Oct 6 2008

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Revisiting Hawaii’s hula tradition

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By Matthew Link

Hawaii has finally entered the national political discourse as the place where Barack Obama hails from. Spending any time in the islands will show you a lot about how the Aloha State shaped the candidate, from racial tolerance to inclusion of all classes to speaking in mythological terms.

I just republished my gay guidebook to Hawaii, which I first wrote when I was a resident of the Big Island for five years in the late ’90s. I now live in New York City (the antithesis of Hawaii!), but researching the islands all over again brought back all the wonderful aspects of the state’s unique culture I had forgotten.

One of the most famous and most important parts of Hawaii culture is the hula dance. Hula itself has been called the lifeblood of the Hawaiian people, and along with mele (chants), it was the main form of storytelling and handing down of legends and historical events for the ancient Hawaiians, in place of a written language. For years, students would train under a kumu hula, who would scrutinize with an eagle eye to make sure not one movement was off, which might alter the meaning of a dance.

Interestingly, some scholars say men were the only ones allowed to dance hula in the very old days. Muscular males would enact the precise dance clad only in malo (loincloths), and Western missionaries suppressed what they saw as a lewd, suggestive dance. Not surprisingly, many mahu (the Hawaiian word for gay men) kept the dance alive in secret, and continue to be at the forefront of the dance’s revival today.

Nowadays, hula falls into two categories. The kahiko hula (ancient) involved traditional instruments or dress, and is serious in tone. A kumu hula sits on the ground drumming a hollow gourd and chanting an old mele, with the dancers also involved call-and-response chanting. The ‘auana hula (modern) is much freer and more jovial in style, and can depict topics as contemporary as airplane travel, surf tournaments, even basketball games! ‘Auana hula usually includes a band of some sort.

Many Hawaii hotels and resorts have some sort of luau or hula show. Many can be cheesy, but check out of the partially gay-owned Old Lahaina Luau on Maui for a more traditional approach. The rural island of Molokai is famous as the legendary birthplace of hula (not to mention it’s home to a plethora of Polynesian transvestites), and the isle hosts the popular Molokai Ka Hula Piko festival for three days in May. Papohaku Beach Park comes alive with food, music, crafts, and excellent displays by proud local hula groups.

But by far the best hula experience you can ever have is at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo on the Big Island. The festival is broadcast live across the state starting Easter Sunday and lasting a week. Tickets sell out months in advance — that’s why I’m telling you about it now! Many halau (hula troupes) compete from around the world, and some of the most beautiful men and women in the islands make for great eye candy.

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Matthew Link is the Editor At Large for The Out Traveler magazine, as
well as a contributor to Newsweek. Having been to over 60 countries and
all 7 continents doesn’t keep him from getting on the next plane away
from his home in New York City.

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