Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Connections Between Things: Gary Y. Okihiro, Ledward Kaapana, and the Centrality of Hawaiian Culture

As a child I had a wooden puzzle of the United States. My parents thought it important for me to know the states and their capitols. I can still feel the edges of the pieces, so much more sturdy than those of most jigsaw puzzles. But the puzzle was incomplete; there were only 48 wooden states to fit within the bounds of the United States. I remember wondering why Alaska and Hawai`i were painted on the left side of the puzzle, shoe-horned next to California. Hawai`i, like its off-shore mate, was abstract rather than tactile, a representation of a representation of a state rather than a three dimensional object. I have since learned that most maps of the USA misplace Hawai`i, which is too far away from the continent to be given its rightful place in the Pacific Ocean.

Next month will mark my 20th anniversary as a resident of this state; it will also mark the 50th anniversary of statehood, a state still fraught for many, who wish Hawai`i had not joined the "union." There is still a question of agency; who wanted statehood, and for what? These questions and their answers are often very different in Hawai`i than they are outside Hawai`i. But the impress of the continent, its power to abstract Hawai`i, is still considerable. Hawai`i is still considered a synonym of "vacation" to much of the country, and its very real problems (militarization, over-development, methamphetamine use, etc.) ignored as blots on a happy fantasy.

Gary Y. Okihiro's Island World: A History of Hawai`i and the United States reverses the typical historical narrative in which the United States acts on Hawai`i, which remains a passive receptacle for tourism, the military, and an outward directed economy. In his introduction, Okihiro writes, "Instead of the customary narrative of the United States acting upon Hawai`i, I present the Islands' press against the continent, causing it to move and endowing it, accordingly with historical meaning. In this version of the past, Hawai`i is the center that, in its circuits, stirs and animates the United States" (2). While Okihiro's subjects (like the missionaries) are often deeply involved in this circuit, taking what they have learned in Hawai`i and adopting it on the continent, Okihiro is also attentive to what is most particular (I will not say authentic) about Hawai`i, namely its culture.

I was drawn to "Poetry in Motion," the sixth chapter of Island World, where Okihiro writes about Hawaiian music and its influence on the continent. I had just read George Kanahele's marvelous encyclopedia, Hawaiian Music and Musicians: An Illustrated History (1979), on which Okihiro bases some of his narrative. So I was aware that Hawaiian music has traveled the globe since at least the early 20th century. (There were "Hawaiian" musicians in England and in The Netherlands, among other places, a century ago, picking up what they could from Polynesian travelers and from 78s.) Where Kanahele's book (which he edited and wrote large portions of) is exciting in part because it was published during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, which brought Hawaiian culture and language back from the brink, Okihiro's less Hawai`i-centered history is exciting for what it tells us about the influence of Hawaiian musicians on music that is not Hawaiian. So, for example, while Kanahele's book devotes a lot of attention to the history of the steel guitar and its introduction to Hawai`i, Okihiro writes about how African American musicians adopted the steel guitar (played on the musician's lap) for the blues. "It is . . . likely that the Hawaiian steel guitar influenced bottleneck blues north of the Delta from the 1910s through 1930s as touring musicians performed Hawaiian renditions at Chautauquas, at fairs, and in vaudeville" (199).

There is a racial/racist history here, too, as early Hawaiian music was marketed as "coon songs." But, as Okihiro points out, "like the hula, 'hula blues' points to the resistances posed by Hawaiians and African Americans in popular culture to the vulgar cartoons of them as 'weak tropical races'--idle, ignorant, but happy and given to dance and song" (195). Surprising, then, is the equally strong alliance between Hawaiian and white country music, which Okihiro also elucidates. Many country musicians, born and raised in places like Ohio and Texas, performed Hawaiian music as well as hillbilly music, and also played the guitar Hawaiian style. Okihiro leaves this reader persuaded that American music is nearly as Hawaiian as it is African American or Appalachian.

Over a decade ago, I attended a concert by Cyril Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana at the Music Department at UHM. It was a formal affair; the two musicians sat on stage and the audience sat a few feet below them. Pahinui, one of the sons of the legendary Gabby Pahinui (whose music I heard on NPR circa 1993 as I drove through Maine), was clearly an amazing musician. But it was Led Kaapana who impressed me the most. I heard Deepak Chopra say of Michael Jackson a week or two ago that he entered a state of ecstasy when he performed. That would be how I might describe Led's performance that night (and on this video). Led laughed and horsed around, at one point playing the guitar behind his head at full virtuoso speed--he is a ukelele virtuoso, as well.

The other night my husband and I went to the Kona Brewing Company on the waterfront in Hawai`i Kai to hear Led again. I now have a "Led Head" teeshirt to prove it. Where Led now travels the world, playing Hawaiian music to audiences in Virginia, Seattle, and Europe on a regular basis (living out Gary Okihiro's thesis), here he played for family and friends. The only tourists there were there by accident, but most of those at the bar displayed the utmost volition in being there. Led gave the "stage" over for a while to a group of young people, including a young boy who carried something that resembled a bow (he didn't play it). But after a break, he came back with Mike Kaawa and began a rollicking set that we had to exit from (children at home, you know).

[Ledward Kaapana, center, Mike Kaawa to his left]

A lot of Hawaiian music is played for tourists in hotels in Waikiki, and even in the Hilo airport lounge, where we heard an excellent trio play (kanikipila) with two hula dancers this past Friday as we awaited our overdue Go! flight. (The singer kept saying "we want to aloha you," a phrase I had never heard before.)

[musicians in the Hilo Airport]

Aunty Genoa
(to provide just one example) played for years in Waikiki. But the Hawaiian Renaissance, while it's had side benefits for tourists who yearn for more than the beach, has had a more significant impact on Hawai`i's culture and politics. As Gary Okihiro argues, what happens in Hawai`i also matters deeply to the rest of the country, whether or not (likely not) people there know it. Okihiro has performed a great service by bringing hidden histories to the surface, showing us how considering Hawai`i as the center of the narrative, rather than its periphery, can benefit the art of history and our larger senses of American and Hawaiian cultures.


Jill said...

What a long overdue book...Gary Okihiro, huh. I'm off to the library.

susan said...

I have a copy, too, if you can't find in the library.

Anonymous said...

Book is at almost every UH library, see:

susan said...

As I look back on this post, I realize it was my 19th anniversary, not the 20th. Math was never my strong suit, I guess.