Transmitting hula knowledge: currency and kuleana
It’s a cool Friday evening in December and, as the lavender twilight steals away, I join a group of 40 or so to gather at a long hālau (hall) at the Hawai‘i Community College campus in Hilo, Hawai‘i. The older folks take the chairs, while most of us sit on the floor along both walls of the hālau. The group has congregated to bear witness to an ‘ūniki: a traditional knowledge transmission ceremony practiced by hula hālau (schools) since the artform was mythically transmitted to mankind by the goddess Laka (in some traditions, both Laka and Kapo). The ‘ūniki ceremony is a way for the kumu hula (teacher) to formally sever ties with the haumāna (students) who have amassed the requisite amount of ‘ike (knowledge) relevant to the practice of hula to now, perhaps, become teachers themselves.
After the guests settle into the hālau, the ceremony begins. Nine students line up outside the hālau to deliver an oli komo (chant of beckoning). To invite them in, kumu hula Taupōuri Tangarō chants back his oli kāhea (chant of calling). Tangarō, now seated at the front wall, begins to chant and drum while the students begin to dance, migrating across the floor from the entrance to the spaces between the rows of seated audience members.
At one end of the hālau, between rows of onlookers, a table rests at a diagonal, surrounded by carefully selected plants positioned with the utmost care and consideration. On the table, wrapped in goldenrod kapa cloth, sits a weighty, squat, asymmetrical piece of wood called a kuahu. This piece of wood will act as a conduit to channel the essence of Laka herself.
Following their entrance dance, the students line up and, moving as one, pivot to their left and take a knee. Preparations are made to activate the kuahu. The dancers, following Tangarō’s lead, perform a series of oli and ho‘okupu (offerings) that announce the kuahu’s readiness as a vessel into which the goddess may enter. After delivering their chants and offerings, Tangarō unsheathes the wood, and the kuahu is transformed into an inviting receptacle for the deity’s presence.
As if to further entice Laka, the dancing resumes, this time with heightened zeal and enthusiasm. As the first dance ends, the second begins without delay; the pattern continues until the dancers are damp with sweat and the air in the hālau is warm from the physical exertion. After a dozen or so consecutive hula, the students show no signs of tiring, but Tangarō gives them a break as he stands and offers his own set of hula.
After their kumu finishes his set, the students stand once more to complete one last category of hula before the ‘ūniki comes to a close. Their last hula ma‘i—a chant celebrating fertility—leaves the audience with a lightness that is welcome after the solemnity and intensity of the previous dances. To release the students from the kapu (restrictions) the kuahu demands, they deliver their last pule ho‘onoa (prayer to end a taboo) as a way to unburden themselves—their behavior is no longer conducted for the placation of the deities. As the last pule is offered, the weight of the air noticeably lifts, and the audience silently cheers its approval.
“For me, the ‘ūniki process is a rare opportunity to delve into divine teachings,” says Kapua Ka‘au‘a, a haumāna who fulfilled the ‘ūniki ceremony under Tangarō’s tutelage in 2014. “Hula and the kuahu establish a strong foundation by allowing me to gauge the physical and metaphysical worlds appropriately. It becomes a guide book that allows me to ritualize not only the natural, but also the social climate, for we must engage in both.”
“There are many descriptors defining hula, but one that is rarely understood is the fact that hula is a transmitting culture,” says kumu hula and award-winning musician Keali‘i Reichel. “Every hālau has entered into the cycle of transferring and receiving hula, her knowledge and her experiences. This is by ancient design to insure the longevity of the culture.”
Fundamental to Reichel’s hula is the tradition of Pekelo Day, a prodigy of the 1970s from Ke‘anae, Maui. Day, in turn, had learned from kumu hula Edith and Pualani Kanaka‘ole, as well as from George Holokai. Holokai, in turn, was trained in the hula traditions of Lilian Maka‘ena and Tom Hiona. In 2013, Reichel began imparting a selection of hula to Tangarō and a few other dancers. The lineage of various hula traditions, passed down generation to generation and validated through the ‘ūniki ceremony, is crucial to the survival of hula culture in all its forms.
“To transmit the hula is to entrust our ancestors to another,” says Reichel. “This is a profound transmittance.”
I’m lost in thought on my drive back from the ‘ūniki. I must acknowledge the lens and maturity through which I view hula and its practice at this point in my life. Just as importantly, though, I wonder about the differences between this ‘ūniki and the others I have witnessed before. This was the first time I had attended an ‘ūniki that made a point to engage the spiritual dimension of hula culture by creating, activating and caring for a kuahu before, during, and after the ceremony. Other hula graduations I had previously attended neither included a kuahu nor acknowledged its importance.
Like other traditional Hawaiian ceremonies, the goal of the ‘ūniki is to appease the deity to whom the ceremony is directed. Laka is the goddess of hula, and of the rejuvenating energy that sustains the forest. This is the reason for the carefully selected foliage: maile, ‘ōhi‘a lehua, halapepe, ‘ie‘ie, ‘ōhi‘a ‘ai, koki‘o, hau, mai‘a, kī, ‘ilima, palapalai and lama. These plants make the goddess feel welcome and at home. And her presence with us on that night in Hilo was measured intuitively.
Throughout my learning and practice of hula, which spans almost a decade and a half, I have begun to understand the kuahu in both its literal and figurative senses. It is a piece of lama wood, an ebony tree native to Hawaiian forests whose nature, appearance and actual name (which means enlightenment) have imbued it with symbolism relevant to the acquisition of ‘ike. The kuahu, whether recalled in thought or beheld in sight, seems otherworldly, peculiar and shrouded in mystery.
Given its symbolism, the kuahu is a central component of hula culture, weighed primarily on the religious or spiritual dimension of the tradition and artform. This is a side that is often overlooked in the popular recreational or aesthetic function hula often fulfills today. Essentially, then, the absence of this dimension at an ‘ūniki speaks to the larger, current reality of hula practice and preservation, which probably prioritizes the aesthetic value of hula over its spiritual purpose.
For most kumu hula in Hawai‘i, placing more value on the aesthetic side of hula makes it no less authentic. In fact, this may actually allow for a greater focus on other cultural areas, such as ‘ōlelo, mele, mo‘olelo and a Hawaiian value system, as well as on costuming, implement-making, and other aspects of material culture that are just as meaningful as part of a Hawaiian way of being. But with so few hālau passing down the spiritual ‘ike of hula through their lineage, I worry that we are losing touch with an important cultural purpose hula serves.
Kumu Tangarō sums up the importance of this very purposeful transmission: “A personal truth is that when I dance the oldest dances I know, I see very far into the future. Therefore, an opportunity to learn an old dance is an opportunity to dream, to clarify, to practice, to assess my current contributions to the future.”
Currency and Kuleana
These days, learning hula is easier than ever. Online, Hawaiian music retailer and distributor mele.com lists more than 300 hālau and hula studios worldwide. A simple YouTube search will help you learn to dance all the lū‘au classics without ever leaving your home. For a minimal fee, committed students can even earn a certificate to teach hula through an online accreditation process.
Dovetailing with Hawai‘i’s allure as a vacation destination, hula is instantly recognizable as Hawaiian, or at least Polynesian. Hawaiian culture and knowledge is spread thin, far and wide. It is celebrated internationally, facilitated by global communication, and imparted across dozens of cultures. But how is the popularity of hula changing it? What does hula mean when it is performed thousands of miles away from Hawai‘i and taught by people who may never have visited? In what way does the contemporary, international, transcultural and virtual preservation of hula challenge its own origins, ideas and objectives?
Beyond the rhetoric that brings the ideological components of hula into question, Hawai‘i-based kumu hula and haumāna are faced with decisions about taking hula outside of Hawai‘i as a way to make a living. The irony that hula is often more lucrative abroad than it is here deserves careful consideration and within a framework of global economics, commercialization and commodification.
Without getting swept up in theoretical discussion about the transformation of hula through its international fame, we can at least be hopeful about its celebration in Hawai‘i and, more importantly, the way it survives from teacher to student in each successive generation.
“With the transmittance of ‘ike comes a commitment to dance hula beyond the walls of our schools,” comments Reichel. “To dance a particular hula is to keep alive all the kūpuna (ancestors) and their experiences, which are encoded in the lyrics, postures, gestures, ‘a‘ahu (costuming) and instructional processes of hula.”
For some people, hula is an extracurricular activity that makes a few hours of exercise a bit more enjoyable. For others, hula starts as a hobby and evolves into a sense of belonging to something greater. Sometimes, hula becomes a way to define the self. The various meanings hula holds for different people have paved the way to its widespread popularity. While hula’s acclaim may speak to the success of its transmission, and while we may have to accept the inevitability of its evolution, we should be aware of the implications this bears, without overlooking the kuleana (responsibility) that hula bestows upon its practitioners.
For every one hālau that bears the kuleana of maintaining a kuahu during hula ceremonies, there are a dozen that do not. For every kumu hula who requires face-to-face instruction before carefully assessing each haumāna’s worthiness to participate or not in the ‘uniki process, there are 50 who will issue an online kumu hula certification to 20 paying students who have attended a distance learning seminar for a minimum of 200 hours. This contrast should not be overlooked as it represents a sort of microcosm for the broader struggle to preserve indigenous culture while also staying flexible enough to survive, and even thrive, in a world very different than that of our ancestors.
Says Reichel, “As we hurl ourselves into this new century, these older dances—with their imagery, emotion, prescribed movements and motif—keep us grounded as we pour the ‘ike and emotion of our kūpuna into the next generation and generations yet to come, grounding them in the old and thickening the tendrils of connectivity to the ancients so they may live again.”