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Maui Connections

Our happy return to Maui after more than three months away was saddened by news of the death of Eddie Kamae over the weekend. He was 89.

The legendary musical artist and documentary filmmaker was literally a living treasure of Hawaii, one of the many honors bestowed on him over a career spanning more than a half-century. Creative vitality infused everything he touched — his groundbreaking ukulele virtuosity, his distinctive vocals, his songwriting and arranging originality. Thirty years ago, Eddie and his wife, Myrna, added filmmaking to his resume, preserving huge parts of the legacy of Hawaiian culture, along with its generous heart and indomitable spirit.

The late author Jim Houston, who scripted Eddie’s films, introduced me to the Kamaes in Santa Cruz, Calif., before my family moved to Maui a quarter-century ago. Once we arrived, Eddie and Myrna — who was by his side as companion and collaborator for 50 years — were generous guides to all things Hawaiian for this clueless haole in the early days of my Maui News career.

For all his accomplishments, Eddie was a gentle man, a humble vessel for his talents, with a ready smile and a huge heart beating with aloha right to the end.

*****

After all that time spent happily landlocked in Arizona, the transition back to island time became easier as I started reading “Once There Was Fire” on the flight home.

The book is subtitled “A Novel of Old Hawaii,” focusing on Kamehameha, who forged the island chain into a kingdom 200 years ago. Its author, Stephen Shender, is an old friend and colleague. We worked together at The Santa Cruz Sentinel in the ’80s.

What makes this historical novel impressive, beyond its considerable length, is its author’s feel for his epic subject matter, and his ability to tell the story so lyrically, with a Hawaiian lilt to the language. His Kamehameha resembles larger-than-life Western literary figures, from the classical myths of antiquity through King Arthur to Shakespeare in this page turner that vividly paints a way of life worlds apart from the one we now know on Hawaii’s shores.

Considering that Steve doesn’t live in the islands, I asked what attracted him to such an ambitious undertaking.

“I ‘discovered’ the story of Kamehameha on our first serious trip to Hawaii (the Big Island) in summer, 2004,” he emailed back. “When I further discovered that nobody . . . had written a novel based on his compelling life — other than kids and young-adult authors — I thought, why not me?

“I’d always wanted to write a novel, and there was the entire dramatic arc of a story laid out for me. ‘Once There Was Fire’ is the result.”

Making it an even more compelling read is the role played by Nae’ole, a chief of Halawa who saved Kamehameha’s life as a newborn infant and went on to become his kahu, or mentor. That noble role is still being played by many Nae’ole descendants, on Maui and elsewhere in the state.

*****

Tita — “best friend” and beloved alter ego of the multitalented Kathy Collins — presented my next history lesson, my first night home. Her lesson was about the origins of Pidgin, and she delivered it, hilariously, to a sold-out audience in McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

The origins of Pidgin tell the story of how so many cultures from places so far apart on the planet arrived seeking better lives working on the plantations. Eventually they formed one culture as they sowed the seeds of modern Hawaii.

The audience was there to see Rita Rudner, who’s pretty good with language herself. In her hour-and-a-half set, the record-setting, Las Vegas-based comedian skewered targets ranging from Siri to shopping to modern life in general. She also offered a rollicking crash course in what women want, for the nodding females and clueless males in the audience. But her best zingers were reserved for the endless dance of human relationships — with her friends, her daughter and, best of all, with her husband of almost 30 years.

In the often cruel and self-destructive realm of contemporary stand-up comedy, Rudner’s razor-sharp, often self-deprecating observations were tempered with warmth and kindness. An endless array of comic expressions paraded across her face, punctuating her perfectly timed punchlines and letting the laughter build in the silence.

At times, she said, her husband looks at the top of her forehead and asks, in complete bewilderment, “What’s going on in there?”

Despite her description of herself as a superficial people pleaser, what’s going on in there looked a lot like genius from where I was sitting.

* 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 rickchatenever@gmail.com.

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