After staying away for four ridiculous years, the siren song got to be too much for me and I finally returned to my homeland of Honolulu for one delicious month. A truly legendary time was had, filled with the most yummy food, friendship, and romance — the sort of magical time I wish for anyone on their next vacation anywhere.
The inevitable question always posed by those I know there, even after decades of living in New York, is, “Are you ever going to move back here?” For the first time, really, my response was not a resounding “No!,” so appealing and, of course, gorgeous did I find so much of the island. Where once Hawaii had seemed a beautiful, but culturally desolate trap, I was quite taken by the rich variety of diversions offered, many of them giving our beloved, but ever more commercialized and tourist-pandering Big Apple a run for its money.
I attended the 26th annual music competition Ka Himeni Ana at the historic, beautifully restored Hawaii Theater. Presented by the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, amateur artists vied with each other for prizes, performing traditional Hawaiian music quite wondrously unamplified. This year’s worthy veteran honoree was singer/ pianist Mahi Beamer, whom I used to go hear and sing with many a night at the old Andrew’s restaurant. Clustered intimately around a piano with music stars like Robert Cazimero, as well as regular local Joes, I’d thrill to Mahi’s virtuosic ivory tinkling and warbling of everything from Hawaiian classics to Broadway standards. I sang “The Very Thought of You” one night, a song Mahi had forgotten, and was gratified to know he included it in his repertoire thereafter.
The winner of this year’s competition was Kuini, a literally fabulous trio of transvestites resplendent in towering bird of paradise headdresses and flowing, endlessly trained holokus (traditional formal gowns). They breathtakingly, hilariously encompassed the highest artistry and camp simultaneously, singing in traditional Hawaiian falsetto voices and then suddenly breaking into their lower male registers during one chorus, which drove the audience mad with delight.
I spoke with Kimo Stone, the Hall of Fame president, who told me that, alas, he had to miss the concert he was producing, as he had an important paying music gig that night at the Outrigger Canoe Club (featured in “The Descendants”), which once restricted Asians from joining. “There, I was, playing country music for the haoles [white people],” he chuckled. “But didn’t Manu Boyd do a great job as emcee?”
I agreed, for Boyd, a skilled musician himself, achieved the perfect balance of instructive and knowing humor, teaching us the important Hawaiian word for shoulder, as well as decrying the lack of beautiful, traditional vanda orchid leis these days, which are all too often replaced with the lesser, sniff-worthy dendrobium.
Stone said, “Manu totally understood the need for context. Hosting the show is not just about filler or empty patter, and his sensibility is much like both Mahi’s and Kuini’s, with their costumes and hair — funny, knowledgeable, and campy. It’s totally authentic, but without any fear of judgment.
“One of the gifts of our culture is that it wasn’t embarrassing to be gay or effeminate or whatever. That was typical of Polynesia, but not anymore. In modern times, we call it mahu, but the traditional Hawaiian word was ho’aikane. It was like the Native American Indians with their two spirits. Most rational people had this, and it’s only as a result of a twisted version of religion that judgment has been imposed, which seems to be on the rise.
“Visitors to Hawaii would have a much better time here if they could experience something real culturally. There is so little opportunity or promotion for that in the Waikiki hotels. Isn’t that like a no-brainer? Shouldn’t we put some emphasis on the host culture in a real way rather than a patronizing pseudo-luau way?
“Hawaiians were particularly blessed and gifted musically, and I would even speculate that we might have been selected for that. After a thousand generations, the highest form of Hawaiian art, above our beautiful feather-work or canoe making, is poetry, which is prized more than anything else. We have a proverb that says, ‘In the language is life, in the language is death.’ Words are so strong, and we had the illusions and metaphors. The words were never direct, with their secret meanings, both sexual and otherwise.
“Our original healthy attitude toward sex made it one of the quirks of history that the Calvinist missionaries, of all people, landed here from New England. They were religious extremists to the right of the Taliban, who were into destroying idols, like the Taliban blowing up those giant Buddhas
“After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and the government takeover of our land, one of the first things they did was outlaw our language being taught in school. If you want to kill a culture, stop the teaching of its language. When you can no longer think in your own culture, you end up kind of lost.”
I brought up the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, a movement that saw new interest in traditional music and culture, and Stone observed, “That actually all began as early as 1963, with John Dominis Holt writing the essay ‘On Being Hawaiian,’ which laid out the importance of the Hawaiian culture. Until then, our culture was a matter of historical examination, archaeology.
“Then the music started, with the group Guava Jam (Peter Moon and Robert and Roland Cazimero), with their hip folk rock sensibility married to Hawaiian lyrics. Their song ‘Kawika’ nailed it. Then there was Gabby Pahinui, with his extraordinarily compelling vocal style, alala [to bleat like a goat], and Auntie Genoa Keawe, with her chalangalang style.
“After that you had the singer-songwriters Keola and Kapono Beamer, John and Randy, Leon and Malia, Olomana! That all sort of established the Makaha Sons of Niihau, who were imitating Moe Keale of the Sons of Hawaii. They were verbatim, note for note, and then they grew into their own almost choral style. [Lead singer] Israel Kamakawiwo’ole eventually found it too much of a box for him, wanting to stretch out into a reggae style, modern stuff.”
Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow” is sometimes now cited as the world’s most popular recording, even with his botching of the E.Y. Harburg lyrics. I mentioned this to Stone and he replied, “Everything about it is wrong, the lyrics, the chord procession. Musicians sort of rolled their eyes, because that music is sort of a lame attempt. I remember when it came out, for years I thought, ‘This is stupid !’But I finally get it. There’s this almost hypnotic quality to that ‘ooo-ooo-ooo’ that has nothing to do with Dorothy.
“You have to forget that, to appreciate it on its own terms. But the generation above me doesn’t get it, or Iz, at all, and they make up much of our induction committee. Most of our honorees have been dead artists, and I have to fight to remind the committee that the Music Hall of Fame needs living people, before they pass away. But they think that the greats that have died will be forgotten if they aren’t remembered this way. There needs to be a balance.”
Stone played with his own wonderful group at ‘Onipa’a, a celebration of Queen Liliuokalani’s birthday held on the grounds of Iolani Palace on September 2. It was a magical, sunny day, and to sit on that historic grass, listening to such magnificent music (much of it, original compositions of the Queen) and watching splendid hula dancers, was sheer bliss. A walking tour of the palace grounds followed the celebration, which included re-enactments of the tragic events of 1893, during which venal, ruthless, and powerful descendants of those Bible-banging missionaries outrageously overthrew the monarchy.
I experienced another kind of culture and royalty by attending a performance of the rarely done “Henry VIII” by the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival, now in its 12th year, on August 15. I was most impressed by the quality of the acting and period production. Even on a shoestring, this was far more appetizing than the rash of recent, modern-dress Bard shows with no sets and uncertain movie stars currently rife in New York. It was directed by local light Taurie Kinoshita, who also acts and writes, with her very gifted husband, Nicolas Logue, a perfect, roaringly royal and charismatic Henry.
At Coffee Talk in the newly very hip neighborhood of Kaimuki, I interviewed Logue, who teaches drama at Windward Community College and told me, “I’m originally from Buffalo, New York. From about age 16, I was a really young Equity actor in Manhattan, but I burnt out. It wasn’t really much fun. I didn’t have the look of a young leading man, so it was character bits, which I loved, but doing the same show for nine months at a time got really old.
“I wanted to be in college and be in shows, and that’s kind of a problem when you’re in Equity that young. I went home, to SUNY Buffalo, and did two degrees — Chinese studies and theater. I luckily got a Fulbright grant to go to China, and there I wrote and produced sort of fusion Chinese operas and Western dramas while I was training in Chinese opera during the day fulltime.
“I traveled around China playing classic Chinese opera, and then I came to Hawaii, where I met my wife, Taurie. She had her own company, Cool Theater, and was born and raised here. She started doing theater at a young age, a performance artist originally, who broke into directing more traditional work. I love being in her shows, and it’s kind of one of the reasons I fell in love with her. When I got a job in London, teaching at Maggie Smith’s school, she moved her company out there and directed 12 productions. Maggie Smith was a wonderful lady. I was a nobody, running a brand new course, a blip on her radar, but she was always very pleasant to me.”
Justin Sayre claims that when he moved to New York, he thought it would be like MGM in 1947. Reality him like a ton of bricks, but he has turned the lemons of his expectations into the sweetest, most refreshing lemonade with various events, especially his monthly “The Meeting” that brings together the I.O.S. — International Order of Sodomites — in an always witty, warm, irreverent, and musical tribute to all the things we love, including salutes to Diana Ross and author Judy Blume.
His star-studded Judy Garland celebration in June will stand as one of the undoubted cultural highlights of 2012, and he brings “The Meeting” back to the Duplex on September 20, with a much-needed celebration of disco legend Sylvester. (9:30 p.m., 61 Christopher Street at Seventh Avenue South, Sheridan Square; theduplex.com)
Born in the flatulently euphonious Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, from a young age, Sayre was inspired by the Garland/ Mickey Rooney movies where, as he said, “They were always throwing a show together in some barn. That is exactly what I wanted to do.” Although always flamboyantly himself, he said he luckily never suffered from bullying “as I was accepted because I could make people laugh.” His influences ranged from comedians like Jackie Gleason to George Carlin and, especially, Jack Benny (“his timing, alone!”).
What Sayre does is especially important given the dearth of actual cultural role models for young gays in the wake of a generation of inspiring mentors wiped away by AIDS. He expresses delight in the fact that queer kids are now taking a real interest in figures like Charles Ludlum, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis, and Sayre is a besotted admirer of Justin Vivian Bond: “After years of not knowing who and what had come before us, this resurgence of interest and queer art in general is marvelous!”
Do yourself a favor and get to the Duplex for the next “Meeting.” I’ll definitely be there, and you’re bound to feel mighty real.
©2012 Community News Group