Hawaiian Culture Camp

For ten years, George Kahumoku Jr. has been hosting a Hawaiian music camp on Maui. He invites famous slack key and ukulele players to teach a group of enamored haole mainlanders to play (and make leis and chant and sing in Hawaiian), while feeding them gussied up Hawaiian fare at the open aired Mauian hotel in Napili. For a week they get to be immersed in Aloha, Ohana, Mana, and Kaukau, playing Hawaiian music by starlight while the waves crash on the beach. It's overwhelmingly picturesque.
I got to go a while ago because of a gracious research grant. So while everyone else were cultural tourists, I felt like an observer, on a mission to parse this odd experience.

On the first day of the camp I drove up through the windy cliff-roads to George Kahumoku’s beautiful big house and great garden and taro-patch. George opened the gate and set us all to work.

He’s a big Hawaiian guy- very busy all day—and his wife is a skinny haole lady, Nancy. She was the ticking clock that kept everybody and everything in forward motion. George tended to linger, swim, float, chat, ponder.

We did some light garden work—cutting some Pele leaves (to replace the luau leaves in laulau), and ti leaves for wrapping the laulau in… my highlight was I got to extract 2 dozen fresh eggs from the hen house. They are harder than store-bought, and they’re warm. And, of course, covered in chicken shit.
After the day's toiling, a short lunch break and a kani ka pila (little jam session) in George's air conditioned living room, the group packed up a mountain of coolers and costco boxes and set out down the cliffs to the hotel where the rest of the week would be spent.
I followed George's squealy red Volkswagon van all the way to Napili. It’s horrendously far. I helped make the dinner in a little outdoor grotto kitchen: asparagus, purple onion and tomato salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil; fish (salmon or halibut, with some onions and shiitake mushrooms, drizzled with coconut milk, wrapped in Pele leaves, a ti leaf, and tin foil, and steamed.)
Once we were at the hotel I had a chance to gauge the people. My fellow attendees were interesting. All alternatingly smiley or stiff, wearing flowing clothing, all white, mostly in their comfortable 40s and up. The standard man is either big and fat with a long pony tail (think comic book guy) or skinny with a receding hairline. The women are nearly all gray-haired divorcees, like the woman I overheard saying, “so by that time I realized the marriage would never support another child, so we rethought our whole arrangement. I’m deathly allergic to anything in the night shade family. What was your name again dear?” About 70 people came to attend.

Before each meal we were gathered into a circle, holding hands—and George said a pule on the food (Akua, we thank you for this food), and we all mumbled along with the Hawaiian Doxology—to the tune of “oh god from whom all blessings flow”.

Every meal was a fantastic spread-- George and his helpers had an amazing outdoor kitchen rigged in a little grotto of ti plants, plumeria and ferns. He wrangled a hundred of pounds of fresh taro and steamed it and mashed it into dense lovely poi, and another hundred pounds each of fresh fish and smoked pork. His passion was clearly in the kitchen.

George Kahumoku is a spectacular person-- a real genius. He is a sculptor, an author, a chef, a philosopher and a grammy winning musician. But he shrugs it all off and giggles squeakily. Slack key, he tells me patiently, is only 1% of Hawaiian life. This-- the food, the stories, the farming-- that's all part of it to. The camp contextualizes the music-- ties it to a people, to a landscape.

One of those landscapes was the glitzy stage of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where we all went en masse to the weekly slack key concert. The teachers let loose and performed for us: George sweet and mellow, Bob Brozman wired and leaping. He’s so small and wiry I’m sure he uses all of his physical resources on his music. And, he kept alluding, on his new, young wife, who spent the entire week in her bikini, sipping classy alcoholic beverages. Daniel Ho was mooney eyed and ridiculous ("an ugly Chinese boy like me!")

Keoki Kahumoku played hapa-haole songs—including “My Little Grass Shack” with a warbly imitation of the 40’s style voice on the original record, to the thunderous applause of the audience. He chopped his fingers off a few weeks ago, skinning a wild pig—so now he can only play with his thumb and pinky, and vaguely strum with his three stiff (reattached) middle fingers, that are sort of bent at an odd angle.

The audience of campers was enthralled-- screaming, shouting, guffawing, calling out requests.
This whole camp was really like a summer camp for grown-ups. Little friendships sprouted—Promise you’ll keep in touch!—and special outfits became trendy, camp songs took on lives of their own (it was Keoki’s “Where’s that black dog” song). Only this camp has a geriatric bent: everyone comparing surgical scars and joint ailments.

The camp culminated in the Slack Key festival, where the campers, in our matching Molokai green t-shirts, shared the stage with all of the slack key greats we could imagine: Cyril Pahinui, Dennis Kamakahi, Led Kaapana, Ozzie Kotani, Kevin Brown, and our own beloved uncle George.
The shock of the experience for me was that the camp really did deliver the sort of authentic connection that it promised. George Kahumoku, his son Keoki, and the other teachers, really were open with their skills and knowledge. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and everyone really did feel the sense of Ohana, as promised on the T-shirt (Ohana Camp). My favorite part was working in the outdoor kitchen with George-- wrapping laulau, cutting hundreds of tomatoes in a rush (and being chastized by George for wasting the tops and recutting the scraps) pounding poi.
Something about it seems slightly unfair though-- the only way to really have a beautiful Hawaiian experience is to pay through the nose for it? The only way to connect with other adults with similar interests is to travel thousands of miles at great expense?


  1. I need this for my capstone! My whole thesis was that music needed to be employed to reconnect people to their landscape. But having to pay to do it... eish, a concept I did not put into the paper!


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