Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Spirit of Aloha

"The first word uttered by every human being is a Hawaiian word" said Danny Akaka, Jr., as he took me on a historical tour of the Mauna Lani resort, where he serves as the director of cultural affairs.

"When each infant exhales for the first time", pausing to slowly exhale so I could hear the haaaa sound, "the infant says the Hawaiian word ha, which means breath".

"Alo means being present together, and so the word "Aloha" literally means that we are together sharing breath, the life force that sustains us and keeps us alive. That's why the traditional Hawaiian greeting is to place your foreheads together and inhale, both sharing the same breath of life."

I love the sense of togetherness, of community, of love and respect that the word "Aloha" represents, and nowhere did I feel it more strongly than when in the presence of Danny Akaka, Jr.

Here's a photo of the two of us, while on our walking tour:

I felt very lucky to be the only tour participant, so I could have Danny completely to myself, to ask him questions about the things I'd seen in Hawaii so far, and to discuss the "Twilight at Kalahuipua'a" program he had hosted a few days earlier.

The entire reason I stayed at the Mauna Lani resort was so I could be there for the "Twighlight at Kalahuipua'a" program, which Danny founded. Held once a month, on the Saturday closest to the full moon, it's a time when resort guests and local Hawaiians gather around the front porch of a little cottage to "talk story" and enjoy music and dance together.

It's held at the historic Eva Parker Woods Cottage:

I loved the informal, intimate event, and saw the spirit of aloha in action there, even before the event started, as people of all ages gathered, mingling and sharing food together. One sweet Hawaiian lady approached me with a tray of deviled eggs, offering me one. I accepted and said "They look fabulous!" and she replied that she brought them every month, since people loved her deviled eggs.

Danny opened the event by explaining the reason he started it: to give others the opportunity he experienced as a youth to spend casual evenings with kupuna (elders) enjoying stories, music, and dance. Those moments were treasures in his life, and he wanted to pass them along.

Danny then reminisced about how much they missed the people who had been involved with the program in the past, including Auntie Eleanor, who recently passed away. As he spoke about her kindly, in his soft-spoken manner, the messages that sunk into my heart were "People Matter", and "Value the wisdom and experience of the elderly".

When it was time to offically open the program, Danny sang the traditional opening chant. I captured this short segment of it on video:
video
(By the way, while on my walking tour, I learned that Danny once performed at Carnegie Hall. He played the guitar with a radio program called "Hawaii Calls". Another really cool thing about him is that he has taken several long-distance ocean voyages on traditional Hawaiian vessels, using traditional methods of navigation. You can read more about it in this wikipedia article. )

This month's program, Danny had arranged for three musicians to perform:
  • Henry Allen, who has the voice of a young crooner (even though he's probably in his 70's) and who played the ukelele and steel guitar,
  • Archie Grant, who played the keyboard with a light touch and who very skillfully improvised as they figured out what to do next. (Danny later told me that the three of them had never performed together before). I was impressed that Archie didn't look at either the piano or at sheet music as he improvised.
  • Bill Noble, a wonderful jazz musician who played the saxophone and percussion.

Here's a little video to give you a taste of their music:

video

Between songs, they'd talk about their lives, their experiences, and the things they had learned along the way.

Later, we had the privilege of watching hula dancers perform. Both Danny and his wife Anna performed with this group, which was doing a fund raiser so they could travel to a performance on another island.

For those of you who can't watch video, here's a still photo of some of the dancers. They had serious faces for most of the performance:


For those who can watch video, here's a little video of one of the dances that told a story.
video

Here's a video of one of the men-only dances:
video

And one of the women-only dances:
video

Before the English missionaries came and brought writing with them, the Hawaiians preserved their traditions through chants and hula. One of the dances they performed for us represented the process of planting their crops. Their leader said that the planting process presented in the dance is different than the process the scholarly archaeologists and anthropologists believe was used, and, of course, they believe their dance more than they believe the scholars!

Here's an image I captured of the sun going down on audience enjoying the program.

Danny blew a conch shell to announce the end of the intermission that started when the sun was down. A much smaller crowd re-convened, and the music and dance began again. This time, however, it was much more informal. I was delighted to see Danny's beautiful and gracious wife, Anna, spontaneously jump up and dance as the musicians performed.

Whenever the saxophone began to play, Anna would dance her way to the porch rocking chair and sit down. I wondered if it was difficult to dance to saxophone music, so I asked Danny about it later, who explained that you dance to the words, not to the music, and since there were no words to the saxophone parts, there was nothing for Anna to dance to!

I was impressed with Anna's grace and kindness. After dancing a bit herself, she selected an older couple from the audience, and invited them to come dance with she and Danny. This triggered much spontaneous dancing all around. Here's a photo of Anna and Danny, along with other couples, dancing:


Towards the end of the program, Anna pointed out that tomorrow was the birthday of one of the elderly ladies there, Auntie Jane, and so Anna made a point of bringing her up on the porch so we could all sing "Happy Birthday" to her. As we sang, Anna untied the beautiful lei that was around her neck and placed it on the hat brim of the grateful auntie, and then they all posed for a picture. I was reminded again of the messages: "People Matter", "Value the wisdom and experience of the elderly".

This program ended as Danny invited us to each hold hands as we sang "Aloha Oe", and then he said a prayer in Hawaiian. I didn't expect such an ending, but it fit the mood perfectly... a beautiful ending to a beautiful program.

A few days later, when I was on the historical walking tour with Danny, I mentioned how much I enjoyed the program, and how it was highly recommended in the "1000 Places to See Before You Die" book. He hadn't heard of the book before, and almost seemed a little disappointed that the program was getting more publicity, because he wanted to make sure that it kept an informal, intimate feel.

"I always invite the families of our featured guests", he said, "and sometimes they haven't even heard the stories our guests tell. I'd like to keep it a place where people feel comfortable sharing the portions of them that are closest to their hearts."

I loved the sense of community I felt there, and the other good feelings I had--the reminder that people matter, and the reminder to value the elderly and experienced. I also found myself wondering if I had cultural treasures of my own that I likewise need to pass along; the experience reminded me of wonderful childhood moments sitting around the campfire singing songs with my family on our farm. I wondered if perhaps it was time for me to follow the example of Danny Akaka Jr. and do more to keep alive the beautiful traditions I've inherited.

Thanks Danny, for giving me such a beautiful way to experience the spirit of aloha.