilo and Hawai’i Island for the Valley Isle with its lush green hills, craggy volcano, and sunny beaches…” In sunny Lahaina we didn’t expect to find traditional Hawaiian music or hula beyond the typical commercial luau. We were so wrong. Who knew we would come upon a community event in a park on bustling Frontier Street? It was the annual birthday party for the humungous Banyan Tree in front of the historic old courthouse. Craft vendors were out in force, filling the park with exhibit tables. On a little platform a dancer was doing a respectable hula to Hawaiian mele performed by a guitar and ukulele duo. The elderly uke player shared tidbits of history and cultural lore between numbers. The woman sitting beside us showed us her straw hat, which had a feather hatband similar to the one on the thousand-dollar one we’d seen in Hilo. She’d spent three months making it. But the centerpiece of the event was the gigantic birthday cake. White-haired volunteers in flowered muumuus served out huge slices.
But Lahaina offered us still more – like the luau we did not attend. This occurred when we had gone to dinner at a recommended restaurant called Aloha Mixed Plate, several blocks from the downtown. On such a balmy night we chose to sit on the patio, vaguely aware of someone singing in Hawaiian. The sound was fuzzy, over-amplified. Hmm. Was it piped-in music or live entertainment coming from inside? Neither. The hostess seating us said it was the luau happening in the building next door. “They pack in about 500 people for each luau,” our waiter said. “Mostly they come from the cruise ships.” By this time, the blaring music was getting under our skin.
We ate our entrees to deep resonant drumming, probably a pahu accompanying kahiko hula. Not so bad. But later came an amplified rat-a-tat. It rose to a deafening level. Aha, I thought. It’s the Samoan fire dance. This usually concludes a commercial luau. We quickly and silently finished our entrées. The noise stopped. It was over! Moments later an over-amplified recording of schlocky Hawaiian steel guitar enveloped us. Most likely it was serenading the travelers as they left the hall and boarded their tour buses. According to our waiter, the luaus next door, which had started a few months before, hadn’t affected the restaurant’s business at all. He handed us dessert menus, adding that they usually did two shows per evening. We skipped dessert.
But our sweet-uh-teeth (?) were not deprived. On Frontier Street we found a place called Dole Whip “featuring” Lappert’s ice cream. They had coconut-macadamia nut fudge!
Our next destination, secluded Hana with its luxuriant landscape, would be a welcome contrast to busy Lahaina. But the lush greenery of East Maui results from abundant precipitation. We had always sojourned in the remote little town in balmy weather and never in late April, which is, as we discovered, the rainy season. We had never navigated the winding, 52-mile road in a downpour. Leafy branches bent and dripped over the narrow winding road as we slithered and zigzagged past waterfalls where ordinarily we would stop and gaze. Still, clusters of bright red, yellow, and white flowers peeked out from the trees wherever we looked as if to assure us that the trip was still a wondrous experience. By the time we reached our delightful Airbnb cottage, the water droplets on the leaves were glistening under the sunshine. Soon we were standing the craggy shore across the street from the cottage, looking out at the rippling bay.
Were there cultural aspects to our three days in Hana? How could there not be? Along the main road, we discovered a local landmark. A handmade sign which advertised “Legendary Hulihuli Chicken.” A few hundred feet was the kiosk. A friendly Hawaiian lady presided over a small gas grill and served up plump pieces of chicken basted in an aromatic sauce with accompanying rice and salad. This was tempting, but we were intent on returning to the Ranch Restaurant to gorge ourselves on unbelievable mango ribs as we had several times before.
A restaurant can reflect local culture. The Ranch is the only real restaurant in Hana except for the one at the pricey hotel. It used to be open only Thursday through Saturday. Now it was open seven days, like city eating places. We still felt the warm, folksy ambience. The gray-haired Hawaiian hostess chatted warmly with us while showing us to a table. But sadly, mango ribs were no longer on the menu. We got over it and eventually noticed something new in the décor – a wall covered with ukuleles of various materials, colors and shapes. They were all Kalas, but had no price stickers, so the display didn’t come across as crass advertising. When we departed, the hostess embraced us. We walked across the street to the Hasegawa General Store, in business since 1958 or much earlier if you count the pre-Hasegawa family owners. Scanning the community bulletin board in the entrance, we learned about the Taro Festival, taro being the root vegetable mashed into the traditional Hawaiian staple, poi. The flyer promised taro-based food booths, craft displays, and performances. Wow. A unique community event and it was happening during our stay!
In order to avoid crowds, we set out for the festival in the morning under a light drizzle. Of course, this soon became a downpour. I looked out the window desolately, hoping it would lighten up. The sign for legendary hulihuli chicken had fallen over and the kiosk stood empty. By the time we had driven a mile and a half to the outdoor festival venue, the pelting on the roof of our car sounded like a jackhammer. Michael was launching into a U-turn when — a sign! “Wait! Parking!” I shrieked. “Turn here!” Directed by smiling, rain-soaked volunteers, we pulled on a soggy field and stopped by alongside other mud-spattered vehicles.
It was a small-scale event. Well, maybe not for a town with a population of roughly 1,000. Cheerful exhibitors talked to visitors under canvas rooves that sagged with the weight of water from the deluge. Michael, who loves poi, bought a 10-pound bag of the freshly-pounded delicacy which we consumed at our cottage and took to our cabin in Makawao. We enjoyed milk from a coconut cracked open by a longtime Hana resident. And where else could you eat lunch at a booth specializing in taro-based Puerto Rican dishes? The Hawaiian woman serving up the plates told me that the Puerto Rican cook, her husband, had invented these taste combinations. The rain abated. Troupes of young hula dancers emerged from a tent. Students of a local kumu, they performed elaborate numbers barefoot in the mud. In short, they provided true cultural (and water) immersion. When I commented to an exhibitor that it was too bad they had rain for their festival, she replied, “Oh, it rains for it every year.”
I bit my tongue. It seemed impolite to ask, “Then why do you hold the festival this time of year?”
For our final destination, we drove to the foothills of Haleakala because we had never visited upcountry Maui. We passed through Makawao, originally a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) town. Ranches still dot the hilly green grasslands that surround it. The old Komodas Bakery, still selling sweet bean cakes and stick doughnuts, bears witness to Japanese American and other immigrant groups that settled there. A pricey art gallery and day spa around the corner are examples of the growing gentrification transforming the town with roughly 8,000 residents. We cased out restaurants where we might want to have dinner. Casanova has a sign on its exterior proclaiming “Voted Best Italian Restaurant.” It doesn’t state by whom or when. It is also the only Italian restaurant in Makawao (but makes divine ravioli, we discovered).
We drove on to our Airbnb cabin, perched on a hill not far from town. It was twilight when we approached it under yet another deluge. The convoluted directions our hostess had e-mailed stated that our GPS would do us no good, also that the cabin door would be open and house keys on the kitchen counter. On a puddle-pocked dirt road we drove up and around and up and around until I felt I needed an airbag. We peered through the windshield in search of a house number and a sign bearing the name the name Butterfly House.
When we finally found Butterfly House and open the car doors, cold rain and icy air assaulted us. After slogging up the stairs to the dark, wood-panelled Alpine-style cabin we huddled in front of the single space heater until we had the gumption to pull on night attire and crawl into the surprisingly comfy bed. I wore my wool hat.
Sun poured in through the picture window the next morning and we gazed out at miles of rolling, lush ranch land. On the kitchen table, we discovered packages of Kona coffee and macadamia nut cookies, a box of Mauna Loa milk chocolates, and a plastic container of goat food that I took for granola before reading the label.
The goats poked their noses through the fence that separated their field from our hostess’s lawn. As we fed them, a chatty neighbor ambled over. He recounted moving to the Makawao area with his wife and kids a dozen years before, a decision he said was benefiting the family in countless ways. After quizzing us on our trip, he offered food, local directions, or anything else we might need and congratulated us heartily on our 25th anniversary.
What does this have to do with culture, community or anything else related to Hawaii? Well, the encounter wouldn’t have made a lasting impression but for the unexpected knock at our screen door the next morning. A sweet-faced lady, neighbor of the man who’d chatted with us the day before, held out two beautiful lei and wished us a happy 25th anniversary. We wore the fragrant floral adornments until we had to part with them at Kahului Airport Security before our flight to Los Angeles.
That’s it. Reflecting on our Hawaiian odyssey, I feel nourished by our month exploring music, hula, and local cultural life on three islands. Not quite what I predicted, it was wonderful. In addition to traditional music and hula, we experienced the cultural life of communities and the generosity of people we didn’t know. As we travelled, weather fluctuations belied the sunny stereotype of Hawai’i. And we can’t forget the Mother of all Ice Creams, Lappert’s coconut-macadamia nut-fudge.
By the way, Michael can’t wait to return to Butterfly House.
Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world music developments in Southern California and beyond.