Category Archives: Music and Dance

31 Days of Life in my Hawaii Day 30:: Music and Dance: Ka Himeni Ana

Most of my associations with Hawaiian music have to do with dance — hula — but I want you to know that in fact some of the most beautiful Hawaiian music is choral music: sung, but not danced to.

The Hawaiian word for song, himeni, is actually a derivative of the English word “hymn.” Most Hawaiian music today has evolved, melodically, from church music and church traditions of choral singing.

In this vein, there exists a wonderful showcase for Hawaiian choral music, which is a song contest that has been going on for close to 30 years: Ka Himeni Ana. And the Coach and I were delighted to be present at this year’s event.

My favorite group: Ala`eli. photocredit: Ka Himeni Ana

The most wonderful thing about it, in my opinion, is that the entire show is “unplugged” — indeed the whole point of it is for the musician-contestants to perform without amplification.

So what you’re watching and hearing are, according to the program, “amateur Hawaiian music groups performing in the ‘nahenahe‘ style, the distinctive Hawaiian music form that features sweet vocal harmony supported by unamplified acoustic instruments.”

(My Hawaiian dictionary defines nahenahe thus: “Soft, sweet, melodious, as music or a gentle voice; soft, as fine cloth; softly blowing, as a gentle breeze; gentle-mannered, soft-spoken, suave.”)

The program notes go on to say: “The world is now overwhelmed with far too much loud noise. We are bombarded by so many noxious sounds today that we seldom experience the joy of listening. It is not necessary to force music on others with loud speakers, for if singing has quality, people will become quiet and listen. No other sounds in the world are more beautiful than natural human voices, and excellence commands attention. Because we often forget the style of music that came before, this contest is intended to provide a balance in the music offered in our islands today.” [emphasis added]

There in the historic and exquisite setting of the Hawai`i Theatre, adorned with what seemed like a whole forest of fragrant white ginger, we became quiet and listened. It was a treat for all the senses.

Here’s the winning group from 2011:

This is the thirtieth post in my series, 31 Days of Life in my Hawaii. Click here to get the links to the other posts in the series.

31 Days of Life in my Hawaii Day 23:: Music and Dance: Wedding hula

In our Western culture, most people dance at their weddings.

You know, the bride dances with her dad, and there’s the traditional “first dance,” where the bride dances with the groom.

Here in Hawaii, the bride dances for her groom. In previous posts when I’ve talked about the various contexts of hula, I haven’t yet mentioned this one: hula as a gift to someone. In this case, as the bride’s gift to her husband.

I’m not sure how or when this tradition got started, but it’s more or less expected at the majority of Hawaiian wedding receptions that the bride will dance a hula. Even if she was never much of a serious dancer — but absolutely a must if she ever was — a bride will select a love song and learn a dance just for the occasion.

Not only did I dance for The Coach at our wedding (twice, actually, because we had a second reception in California for our mainland friends and family), but I’ve also had the honor of choreographing and teaching a wedding hula to other brides.

You might think that it puts a certain stress on the poor bride, who has enough on her plate as it is, what with all the wedding planning stuff weighing her down, to have to be learning and practicing a whole hula in the weeks before the big event.

That’s true, but I can tell you as a bride, there’s no greater privilege on your wedding day than to dance for your husband. And as a guest, to watch love on display in a wedding hula is one of the most touching and lovely ways you will ever see hula performed.

Here’s an assignment for you: Go to YouTube and search on “wedding hula,” then watch two or three of the more than 2,000 videos that people have posted of brides dancing a special hula for their grooms.

Then try not to be moved to tears by this unique communication of love. I dare you.

Dancing at my wedding

This is the twenty-third post in my series, 31 Days of Life in my Hawaii. Click here to get the links to the other posts in the series.

31 Days of Life in my Hawaii Day 16:: Music and Dance: Merrie Monarch

Every April here in Hawaii, we have what some call the Olympics of hula: the Merrie Monarch festival.

It’s not an altogether accurate analogy, however. “Olympics” calls to mind fierce competition and going for the gold and all that. While Merrie Monarch is a multi-day, competitive event, because it’s deeply ingrained in and an embodiment of the Hawaiian culture, it is, as you might expect, all about the aloha.

Anyway, this event is a celebration of the art of hula that has been going on in Hilo, Hawaii for close to 50 years now. It derives its name from one of our last kings, King Kalakaua, who was known as “the Merrie Monarch,” because he was credited with bringing hula back into favor in Hawaii, after the Christian missionaries had banned its practice.

He is also credited with saying something that has become the motto of the Merrie Monarch festival: “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” Isn’t that beautiful?

The hula competition part of Merrie Monarch has always been broadcast on local television, and nowadays with live streaming video, thousands around the world tune in to watch dancers, both solo and in groups known as halau, or hula schools, compete to be the best in ancient and modern styles of hula.

My daughter and her hula sisters backstage at Merrie Monarch

So it’s something I tune in to watch every year, and four years ago was lucky enough to be there in person to watch my daughter compete. In some ways you get a better view of things watching on TV, but when you’re there, it’s quite the sensory experience: the fragrance of hundreds of flower leis, the luscious music performed by noted Hawaiian artists, even the chilly Hilo night air in the open-air stadium.

I couldn’t find a clip of my daughter’s halau when she was with them in 2008, but here’s part of what they did this year:

This is the sixteenth post in my series, 31 Days of Life in my Hawaii. Click here to get the links to the other posts in the series.

31 Days of Life in my Hawaii Day 9:: Music and Dance: May Day

Every year on May 1st, we have May Day, which is Lei Day in Hawaii.

(There’s even a song we sing, helpfully titled “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii.” )

Along with being about the giving and receiving of leis, Lei Day is a celebration of Hawaiian culture. A celebration which would be incomplete without Hawaiian music and hula. On Lei Day this takes the form, in most island schools, of hula pageants.

Being dancers, my daughter and I grew up loving and looking forward to participating in Lei Day  pageants, starting in kindergarten and going all the way up through senior year in high school.

I love to watch the little ones

In elementary school, all the students participate. Each grade level learns and performs — either in the gym or out on the playing field — one hula, so you have a nice little program with several numbers. And there will be a “royal court,” made up of princesses (eight of them, representing each of the major islands) and a king and queen.

Princesses in the middle school pageant

In middle school and high school, the royal court part stays the same, but the student dancers have to audition to be a part of the pageant. And it gets a little more elaborate, not to mention colorful, with more emphasis on costuming and decorations, and maybe a specific theme for the songs and dances that are included in the program.

The Queen always dances a solo

Aside from it being just a lot of fun to wear all those fragrant flowers and get up and dance in front of a whole bunch of your family and friends, a Lei Day pageant is a great way to pass on the culture to the next generation. My kids are long since out of school, but come May 1st, you can bet I’ll be at the Lei Day program!

This is the ninth post in my series, 31 Days of Life in my Hawaii. Click here to get the links to the other posts in the series.

31 Days of Life in my Hawaii Day 2:: Music and dance: Hula

As much as “iconic” is a somewhat overused term these days, I think we can agree that the hula dancer is the iconic image of Hawaii.

Admit it: when I first said I’d be spending this month talking about Hawaii, an image of a hula dancer probably popped into your head.

And for me, as for you, hula IS Hawaii, and vice versa. This part of Hawaiian life is so big, so personal, so meaningful for me that I scarcely know where to begin.

I was 7 or 8 here, at a performance at the Kapiolani Bandstand

Here’s my experience with hula in a nutshell: I started taking hula lessons when I was four years old. Over 50 years later, I still do. In between, I’ve learned and performed dozens, maybe hundreds, of dances, watched countless performances, danced in hula competitions, missed it something awful while living on the mainland, passed on my love of the dance to my daughter.

So I guess you could say that hula has been and is a big part of my life. I love everything about it: the sweet melodies of the songs I’ve danced to, the charming poetry of the lyrics, the unique and sometimes challenging footwork of the steps, the graceful hand motions that tell the story, the subtle but eloquent facial expressions — all of which, taken together, make for a truly unique art form.

I plan to post some more about hula performances and competitions in the islands as we go through this month, to give you an idea of the significance of the dance in our lives here. I myself don’t perform anymore, and my competition days are long since behind me.

But tomorrow night I’ll join my hula brothers and sisters, as I do every Wednesday, at our hula class and — for the sheer joy of it — we’ll dance to our old favorites. Because hula is a part of me, and I don’t ever want to stop dancing.

This is the second post in my series, 31 Days of Life in my Hawaii. Click here to get the links to the other posts in the series.