PCC Hawaiian expert shares culture, hula insights

[Story and photos by Mike Foley: Originally published in the BYU–Hawaii electronic “newsroom” on 27 February 2009]

Cy BridgesCy M. Bridges [pictured at right], Theater Director for the Polynesian Cultural Center and a noted Hawaiian cultural expert, shared his love, passion and expertise on historical and genealogical aspects of modern hula with Brigham Young University Hawaii students during the February 25, 2009, Honors Program colloquium in McKay 101.

“The hula was really our hard drive — our textbook,” said Bridges, who in addition to his work at the PCC is an entertainer, musician, genealogist, kumu hula or master, and periodic judge for the well-known Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo. “Everything was committed to memory, because there was no written language; so we chanted, sang and danced about our lives.”

“Some people look at hula as just entertainment, and sometimes it is,” he continued. “But at times it tells the great history of a race of people. The [Protestant] missionaries hated the hula because we chanted, danced and sang about everything in life.” For example, it is through genealogical chants that Bridges knows Laieloheloheikawai — for whom Laie is named — “is my distant great-grandmother.”

In fact, Bridges’ great-great-grandfather, James Kapihe Palea Kuluwaimaka, who became a chanter at age 19 in the royal court of King Kamehameha IV and was recognized at his death at age 100 in the 1930s as the “last court chanter,” has been recorded citing genealogies containing almost 1,600 typewritten lines “and everything was from memory. He composed the ‘housewarming’ chant of Iolani Palace [in 1881], and in it he named every door, gate, walkway and veranda in that palace.”

“He was an awesome, awesome individual,” Bridges said. “His recorded chants embrace the most outstanding Pele and Hi’iaka chants, all of the original chants necessary to the hula, very many of the famous ali’i [royal chief] chants, and rare prayers to ‘aumakua [family gods and deified ancestors]. I often talk about him in cultural circles…but I want you also to know he was a temple recommend-carrying member of the Church.”

Bridges explained that Calvinistic Christian missionaries who first arrived in Hawaii in 1820, soon came to think hula was diabolical and influenced Hawaiian royalty to ban its practice for approximately 50 years. Newspapers during part of that time condemned Latter-day Saints in Laie for their love of culture and dance; but kumu hula in the Laie area kept the practice alive.

When King David Kalakaua, who loved all aspects of Hawaiian culture, especially the hula, gained the throne in 1874, he lifted the ban. Bridges quoted the king as saying: “Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore, the heartbeat of our Hawaiian people.” Bridges also pointed out that the urbane king — who visited Laie several times with Queen Kapiolani — was the first monarch anywhere to travel around the world, and also installed plumbing, electricity and telephones in Iolani Palace before they were found in the White House.

“There have been a lot of great hula masters in this part of the island,” Bridges continued, listing Luika Pele Ka’i’o, Sam Pua Ha’aheo, Keaka Kanahele and Lucy Logan Munson as examples. He also noted that two of their great teachers came from Maui, where they were taught by Kaleohano, a cousin of Jonathan Napela, one of the earliest Hawaiian converts to the Church and Bridges’ fourth great-grandfather.

“Kaleohano had a daughter named Caroline. She had a son named Hamana Kalili: You’ve heard of his shaka sign; and he had a brother, Samuel Kalili Logan, so there are a lot of local families who come from this line. Kaleohano’s other daughter, Lucy, had a son named David. David had a daughter named Lucy, who had a daughter named Elaine,” who was Bridges’ mother.

“There is so much history that is known today and understood through Hawaiian music and dance,” said Bridges, demonstrating hula implements such as the feathered gourd, coconut shell drum, the more sacred pahu or larger drum brought from Tahiti eons ago, and the ipu or gourd drum “that we used to tell stories. Often times we chanted these stories about everything — including birth, love and procreation. This really bothered the [Calvinistic] missionaries, which is one of the reasons they really looked down upon it.”

Bridges also talked about the derivation of the Hawaiian ‘ukulele by saying many people now know the name means “jumping flea,” but he explained it was first simply called the pilali’ili’i or “small instrument”: King Kalakaua dubbed Englishman Edward Purvis, who played it with great skill and energy, the ‘ukulele, and the name later became attached to the instrument.

He explained that chants and songs may have a kaona or hidden meaning: “In chanting you can have a literal translation, but many of them also have a kaona. They may translate as something very simple, but in essence, they’re not about that at all.” For example, he said 1940s bandleader Spike Jones took an 1860s love song and turned it into Hawaiian War Chant.

Maria Bridges Nakila“Modern Hawaiian music began in 1883 during the reign of King Kalakaua,” Bridges said, “and the ti-leaf skirt that everybody thinks is so Hawaiian was really something that Kalakaua saw on foreign dancers and appropriated it into the hula. All of our modern tunes today stem from the time of Kalakaua.”

At the end of his presentation, Bridges told more modern Hawaiian stories as he played the ukulele and his daughter, Malia Bridges Nakila [pictured at left], danced hula to Nani Helena — written by his relative and Church member Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs for the wife of composer Harry Owens (who won an Academy Award in 1937 for writing the words and music to Sweet Leilani). He explained the song didn’t have “much kaona,” but speaks of ku’u lei aloha, “my beloved lei, or sweetheart.”

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