A new movie score by Keola Beamer is worlds away from what you might expect from the legendary Hawaiian slack-key innovator. It’s on the path to happiness, and it doesn’t sound Hawaiian at all.
Keola wrote the music for Dr. Tom Vendetti’s latest documentary, “The Tibetan Illusion Destroyer,” filmed at the Mani Rimdu Festival in Nepal’s Himalaya Mountains. The film, chronicling a multiday ceremony in the shadow of Mount Everest at the world’s highest Buddhist monastery, premieres as part of an Ebb & Flow Arts multimedia concert at 7:30 p.m. May 20 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
Keola was an interview subject and performed with his wife, Moana, in Vendetti’s previous film, “The Quietest Place on Earth.” That led to an invitation to be part of the Angkor Wat International Film Festival that Vendetti created in Cambodia.
“We got to know him and Nancy (Tom’s wife) really well, and they got to be good friends over the years,” says Keola.
“I began to follow Tom’s vision that I found fascinating in today’s world, about these delusions or illusions that maybe aren’t all that important or useful.”
“As a psychologist and filmmaker, I’ve been interested in this whole concept of happiness,” Tom explains. “When I learned about the Mani Rimdu festival, based on destroying negative illusions to lead to happiness, I thought, wow, what a concept.”
Tom’s Emmy-winning filmmaking career has included many documentaries shot in the Himalayas. (Full disclosure: I had the honor of working on two of his films.) As a young man, he was an adventurer looking for mountains to climb. As a filmmaker, he has spent decades more interested in the people living at those high altitudes, including the Dalai Lama, wondering what made them so happy.
“Shooting at that elevation is always difficult,” he says. “There’s endurance, and little things like making sure your lens is clean, because you’re on these trails with these yaks and lots of dust. And I’m always hoping for good weather.”
He filmed in 3-D, adding another level of illusion.
But recalling the message of “When the Mountain Calls” — his Emmy-nominated reflections on his Himalayan travels — he says, “You literally need to just show up. If you go in with a plan, you’re pretty much setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you show up and are open to it, wonderful things unfold. Making a documentary like this takes on a life of it own. The story unfolds as I’m becoming part of it.”
Keola and Moana accompanied Tom and Nancy on two separate treks to high-mountain monasteries, where the hypnotic footage swirls with colorful costumes, masks, ritual, meaning and mystery.
“We put on our trekking gear and hiking boots and did our best to climb those amazing trails in the Himalayas,” says Keola. “Living with the people, the Buddhist monks, being in their teahouses, I began to get a real feel for them, their rhythms, their pulse. Every part of the world has its rhythm. In Polynesia, in Hawaii, our rhythms are created by our natural surroundings, waterfalls . . . the trade winds come in and brush your skin . . . and that translates later into our musical forms. It’s the same with other cultures.”
Nepal presented “a totally different tonal palette for me. My strong suit has always been Native Hawaiian instruments.” But Keola has also toured the world, “working cross-culturally for years for the State Department. For this film I really had to understand the Tibetan/Nepalese musical instruments, how they work together, how they build their textures and themes. Then when I sort of got it in my head, we went into the studio with some really great musicians.”
Scoring the movie, he remembered a lesson learned from his mom, renowned kumu Auntie Nona Beamer. “In hula, you’re there as musicians to support the dancers. I learned over the years to play a supportive role.”
The music wordlessly amplifies the film’s message: “When you get up high in the Himalayas, people don’t have a lot of competition,” says Tom. “They don’t have a lot of material things, and they don’t get caught up in negative thoughts and illusions we do as Americans.”
“There’s so much wisdom in these ancient indigenous cultures that we’re losing. The concept that the movies in our minds create our worlds is fascinating. If we can get that message out, I think it’s useful for today’s world.”
The Ebb & Flow program also includes pianist Sarah Cahill performing works by Lou Harrison and accompanying microscopic photography by Dr. Gary Greenberg, and a screening of Vendetti’s short film, “Dalai Lama and Happiness.”
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.