Monday, April 24, 2006

May Day

May Day is a big holiday in the Hawaiian Islands. The saying is that “May Day is Lei Day”, and it really held true. There was a May Day pageant at our school, and the theme was “It’s a Small World”. Every class had to put on a presentation of song and dance for its chosen country or culture. The second grade did Korea, and the third grade did Germany. I had the sixth grade and we did Hawaii because one of the class mothers in my class was a kumu hula, or a teacher of the traditional cultural ways in the Islands. She knew that I taught the kids a new Hawaiian word per week and that I was interested in learning about the culture in which I found myself. She thought it was a good thing, and thought that it was good for the kids too.

We took time out of each day for a month in preparation for the pageant. We had to acquire and perfect the traditional costume of our culture and we had to get the dance down pat with the music. I had never tried to hula before. My hula experience began and ended with a plastic hoop. I did know, however, that the hula is the oral tradition of the Polynesian people, with music and movement included. It truly carries the heart of the culture with it. In the distant past, though, there were many hulas that were lascivious in nature, and it caused a conservative reaction by the missionaries who tried to extinguish it. In response to the religious reaction, the Hawaiian people were, and perhaps still are, in the throes of a vital resurgence of the culture that includes a devolution movement.

The kids insisted that I practice the dance with them. I was a very involved and interested teacher, and I promised to practice with them but not to dance in the pageant, and they agreed. This is how I came to learn my first, and only, hula. The story was that of the goddess Pele’s sister, Hi’iaka being caught between the worlds of men and gods. It is a poignant story. Pele is the goddess of fire, but really she is the goddess of the volcanoes that create the world- without volcanoes there would be no earth in the middle of the Pacific. Hi’iaka is the goddess of some things, but in this hula she represents the flowering forest at the breast of the volcano- there is a question whether she is Pele’s sister or daughter here, and if you care for further elucidation I suggest you read up on it (Hi’iaka was brought to Hawaii from Tahiti as an egg, and … it goes on). For the purpose of this tradition, the forest is in the embrace of the volcano, making the connection between the volcano and the ocean, where Maui lives. The ocean provides for the people, and the forest provides for the people by producing kalo and pigs, and the volcano has the power to both create and destroy. Above the volcano is the endless sky, which represents eternity. Hi’iaka intercedes for the people in her charge with her angry sister Pele and binds the culture to the land in a covenant not unfamiliar to Westerners.

The music was percussive because it contained only instruments that were found in the Islands prior to the arrival of the “breathless people” or Ha Oles. The main instrument that the kumu used during the rehearsals was a gourd covered in a net of cowry shells. It was amazing how much noise she was able to get out of that alone. The hula required dance steps and learning two languages. For me, learning the Hawaiian words for the shouted song was cool, but the most interesting part was learning the sign language. I learned the signs for ocean waves indicating distance, direction, and time. I learned the signs for the passage of suns and moons. I learned the dramatic signs for expulsion and conflagration. The students were all very serious. When I was in sixth grade I couldn’t take anything seriously at all. About half of the students had significant amounts of Hawaiian blood, and I could tell that their parents had influenced them to be serious about this as part of the cultural resurgence and devolution movement. I, as a teacher, benefited from the cresting wave of Hawaiian pride. They got it down pretty good, pretty fast. One day when there was too much noise after lunch I went with the kumu to Kailua Beach Park with the kids and watched them stamp out the hula on the white sands facing Moloka’i. I was so proud of my kids, doing their culture proud and maintaining the appropriate level of decorum. I hope I never lose that memory.

When the last few days before the pageant rolled around, the kumu brought in another kumu from her hulau to help get the girls’ moves and costumes right, while she worked with the boys. She also brought the entire band from her hulau. Suddenly there were a handful of scowling, large, muscular bad-asses imposing their way around my class, and I was a bit worried about how the kids would react. I should have known better. Sure these guys were huge and potentially ferocious, but they were related to half of the class. Everybody called them “Uncle” in much the same way Akans call the older men “Father”.

On May Day, the day of the big pageant, every class did their routine, but the whole school was keeping a close eye on my class. They had the burden of representing for the entire population, and had to do everyone proud. They did a great job. Each boy gave it his all, and they maintained the requisite steeliness of gaze and martial quality of manner. Each girl moved fluidly, attending to the requisite precision that the goddesses required. I found myself mimicking with stilted, staccato movements along with them and reciting the ancient words to myself as they shouted them. When the performances were over there were congratulations all around, and there was a general consensus that I had done a good job in spite of my being a haole.

That night my friend, his girlfriend, my brother, and I all had a cookout on the beach and took in the sunset. It was one of those nights that seem steeped in comfort and contentment. The feeling of having done well at something and having it over with, like the sigh of an infant, is eternal in its own way.