Streaming consciousness on critical commentary on Hawaiian music

Aloha Dear Readers!  I have so many unfinished drafts in progress and ideas for future posts here. There is so so so very much work to be done. And I am but one drop of ua into the kahawai.

Most importantly Iʻve yet to post Reflections on the second half of the ” … aia i ka wai …” Dialogues series. In addition to being swamped with end-of-semester grading, I am still processing that extraordinary experience. I am still thinking through how and where the videos for all programs can be posted online, so that the conversations can perhaps spark even more conversations. Hereʻs a wish-list item: a technical advisor who would just tell me “convert the file to this format, put this title screen at the start of the video, upload it to X website (efforts to connect with existing sources have not be answered), then advertise the link this way and that way.”

Looking forward: We are now in Mele Mei — a month-long celebration of Hawaiian music, spearheaded by the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts (HARA) and numerous partners who are putting on fabulous concert events around Honolulu that culminate in the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Music Festival and awards ceremony at the end of May. We are also in Maoli Arts Month, a month-long celebration of the Native Hawaiian arts community, spearheaded by Vicky Holt Takamine‘s visionary PA‘I Foundation.

Thinking back — my year of teaching at University of Hawai‘i, in its Departments of American Studies and Music, is drawing to a close. Classes are pau. Final grading commences when final exercises are submitted next week. So much mana‘o has gone through this brain of mine — mostly about what has yet to be cultivated.

An important example:  we have precious little public critical commentary on Hawaiian music. LET ME EXPLAIN FIRST WHAT I MEAN VERY SPECIFICALLY BY “CRITICAL.”  So many people know AND practice being critical in the sense of “expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgments.” The disapproval and rancor have reached epic proportions of negativity. Just look at what happened after the GRAMMY Awards. Just look at what happened after Merrie Monarch is over.

HOWEVER, there is another sense of “critical” and here is how my computerʻs dictionary defines it:

expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art . . .

(of a published literary or musical text) incorporating a detailed and scholarly analysis and commentary : a critical edition of a Bach sonata.

In this sense, critical commentary is not solely negative, it is not solely disapproving. Think for a moment of the mana‘o “if you canʻt say anything good, then donʻt say anything” or “if you canʻt say anything good, better to keep quiet.” What this does is open a space for either constructive commentary. What are a product’s merits? and how are the merits achieved? In this sense, a critic is a commentator who offers perspectives on how something is put together, how it works, and what is remarkable about it–in other words, a thoughtful analysis of the contents. And critical commentary offers the reader tools for that reader to come to his or her own conclusion about quality, success, achivement. Liking something–or not–is actually not relevant to trying to understand how that thing works, and how it coheres into something complete.  Constructive commentary — if something is a failure, what lessons can be learned about how not to fail the next time out?

Traditionally, we looked to newspaper and magazine reviewers for critical commentary. What we have not yet developed at all for Hawaiian music is informed critical commentary that is not limited by the ridiculous space constraints now exercised in newspapers and magazines.

The good news is that the internet has made available the means to post critical commentary, on blogs like this one. What we are still short on is informed analytical commentary that is informed and analytical; commentary that allows for growth and improvement instead of defaming; commentary that acknowledges the sacrifices that creators make to bring their visions to us.

Healthy commentary. Constructive commentary. Commentary that engages sincerely and critically with the contents. And I can honestly say that my years of scholarly work in the discipline of ethnomusicology has left me frustrated. For all the academic-speak of scholars, what has been done to empower communities to learn how to not beat up each other with negative criticism?

As I was cleaning out my backpack yesterday, I pulled out 3 or 4 back issues of Honolulu Weekly, and came upon Shantel Grace’s review of Mailani’s second CD, ‘Aina [kahakō over first A needed]. Its thoughtfulness struck me:

What stands out on this compilation of tracks is her interpretation of the material and the producers’s interpretation of her. Harmonies aren‘t screaming, Hawaiian songs are given a new twist of salt and lime, and the overall balance of song choices is strong. But where the album falls short is its attempt to conceptualize a new artistic voice while articulating what the ‘Aina is trying to say.

This comment has the seed of an analysis that is not possible in the 262-word length of the review. (!)  There are two things the reviewer names two things as crucial to evaluating this product: 1) the “attempt to conceptualize a new artistic voice” AND 2) “articulating what the ‘Aina is trying to say.” But in order for a reader to agree or disagree with the reviewer’s conclusion–“this album falls short” and “it’s hard to believe this is the very best of her,” this reader needs to understand how the reviewer got from Point A–the attempt to conceptualize a new voice, and Point B–this album fell short. Without walking the walk, and only talking the talk, a reader will come away with “this album fell short,” without benefit of knowing whether Mailani achieved some of her objectives (whatever they might have been, which we are not told) in some tracks but not others, or in some moves but not others. A critical analysis that could consider individual tracks might come up with the seeds of something constructive. A critical analysis that could explore the actual musical content might come up with the seeds of a lesson. A critical analysis might well avoid thowing the baby out with the bathwater. At the very least, a critical analysis would replace an apparently outright dismissal with at least an acknowledgment of the mana‘o and spirit that went into the making of ‘Aina. 

So hereʻs my bottom line: when our artists put their efforts out there for us, and their efforts are met with storms of negative criticism (especially from folks who wanted other outcomes instead), then how are we supporting our creative community to continue their work–or not?

© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All rights reserved.

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