Vol. 11, Issue 29 - Sunday, January 29, 2006

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole, part of a musical lineage that includes his great grandmother Edith Kanaka'ole, rehearses a hula before hitting the stage at Hawaii Theatre last week. Kaumakaiwa is exploring both innovation and tradition as he creates his musical and hula works.

Tradition & Evolution

The Kanaka'ole family employs both in their commitment to perpetuating Hawaiian culture

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole and his multigenerational family represent a best-case scenario for native Hawaiians in modern Hawaii.

His mother saw that he was raised in large part by her parents, just as she was by her own grandmother, in the traditional Hawaiian way. He is a native speaker of Hawaiian with an education that began in Hawaiian immersion preschool and concluded with a bachelor of performing arts degree from the University of Hawaii-Hilo. He has focused since on exploring his cultural identity while preserving his family's legacy.

And what a musical lineage that is: His mother is Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning recording artist Kekuhi Kanahele-Frias; his grandmother Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele and his great-aunt Nalani Kanaka'ole, also Hoku winners, are the kumu hula of the family halau, Halau O Kekuhi. His great-grandmother the late Edith Kanaka'ole is one of the most influential kumu hula of the last century. Kanaka'ole himself is a successful composer and recording artist.

"We learned from a very early age -- since Grandma Edith -- how to be able to live in both worlds, how to be articulate as well as grounded, in that you are can be constantly in touch with your community but able at the same time to remove yourself from that situation and become articulate in a Western perspective," Kanaka'ole says.

The family has lived together on 10 acres of land on the Big Island since the mid-'70s. It was what his grandfather Edward L.H. Kanahele wanted, he says. "It was my grandfather's vision for the family that we stay together that way, and because hula is not just a hobby in the family, hula is the constant. ... I was always interacting with my grandmother one way or another," Kanaka'ole said.

In his current album, "Welo," Kanaka'ole writes and sings of the Big Island, his family and a sometimes painful quest for fulfillment. His mother's participation as a chanter on the album underscores the message that ancestral knowledge is passed from one generation to another.

"My family puts a lot of emphasis on studying the language and chants and older texts," he says. "That's how I've gotten a lot of my foundation for composition."

His mother, Kanahele-Frias, sings and chants in a style often described in terms such as "primeval," suggesting a life spent isolated in some remote and unspoiled jungle valley. Nonetheless, she is as comfortable negotiating the arcane procedures involved in applying for academic research grants as she is performing with the family halau.

Kanahele-Frias says the family considers innovation and evolution to be important in keeping traditional practices alive. Her son "is embracing all kinds of cultures in both movement and voice," she said by telephone from her office on the Big Island.

"I may be just a little more reserved than he is. He's really out there."

She believes Kanaka'ole to be among the first to venture from a traditional chant and hula into other forms of performing arts.

"We let him embrace (his heritage) at his own speed. ... I think the many nights we used to listen to him wail in the shower (when he was 15 or 16) may have paid off."

Her own parents also moved easily between traditional Hawaiian and contemporary culture. The late Edward Kanahele was a professor of history; Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele helps oversee the Edith Kanaka'ole Foundation and was a founder of 'Ilio'ilaokalani, a nonprofit cultural organization set up in 1997 to ensure that native Hawaiians would continue to have access to undeveloped land for traditional religious, cultural and subsistence practices.

Sisters Nalani Kanaka'ole, left, and Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele are co-kumu hula for Halau O Kekuhi. The sisters are experimental with their craft. In 2003, they collaborated with Tau Dance Company for "Hanau Ka Moku: An Island Is Born," a mix of Hawaiian chant and hula kahiko with Western dance that told of the birth of the island Lo'ihi.

Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele and her sister, Nalani Kanaka'ole, also helped preserve and perpetuate traditional Hawaiian hula with their 1998 album "Uwolani," which documented the halau's roots in the ancient pre-Christian religion of Hawaii. "Uwolani" won Hoku Awards in the two most culturally important categories: Hawaiian Language Performance and Haku Mele.

Kanahele-Frias took top honors in the Female Vocalist category that year with her second album, "Kekuhi Kanahele." She has concentrated since then on her academic career, the halau and her family.

Her younger children are enjoying the same cross-generational experience, living among five families on the Big Island homestead. "We don't necessarily all live in the same house, because we couldn't possibly put up with each other all of the time, but we're within walking distance. As soon as our 3- and 5-year-olds are done with their morning activities, they bid us farewell and go to Grandma's. We're very comfortable with that. ... The kids just have a little larger support system than you would if you were living in a single-family system."

Halau O Kekuhi has moved forward on both traditional and contemporary/experimental fronts.

In 2000 the halau's performance of "Holo Mai Pele" -- a story of Pele and her sister, Hi'iaka -- was broadcast on the public television series "Great Performances," the first time that traditional hula had been presented to that nationwide audience. Kanaka'ole (then known as "Lopaka," a childhood nickname that he no longer uses) was among the performers.

The sisters Nalani and Pualani also collaborated with Peter Rockford Espiritu's Tau Dance Company in 2003 to bring "Hanau Ka Moku: An Island Is Born" to the Hawaii Theatre. The ambitious blending of Hawaiian chant and hula kahiko with Western dance and staging marked the birth of the undersea island of Lo'ihi.

Understanding that evolution is an essential part of a living culture is critical to the work of this extended family. Being "traditional" does not mean being frozen in the past, Kanahele-Frias says.

"Our definition of a traditional halau hula is not only the maintenance of the things that were given to you," she says. "My grandmother contributed a number of new choreographies and new compositions in her time, and my great-grandmother did the same thing. We don't think our traditions can survive without those contributions."

Her son, Kanaka'ole, is making his own contributions "in sound and in text, and in terms of continuing, that's great. Doing the same things all of the time is how we put ourselves in a noose as far as continuation is concerned."

Kanaka'ole is working on a third album for Mountain Apple Co. and anticipates a great deal of traveling this year, including seven trips to Japan and two to Tahiti. But the halau and the legacy it embodies are his foundation. "My obligations to the halau never change."

He does not view this as a burden. "I think the opportunity that hula can offer goes without saying, (but) when I first decided to join hula, I don't think I had the foresight to really see where hula and the exposure to the lifestyle of hula could take me."

mug Kekuhi Kanahele-Frias
The mother
Hoku Award-winning recording artist and educator; director of the Hawaiian Lifestyles Program at Hilo Community College. She is working on her doctorate degree.

mug Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele
The grandmother
Co-kumu hula of Halau O Kekuhi. Recipient of a Ph.D. in humane letters from the University of Hawaii. Teaches at Hawaii Community College.

mug Nalani Kanaka'ole
The great-aunt
Co-kumu hula and Hoku winner (with her sister, Pualani) of Halau O Kukuhi.

mug Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole
The son
Composer and recording artist who has been studying hula since age 7. He received a Na Hoku Hanohano Award in 2004 for Haku Mele for "Mele Ha'i Kupuna," from his first solo album, "Ha'i Kupuna." His current album, "Welo," ventures into more contemporary territory.

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