Maui Connections

Tony Novak-Clifford took me to Bali last Saturday.

I didn’t have to get on a plane. I just had to turn the pages of his new “BALI Portraits of Life, Culture & Ritual” to get lost in spellbinding landscapes and catch glimpses through the expressive eyes of these captivating people, into their souls.

Tony is a longtime friend and collaborator. The last time we worked side by side was in the Castle Theater wings at a memorable Kris Kristofferson concert at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. For years, Tony’s cameras were the eyes capturing one historic event after another at the MACC. His images have appeared in a long list of prestigious national publications. He was also well known as a voice and guiding force behind Maui’s listener-supported Mana’o Radio.

He sums up his eclectic talents simply.

“I’m curious,” he says.

He and his wife, Beth, first came to Maui in 1981, drawn by the surf and everything that came with it in those slower days. Likewise, the first trip to Bali some 30 years ago was for the surf. But the tourist attractions soon became less intriguing to Tony than the mysteries of the happy, creative residents of the island. In their colorful attire, their smiles free of guile, their lives seemed a dance to Hindu spiritual rhythms unknown to him. Tony was unprepared for their generosity. They were seemingly living in a parallel universe of spiritual contentment.

The photos in the book come from 30 years of visits as his fascination with the place and its people deepened. The beauty in the faces he saw all around him may have stemmed from their “doing religion all the time” . . . in a way that couldn’t be separated from every other aspect of their lives.

“It’s an elegant, refined modern culture . . . living in a medieval kingdom,” he says of this bastion of Hindu practices, surrounded by the world’s largest Muslim population throughout the rest of Indonesia.

In their language, “there is no word for art or artist,” Tony says, “but everyone is one.” From the simplest village handcrafts to the intricacies of music and dance, “everything has to be lovely and well executed to appease the gods.”

Page after page of large photos saturated with color provide gateways into village life: temple practices, colorful cremation rituals, the mists and mystery of the volcanic lake of Tamblingan, faces of religious devotees lost in trance and more.

With feedback from Hana’s Tad Bartimus among others, he cut some 25 pages of text down to the three pages that introduce the book, poetically locating Bali and its culture geographically, historically, but most of all, cosmically. Its spiritual underpinnings, he points out, don’t seek the triumph of good over the profane, but are rather a balancing act between the two.

“They are one of the few cultures that do death right. Funerals are joyous, a freeing of the soul. They are more attuned — they choose the day they want to die . . . and they do.”

Clearly the spiritual journey revealed through Tony’s lens is magic show as much as travelogue. For all the beauty it captures, his camera makes invisible things visible.

“Being curious and acting like a guest opens up doors,” he says.

The book is available online by typing in its title and going to, or by contacting Tony Novak-Clifford via social media.

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My other day trip last weekend was down memory lane, courtesy of the Maui Chamber Orchestra superbly directed by Robert E. Wills, a stage full of terrific Maui theatrical vocalists and New York-based dancer/choreographer Caleb Teicher, dazzling Sunday’s full house at the Historic Iao Theater by showing there’s a place in this new millennium for tap dancing.

“Crazy For You,” a reboot of music and lyrics created in the ’20s by George and Ira Gershwin, includes numerous standards. While narrator Dale Button kept reminding the audience that the libretto, or storyline, was ridiculously corny — and ridiculous, period — by today’s standards, the production still soared. The soloists captured nuanced lyrics created when wit still kept lust at bay, and the orchestra had a ball catching the Gershwins’ optimism.

Running into Kathleen Schulz reminded us that our daughter, Lisa, had been a member of the tap-dancing chorus line in an earlier MAPA version of this show. Seeing Paul Janes-Brown in the ensemble reminded me of seeing him for the first time on this same stage years ago in the musical “Company,” where he met his wife-to-be, Liz Janes.

Feelings shared in musicals like this are, by design, over-the-top sentimental.

But, as the song goes, “They can’t take that away from me.”

* 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