Tonight, the poor bloke handsomely dressed in traditional Hawaiian cloth and lei, as it is every night, blows a conch to the delight of the hotel guests and their cameras and then runs with his burning torch from tiki lamp to tiki lamp across the expansive plantation style grounds. My incredulous son and other children giddily in tow. Every night it has been a new person, always Hawaiian though, and some are more obliging in this cultural fetish performance than others. But each one has warmly facilitated my son in lighting at least two tikis (because he demands more than one), bless their hearts.
Stunning is the island landscape, illuminated by torchlight flickering in the tradewinds.
Such are the moments of artistry in Hawaii, never untangled from its colonial past and its current economic conundrum as tourist industry.
In any given hotel and restaurant catering to this particular area, there is almost certainly to be incredibly talented live musicians, plucking away at a slack key guitar, soulfully singing the Hawaiian traditional opus, mostly written to keep names of places, plants, fishes, birds and cultural knowledge — a dying language — alive.
(Kalopa State Park, nature preserve)
I was already bruised after just hearing the wistful “Me ke aloha ku’u home o Kahalu’u,” (with love for my home Kahalu’u). Kahalu’u is a gorgeous beach almost smothered by concrete hotels and hordes of sunscreened waders, food trucks, and signs saying please do not step on the coral, please do not feed the fish. Even as I am counted among the island’s outsiders, I stopped to listen to these two men sing delicately and lovingly their version of ku’u home. Who isn’t bereaved of changes to the land? They sang this elegy in an empty restaurant, empty besides a handful of waiters chatting amongst themselves, one sunburned couple watching basketball on the bar TV, and sentimental me in my bathing suit waiting for my to-go order.
Later when I entered the lobby of our hotel, where I’ve been annoyed by the constant presence of people since we arrived, a pang of a familiar melody filled me as it filled the architecture. The lobby lanai, full of well-dressed, shiny guests enjoying a cocktail and chatting amongst themselves, frames a view across the ocean where a faint silhouette of Maui dissolves into cloud. But what made me stop was yet again, another vulnerably sincere, Hawaiian slack key performer there in the skyline. He was playing not for the sake of the distracted guests unaware that this particular song, Hi’ilawe, extolls a site they probably snapped a photo of today; not for what is probably a paltry salary; and not for me mouthing what words I knew in appreciation for his performance, for the artful moment.
I hid in the adjacent stairwell hearing the last bits of the song until he transitioned to his next (I imagine to avoid the awkward silence between songs), and then I exited underneath the patio out to the courtyard. As I walked away, the musician ignored his audience as they ignored him and turned out over the balcony, looking for me below. I looked up at him and put my hand on my heart. As he strummed out the beginning of his next song, he smiled knowingly and nodded his head — a private, unseen gesture in a place of all places to be seen. Our eyes were on Hi’ilawe — an artful moment because it was completely gratuitous.
George Kahumoku Jr.’s version of the song on YouTube, and its hula:
All eyes are on Hi’ilawe
In the sparkling lowlands of Maukele.
I escape all the birds
Chattering everywhere in Waipiʻo.
I am not caught
For I am the mist of the mountains.
I am the darling (a toy) of the parents
And a lei for the necks of grandparents.
The fragrance is wafted from Puna
And lives at Hi’ilawe waterfall.
Tell the refrain
All eyes are on Hi’ilawe.