Last Thursday, a few days before Saturday’s Ku Mai Ka Hula 2018 competition at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, four revered Hawaiian kumu got together in McCoy Studio Theater to talk about sex.
Lahui Sexuality was the subject of a panel discussion with Keali’i Reichel, Manaiakalani Kalua, Kameha’ililani Waiau and Kahele Dukelow that kept a capacity audience enthralled, titillated and laughing a lot through two hours of talk story, insights and epiphanies.
All of the panelists are teachers — Dukelow teaches Hawaiian Studies and Language at UH-Maui College; Waiau is the hahu/principal of a K-12 Hawaiian culture-based charter school on Oahu; and Reichel and Kalua are renowned kumu hula. All are on the forefront of shaping future generations and furthering Hawaiian culture in the modern world.
Waiau introduced the panel’s conversation as “foreplay” for the sensual themes that would run through the weekend’s adult hula competition. While the evening was explicit, often hilariously so, it was also an exploration of the “filters” Hawaiians and non-Hawaiian residents of these islands bring to this prickly but endlessly interesting subject.
Having jotted down a list of subjects to cover before taking the stage, the panelists came at the theme of sexuality with refreshing candor and openness. Lesson No. 1: No judgment. Whatever the missionaries might have said about heaven and hell, not to mention guilt, Native Hawaiians had an entirely different approach to it all before they arrived.
“No shame, no baggage,” summed up Reichel, talking about certain kinds of relationships.
Over the course of the evening, the audience learned about first and second wives; about “da uddah husband”; about the complexity of the term “mahu”; about the impulses we all share; about friendship, the infinite nuances of relationships — and that our most intimate relationships might not include sex at all.
Being witty is sexy, said Waiau. She was an animated moderator, raunchy in one moment, insightful, articulate and compassionate in the next. At the other end of panel, Dukelow’s radiant smile was unfazed wherever the conversation might lead as she kept the discussion focused, noting where it all fit into the Hawaiian culture and mindset.
Throughout Hawaiian myth and history, the women had controlled their bodies and sexuality, she observed.
The two male panelists shared candid experiences of growing up gay in this culture. They can laugh about it now, as Kalua talked of having to avoid the subject with his strict Mormon family, and Reichel recalled the moment in his teens when his grandmother labeled him a “homopsycho.”
“Once you get over the self-loathing, you’re kind of OK,” joked Kalua about his evolution.
The creator of some of the most romantic Hawaiian music of the last three decades, Reichel spoke of the irony that the love songs had been inspired by the man he’s been with for 33 years, now his husband, Fred “Punahele” Krauss.
Dukelow began the evening observing that lots of Western concepts, like monogamy, weren’t so much foreign to Hawaiian culture as meaningless. In the Q&A period at the end of the evening, when an audience member asked about the sacred aspect of sexuality, all four panelists were at a loss. That word just didn’t apply.
One of my favorite experiences over almost 30 years with The Maui News has been chronicling the career of Keali’i Reichel. He was an up-and-coming kumu hula and director of the Bailey House Museum when I first met him in the early ’90s. The musical career that would quickly make him a superstar and award-winning recording phenomenon hadn’t begun yet.
He was still honing his talents as a dancer, choreographer, chanter and kumu hula that would eventually make him a giant in the hula world, inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, among countless other honors, in 2010.
From the first time we met, even though he was a lot younger that I was, I recognized him as my teacher — not only into things Hawaiian, but way beyond. He’s one of those rare guys possessing a direct line to the wisdom common to all cultures.
He once explained oli — or traditional Hawaiian chant — to me as something akin to channeling, becoming the medium through which the ancient words come back to life. He’s like that with all the art forms he has mastered, not performing them with his ego, but instead inhabiting them, becoming one with them.
On Thursday he was surrounded by three equally skillful teachers with the courage and insight to look at their faces in the mirror and find truth, which they then turn into teachable moments.
It’s a rare gift. Must be a Hawaiian thing, yeah?
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.