Ancestral Memory

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole spent his 16th birthday onstage at Carnegie Hall, singing backup for his mother, Kekuhi Kanahele. It was an unforgettable experience, he says, but not for the usual reasons. In the midst of his family’s big moment, he fled the stage, was publicly embarrassed, and sat weeping in the wings.

“I was unruly and rebellious,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in singing. I was only 16.” His mother, wearing a vintage, 1940s holokū [long Hawaiian dress with a train] with her long hair swept up, was singing “Don’t Cry ‘Oe,” a Hawaiian lullaby that went on to win a prestigious Nā Hōkū Hanohano award (Hawai‘i’s top music award) as best Hawaiian composition of the year.

“I was in the wings watching my mother, and in that moment, I saw her power,” recalls the now-28-year-old hula, chant and music phenomenon. “There she was, a tiny woman on a big stage, pouring her heart into a song from my great-grandmother. In her native language, she sang in front of almost 3,000 people who didn’t understand Hawaiian. Her presence was so powerful it commanded their attention and made them listen. I didn’t know how or why, but I wanted to make that a part of my life.” The epiphany, he recalled, made him determined to take tradition to another level.

After three albums, five Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, and a lifetime on the stage with Hālau o Kekuhi, a revered, seven-generation hula school in Hilo, Kanaka‘ole is in full command of his destiny. The youngest choreographer in the hālau, he is the oldest of his generation in the family and its fourth-generation recording artist. A gifted chanter and performer of kahiko, the ancient form of hula, since the age of 7, he wrote his first chant at 9 years old and his first song at 13. A year later he taught his first chant class, to students who were mostly older than him. He has studied jazz, ballet, modern dance, samba and opera, in which he trained as a countertenor, and he merges these eclectic interests with his rigorous hula disciplines. His great-grandmother, the late Edith Kanaka‘ole; grandmother, Pualani Kanahele; mother, Kekuhi Kanahele; and aunt, Nālani Kanaka‘ole—each one a kumu hula—make up the latest generations of a powerful, uninterrupted, matriarchal legacy that has transformed our understanding of Hawaiian culture.

And he is very much in demand as a stage performer throughout Hawai‘i, the mainland and Japan. As for his ritual chanting, he considers it as much a
kuleana—responsibility—as familial duty. While empowered by the Kanaka‘ole legacy, he also has a gregarious, humorous side that makes him more accessible. And he is brilliantly theatrical. He will break into song in mid-sentence. His radar is sweeping and precise, detecting the slightest nuance, movement or inauthentic detail across a crowded room. If not in private conversation, he’ll reveal these razor-sharp observations onstage, as he did at a First Friday performance at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum. His parody of a syrupy Hawaiian lounge singer was knowing, affectionate and devastatingly funny, as if delivered with a wink.

This awareness is a product of hula practice as well as his DNA. One moment he is singing Hawaiian falsetto, the next moment he is chanting from deep, deep in his gut, calling up his ancestors. A master of surprise, he leaned back after a spectacular dinner at Maui’s Star Noodle restaurant, grinned broadly, and proclaimed, “That was so ‘
ono: a ho‘olaule‘a [celebration] in the mouth!” The next day he was the youngest speaker at Celebration of the Arts, a top Hawaiian cultural event, displaying impressive scholarship and chanting to an audience in awe.

“Our
kūpuna [elders or ancestors] are keen observers,” he said. “They’re people of the ocean, people of the mountain, people of the forest. ... My grandmother, Pua, said that you must be able to deconstruct in order to reconstruct. Identify your land base and you can identify your practice. It’s not what I can do to save the forest; it’s what the forest is telling me.”

His albums build bridges, rooted in Hawaiian chant, vocals and instrumentation, yet always pushing the creative envelope. The style of dancing is low to the ground, called ‘
aiha‘a, a bent-knee stance related to the eruptive power of the volcano and its goddess, Pele. Vocally and stylistically, lyrically and musically, his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother are unmistakably present in his work. Traditional hula implements, such as ipu (gourd), the pahu drum, and small stones, called ‘ili‘ili, as well as the cello, piano, steel guitar and harmonica, add texture and richness to the poetry of his lyrics. In his next CD, he plans to include the Celtic harp and didgeridoo. The result is world music, music grounded in his Hawaiian roots yet inclusive and groundbreaking. Says his mother, Kekuhi Kanahele, “He definitely has a style for his time.”

“Some people have come to me inspired, saying, ‘This is where we can take Hawaiian music, keeping within the confines of tradition yet giving it a much more worldly sound,’” he says. “It pains me to hear my generation saying, ‘Oh, Hawaiian music is for old people,’ or ‘Hawaiian music is a thing of the past,’ or ‘‘It’s only for hula.’ I say no: We have our own Hawaiian music.’”

After the death of his grandfather, Kanaka‘ole became
hanai-ed (adopted) by his grandmother, Pua, and charged with the responsibility of carrying on their cultural work. “It meant that I am no longer only my mother’s eldest son, but I am also my grandmother’s child,” he explained. The family agreed to a name change, from Lopaka (Hawaiian for Robert) to Kaumakaiwa, and from Kanahele, his father’s name, to Kanaka‘ole, his mother’s matriarchal name. “Kau is ‘to place upon, or to carry, to rise,” he explained. “Also, kau is an older word for an older chant. Makaiwa means “mother-of-pearl.” Carved images of the Hawaiian gods often have eyes made of mother-of-pearl. The connotation, he said, is “to have the foresight and ancestral intellect to see through the eyes of the ancestors.”

He points to his grandmother, now his hanai mother, as his greatest teacher. “Sometimes I get a little ahead of myself. My grandmother encourages that. She says, never, ever doubt yourself, and never doubt your Hawaiianness. The conviction that you have in your
na‘au [gut]—it’s not just a hunch, not just a feeling; it’s instinct, it’s ancestral memory.” When the soul of the past presents itself, he says, “I find I’m a vessel for so many things.”

It means staying grounded in his Hawaiianness while also doing what artists do: create and entertain. An old soul in a young body, he says emphatically: “We don’t have an excuse. All the resources are available to us. As long as you have a pulse, you have an obligation.”