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Sunday, January 23, 2005
Passing the Baton
The Royal Hawaiian bandmaster
Aaron Mahi, fired late last month after 23 years as bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band, recalls someone telling him shortly after he got the news that he should go out "with his head up."
Mahi wasn't planning to "go out" any other way. New Mayor Mufi Hannemann announced after Christmas that Mahi would be on the job only until the end of March, and Mahi plans to make the most of the time that remains.
"I'm going to be looking at what the past 23 years has meant to me, and trying to complete as much as I can and round things off for my tenure with the Royal Hawaiian Band," Mahi said last week as he contemplated past and future in a downtown coffee shop.
"We're looking at trying to get another recording out before I leave in February, hopefully, to record some of the period pieces that we haven't recorded yet."
Some of the pieces are on video, but a good CD is not yet available, he explained. In March the band will perform a concert in honor of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, whom Mahi credits for saving the band at a time when it was known as the Hawaii Government Band and the Territorial Legislature made the decision not to fund it.
"I don't know what the reasons were (for eliminating the funding) ... but Jonah Kuhio and his brother, David Kawananakoa, were royalists and wanted to keep the Royal Hawaiian Band intact, so they established in the City Charter that the Royal Hawaiian Band would be part of the city (government)."
The royals, as well as future Mayors Joseph Fern and Johnny Wilson, were all supporters of Hawaii's royal traditions and of maintaining a sense of Hawaiian-ness in the community, Mahi said in explaining his desire to have his departure coincide with the prince's birthday on March 26. "It will probably be my last big concert with the band," he said.
Judging by readers' letters to the media, public opinion seems to be running in Mahi's favor. Some have noted that he is the first person of Hawaiian ancestry to hold the post since Charles E. King, more than 60 years ago -- admittedly not a compelling argument, considering the contributions made by bandmasters of Caucasian ancestry such as Domenico Moro, Earle Christoph and Lloyd Krause. Other writers have argued that Mahi's lifelong involvement with Hawaiian music, his formal training and the practical experience he has acquired since being appointed to his post by Eileen Anderson combine to make him uniquely qualified to continue.
Mahi is also fluent in the Hawaiian language, and through studying with his grandfather, a native speaker, he understands many of the idioms and regional differences important in correctly understanding the underlying meaning of many 19th- and early 20th-century Hawaiian lyrics. Mahi's supporters point out he is also fluent in German -- the first language of legendary bandmaster Heinrich "Henry" Berger, who served as bandmaster for 43 years and whose impact on the Royal Hawaiian Band and the development of Hawaiian music in general continues to be felt.
One important result of Mahi's fluency in German as well as Hawaiian and English has been his success is renewing and strengthening of cultural ties between Hawaii and Germany that go back to Berger's time and earlier. The band's European tours have included concerts in Germany that have heightened awareness there of Hawaii as a vacation and cultural destination. The highlight of one European tour was the formal presentation of a new schellenbaum, an ornate percussion instrument carried by German bands, to replace the original RHB schellenbaum, which was destroyed by anti-Hawaiian looters following the overthrow of Hawaii's government in 1893.
Mahi's contributions were formally recognized on the international level in 2003 when the German government awarded him the Bundesverdienstkreuz (the official translation is "Order of Merit") for his work as a cultural ambassador and conservator of Hawaii's German-Hawaiian heritage.
Hannemann, in Washington for the inauguration of President Bush, reminded critics last month that it is his prerogative to hire whom he chooses for his Cabinet, and described his decision to fire Mahi as part of a general policy of implementing changes at City Hall.
Hannemann is on point regarding his prerogatives. An incoming mayor has no obligation to retain any members of the previous mayor's Cabinet. Frank Fasi, who rarely seemed to have anything good to say about Eileen Anderson's administration, could have replaced Mahi when he returned to Honolulu Hale in the mid-1980s. Jeremy Harris was likewise under no obligation to retain Mahi when he took over from Fasi in the '90s.
Because Fasi and Harris retained Mahi, it is perhaps inevitable that some might view Mahi's firing as a favor to accommodate a political supporter. But that is nonsense, according to the 25 musicians who signed a letter calling on Hannemann to fire Mahi and assistant band administrator Wayne Oshima, citing longtime problems with inconsistent labor practices, arbitrary policies and disagreements over the band's musical repertoire.
Long-serving band members Robert Larm, Eric Kop and Todd Yukumoto went public in December with complaints that the band had been stagnating for years, and alleging that Mahi was slow to address musicians' complaints about working conditions and other matters.
Mahi declined to discuss specific individuals or situations last week, saying that he would like his final months with the band to be as harmonious and productive as possible. However, he added, band members who feel their health is endangered by exposure to sunlight, or who are unable to march in parades, might need to consider finding a job that does not require marching or playing music outdoors.
Mahi is more outspoken when it comes to defending the band's repertoire, and disagrees with critics who say that he has allowed it to stagnate.
"It's like a buffet -- you can't only have one kind of food. You try to make sure there's something for everyone. That's almost impossible, but we try to do as much as we can. We perform transcriptions of popular orchestral works by European composers, march music from American composers or European composers, music of the Broadway stage -- a lot of our listeners just love the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe or even Andrew Lloyd Webber. There's (also) John Williams' themes from movies and film scores; sometimes when it's possible we'll throw in music by swing composers. One weekend, we'll do something by Gershwin; another, we'll do something by Ellington. You try to cover the gamut, but having Hawaiian music is the centerpiece of all of the band's performances."
Mahi noted that the band is occasionally able to introduce new pieces such as "Palace Fantasy," which was composed by University of Hawaii-Manoa faculty member Byron Yasui, as a work commissioned by the Friends of the Royal Hawaiian Band.
"One of the things I've tried to do with the Friends is to get money set aside to commission new works by resident composers for the band," Mahi said. "What we want to do is keep in touch with some of the modern wind ensemble music in works written for us. It's taken a while to raise the money for those kinds of compositions ... but we now have built up our funds where we can afford works like this."
Mahi notes that these projects are paid for with money raised privately by the Friends, a volunteer group that helps the band cover expenses not paid for by the city.
"The city provides the funding to keep the band in operation -- instrument repair, the instruments, the salaries of the band members and all that goes with that, but sometimes (operating costs) go even beyond that, and that's where the Friends come into play. They've been very supportive in many of the endeavors that I've had to create for the support of the band," Mahi said.
"Back in 1988, when we needed funding to record the band's performance at Carnegie (Hall in New York), that wasn't covered in our budget. ... We needed about $13,000 to do the recording, and the Friends came up with that for us."
THE FRIENDS provide direction and support for the band in terms of education and producing such revenue-generating items as T-shirts, ornaments and CDs that have been recorded and released during Mahi's tenure. Funds raised are redirected toward other band projects.
Another purpose of the Friends, Mahi said, is to keep the band aware of its "purpose of remembering its beginnings, its heritage, and maintaining that mission of being a Hawaiian music entity in our community."
With that in mind, Mahi says he has been expanding the band's repertoire to include a wider selection of late 20th-century compositions.
He had hoped to resolve issues raised by the musicians, but now that's moot. Like Queen Liliuokalani more than a century ago, Mahi said he has learned that some things are not negotiable. But no matter where he winds up, he said he would like to see the Royal Hawaiian Band continue as a living repository of Hawaii's musical heritage.
"The Royal Hawaiian Band has a definite place in Hawaii's musical history. It is the organization that has bridged Hawaii's music from the ancient style of musical practices into a Western style of music performance and practice ... going back to the compositions of Na Lani Eha ("the royal four" -- Kalakaua, Liliuokalani, Likelike and Leleiohoku) and other members of our royal families who were gifted in music.
"The Royal Hawaiian Band was that place where those compositions were shared and performed. That's what made (Bandmaster) Berger so popular -- because he created "Na Mele Hawaii" ("The Songs of Hawaii') ... and from there we move into the "Berger boys" like David Nape and Mekia Kealakai, and the melding of Hawaiian poetry and the ability to express poetically a feeling or a concept and then have it supported and expressed in Western-style (music). Largely before that, it was in chant.
"The band is at the critical point in now having its history be that repository of all this wealth of music and looking at our Hawaiian music kind of like in a time capsule. That's what the band represents so much to me. I've been delighted to have been a part of that history with the band, being able to verbalize that to our audiences.
"A lot of the people who come to our concerts are visitors, and they're always very appreciative when the time is taken to express more in depth the meaning of a song, rather than just hearing a song -- some of the stories that surround how a song was written or why it was composed. People have passed that down to me through the ages."
Mahi recalls attending a Hawaiian funeral recently and talking afterward with someone who was worried about the amount of cultural knowledge being lost with the passing of each generation of Hawaiians.
"(She) wondered who's going to carry these traditions on to the next generation if this generation doesn't know (them). I told her, 'That's what I've been trying to do with the Royal Hawaiian Band: create a place for our people to come -- Hawaiians or visitors -- who want to hold onto those traditions or learn about them.'
"There has to be a living entity where those musical practices are taking place, and that's what I've always tried to do with the band. ... That's been my mission with the band."
The publication of Scott C.S. Stone's "The Royal Hawaiian Band -- Its Legacy" beautifully illustrated history of the band could not have come at a more awkward time for new mayor Mufi Hannemann.
(Long-time German-born bandmaster Heinrich "Henry" Berger -- no relation -- who led the band from 1872 to 1915, receives a well-deserved 51 pages.)
Stone opens with an overview of Berger's importance to the history of the band and Hawaiian music in general. He then proceeds chronologically from the formation of "The King's Band" in 1836 through mid-2004, when Mahi's position as the band's 20th bandmaster appeared secure and the stability of the band ensured for years to come.
Stone shows that a couple of Mahi's predecessors also became entangled in mayoral political maneuvers and that complaints about bandmasters' choices of repertoire is nothing new.
Photo editor Mazeppa King Costa enhances Scott's narrative with an impressive array of vintage and contemporary photos of the band, and presumably every bandmaster for whom a photo exists. Costa even includes a group photo of the Hawaiian National Band, the breakaway group of Hawaiian patriots that went to the United States in 1895 in an attempt to win American support for the restoration of the legitimate Hawaiian government.
Contemporary photos of band instruments are of secondary importance, but fit the general subject. Many other photos are stock images -- ships at anchor, hula dancers, Hawaiians fishing, rice paddies in Waikiki, students at the Japanese Free Kindergarten or the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example -- that have no direct connection to the band or its history but add to the book's commercial palatability.
Despite such fluff, Stone and Costa can be credited with creating a handy and colorful reference to one of Hawaii's important cultural resources. And although the pair did not realize it during the creative process, theirs is a book that will stand as an excellent legacy of Mahi's work as bandmaster.
All that's missing is an index for those using it as a reference rather than for casual reading.