Interviews with the Hula Experts

For more than a decade, the Hula Preservation Society has been interviewing, and videotaping, hula’s most respected elders, capturing their knowledge, their memories and their stories. The result is a treasure trove of history and culture; here, we present just a few excerpts from the hundreds of hours of footage.


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Photos: Courtesy of the Hula Preservation Society

It all started with a simple question. Pioneering kumu hula Winona Beamer was in her Puna home, talking story about hula traditions and techniques with her hanai daughter, Maile Loo-Ching. “We were sitting around her table,” Loo-Ching recalls, “as we did so many times, and all of a sudden Auntie Nona asked, I wonder what my peers know about all this? I was like, Well, let’s go ask them!” Beamer and Loo-Ching did just that, visiting the homes of expert kumu hula and practitioners who had been born before 1930, equipped with a video camera. The interview settings were casual—living rooms and back yards—but the stories they began to record were priceless.

“These people are cut from a different fabric,” says Loo-Ching. “They grew up in a Hawaii that is not around anymore. A lot of them were raised by grandparents who lived in the 1800s. The way they did things, the Hawaiian they spoke, it’s different.”

What started as an informal project quickly turned into a real nonprofit organization, the Hula Preservation Society. Since 2001, Loo-Ching has interviewed more than 50 people, capturing more than 1,200 hours of footage in all, and is still going strong.

Because the kupuna being interviewed are now in their 80s and 90s, Loo-Ching says her oral history project feels like a constant race against time. “Since we’ve been doing this, we lost Uncle George Holokai, Auntie Myrtle.  Uncle George Naope passed, Auntie Emma Kauhi. It’s been a wake up call. We need to step it up.” Of course, with finite resources, HPS has focused more on recording new oral histories than on editing and publishing the ones they’ve already got. But Loo-Ching is applying for national grants that would allow them to put everything online.

Here, we’ve selected a few stories from the Hula Preservation Society archives we feel capture the vitality, wisdom and humor of hula’s oldest living generation—from early hula memories to anecdotes of an earlier time in Hawaii. Each kupuna’s account has been edited for length and clarity.

Herself a kumu hula, Maile Loo-Ching has devoted more than a decade to recording the knowledge and history of hula.

Edna Pualani Farden Bekeart

Born 1917

Bekeart hails from the reknowned Farden clan of Maui. Her sister was Irmgard Farden Aluli, and her sister Emma Sharpe was a renowned kumu hula. Bekeart is best known for her work writing Hawaiian children songs. In this 2002 interview, she shares her earliest hula memories from the early 1920s.

Pualani Farden Bekeart.

In those days, when Hawaii became a possession of the United States, everything went fast forward. You had to stop speaking Hawaiian, you had to learn English. Don’t dance the hula, it’s lascivious, it was the missionary attitude at that time. So nobody was doing anything Hawaiian. But the hula went underground. People were still doing it in country places, like Lahaina. And at Puamana, we used to have hula dancing there. But not the sacred dances.

As a child, four or five years old, I remember seeing my mother and other women doing the hula kui (In Bekeart’s usage, an informal hula used to flirt.) That’s what they danced. Not the hula with motions that tell a story. That came later. But in the country places like this, they would have Hawaiian music and dance this hula kui, with that flair. And then the men would get in and do the same thing, like a teasing, flirtatious kind of dance. And everybody would shout and clap and sing and enjoy the couple doing the hula together. Like I say, it was a flirtatious thing.

As a four- and five-year-old watching my mother, I did not like it. I was stunned. [chuckles] It was something that was done at home, you know. But there it was my mother and my dad doing it. Here, some other man would get up and dance. My dad was not a dancer anyway. So I was really shocked to see this. But I know, to witness this was really something.

Related links:
Hula Preservation Society
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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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