Dialogue #2 Producing Culture — Reflections

Standing L-R: Manu Boyd, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi, Keala Chock, Jordan Sramek, Michael Pili Pang. Seated: Cody Pueo Pata, Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman

The second Dialogue in the series “… aia i ka wai … Dialogues on [the Present & Future of] Hawaiian Music” took place at University of Hawai‘i’s Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies on Friday February 4, 2011. The Dialogue was preceded by a set of relaxing music by Kaiholu, the 2009 winner of the Ka Hīmeni Ana contest.

In the spirit of continuing to foster conversation, I am sharing my own reflections on what were highlights—for me. My perspectives are shaped by the goals and objectives that I articulated for the entire series in the planning phase last semester (Fall 2010). For this particular Dialogue, I was interested in exploring the working conditions for performers of Hawaiian music—including hula. The conversation wound instead down multiple paths, all of them productive, and all of them interrelated. Undoubtedly many in the audience may have taken away other perspectives. Viewers of the video, when it gets posted, may well inspire other perspectives. I would love to hear mana‘o. For now, the best I can offer is my own reflections, shaped in part by what I am tracking at this point in time.

In the planning stages of this series of Dialogues, it was apparent that some discussion about the working conditions for Hawaiian music (and hula) performers would be valuable. Hence this session was broadly framed to focus on conditions of production. This session was planned with two framing questions:

  1. What are the conditions necessary to support creative excellence?
  2. How can the education sector support those conditions?

By the time of the program on February 4, 2011, the framing questions had morphed into the following four terms:

  1. ecosystem – what are the conditions that musicians [and dancers] need in order to sustain the practice of their craft?
  2. professional development – how can traditional systems of knowledge and protocol establish mutually respectful working relationships with institutions and bureaucracies whose operating logics include transparent accountability and measurable benchmarks? What opportunities are there for up-and-coming artists and producers to be mentored for positions of cultural leadership?
  3. culture vs. commerce (a framework articulated in public presentations by Ku‘uipo Kumukahi): Hawai‘i hosts simultaneously the heritage culture of indigenous Native Hawaiian people that revolves around protocols of respect, and a culture industry that operates as a commercial marketplace. Pehea la e pono ai?
  4. cultural self-determination – how can we be PROactive rather than Reactive about articulating and capitalizing up on the centrality of music and dance performance to Hawai‘i’s cultural distinctiveness?

Although the conversation focused mostly on live performance, we did accomplish two valuable points. First, all speakers addressed in some way the importance of artists acquiring business know-how. Second, and more fundamentally, each panelist in their own way spoke to the need to understand oneʻs foundation and fundamental values.

Panelists were drawn from across different sectors, as follows:

Manu Boyd is leader of the group Ho‘okena and kumu hula of Hālau o Ka ‘A‘ali‘i Kū Makani. In his capacity as cultural director of the Royal Hawaiian Center, Manu has been implementing new approaches to programming Hawaiian cultural presentations in the heart of Waikīkī.

Keala Chock is coordinator of the Music and Entertainment Learning Experience (MELE) Program at Honolulu Community College. This program is the first in Hawai‘i to provide training in business and technical sectors of the music industry.

Ku‘uipo Kumukahi is an award-winning vocalist and recording artist, who is currently president of the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts.

Michael Pili Pang is kumu hula of Hālau Hula Ka No‘eau and director of Hawai‘i Arts Ensemble. Most recently he served as director of the City & County of Honolulu Office of Arts and Culture under Mayor Mufi Hanneman.

Cody Pueo Pata is an award-winning vocalist, recording artist and haku mele, and kumu hula of Hālau Hula o ka Malama Mahilani.

Jordan Sramek is Founder and Artistic Director of The Rose Ensemble, a professional vocal ensemble based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their program “Nā Mele Hawai‘i,” premiered in 2006 and released on CD in 2007, combined artistic excellence with extensive consultation and Hawaiian-language coaching. The processes involved in the preparation of this program offers a model case study for collaboration in cross-cultural arts programming.

And now, highlights and my own reflections.

Manu Boyd:  The visitor industry is part of the ecosystem for Hawaiian performance. But foundation itself is equally important. Not so much the people who are going to hire performers, or listen to them, but the performers themselves. Who are they? What is their lineage? How have they come to embrace the lifestyle? Values play a big part in this.

I view Waikīkī as our kulaiwi. . . . The programming that we do [at Royal Hawaiian Center] is not geared toward the malihini per se. It is geared toward us, the music and lifestyle that we enjoy. We share it with the malihini, and they are enriched.

Iʻm interested in reshaping the values of our own people. We are not shaping our world, our ecosystem. If we donʻt promote a lifestyle that appreciates these things . . . We need to mālama our own kuleana. What about us? What do we think about us? Do we behave as hosts in our own home? . . .

Michael Pili Pang: Not all parts of the ecosystem are equal. . . . What I needed to understand as an artist was economics and what my artform could do for me. I had to be able to walk in two worlds—artform, and economic development and technology. . . . How do we create ecosystems that allow the continued creation and maintenance of art in the future?

Keala Chock: Education is the value of investing in human capital. We must educate [future artists] about the business as well as the art.

Michael Pili Pang:  Education creates opportunity. Iʻve gained tools to understand my artwork, my choreography. These tools have also allowed me to understand how other people look at us, and then to understand how to create basic references in order to communicate in ways that people can understand. We can break down barriers of what people think Hawai‘i is about. We need people to give us the opportunity to explain it to them.

Jordan Sramek: One of my sopranos is from Kaua‘i and we were having a conversation on what it would be like to produce a concert of Hawaiian music. . . . It was the process of learning, that creating a program such as this Hawaiian program had to be a process that was completely different from the way that we would put together a program of western European music.  We were confronted not with a dead language, like Latin, but a living language, with living breathing people who spoke the language, and who could provide us insight that a person from my background could only dream of having. It was when we started presenting our program, which features not only himeni hymns, not only paniolo songs, and not only songs of Lili‘uokalani, but it features readings from the diary of Lili‘uokalani, and it features entries from the ship records of Captain Cook, and the bizarre writings of Mark Twain on Hawai‘i, it was then that our audience, whether it was in Minnesota or Nebraska or Paris, said “I learned more in the last two hours about the history and the culture of the Hawaiian people than I ever knew existed. And I thought, “there’s something here.” There are vast opportunities for more such cross-cultural collaborations.

Ku‘uipo, Pili and Pueo:  MODELS ARE IMPORTANT. Most of us were inspired by someone. Who are the inspiring masters today? How do we create those masters for the future?

These comments quoted above are mere snippets from rivers of mana‘o. In addition, this Dialogue had one more component: an invited response from an undergraduate student, Danny Carvalho. An accomplished slack key guitarist and recording artist, Danny offered the following profound insight:

At some point between us as artists and the rest of the people, the consumers who support us, there seems to be a disconnect that somehow has allowed an entire music industry in Hawaii, or a large portion of it, to go unnoticed in the eyes of the masses. As a student musician, there was a fascination with the level of skill that I had, but no interest or knowledge of the music I was playing. . . . Those who find a calling in music are not enough to maintain a tradition. But there needs to be something that connects us as artists with people who listen to our music. Whatʻs missing that allows us to play our music and value the things we value, and have it not sink in with enough people for us to keep it a vibrant tradition?

And my own reflection:  This Dialogue cut to the heart of things—values and foundation. What might have been a discussion on nuts and bolts and logistics ended up being about how performers present themselves, how Hawaiians take the initiative to be hosts in our homeland, how education is a key piece in preparing artists to sustain themselves.

In a program in which six panelists had 2.5 hours of public program time, there was only so much that could get covered. But what did get covered was pretty darned fundamental. And if this Dialogue is a spark for other conversations at other times with other people, we can look forward to more Dialogues to create and/or strengthen the conditions that sustain creativity in Hawaiian music and hula.

Click here to read about the series “. . . aia i ka wai . . . “

Click here to read my reflections from Dialogue #1 Assessing the Documentary Record.

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