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Words: Handle with care
September 13, 2012 - Rick Chatenever
In the heat of this political season, Keali'i Reichel offered a valuable lesson last Thursday in how to insult somebody really, really well.
True, the insults were in Hawaiian, but precious little was lost in translation. His presentation titled "Hakukole" in McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center was subtitled, "Sayings and Chants of Ridicule."
Reichel is a revered, if self-effacing, authority in Hawaii's hula world, as well as our most popular recording artist. On Thursday he unveiled yet another prodigious talent as he debuted a new genre in the performing arts: Hawaiian language stand-up comedy.
Deftly balancing his role as kumu hula - teacher - with the comic timing of a Chris Rock, Keali'i held the full theater enthralled for an hour and a half with something that in anyone else's hands would be little more than a PowerPoint presentation.
Using supertitles, first in Hawaiian then in English translation, hilariously illustrated with photos and graphics, he catalogued one insult after another. The most frequent response was a shared murmur from the crowd, a group aha moment, a muffled but audible sign that we got it.
That response is what teachers live for - lots of lightbulbs turning on over people's heads.
But considering that the subject matter concerned the most base of body organs and functions, embarrassing behavior and physical flaws, not to mention obnoxious weaknesses of character - all skewered with rapier-sharp wit - our "education" was accompanied with a naughty sense of glee.
"We don't have to use the F-word," professor Reichel told the eager class. "We've got our own."
Reichel had warned the audience what was coming at the beginning of the evening. When I later told a friend about the unique performance, he asked if I had learned any new 12-letter words.
Which camouflages just how knowledgeable, articulate and smaht our teacher was. Like the Kalaupapa photo show continuing at the MACC through the end of the month, Reichel illuminated a tiny facet of Hawaiian culture that's like a prism, holding glimpses of the bigger picture.
He also demonstrated just how articulate and poetic fluent Hawaiian language speakers often are in English even when addressing subject matter that's, uh, really crude.
The evening reminded me of a desk calendar of insults written by William Shakespeare, one a day. The humor of the barbs comes with the knowledge that they were created by the all-time, undefeated heavyweight champion in the English language division.
Keali'i Reichel had some of that going for him Thursday night - bilingually, in Hawaiian as well as English. Some of the phrases were just plain ribald; others were exquisitely nuanced with subtle geographical and cultural shadings.
They all revealed a zest for life that's uniquely Hawaiian: wise in the ways of nature and human nature as it balances animal instincts with poetic wit and humor that could match the Bard's only the scenery's a lot better here in the islands.
Reichel's artistry with language stood in sharp, infuriating contrast to the dangerously toxic way words are being cast about as we count the days down to the Nov. 6 election.
He may have demonstrated the fine art of insult to someone's face, but our TVs are heating up with knife-in-the-back political ads intended to use words - and numbers - not to clarify but to deceive, obfuscate and further confuse an overwhelmed and apathetic population.
Seemingly inspired by circus showman P.T. Barnum's adage, "There's a sucker born every minute," this year's political campaigns are doling out tens of millions of dollars - which might be better spent feeding starving children or attending to a myriad of other calamities - to create enough, uh, misleading impressions in people's minds to get their candidate elected. The slick political operatives and well-paid agencies "spinning" this stuff are indifferent to the collateral damage of widespread cynicism, depression and cognitive dissonance they create in the society at large.
Political elections have bordered on blood sport throughout American history, the verbal equivalent of a pair of bull moose or elephant seals vying to be the alpha male in their little band of beasts.
Keali'i Reichel hilariously demonstrated how to turn ridicule into a form of art; politics aims a lot lower, turning words not into blades but clubs to beat the sense out of anyone who hears them.
In other words, they ridicule us. In other words, ridiculous.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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