Pilioha is among the performers at the Great Hawaiian Folk Life Festival.
Milton Lau gives Hawaiian folk arts new life at Waikiki festival this month
Growing up in Hawaii in the 1960s, Milton Lau admits there were times he and his siblings felt ashamed to be Hawaiian. Those were the days when the Hawaiian culture was submerged; to succeed, he recalled, young Hawaiians were taught they had to speak English and "be American."
Great Hawaiian Folk Life Festival
Place: Queen's Beach and Kapiolani Park and Bandstand, Waikiki, Oahu
Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 24 and 25 at the park, 5 to 9 p.m. both days at Queen's Beach
On the Net: www.slackkeyfestival.com
"My grandparents and others in their generation never wanted us to learn the Hawaiian language or the culture," said Lau, who is of Hawaiian, Chinese and German extraction. "They used to send us out of the house whenever they spoke Hawaiian as that was not considered to be a cool thing. It was done in the privacy of people's homes, never on the street."
Lau's mother, however, made sure her three sons and daughter kept in touch with their Hawaiian roots.
"She would tell us about her childhood growing up in Kalihi," Lau recalled. "Everyone in her family spoke Hawaiian. She would say the Lord's Prayer in Hawaiian to us all the time. It got to be that we could recite it verbatim, too."
It was the maternal side of Lau's family that also enjoyed singing and putting on luaus. As a child, Lau attended many backyard parties and jam sessions; from that, he grew to love Hawaiian music and all things Hawaiian.
"My mom brought me to this stage in my life where I can fully appreciate and be proud of my Hawaiian heritage," said Lau. "She showed me it's possible to live and succeed in both worlds -- to be American and to be Hawaiian."
TODAY, AS PRESIDENT of Ka-Hoku Productions, Lau is playing an instrumental role in perpetuating the Hawaiian culture. He launched the Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar Festival on Oahu 25 years ago and subsequently started similar annual events on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. Several times a year, he also produces slack-key concerts in major mainland cities; so far this year, concerts are planned in San Francisco; New York; Portland, Ore.; and Newport Beach, Calif.
On March 24 and 25, Lau will unveil Ka-Hoku Productions' newest event, the Great Hawaiian Folk Life Festival in Waikiki. It celebrates the 200th anniversary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, which conserves and manages America's coastal and marine resources; the 137th birthday of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, Hawaii's delegate to Congress for 20 years; the 35th anniversary of the Oahu Council of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs; and the Hawaiian culture in general.
Planned are a parade; food and craft booths; a ukulele display; exhibits by NOAA, AHCC, Waikiki Aquarium, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and other organizations; and a full slate of Hawaiian entertainment.
According to Lau, the seeds for the Great Hawaiian Folk Life Festival were planted in 1993 when he was invited to participate in the Northwest Folk Life Festival in Seattle.
"The organizers for that festival had seen a slack-key concert I had produced in Seattle the year before," said Lau. "The executive director asked if I would be interested in arranging for some slack-key guitar artists to perform at their folk-life festival because many expatriates live in Seattle. Music always is a key component of folk-life festivals, and slack-key guitar is a folk art with a long history dating back to the 1830s."
With the support of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Lau led a contingent of nearly 50 singers, musicians and dancers to Seattle.
"It was an awesome experience!" he recalled. "For four days we performed in several venues in the city, including the Opera House. The festival drew nearly 300,000 people; never before had any of us participated in an event that drew that many people. The trip was more successful than anyone ever imagined."
As a result of that, Lau and Hawaiian cultural representatives went on to participate in folk-life festivals in other major cities over the next eight years, including Las Vegas, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
"Those festivals showed me all the great possibilities," said Lau. "I thought it would be great to implement the concept in Hawaii, to put on an event that was focused on the indigenous Hawaiian culture. It would bring more attention to Hawaii and attract both local people and visitors looking for an authentic Hawaiian experience."
There are four Waikiki venues for this year's inaugural Great Hawaiian Folk Life Festival; Lau intends to increase those to 10 in the coming years. Eventually, he also would like to produce similar festivals in other neighborhoods on Oahu.
"I see the festival as a fun way to share and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture," said Lau. "After all, that is part of what makes the islands such a wonderful place to live. Planning and implementing the festival has brought meaning and substance to my life, and strengthened my identity as a Hawaiian. Hopefully, it will be a joy to everyone who attends as well -- whether or not they are Hawaiian by blood."
Schedule of events
Workshops are at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach unless otherwise noted. Call 921-9731 for more information on a workshop.
» "E Mele Kakou": Free concert featuring Kawaiolaonapukanileo, Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus and the University of Hawaii Music Department Chorus, Mission Memorial Auditorium at Kawaiaha'o Church, 7 p.m.
» Kahiko rattle workshop, demonstration of iliili (river pebbles) and display of ipu heke gourds by Michael Kop, from 9 to 11 a.m. in the lobby. Repeats March 23.
» Slack-key guitar workshop by Grammy nominee Ledward Kaapana, 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Kalakaua Room
» Hawaiian nose flute making with Calvin Hoe, 10 a.m. to noon in the lobby
» Demonstrations of gourd whistles, ti leaf whistles and other musical instruments by Calvin Hoe, 1 to 3 p.m. in the lobby
» Entertainment 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Kapiolani Park and bandstand by Al Kaai and Friends, Brother Noland, Hookena, Kuuipo Kumukahi, Pilioha, Pali, Maunalua, Michael Kaawa and Friends, Tony Conjugacion, Steve Inglis, Keale, Ledward Kaapana, Sean Naauao, Makana, Donald Kaulia and LT Smooth, Dennis Kamakahi, Kaukahi and up to 10 hula halau. Continues March 25.
» Kaukahi performs at Queen's Beach from 5 to 5:45 p.m., followed by Makana at 6 and screening of "The Little Mermaid" at 7 p.m.
» Ukulele workshop by Na Hoku Hanohano nominee Bryan Tolentino with Weldon Kekuoha, 10 to 11 a.m. in the back lobby
» Slack-key guitar workshop by Grammy nominee David Kahiapo, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the back lobby
» "Na Mele O Na Pua": Free concert of Hawaiian music at the Outrigger Embassy Suites' Grand Lanai, 1:30 to 4 p.m.
» Prince Jonah Kuhio Day Parade: On Kalakaua Avenue, from 4 p.m.
Pali performs at Queen's Beach from 5 to 5:45 p.m., followed by Tony Conjugacion at 6 and screening of "Shark Tale" at 7 p.m.
» Prince Jonah Kuhio Celebration Luau: At the Community Church of Honolulu, 2345 Nuuanu Ave., 10 a.m. Call 455-9400.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.