Lessons learned at The Ritz
April 7, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
Eighteen years. If it were your baby, it would be old enough to drive by now.
Eighteen years isn’t a long time, really —just enough to put down roots and start making its own traditions and history.
But attending the 18th Celebration of the Arts last weekend at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua reminded me that, along with various members of my family, I’ve been there for every one of them.
True, it’s luxurious to spend Easter weekend at The Ritz, but there’s more involved. There are lessons to be learned. In this season of Easter and Passover and rejuvenation and renewal, I think of it as boot camp for your conscience.
Eia ka manawa … Here, now is the time was this year’s theme. With record turnout for some events and full occupancy in the resort itself, it was the best ever. But yeah, I know … I say that every year.
Once a year, I join a Hawaiian kupuna and kumu along with artists and a small cadre of travel writers and journalists, immersing ourselves in the ocean before daybreak, then chanting the sunrise on the beach.
I think of it as honoring of the gods of nature, whose tales are recalled in chants and mythology, and who seem to come back to life and join us in the sand, waiting for the first beam of sunlight over the Cook pines on the ridge.
Joining the sunrise chant, E Ala E, my mind wandering, not only over Hawaiian history, but over the history of the celebration itself.
It was born shortly after the resort opened, the brainchild of the property’s developer, the late Colin Cameron. At the inaugural event, the emphasis was on The Arts — the Ritz’s connection with the Village Galleries artists who had created hundreds of original works gracing its rooms, corridors and lobbies.
The event celebrated the effect of this unique place we live, to stimulate creativity. Creating art is not just about harnessing dexterity and talent to produce beauty. Instead, it’s almost a spiritual thing, carving totems, channeling likenesses of the gods of nature, a paying back to the home that nurtures us.
Many of the island’s finest artists took part in those early celebrations, leading free hands-on workshops for kids and the young at heart throughout the lobbies and hallways. But despite the annual concert by Henry Kapono and a Saturday night luau, it was hard to escape echoes of Maui’s plantation past when you were surrounded by the casual elegance of the Ritz decor.
That all changed when Clifford Nae‘ole came on board 15 years ago, as The Ritz’s cultural adviser and chairman of Celebration of the Arts.
The event was still all about the arts — but now it was about Hawaiian arts and all things Hawaiian. It transformed itself into an immersion program for people of any age, offering unique glimpses into the culture that had thrived in this place before Western civilization arrived, and how that culture has fared ever since.
Clifford’s vision reshaped the celebration into an event that has won awards for its cultural authenticity. His spirit and soul became its spirit and soul; his kindness and generosity becoming walking definitions of aloha.
Each year, it seemed, there were new lessons to learn at the celebration, not only for those of us new to this place, but also for those born here, whose past had been lost in fog.
The lessons began with Honokahua, the mound fronting the resort that looks like a great picnic spot, but instead marks the ancient burial place of thousands of Hawaiians.
Construction crews began unearthing the remains when excavating the property in the 1980s. The discovery sowed seeds of political empowerment for Native Hawaiians, who suddenly realized the necessity of preserving their birthright. It also convinced Cameron, at considerable personal expense, to take the project back to the drawing board and start over.
At those first celebrations, before I learned any of this history, I remember sensing the presence of the mound. It was an uneasy feeling, like spooky tales of night marchers showing up in the lobby, that lingered after you tried to laugh them off as superstition.
Under Clifford’s guidance, the celebration stopped trying to escape the energy emanating from Honokahua. Instead, it embraced it. The site and all it represented became the source of inspiration. It was there to be recognized and honored, a never-ending challenge to be, as the Hawaiians say, pono.
Celebration of the Arts can never atone for the wrongs committed in the history of Hawaii. It can’t undo the economic inequities of modern Hawaiian life, which don’t limit themselves to Native Hawaiians.
But it tries. Its Hawaiian practitioners remind those who attend of the difference between Culture, as a commodity that can be bought, and culture, as a living thing to be shared.
It has brought some version of aloha all the way to Ritz-Carlton corporate headquarters, where the corporation remains committed to supporting the event, even though that makes no economic sense whatsoever.
This year’s celebration added a spirited performance of “ ‘Ulalena” to the luau entertainment, capping a weekend dedicated to reinventing Celebration of Arts in a forward-looking direction.
This year’s event lost none of its authenticity or mana from years past. It was still happy to take on hot-button topical issues in its panels, like a discussion about a 14-story telescope proposed for the summit of Haleakala.
The interface between technology and culture was an underlying theme of the panel, and indirectly, of the celebration itself. For all laptops and smart phones on the premises, celebration is a place where talking story is still the best way of communicating.
The feeling I took away this year was more positive than in some years past.
Trying to weather economic challenges by turning to culture is a novel concept — but maybe one with its own lessons to teach. Especially since, the deeper you go into any one specific culture, the more you discover the things all cultures share. Love for our children and our families. Honor. Respect. Empathy and compassion.
Speaking as a member of one of the panels, Henry Kapono described growing up isolated from his language and culture, and having to discover them later. He likened that experience to Celebration of the Arts:
“Even if you don’t understand it, you can still feel it,” he said.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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Celebration chairman Clifford Nae‘ole. The Maui News/AMANDA COWAN photo