As you know from a few of my prior posts, Hawai’i is one of my favorite places in the United States. In addition to the natural glories of a tropical paradise, Hawai’i has a rich history as well as vibrant indigenous cultural traditions. In my travels, I have noticed great similarities between Hawaiian and Maori customs and expressions, which is not surprisingly among Polynesian cousins.
Last year we brought Hawaiian performers from Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center to Wellington and Auckland. The musicians, singers, and dancers visited Kiwi schools to demonstrate and discuss elements of Hawaiian culture. They also performed at our Independence Day celebrations in Wellington and Manukau, as well as at Te Papa.
The visit was part of the Embassy’s robust Pacific Islands outreach program. We have also facilitated a couple of rugby exchanges between Hawai’i and New Zealand, and I appointed a professor from Hawai’i, Manulani Aluli Meyer, to the board of Fulbright NZ. Earlier this year, we were delighted to have the opportunity to help bring the complex Hawaiian art form, hula, to the Pasifika Festival in Auckland.
Hula encompasses a broad range of performance art, though it is predominantly known as dance accompanied by songs (mele) or chants (oli). Like fa’ataupati in Samoa and kapa haka in Aotearoa, hula is an avenue for indigenous people to express their traditional heritage and cultural identity.
Now seen mainly as entertainment, it’s likely that hula began as a form of worship during religious ceremonies, and many native Hawaiians still view hula to be sacred. Hawaiians appear not to have produced written records before European contact, and thus hula’s origins are recounted through oral history and legend. There are nearly as many stories involving the genesis of hula as there are Hawaiian gods, which number in the many hundreds.
Hula is a strict discipline, taught in schools called hālau. The teacher of hula is known as the kumu. There are two main categories of hula – kahiko and ‘auana. Kahiko, the ancient hula performed before European encounters with Hawai’i, is accompanied by chant and traditional instruments. ‘Auana evolved under European influence in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is accompanied by song and more modern instruments such as the ukulele or guitar.
The great popularity of hula during and after World War II led to a simplified caricature deployed for tourism, marketing, and advertising purposes. Beginning in the late 1970′s, however, a resurgence of interest in Hawaiian culture has gradually led to more widespread practice and appreciation of authentic traditional forms.
One of the drivers of the Hawaiian renaissance is Kumu Hula (hula master) Blaine Kamalani Kia. Kumu Blaine exemplifies the living spirit of the “Hawaiian poetry of dance.” He is the driving force behind the Ka Laua’e Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote preservation, conservation, and perpetuation of hula.
Born in Honolulu, Blaine started dancing hula at the age of 5. He studied music theory at the Leeward Community College and also majored in music theory at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He founded his own hula school in 1987 and has dedicated his life since then to perpetuating Hawaiian traditions.
Blaine is currently a Kumu Hula for Halau Ka Waikahe Lani Malie (Peaceful Heavenly Flowing Waters Hula School), which has started fifteen local hula schools around the world including in Oahu, Kauai, Northern California, Utah, Montana, Tahiti, Japan, and New Zealand. The Kiwi group is affiliated with the Pasifika Sway Polynesian Dance Theatre Company in Auckland.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Kiwi hula group, Kuma Hula Blaine brought dancers from the Ka Laua’e Foundation to Auckland to join Kiwi dancers in hula performances at the Pasifika Festival in Auckland, appearing on the Festival’s International Stage.
This year was the 20th anniversary of the Pasifika Festival, which is now Auckland’s biggest annual free event. (More than 100,000 spectators attended this year.) The Ka Laua’e Foundation represented our Aloha State alongside groups from nine other Pacific cultures including Samoa, Fiji, Tokelau, Kiribati, Tahiti, and Tuvalu.
The Americans felt right at home. Given America’s vast size and great diversity, it’s sometimes easy for non-Americans to forget that the United States is a Pacific nation. Hawai’i lies near the heart of the Pacific Ocean. More American coastline touches Pacific waters than that of any other country. American territory is closer to Samoa and to the Asian mainland than is New Zealand.
And of course, President Obama was born in Hawai’i, making him our first Pacific Island President. (For the record, I believe that our only other President thus far to be born west of the Rocky Mountains was Richard Nixon, born in Yorba Linda, California, just a few minutes drive from the ocean.)
Over the coming months I’ll talk more about our Pacific programs at the Embassy. In future years we’ll hopefully see a fully-fledged Hawaiian Village at the Pasifika Festival, supported by NZ-based Hawaiian communities plus local enthusiasts who, thanks to Pacific Sway and the Kuma Hula, have been bitten by the hula bug.