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A Night with Uncle George Na’ope, Kumu Hula

George Na'ope, kumu hula.

George Na'ope, kumu hula: Feb. 25, 1928-Oct. 26, 2009.

I just read the obit in The New York Times of George Na’ope, kumu hula and the keeper of Hawaiian tradition, at his home in Hilo, Hawaii. He spent his life committed to keeping Hawaiian culture and traditions alive. We certainly didn’t know Na’ope, but Billie and I spent a fascinating evening in Kona with him during a 1990 vacation.

From my trip-notes:

We drive up to the ramshackle town of Kapaau on the northernmost part of the Big Island, and stop at the Puukohola Heiau, a holy place for Hawaiians built in 1790-91 by Kamehameha I. We walk up to the ranger station, where we are given a short talk, with a model, on the heiau’s history, including a story about part of it being made later into a fort. The ranger’s name is Paul Andrade, an engaging Hawaiian man, and with no one else to give the talk to, we spend a half hour chatting with him. A poster of what the heiau once looked like keeps catching my eye while I listen to his stories.

Billie asks him about a book on myths that she saw on the shelf and mentions that it says the author was a man who brought back the real hula, and Andrade said that it was, and that the author was a kumu hula, or a master of the hula.  I had recently written a story about Robert Mugge’s excellent documentary film Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture, for the Colorado Daily, which I mentioned to Andrade. When he asked who was in the film, the only name I could remember was George Na’ope.

“George Na’ope was my teacher for sixteen years,” Andrade says.

It is a nice moment, made even nicer when Andrade mentions that George would be performing that night at the Keauhou Hotel in Kona.

He speaks very emotionally about the hula, originally a worship form, and the loss of the original chants and traditions. Like Na’ope, Andrade represents an element of Hawaiian society that wants to retain its heritage, almost destroyed since the missionaries decided to “enlighten” the populace about the Lord and brought with them the diseases that would decimate the native Hawaiians in a short time. When I asked whether real kumu hulas were performed in the hotels today, he says, rather matter-of-factly, “we have to make a living, too.” But, he complained, it would soon be necessary to be bonded to even appear in the better places.

Andrade is eloquent and quite opinionated, and as we walked out on the front porch, he points south to the scrubby brush and volcanic rock, and says that construction would soon begin on a golf course for a nearby resort out of sight near the water. I imagine green, lush fairways, deep white sand traps and palm trees instead of the shrubby no-man’s land there today. “At least I won’t have to look at the resort,” he says somewhat cheerfully.

He also explains about how George Na’ope would berate him when he didn’t live up to his expectations. How once Andrade had appeared at some live performance without a proper instrument or something, and George had showed up and given him holy shitfire for it. Andrade backs off when I asked if he was kumu hula because he didn’t want us to think he was cocky and he felt that too many cheap kumu hulas were around these days.

Later that evening we drive to the Keauhou Hotel and walk into an open-air bar right on the sea where a couple of women are playing instrumental music. A waitress informs us that George won’t start for another hour.

So we drive back down to Kailua for fish and chips and a walk through Kailua, which is deserted tonight, the complete opposite of last night. When we return, George, immediately recognizable from the film, is playing to a crowd that consists of only three or four tables of people in a room large enough to make it conspicuous. At the next table is an elegant, well-dressed Japanese couple, and there are two women at another table behind us. A couple over by the bar are talking, and an older Archie-Bunkerish-looking man is talking to himself down by the stage.

George, who must be less than five feet and 100 pounds, is one of those charismatic performers (Willie Nelson and Ruben Blades are two others that come to mind) that can make you believe that he’s always singing directly to you. His fingers are covered with rings, and I wonder how he can play the gorgeous six-string custom ukulele he’s strumming. There is a guitarist and bassist backing him up.

Soon Archie Bunker is up, talking and harassing the shit out of George, who has obviously seen this hundreds of times, making cracks back at him between songs and grimacing when he interrupts a tune. Although Archie is drunk, it’s obvious he is knowledgeable about Hawaiian music. “George, he’s the best,” Archie is slurring, twirling around in a kind of stupor. “And look, there’s no one in here. Nobody knows.”

I turn away to the bar just as the woman sitting there falls off her chair. Her companion tries to revive her, and the waitresses all run over. Archie tells George that he’s been watching him perform for twenty two years, and he asks George about old singers I’ve never heard of and requests various numbers.

Onstage, George asks us where we’re from, and what we want to hear. I just want to hear whatever he wants to play, I say, and he does a few more songs. The woman is still on the floor, and Archie is moving over to our table, repeating that that George is the best musician in Hawaii and nobody knows it. We try to be tolerant.

Sometimes Archie cries as he sings along with a song George is doing. George says he feels sorry for “the Colorado couple,” but it goes right past Archie, who is explaining to us how he “messes up” a lot. “Am I messing up?” he asks the two women behind us as George struggles through another song. “You want to hear the truth?” one asks back, but Archie is beyond the truth. You don’t know whether to smack the guy up the side of his head or humor him because you feel sorry for him.

He drags George over to our table, and George sits down while Archie tells him again that he is the best singer in Hawaii and look how few people have turned out to see him and isn’t it a shame. Like a 45 single repeating itself over and over.

It turns out that the Japanese couple are hula students of George, and they speak no English. So Archie is trying to tell him that he’ll teach them the language while we talk with George.

George says he considers himself an American first and a Hawaiian second, because, at age 64, he has always lived in the islands under American control. He spends his time recording and transcribing the old hula chants that he even used in his set tonight. He loves studying the history of his people.

All through our trip we have heard stories of the resentment of the Japanese invading the islands, this time with piles of cold cash. But as George explains, there isn’t much Hawaiian music left in Hawaii. All of the real Hawaiian music is now in Japan, and the Japanese are the true audience for real hula today. Most “hula” in Hawaii is done for tourists and bears no resemblance to the original chants and dances.

Later, as if to prove his point, the Japanese man at the table next to us plays along with a chant that George does while his partner, responding to George’s chant, does a hula that is stunning and incredibly sexy in her muumuu.

George smokes tiny cigarettes that fit his hand size perfectly. He says he doesn’t make a lot of money, but he is comfortable enough. He makes one or two trips a year, in three-week spans, playing music in Japan. During those excursions, he doubles his income for the 46 weeks he is in Hawaii, he says.

He says he paid off his Lincoln Continental with the money from his last trip to Japan, and I am left with the image of this tiny man, the keeper of Hawaiian tradition, pulling away from the hotel in a big-ass Lincoln.

George Lanakilakeikiahiali`i Na`ope died Oct. 26, 2009, of lung disease. He was 81.


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