Antion dressed for the King Kamehameha Chanting Competition 1999
- In Hawaii
In 1986, a
vedic astrologer said to me “Hawaii
is the best place on the planet for you”. I was unimpressed. In the cult-like
organization to which Elandra and I belonged at the time, Hawaii
was considered the place to which organization members, who could not handle
the intense discipline, would run away. They would spend their lives laying on
the beach and smoking dope. That was not what I wanted to do with my life.
anywhere else that’s good?” I asked. “Well, anywhere near the Pacific Ocean is
good but Hawaii is far and
away the best for you”.
I had been
to Hawaii four times
already and would return again briefly twice in 1988. Yet, in all of those
times, I had never spent overnight there. I soon forgot about the whole
incident. Interestingly, since 1968, other than a short and unhappy stint when
I tried to return to London,
I have never lived more than ten miles from the Pacific. It wasn’t until 1989
that a generous gift from a friend sent me back to Hawaii,
this time for a week’s vacation.
The beautiful, mystical, magical Hawaiian
Islands are alive with divine sound. Billowing waves
breaking on white, golden, red and black sandy beaches, the trade winds softly
rippling through the fronds of swaying coconut trees, hundreds of tropical
birds singing their songs, the roar and hiss as molten lava meets the ocean
currents. All of these make up the soundscape of an isolated and idyllic
centuries, the native people of Hawaii
created another soundscape, complementing the natural cacophony of their
homeland. Like many other lands on this Earth, Hawaii
is a land of the voice. Here the human voice is given huge respect. A common
name to give a child, male or female is Kaleonani – Beautiful Voice. For
a man or a woman to have an outstanding, even world class voice is considered
to be normal and natural.
How did this
come about? No one knows. Certainly the beautiful environment is an
inspiration. But there are other places, Tahiti, for example; an equally beautiful
island paradise, where people sing as naturally as breathing. Yet, in my
admittedly biased opinion, the power and beauty of Hawaiian singing and
chanting stand out above all others.
culture was held, until comparatively recently, by oral tradition. I have been
told by those who know that there was, and still is, a written language in Hawaii.
This is, of course, contrary to what the books and scholars will tell you. The
knowledge of this script is being held kapu – in secret, until such time
as those that hold it feel that the world is ready to receive its ike
and fifty years ago, the missionaries established a way to write the Hawaiian
language with the sole intent of spreading Christianity. As an unintended
consequence of this action, all that is now known to the world of ancient
Hawaiian tradition was then transmitted to Caucasians, who committed what they
garnered to paper. Many of these Caucasians found within themselves a deep
respect for Hawaiian culture and felt a responsibility to preserve as much as
they were able.
culture was systematically suppressed by missionaries and government, the old
ones died along with their memories and their wisdom. It was, in effect,
cultural genocide. Huge sections of cultural knowledge and tradition simply
disappeared. Yet much still remains.
In spite of
the proscriptions of the missionaries, and later the State Legislature which
banned the Hawaiian language, both language and culture have survived. The
culture has experienced resurgence in the last thirty years and is continuing
to grow. The Hawaiian language, if not exactly flourishing, is being nurtured and
kept alive by immersion schools and by those who stubbornly refuse to allow
this most beautiful and mellifluous of languages to die.
To go deep
into Hawaiian culture, you have to go deep into hula. Hula is the very soul of Hawaii.
It is indeed tragic that so few people, even within Hawaii itself, have managed to go beyond the
1930’s movie image of hula, promulgated by Hollywood.
The image of brown skinned women (hardly ever Hawaiian) in grass skirts
(definitely not Hawaiian) swaying their hips to a song by Bing Crosby or Elvis
still reigns throughout the world as the accepted depiction of hula, indeed of
Hawaii itself. I was once part of a Hawaiian cultural show in Germany
where a few people came and asked for their money back because there were no
brown skinned women in grass skirts.
involves the movement of the hips, both for men and for women. It is a sensual
dance and, on occasion, blatantly sexual in a manner that is both ribald and
hilarious. But the context is always that sex is a natural part of life and not
any big deal.
about life because it is life. All aspects of Hawaiian life are
reflected therein. Birth and death, farming and fishing, love and war,
spiritual tradition, navigation by the stars, history and legend, all these and
much more can be found in this ancient dance.
In hula, the
dance and the voice are ineluctably linked. Even in its modern form, dancing
hula to instrumental music without a singer is all but unthinkable. The dance
is a vital adjunct to the story being told in the song. Dance and voice are
inseparable, no matter how profound the lyric, no matter how trite.
In this day
and age, modern hula (hula auwana) is associated with the guitar and
particularly the ukulele, but always as instruments to accompany a singer. In
ancient times, the old hula (hula kahiko) was danced to the voice; to a
chant called mele. The voice was accompanied by either the pahu
drum or a percussion instrument created from two gourds called the ipu heke.
But these were only there to accentuate the rhythm by which the dancers kept
time. The voice was that which gave the narrative and melody to the dance.
The other vital aspect of the
Hawaiian voice in ancient times was oli. Oli means chant. This is an
extract from an excellent article in Spirit of Aloha (Aloha Airlines magazine)
called The Art of Oli by Joan Conrow.
has largely disappeared from Hawai‘i’s valleys and forests, a sound other than
the songs of now-extinct native birds. It’s the sound of the human voice raised
in oli, in chant,
speaking words thoughtfully chosen by the composer, carefully memorized and
delivered by the orator.
Hawaiian culture was traditionally imbued with oli, as chants were a part of
every aspect of daily life. Whether it was a fisherman offering a chant before
setting out to fish or a kahuna, priest, chanting within the context of
a sacred ritual, oli were ubiquitous. Indeed, even the Hawaiian creation story,
the Kumulipo, is presented as a 2,102-line chant.
It was frequent, in pre-Western-contact Hawai‘i, to hear women chanting as they
pounded tapa cloth or cleaned hala leaves alongside the ocean or
a stream; to hear men chanting before planting taro in the fields; to hear
families chanting to greet the dawn and the dusk, to acknowledge all the
Chant was also used to pay homage to the recently dead. As Lili‘uokalani,
Hawai‘i’s last queen, lay in state in 1917, according to S.M. Kamakau’s Ruling
Chiefs of Hawai‘i: “… the body was viewed by a vast procession of people …
the natives venting their sorrow in the oldtime oli or the uwe helu
(lamentations.) … devoted attendants and loyal subjects [mourned] in song,
chant recitations, oli or the weird, soul-piercing disconsolate wail of a
grief-stricken heart.” Chanting was a way
of expressing gratitude, focusing intention, asking permission, acknowledging
the gods, calling upon the forces of nature, seeking protection in short, oli
were the utterances of a profoundly spiritual people who were deeply
interactive with their environment.
Since they were human, with all the accompanying emotions, chant was used for
more mundane purposes, too: professing feelings of love and admiration, asking
for a favor or delivering a scolding, expressing praise or despair.
But with the arrival of the missionaries and new ways of doing things, oli
began to rapidly subside from its once prominent role in daily life.
At the Mokihana Hula Festival, September 1998
When I arrived
for the first time (at least to stay overnight) in Hawaii, I had little idea of the great
treasury of feeling and tradition in Hawaiian music and chant. It was not until
my third visit that fate took a hand and gave me an unforgettable and life
from Maui to San Diego (where we were living at
the time) required a stopover in Honolulu.
A friend invited us to have dinner and then explore Waikiki.
By some fluke (there are NO coincidences!) we arrived on the beach by the Royal
Hawaiian Hotel just as the evening show was about to start. We were standing
outside the Monarch Room, the hotel’s show room.
Room has huge glass windows and doors. Normally the doors are normally open to
the night, allowing air to circulate and passers-by to watch the whole show,
free of charge.
As my wife
and I stood there watching the house lights dim and the stage lights project
their colors, there came a recording of some incredibly beautiful music with a
thrilling narrative talking about the ancient gods of old Hawaii. I was
enthralled. Then a large Hawaiian lady came out onstage. I didn’t know it at
the time, of course, but this was Aunty Leina’ala Heine, a well known kumu
hula (hula teacher). She began beating on a huge pahu drum and started to
chant the first oli I ever heard.
opened to reveal a group of hula dancers, men and women, the men clad in malo,
traditional loincloths. While Aunty Leina’ala chanted a mele, Auwa ’ia e kama, the dancers performed a hula kahiko, an ancient
hula. I was intrigued as they moved their hips in wide circles for the
traditional step known as ami.
opposite sides of the stage, two small daises slid onto the stage and came
together in the middle. On one dais, a man stood with a white double bass. On
the other, a man sat cross legged with a twelve string guitar. They began to
I had never
heard anything like it. Their voices slipped easily in and out of harmony. At
the same time, they soared into and beyond the highest level a man’s voice
could be expected to go without breaking into falsetto. The music was rhythmic
and exciting while still holding a certain spiritual quality. I stood there
with tears running down my cheeks, utterly captivated. This was the duo known
as the Brothers Cazimero, at that time the top Hawaiian music act, and still
riding high today. After three songs and to my intense frustration, our host
called us away.
Best of the Brothers Cazimero, Volume I
overnight flight deposited us in San
Diego at around seven am. As soon as Tower Records
opened that morning I was there. In their world music section, and somewhat to
my surprise, I found “The Best of The Brothers Cazimero”, a selection of their
most popular songs. Common knowledge says that CDs don’t wear out but, after
playing it over and over for the next fifteen months, this one did. The songs
on that CD spoke to parts of myself and my soul that I never even knew existed.
surprising aspect of this turn of events was that I had not felt like I needed
a new musical discipline. I deeply loved Indian music and I especially loved
Gurbani Kirtan, the sacred music of the Sikhs. I was not looking for more. It
was as if the Universe said to me “OK, now learn this. This is what’s next for
There was a
recession in California
in 1991/92 that brought my plumbing business to its knees. That, plus my love
for the music and chant of Hawaii,
precipitated our moving there in February of 1993. Our original intention was
to settle on Maui but, after only a few days,
I was directed to the Garden Island of Kauai.
previously, Hurricane Iniki had devastated the island. Many houses had been
destroyed, many people had left the island and the different communities on the
island were in varying states of shock. Accommodation was hard to find. The
saving grace was that, if you were in construction, there was plenty of work
rebuilding the island.
It took us
time to create a semi-permanent place to live. We lived in a tent for six
months and, after that, in a yurt for five years. There was, however, never any
shortage of work. Still, it took time to get my business re-established. All of
this meant that I could not pursue my dreams of learning Hawaiian music and
culture for which I now held an unslakeable thirst.