Hawaiian cultural adviser Clifford Nae'ole's belief in paying it forward set a positive tone for The Ritz-Carlton, Kapulua's Celebration of the Arts last weekend. Many longtime attendees called it the best year in this unique cultural event's 20-year history.
True, the 20th anniversary also prompted looks to the past for chairman Nae'ole and kumu hula Hokulani Holt in the opening protocol. That ceremony itself is a nod to the ancient past, as celebration participants in traditional garments exchange chants with Holt at the entrance before being admitted to the Ritz's lobby. This year, these entrances were followed with memories of three kumu hulu who had played such vital roles in shaping the celebration before their deaths last year - Cliff Pali Ahue, Akoni Akana and Charles Ka'upu.
The wistful memories continued at the festive closing luau, as Nae'ole filled the stage with unsung heroes over those two decades, from Linda Morgan and Yvonne Biegel who had helped shape the event before he took over, right up to those conducting the awa ceremony and manning the imu this year.
That was the past. The present filled the resort corridors with the thrill of creativity as Village Gallery artists and traditional artisans led hands-on arts projects for kids of all ages. Displays and information tables spanned eons of history, from ancient implements to new breakthroughs in environmental education and preservation.
The Ritz-Carlton's unprecedented corporate commitment to the culture of Hawaii has long been the signature of this celebration. The guests at the luxury resort can't help but feel it; it stands in brave contrast to the more typical ways the Hawaiian "brand" is often packaged and sold in the name of tourism.
Instead of the inebriated, knee-jerk luau call and response associated with the word "alo-ha," this year's celebration theme, "Me Ke Aloha With Aloha To All," wasn't a simple slogan, but a challenge:
"Why would we take something so spiritual and profound and reduce it to a bumper sticker?" asked Ramsay Taum, moderator of a memorable panel titled "Aloha Lives in Distant Lands."
The panels have become, over the decades, the place where the celebration defines itself each year. Sometimes, they have been forums for heated discussions of injustices, inequality and Hawaii's other political and economic challenges, past, present and future. Other panels have been catalysts for spiritual soul-searching, not just for members of the host culture, but for each individual in the audience.
Although the past wasn't neglected in this year's panels, many had their eyes on the future.
The Aloha in Distant Lands gathering felt both profound and thrilling, as panelists representing Native-American, Tibetan Buddhist, Kenyan, Samoan and Hawaiian culture found amazing commonalities - words in all their languages for the same values: Family. The Earth. Collaboration. Community. Nature. Balance. Breath. Life.
Later that afternoon, another panel addressed similar themes, but this time in the context of practical problem-solving and pro-active environmentalism, discovering and asserting a balance between ancient wisdom in cutting-edge technology.
It was heady stuff. Ancient animism leading to modern physics. Holding firmly to traditional ethical and spiritual values with one hand, while grasping into the unknown with the other. "The challenge of commerce and culture," as Taum put it.
Along with the specific topics being addressed, there was the civility and intelligence of the exchange. For all the emphasis on Hawaiian language and culture, the speakers and presenters were equally articulate in the ways they used the English language.
While some past celebrations left lingering feelings of guilt or anger, this one brimmed with ingenuity, humility, inspiration and hope. Gone was any sense of cultural exclusivity, replaced with the need to all be in it together, with mutual respect and aloha.
Nae'ole -the inspiring source of the celebration's soul as well as its vision - always applies that word first to the staff of his hotel. "The ladies and gentlemen," he calls them. The humblest tasks are as deserving of recognition as the most ambitious.
And his whole family becomes the central nervous system, a key link in the celebration's success and another illustration of what aloha means.
Rather than a commercial label, after this weekend that word aloha felt more like a test, a challenge, a standard to try to live up to with each new breath.
It's an honor just to be invited to try.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com