Hula can evoke the teeming natural world and pass on knowledge acquired over centuries on the Hawaiian islands. Far more than a dance tradition, hula inextricably combines movement and chant, costume and ritual, embodying a culture that has fought back from the brink to reclaim cultural space in the formerly independent kingdom.
“Fundamentally hula is a reflection of nature,” said Huihui Kanahele-Mossman, the granddaughter of the late Edith Kanaka’ole, who played a central role in sparking the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s, founding the Hawaiian language and studies program at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. With her mother, Pualani Kanahele, and aunt, Nalani Kanaka’ole, Kanahele-Mossman leads the company and hula school founded by Edith Kanaka’ole, Hālau O Kekuhi, which performs Sunday afternoon at Zellerbach Hall.
“We are mimicking the way the wind blows, the waves hitting the cliffs,” Kanahele-Mossman said. “The basic movements of the dancers reflect what we see in nature. What we wear are specific things that we gather ourselves, an embodiment of things that grow in our forest or across the lava fields.”
On stage, hula creates a transporting, almost hypnotic experience, but in the hands of Kanahele-Mossman and her family, hula is also a frontline form of resistance. When I reached her on her cell phone on Hawaii’s Big Island, she was 6,500 feet up Mauna Kea, a mountain considered sacred by many native Hawaiians. She’s been part of the ongoing three-month protest blocking the construction of a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. The movement has been guided by traditional rituals, offering many native Hawaiians who have participated in the blockade the chance to get acquainted with their heritage.
“We have a population of native Hawaiians who don’t know the language and don’t do any cultural practice,” Kanahele-Mossman said. “They’ve never touched hula and never chanted. For some people that’s fine. But they’ve come up to the mountain in order to join in this movement. They say ‘I don’t know why, I needed to come.’ For the past 84 days we’ve been doing a ceremony three times a day. There have been hundreds of people, I’m not exaggerating, who’ve started to dance hula, learn the language and chants because of this movement. They feel the need to participate and make a difference, and learning hula is part of that. There’s been enough desecration.”
There won’t be a chance to study with Hālau O Kekuhi during their brief stop in Berkeley, but as part of Cal Performances engagement Māhealani Uchiyama leads a class on the fundamentals and traditions of Hawaiian hula on 11 a.m. Sunday morning. The co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and founder and artistic director of the Māhea Uchiyama Center for International Dance in Berkeley, she’s been a leading force teaching and sharing Hawaiian and Tahitian culture. Not surprisingly, the former resident of Hawaii has spent a good deal of time over the years soaking up what she could from Hālau O Kekuhi.
“They are incredible,” said Uchiyama, who also founded and leads Hālau Ka Ua Tuahine. “I’ve gone out of my way to be in their orbit. I consider them a direct lineage between now and the goddess Pele and the mountain. Whenever we see them dance or hear them chant it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a dance performance. It’s watching a ceremony.”
On Friday, Uchiyama celebrates the release of her new album Pasifika at Rhythmix Cultural Works in Alameda. Putting a Polynesian spin on the Pacific Rim, the album features her lilting original songs in the Hawaiian and Tahitian traditions, songs that evoke the land, the ocean and places of spiritual significance. She also explores percussion-driven Tahitian ʻōteʻa (drum-songs) and covers several beloved traditional songs.
For her performance she’ll be joined by the dancers and singers of Hālau Ka Ua Tuahine, guitarist/producer/engineer Ashley Moore, bassist Chris Trinidad and a number of string players and percussionists who are Uchiyama students. The school also performs Nov. 14 at Sonoma State’s Green Center with Grammy Award-winning Hawaiian soul singer Kalani Pe’a. And they reprise the album release celebration at Ashkenaz on March 27.
Sunday’s Hālau O Kekuhi performance is part of an ongoing effort to transform the perception of hula from a folkloric to a classical art form. Kanahele-Mossman acknowledges that “it’s not a common way to think about hula. It is folklore, a tradition confined to certain families and only done in a ceremony. But we train our dancers in very formal fashion so they look like what we need them to look like to portray a certain feeling or part of nature. We don’t allow people to just jump into the dance group and start copying and dancing along.”
While seeking to reconceptualize hula, Kanahele-Mossman has also sought to expand its parameters, bringing traditional insights into academic settings. She earned degrees in physics and science education from the University of Hawaiʻi, and now teaches in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) program at University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Since so many of the graduate students are from outside the islands, “we have to find a way to introduce them to this environment,” she said.
In order to start the process of integrating students into the natural world, she has them study traditional chants, which memorialized and preserved observations about the changing landscape over the centuries. “I have them look at it through the eyes of their study. Ancestrally all of our texts, they’re observational data. They observed nature and recorded it, and handed it down generation by generation. That natural world written about 200 years ago is still here.”
Recommended gig: Tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth
In some ways tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth is still reintroducing himself to the Bay Area after a 12-year stint in New York City. Exploring original tunes, spontaneous pieces and reconfigured standards, he plays a rare date under his own name Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. with pianist Dahveed Behroozi and drummer Jason Lewis at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of the school’s weekly Way Out West series. Sudduth has performed widely in jazz, rock and soul settings, including a long stint touring with Huey Lewis and the News. In jazz he’s recorded with pianist/composer Graham Connah and clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg, and has joined the ranks of the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra since moving back to the Bay Area. Last month he played with Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra West at the CJC and Monterey Jazz Festival.