25 Years and Kicking (Or At Least Kaholoing)
What constitutes healthy change in tradition? This question was at the core of a meeting convened last month to mark the 25th anniversary of San Francisco-based hula company and school Nä Lei Hulu I Ka Wëkiu. The company has been supported by grants from ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program to further their studies in ancient Hawaiian protocols and language immersion to develop a deeper understanding of the chants which drive the dance. The company's quarter-century mark occurs at a time of great activity for Hawaiian arts, emanating both from within the islands and far from the archipelago. ACTA staff member Lily Kharrazi was invited to participate in the conversation, which is reprinted here in abbreviated form.
Under the leadership of Kumu (or master) Patrick Makuakāne, Nä Lei Hulu I Ka Wëkiu's adherence to protocols married with its radical experimentation over 25 years has provoked debate, accolades, and condemnation. However, the energy of this particular company and its trajectory of work have brought energy and healthy debate to the field of practice.
Joining the afternoon conversation were other kumu hula, helping to provide a perspective of how hula as practiced on the mainland has contributed to the evolution of a cultural practice so rooted in actual place or the birth land.
Amy Ku'uleialoha Stillman, Ph.D., kumu hula, and ethnomusicologist, directs the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies program at the University of Michigan. She has published articles in numerous scholarly journals as well as a book, Sacred Hula: The Historical Hula ‘Äla ‘Apapa (Bishop Museum Press, 1998). She has curated two collections of Hawaiian chants and written the lyrics for the Grammy Award–winning CD ‘Ikena, which she coproduced with Daniel Ho.
Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu is kumu hula and founder of the Academy of Hawaiian Arts in Oakland. His work has been featured in the PBS documentary American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai'i, in the Walt Disney movie Lilo & Stitch, and on several original CDs, including Call It What You Like and Po‘okela Chants. On the latter 1999 recording his melodic chant style and mesmerizing rhythms transcend the boundaries between traditional and popular Hawaiian music. “If you don’t progress,” Ho‘omalu says, “you will lose the future.”
Honolulu-born Michael Yamashita grew up in Kailua and Käne‘ohe. In 1989, he started Kaiäulu, a hälau based in San Francisco, with Nathan Dudoit. (Kaiäulu is the name of the wind in Wai‘anae, the hälau’s spirtual home.) “We teach nothing unless it has been passed down to us or thoroughly researched,” he says. But, he adds, “Hula has evolved over the last two hundred years, and thus there are many ‘eras’ that can be considered ‘traditional.’” Yamashita is also general manager of the Bay Area Reporter, the oldest and largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper media company in San Francisco and the nation.
Constance Hale, (facilitator) is a journalist and editor who grew up in Waialua, on the North Shore of O‘ahu, but left the islands to get a bachelor's degree in English literature at Princeton and a master's degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. She has covered Hawaiian history, culture, and politics for much of her career as a journalist, for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic Adventure, Smithsonian, and Honolulu. She has studied with Patrick Makuakäne since 1987 and edits Nä Lei Hulu I Ka Wëkiu's newsletter.
Patrick Makuakāne, director and kumu hula of Nä Lei Hulu I Ka Wëkiu, first studied hula under Kumu John Keola Lake, then danced with Kumu Robert Cazimero’s Nä Kamalei for nine years. He founded Nä Lei Hulu I Ka Wëkiu in 1985 and has earned a reputation as a creative force in the hula world, known for choreography that is innovative yet preserves the traditions and fundamentals of hula. Since 2000 he has been a student of Kumu Mae Kamämalu Klein, graduating in her ‘üniki class of 2003.
Transcript reprinted with permission from Nä Lei Hulu I Ka Wëkiu.
Patrick Makuakāne: Welcome everyone. Kumu hula, scholars, interlocutors. Friends, Romans, countrymen. Mahalo for coming. The idea here was to invite kumu hula, all contemporaries but from different lineages, and to ask Amy to give us a scholarly perspective and Lily to link our efforts to those of other ethnic artists. Connie, the editor of our newsletter, will guide the conversation.
Connie Hale: Thank you, Kumu. I’d like to start the conversation by asking each of you about your first memory of hula.
Mark Ho‘omalu: We all have the same hula beginnings. You, me, all of us in the world. You did this as an infant. [He slaps his hands together.] “Pattycake, pattycake, baker’s man.” That might not seem very Hawaiian, but a game like that is hula. Hula entertains, amuses, inspires—and it teaches motor skills.
Patrick Makuakāne: My first memory of hula was at the Kamehameha Schools Explorations, which I attended in fifth grade. Being with other Hawaiian kids and doing Hawaiian activities was inspiring. But the one class I hated was hula. The instructor was this big, flaming mähü [gay man]. I was thinking, “Oh, my god, I don’t want to grow up to be like that.” [Laughter.] Only later, at Saint Louis High School, did hula help me articulate pride in being Hawaiian—about our history, our ‘ohana [family] and chiefs, our relationship to nature. Nothing in my life has made me feel so connected.
Michael Yamashita: I had an aunty who did some entertaining. Every time Aunty comes over, sooner or later, somebody’s going to start playing music, and she’s going to start dancing. She would take us younger kids and show us basic movements, real simple hula. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were just following her. I remember thinking, “This is fun.” But you never saw boys dancing. Maybe at May Day, but that was a token thing. When we had parties, I enjoyed it; I got to spend time with Aunty. But I realized: you can do that in the family, but, outside, no can.
Connie Hale: Amy, I imagine you didn’t have that issue?
Amy Stillman: My issue was the hula as beauty school. When I was five, Mom took me to Lucy Lee on Kapahulu. Upstairs on the second floor. I just hated her yelling at us. “Do this, do that!” [Laughter.] You know, that kind of loud, brassy aunty? And all the other girls in the class had mothers and sisters and cousins who taught them how to do the makeup. My mother didn’t realize she was supposed to do that for me.
Mark Ho‘omalu: I feel sorry for you guys! I saw some girls, and I said, “Ooh.” [Laughter.]
Lily Kharrazi: When I was a child, my family—immigrants from Iran—moved from the Bronx to Santa Barbara. When I was about ten, my YMCA club was asked to help out at a cancer fund-raiser. I had long black hair, so I had a choice: I could either be an Indian and sit in front of a tepee, or I could wear a lei and a grass skirt.
Connie Hale: Was there one moment you thought, “I’m going to teach”?
Amy Stillman: When I was a graduate student at the University of Hawai’i, I saw many gifted people who could teach, choreograph, and perform. I thought, “The world doesn’t need another third-rate kumu hula.” But there was nobody around with my geekiness, my ability to stick with it, so I made academics my niche. When I got to Michigan, I attended weekend hit-and-run hula seminars. When I saw the level of what was being taught, I began to think, “Those who have the ‘ike [knowledge] also have the kuleana [responsibility] to share it.” So I started teaching in 2006.
Mark Ho‘omalu: My idea of hula as a young, ambitious person was: you wanna be somebody, you wanna do something, you set the goal and go. I was a Germaine’s dancer. I worked at Sea Life Park; I worked at the Hale Koa; I worked at Paradise Cove—just go li’ this and go li’ that and have a good time and make money. Cruise-control hula. When I came here, I realized I knew absolutely nothing except a set of dances. I was a twelve-number-repertoire hula dancer. The last thirty years has been a process of finding my place. Darrell [Lupenui] and Thaddeus [Wilson] instilled this thought: “Do your best, and do your own.” I’ve gone back and started again. I just keep doing, hoping I hit something somewhere sometime. I am in the perfect mind-set now to go back to hula class, because I could actually focus on something other than looking for girls. [Laughter.]
Connie Hale: How might we think about place and its relation to hula? We use the Hawaiian language in chants, we dance to mele ‘äina, songs praising specific Hawaiian places, and yet we are far from those places. How do you deal with this? And has this place, the mainland, played a role in your work?
Michael Yamashita: If I was still in Hawai’i, I don’t think I could teach. There are so many people I respect, and I would never consider myself even near their level of expertise. I could never be a peer. I would always want to be their student. Being away from Hawai’i gives me the space to operate. But being away from Hawai’i is also a handicap. It’s like being in exile: here we are, divorced from place, and yet it’s so important to be connected to Hawai’i.
Patrick Makuakāne: When I’m at hula, I’m at home. I’m not in San Francisco. I’m with those chants, those songs. But I have a lot of students who aren’t at home. I think they should inherently know things, and then I remind myself, “Oh, my god, I’ve got to begin from scratch.” It’s a huge task to bring people up to speed. It takes years and years of commitment and discipline. And talking.
Mark Ho‘omalu: The songs we dance are not foreign. We talk about great battles. We talk about paddling. We talk about fishing. This is a boy’s life: Getting to be a hunter. Going to the mountain. Going surfing. Building shacks and making what you need. We can imagine that. I tell my students, Hula allows us to mentally play in other places.
Amy Stillman: I believe there’s a reason why I am in Michigan, although I have to think hard in February to remember what it is. [Laughter.] I accept that no matter where I am, I’m still Hawaiian. I can put myself in Hawai’i when I sit down at my computer and start thinking Hawaiian music, start thinking hula. There’s Hawai’i the physical place, but there’s also Hawai’i the state of mind.
Patrick Makuakāne: In the eighties, California had the reputation of being the ugly stepsister or the mangy mutt of hula. Despite our hard work to elevate hula here, there’s still a perception that we’re not on a par with groups from Hawai‘i. Yet fifteen years ago somebody said to me, “It must be so nice that you’re teaching hula in San Francisco without anybody looking over your shoulder.” That’s right. There’s great freedom in that. And here I have plugged in and gotten funding. My hula brethren back home are still holding car washes. Here we’re supported by the city, by the state, by wonderful organizations like ACTA [Alliance for California Traditional Arts]. At home so many people are going for one little pot.
Amy Stillman: Anybody outside of Hawai‘i has an experience that contributes as much as anybody inside of Hawai‘i. People in Hawai‘i resist that. I see jealousy and fear. They don’t want to be shown up; they don’t want to share in authority. They want to believe that being on that soil grants them expertise. That’s unfortunate, because it denies those outside the possibility of bringing their experiences in. But Hawai‘i people have become a bit more accepting of the work that is going on up here, especially in California, but other places, too—Arizona, Washington, Utah. East Coast is still suspect. The Midwest is off the map. [Laughter.]
Connie Hale: Lily, I imagine that many ethnic dance groups face this challenge. The tradition came out of one place, and yet here are people doing it elsewhere. How does ethnic dance stay vibrant outside of its culture?
Lily Kharrazi: Diaspora can create renewed interest. You can find pockets in the new place that are more traditional than back home. I often see this trajectory: A group plays the outsider, maintaining tradition. Then they are flattered by interest, and proliferate. (It’s also an economic thing: your classes are your bread and butter.) But at some point people step back and say, “Wait a minute. It’s dissipating. It’s losing its essence.”
Mark Ho‘omalu: If I was back in Hawai’i, I would be doing the same thing I did when I lived back there. Why go and teach myself the hula when I can run around the mountain? When I can paddle across the channel?
Connie Hale: So being away gives you more focus and discipline.
Michael Yamashita: When you are home, you’re just there. But when you’re not home, you’re constantly thinking of how to get there or what you need to do to be there.
Amy Stillman: I want to remind us that the term “kumu” has many meanings. A kumu can be a source, a foundation. It could be a military wife in Hawai‘i who took classes, moves to Missouri, is asked to teach hula—that person can become a source for people there.
Patrick Makuakāne: That’s stretching it.
Amy Stillman: In the lower-case sense. This person is a source for those people. I fear that the definition of kumu has become so rigid that it excludes many productive possibilities. So many people use “kumu hula” as a bludgeon.
Connie Hale: Building on Amy’s point about the formalizing of kumu and hälau, let’s reflect on the last twenty-five years of hula. Has there been another shift since the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance? Are we in a new period?
Amy Stillman: Everything that’s happened, up to now, is an organic outgrowth of the Renaissance. The change I see on the horizon comes out of the success of Hawaiian-language-immersion education: We now have a generation that has been educated entirely in Hawaiian. They are bringing this Hawaiian mind-set into their haku mele [composition] and their choreography. The historian in me sees us in a period of emergence.
Patrick Makuakāne: In the last ten years all these people have this ‘ike [knowledge] and ‘ölelo [language] and are applying them not only to hula but to other disciplines—to genealogy, crafts, even ‘awa [kava] ceremonies.
Amy Stillman: Now our creativity is coming from a more Hawaiian perspective, because the thinking is Hawaiian. The graduates who are out there now, that’s their life. They have lived it. They’re not born again. They were born, period.
Lily Kharrazi: At the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, I’ve seen mainland hula groups go from a smattering of loose entities across the Bay Area—some commercial, some stunningly traditional—to many more hälau [schools or ensembles] with a focus on traditional learning, paying homage to source material, to the language. The bar has been raised.
Amy Stillman: All of you are part of an important vanguard. It’s significant that it started off here. You’ve taken the step of saying, “Everybody’s doing hula competitions, but there must be something else. There must be another platform to take a vision to a different scale and bring it to life.”
Michael Yamashita: We have to expand hula in a justified way—within the rules or the conventions that we’re given, within tradition—but we’ve got to make it relevant. We can’t be just focused on the nineteenth century.
Amy Stillman: Or the twentieth. Or 1977.
Patrick Makuakāne: We get caught up in the idea of tradition. But hula was never this static thing. People were presenting their lives in dance. So the “tradition” must have changed from the fifteenth century to the sixteenth to the seventeenth. And when women picked up the mantle in the early 1900s, Lokalia folks, they were doing hula pageants! They were innovating! About the traditional stuff they were told, “Don’t touch.” So they said, “All right, I won’t touch that, but I’m going to do a pageant. I’m going to have a princess for every island, each with a different number.” We’re not the first people trying to be relevant to our times.
Mark Ho‘omalu: Tradition is just the consensus of one era.
Lily Kharrazi: I have a question. There is something that seems to be inherent in hula—a unison among the performers in the company. What does it take to develop that particular physicality?
Patrick Makuakāne: Hula is about the power of community, the shared power of aloha. There’s something about harnessing movement by a group of people all doing the same thing, moving together and then just vibing off of that energy. It’s accompanied by percussive instruments and chanting and singing, which increases the vibration. Sacredness and spirituality develop. I sound like a hippie.
Mark Ho‘omalu: It’s a drug. You go to hula class because you need a fix. For me, when the dancers are on and I’m on, we all crank together. The whole room vibrates. By the time it’s finished, I’m so juiced up. You come back again and keep trying it just to get a fix.
Michael Yamashita: Sometimes I’m just happy that, wow, they actually have the choreography down. Now if we can get these ten different versions of it into one . . . So after that, I’m like, “Just forget the choreography. Follow me. If you’re behind me or ahead of me, then you’re not doing it right.” And then they have that insight, “Wow, we all did it together at the same time.” They feel it.
Amy Stillman: Out of this physical activity comes communitas. Hula is about animating. Part of bringing a mele [chant] to life is garnering this energy we’re talking about, setting molecules moving. When you see a compelling performance, you feel it in your bones. That’s the drug.
Connie Hale: But are you also creating something outside of the performance? Are kumu encouraging a way of relating to each other? You’re taking in everyone around you, dancing in harmony, feeling each other in a different way. How do you foster that?
Mark Ho‘omalu: Respect and fear and intimidation. [Laughter.]
Patrick Makuakāne: That feeling fosters itself. You cannot dance by yourself. This is not a singular dance act. You need to move together as a group. So you’re watching that person three lines ahead of you, feeling that person three lines behind you.
Michael Yamashita: It’s also sometimes cultural: When somebody new comes, everybody greets them and take them under their wing and helps them with their basics. It’s the way we are. Many students are just grateful to have a place in their lives where they can experience this. They also have a hunger to express things that hula allows them to express.
Amy Stillman: When it works, hula fosters tolerance. And kumu are visionary. That sets them apart from the rank and file. Kumu have the gift for imagining something into being, and the ability to bring it to pass. That inspires people around them, and not only the students—families and friends come to support the person gifted enough to bring this culture to life.
Mark Ho‘omalu: That was beautiful. When I say I use fear, and heavy discipline, it’s based on the principles of performance. From the get-go, the whole thing is how to build up endurance. You’ve got to be high impact. It’s nonstop. You gotta push. I want them to be ready. I feel really bad. It’s not very . . . aloha-y. [Laughter.]
Amy Stillman: But—but it’s a vision. And those who execute it recognize that they’re part of making that vision come alive.
Lily Kharrazi: There’s no question, in looking at all of your hälau, that there’s much discipline. I can bet that people who make that first cut leave in tears. They know that they’ve earned a certain level of artistry and recognition.
Mark Ho‘omalu: They are seriously disturbed people. [Laughter.] But without them to instruct and inspire, we would be nothing.