Hawaiian culture, language are center stage at new Waikiki dinner show

Tovin Lapan

Kuuipo Kumukahi, known as the “Sweetheart of Hawaiian Music,” typically has a packed schedule. In addition to her performance calendar, the award-winning Hawaiian musician is also the head of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki’s Hookela Hawaiian Cultural Center.

But when the pandemic struck and concerts and visitors vanished from the Islands for more than six months, Kumukahi had a chance to think about building for the future and how she could use her influence to bolster Hawaiian language, music and culture.

“We were sort of in a holding pattern when the pandemic hit and looking for ways to be productive and support the community,” Kumukahi said. “While there are lots of songs about Hawaii that are written in the English language, we wanted this project and initiative to focus on the Hawaiian language portion.”

Kumukahi tapped into her network of musicians and community leaders to help form a new organization that would support traditional Hawaiian music and dance. The result was the Hawaiian Music Perpetuation Society, a volunteer effort that came together during the pandemic shutdown and formally launched in October 2020. The HMPS mission is to preserve, promote and perpetuate mele Hawaii, or songs and poems in the Hawaiian language, and has already managed to hold a variety of concerts and performances.

In October, the HMPS helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, a federal measure that set aside land to be returned to Native Hawaiians and brought some cheer to communities still living under strict social distancing regulations by rounding up some musicians to perform with Kumukahi from the back of a pick-up truck rigged with a speaker. More recently, the HMPS organized concerts in Waikiki that were geared toward Hawaiian elders (kupuna) called Na Kupuna Nights.

Now, with tourists once again filling the sidewalks and beaches of Waikiki, the HMPS has partnered with the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa to offer a dinner show focused on songs in Olelo Hawaii, the Hawaiian language.

From the very title of the event, Paina Waikiki O Hula, they sought to distinguish it from other dinner shows aimed at Hawaii visitors. Paina is a traditional Hawaiian word for feast, and the word “luau” originally referred to a particular dish served at the feasts but started to replace paina as the word for such food-centric gatherings in the mid-19th century.

Luaus in Hawaii have a history of mixing up various Polynesian cultures and traditions into a nebulous mash. Fire knife dances, while a popular spectacle, are traced back to Samoa, and Hawaiians had few metal tools or weapons of any kind until European ships started arriving in the 18th century.

Kumukahi, whose first solo album garnered nine nominations and five wins at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards (often called the “Grammy’s of Hawaiian Music”), leads the performances and provides important context on the songs for the audience. Additionally, each show includes a hula performance from the Halau Hawaii Aloha under the leadership of Kumu Hula Karen Kaaohulani Aiu.

Kumukahi is accompanied on stage by steel guitar player Isaac “Doc” Akuna and bass player Danny Kiaha. One Hawaiian contribution to music is the modern steel guitar, which was conceived and popularized in Hawaii, credited to Joseph Kekuku of Oahu who first developed the particular style of play in the late 19th century with the guitar in a horizontal position across the knees and using a bar instead of fingers to work the fretboard.

For Kumukahi, the HMPS and the performances are all part of an effort to better represent the real Hawaiian culture to visitors.

“This is what our people have been doing for hundreds of years, it is part of our traditions and culture,” Kumukahi said. “Because we didn’t have written language, Hawaiians composed poems and songs to memorize and remember places, people and events.”

Guests also enjoy a three-course dinner prepared by Shor Restaurant, including a first-course salad made with locally grown vegetables and fruits, a second course of either slow-roasted prime rib or seafood lau lau and dessert trio featuring coconut creme brulee, an ulu (breadfruit) chocolate mousse and fresh papaya and pineapple.

Kumukahi has chosen songs that tell the story of Waikiki, dating back to when it was a marsh-covered vacation spot for Hawaiian royalty, and the larger history of the archipelago. Sometimes she offers context before the song, or she will translate the Hawaiian lyrics into English mid-song.

“For a long time Hawaii, has been marketed as this fantasy land of beautiful beaches and tropical delights, but that is not all of who we are,” she said. “People think Waikiki represents Hawaii. It does not. We want to create the bridge so people can learn about the real history, the real culture of the Hawaiian people. I think by doing it in Hawaiian it can be more impactful in showing who and what is Hawaii.”

For example, Kumukahi said, many Polynesian-style luau shows have presented hula with music but no lyrics.

“There is no hula with just drums,” she said. “Hula needs language, because it is an interpretive dance. The body is interpreting the words.”

HMPS executive director Jeninne Heleloa said the vast majority of people who come through the Hookela Hawaiian Cultural Center know very little about Hawaii history and delivering the lessons through a mellifluous voice means they land with more impact.

“Kuuipo always mentions the connection, a triangle, between the composer, musician, and audience. And with her delivery, her beautiful voice, she draws you in,” Heleloa said. “I think a lot of people have this impression of the hula from Hollywood without a lot of the context and meaning. These performances show how much deeper and richer than that it really is.”

There are plans to organize volunteer activities in the community, including helping in taro fields or restoring fish ponds.

They have plans to use some of Kumukahi’s land on the Island of Hawaii, which has been in her family for more than 170 years, as a place to bring visitors for lessons and presentations on traditional Hawaiian life.

“There are a lot more things to come. Hawaii music is woven into the fabric of our communities and permeates everything. We’re focused on giving people the opportunity to experience authentic mele Hawaii,” Heleloa said. “We want to ignite this paradigm shift. If we don’t tell our story, then someone else will, and it will be people making stuff up. It is our kuleana (responsibility) to make sure it gets out.”

The first Paina O Waikiki Hula was held July 8, and the event is running every Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach. Tickets start at $129 for guests 12 years and older, $79 for children ages 4 to 12 and $20 for all children younger than 4 years old.

“I compare it to lau lau, the pork wrapped up in leaves and cooked,” Kumukahi said. “All of Waikiki is the leaf, covering the real Hawaii, and we want to be like the moment when you open it up and get to the meat, the real thing. We want to be that meat that goes down, fills you up and is so satisfying.”

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