Aaron Sala and Snowbird Bento - It's the kolohe Hawaiian in them...and the Portuguese...and the Samoan...and the friendship nurtured by music and dance
Their reputations precede them -- I was chatting about the tsunami with one of the off-island musicians who came to EKK. He asked who just came to EKK and I replied that it was Aaron Sala and Snowbird Bento. He laughed and said "...that must have put all that tsunami stuff out of your mind, yeah?" I guess what he was actually saying is that these two artists are known for their fun, kolohe, talent and being great party animals...and yes, they are! They can come to my party anytime...just bring along your piano, Aaron! When he sat down at that piano and started to play, it took me back to the good ol' days on west Kaua'i where you always hear the Hawaiian piano playing. What's a party without that piano?
It was an evening of subtle revelations...things that I always sort of knew in the back of my mind but it is still interesting when it is presented anew and served up with singing and dancing.
Never mind that Snowbird is an award-winning kumu hula in the Merrie Monarch hula competition, when she lets her hair down, she is totally funny and rascal, especially when she's doing tag-team commentary with her friend from eight grade...it was hilarious to hear her muttering affirmations and corrections to Aaron's stories and jumping in to give her own version whenever she chose to. But when she takes the stage and moves to the music, all else falls away and one can see why she holds the title of kumu hula. From teaching "Hanalei Moon" in a 45-minute crash course to over 25 women and one man during the ukulele hour to sharing the hula skills of Kaohimanu Kahaunaele, one of her Kaua'i male hula dancers, one can see the teacher in her. The complexity and power of the choreography of the two male hula dances were impressive. One was "Hole Waimea," a name chant for Kamehameha who attempted to conquer all the islands...except Kaua'i, was also a prophesy chant written before the 1795 battle of Nu'uanu where the warriors jumped off the cliffs of the Pali rather than surrender to Kamehameha. Snowbird's hula to "Waika" was quiet and stately which is interesting when it was derived by Johnny Spencer from the martial-arts like "Hole Waimea."
With his extensive schooling in Ethnomusicology, Hawaiian mythology and genealogy, Aaron has so much background about Hawaiian music but when he translates, he throws in his own unique perspective on many issues. You have to say "...music according to Aaron is such-and-such..." because he holds his own view about many things and stands by them. For starters, the word "kanikapila" is not a Hawaiian word; it does not exist. It came from a concert series by Peter Moon in the '70's; the right word for our EKK program should actually be "Ho'o Kanipila". Whatevahs...but pretty hard to change our name at age 27.
The theme that Aaron and Snowbird wove through the whole evening is that Kamehameha never conquered Kaua'i...interesting coming from Kamehameha School graduates and teachers and one of the reasons why they changed their flights to the last flight out is because Snowbird teaches little kids at Kam starting at 5:00 am. Aaron is one of the principal figures who works directly with the students for the Kamehameha Song Contest and the Christmas Concert - music programs of such high caliber and broadcast on television for the public. Both take part in the Merrie Monarch Festivals with Snowbird's halau Ka Pa Hula o Ka Lei Lehua competing and Aaron adding his special touch to the keys throughout the evenings. You might not see him but you certainly can hear him.
In Hawai'i where many ethnicities rub elbows in tight quarters daily, you learn quickly the underlying rule that you don't make fun of other races in front of them but you can laugh with them, not at them, when they make fun of themselves ... which every group does all the time. Aaron and Snowbird agreed that Hawaiian Airlines was not built for Hawaiians and gave this hilarious account of trying to fit into seats 8A and 8B with onlooking visitors staring with curiosity on how they would manage that and local folks giving the side-eyes and muttering between pursed lips, "Don't tell me they going sit together." Since all seats are reserved and unchangeable, they sucked in their breath for 30 minutes until they got to Kauai.
I waited in baggage claim for their arrival and saw a line of about seven people with leis who looked like they were from Minnesota...I wondered who they were greeting with leis. They were staring at me all dressed up wondering who I was greeting when I spotted this tall Hawaiian-Samoan in very colorful printed shirt and pants with long black unruly hair flying around in the hurricane wind and this voluptuous very relaxed looking Hawaiian woman in black centipede-proof pants strolling slowly by. I clicked the glass door with my keys to get their attention but they kept walking by with that relaxed finally-arrived-on-Kauai-look on their faces, probably relieved that they no longer had to hold their breath. Yes, Kaua'i is the place to let it all hang out.
Luckily, they had a couple of hours and a phone booth to completely transform themselves for EKK as they both waltzed on stage, Aaron looking very GQ and Snowbird gracing the stage with her gracious kumu hula presence. They opened their performance with the appropriate oli to greet the audience and to ask permission to share their mana'o on Kaua'i. Their delivery was quite different but both chicken skin. Striding to the piano and immediately making that music he is so famous for, Aaron sang Lizzy Alohikea's "Nani Kaua'i" in his soaring voice while Snowbird danced Kaua'i's most beautiful place song. Snowbird's description of trekking up and sliding down the burning hot sand dunes of Nohili with Aunty Margaret Aipolani was hilarious. Aaron observed that Kaua'i people are calm but Kaua'i is not a calm place....that's why Kamehameha never conquered Kaua'i.
Her longtime friendship with Aaron was based on their love of music and their sharing of adventures since intermediate grades. They apologized in advance if they talked too much but that was the Portuguese in them...the Cabral that lurks somewhere in Aaron's geneology and the Bento, said with the Portuguese drawl in "B-E-N-to" rather than the short clipped "ben-TO" that means Japanese plate lunch
Aaron loves to sing and often has a smile lingering at his lips when he does, and I think it must be because he knows all the layers of meanings of the lyrics...something that many of us do not know. Throughout the evening, he not only translated but completely dissected the lyrics of the songs to share with us the different layers of meanings. He interprets lyrics the way my Dad used to eat fish. I never saw my Dad choke on a fish bone and have to swallow a wad of rice to dislodge the stuck fishbone. He started with a whole red big-eyed mempachi fish poached in shoyu and by the end of the meal, he had a tidy pile of clean fish bones on one side of his dish. Similarly, Aaron took apart the songs, line by line, giving not only the literal translation but all the colorful or sordid little details hidden in the words. It was surprising to learn that Helen Lindsey Parker's beautiful song "Mauna Loa" about a ship that travels between the islands was actually a song about a lover who can't be faithful. Aaron and Bird together clarified words such as "hone hone" which is the voice that comes to you and makes you shudder. Such interesting revelations...
Lena Machado wrote a song that tells the story of a wife who came home ten minutes too early and found her door stuck from the inside, giving her no recourse but to peek through the giant skeleton-keyhole common in those days...and to her dismay find that her husband was enjoying the someone else's "hone hone". Snowbird was asked to sing this song as it would not be cool for Aaron to sing about an unfaithful husband. This was sung with suggestive intonation and descriptive body language. Aaron also shared his most favorite song "Aloha No" by Lena Machado about her great love for her husband, a song he earlier taught the ukulele circle.
According to Aaron, Hawaiians love to gossip; that's why they love to watch Korean drama. Gossip is the fodder for everything we do in our lives and is the source of many of our artistic expressions. I found that true when I connected for the first time in nearly half a century with my westside Hawaiian classmates and in the first thirty minutes caught up on all the "stories" about "who was who" and "who did what" and "what was going on" in Kekaha and Waimea. This story introduced the song "Pukiona" written by the half-Mexican lover of Pualani. A jealous woman made up some gossip about Pualani, so Pualani writes back and the two women face off in public...so Hawaiian! Snowbird did not dance the hula because this was a family show.
"Ku'uhoa", a beautiful hula classic by is actually a song in honor of a stubbed toe written by Francis Pono Beamer for his wife who stubbed her toe while working on "Waikiki Wedding" starring Bing Crosby. He was telling her that it was time to go home from the set.
Of Samoan-Hawaiian descent, Aaron's family moved to and lived in Samoa when he was age 2, enjoying a simple lifestyle where all the usual western amenities were unknown to them - no running water, no hot water, electricity for only one hour a day - so when he moved back to Hawaii and lived with his grandmother he was assigned the task of washing dishes in a two-basin sink with wash water on one side and rinse water in the other. One day about a year after moving back to Hawai'i, his Grandma came to wash her hands in the kitchen, back-hands Aaron and asks why he was washing dishes with cold water. The naive Aaron, who had no idea that hot water ran through the pipes, asked if he should boil water to wash the dishes; Grandma gave him an appalled expression and turned on the hot water tap....all that Aaron could think was, "Does that mean that there is hot water coming out of the shower?" From the side, Snowbird shakes her head and quips, "Uh huh...this is ONE year after he moved back to Hawai'i." To honor his Samoan heritage and the Samoan love of land and God, he sings "Samoa Matalasi" and points out that Samoan poetry is straightforward and does not have so many layers of meaning like Hawaiian poetry, but it sure sounds beautiful in the duet they sang.
When they attended Kamehameha Schools as day students, the boarders from other islands often cajoled them to do kolohe things like sneaking off on Friday nights to Andrews restaurant in Ward Center to listen to Mahi Beamer playing the piano. Aaron acknowledges Mahi was an important mentor when it came to playing the Hawaiian piano and everything Hawaiian; it changed piano-playing for him because he grew up in Samoa playing classical piano and was first introduced to Hawaiian piano by his grandmother. Parents these days would be happy if their kids called sneaking off to hear Uncle Mahi a kolohe thing....I think today they call it "classroom without walls." Mahi taught Aaron many songs and among them was a song he shared in a repeat performance of "Sabor A Mi". While Aaron sang in his powerful operatic-trained tenor, Fran translated the words in English and joined in with her beautiful soprano...such ono love songs.
What's in a name? Aaron could not resist telling the story about Snowbird's name which he does not think is particularly strange...but then apparently it is. At one of Mahi's gatherings, Aaron brought a birthday cake for Snowbird and when they opened it, the wording said, "Happy Birthday Snowberg!" Another time, the airport intercom loudly pages "Hawaiian Airlines paging Snowball Bento" and then corrects itself to "Snowboard Bento" Kumu Hula Leimomi Ho, who is in the Aloha Airlines terminal, has to run all the way to the Hawaiian side to laugh and yell out to Snowbird...."You heard that? They calling you Snowball!" This story was particularly fitting at EKK where a good solid core of participants are fondly called "Snowbirds" as they migrate yearly to Kauai to be at EKK. Snowbird, you are amongst your 'ohana at EKK.
To thank Kaua'i for being so hospitable during their too-short seven-hour stay on island, Aaron shared the beautiful and well-known song about the legendary hospitality of Jack Waterhouse whose home was behind Mount Ha'upu in the magical seclusion of "Kipu Kai." Aaron and Snowbird sang the duet and the elegant Sabra Kauka danced the hula.
Aaron invited Lady Ipo Kahauna'ele Ferreira, a long-time friend of his Mom, to sing "Ko'ula." Of course, Uncle Vern came up to dance. Ipo's talented daughter Kainani Kahauna'ele is Aaron's very close friend. All these inter-generational musical connections is pretty awesome. Although they had a plane to catch, they obliged the hana hou call with Helen Desha Beamer's "Kimo Hula" sang by Aaron and danced by Snowbird. As they gathered up their belongings and frozen Hamura lilikoi chiffon pies and got ready to once again squeeze into Hawaiian Airlines, Snowbird took a few minutes to share a chant with her Kaua'i student on the loading dock outside the hotel...such is a kumu...always teaching, always sharing. Both Aaron and Snowbird shared their wonderful talent and fun personalities with a grateful audience.
Sunday, March 7, Cousins Donald Kaulia, Kimo Artis, Lance Artis jammed with non-stop music for three hours in Shutters Lounge at the Kauai Beach Resort on the Oscar night to a full house; their music was pretty awesome and hula was shared by Mehana Blaich Vaughan and Leilani Rivera Bond. Wendy Fitzsimmons wowed the audience.
Monday, March 8, Donald Kaulia and Wendy Fitzsimmons be presenting a program that promises to be completely different from the EKK Concert at which Donald was a special guest. From 6:00 – 6:45 Donald will lead the ukulele session and Wendy will be teaching a hula; the main program goes from 6:45 – 9:00 pm. Watch out for that Wendy...she's a dynamo on stage! Food and drink is made available by Kauai Beach Resort so you can come straight from work.
Contact the Kauai Beach Resort at 245-1955 for EKK Special Room Discounts.
(s) Carol Kouchi Yotsuda, www.gardenislandarts.org -- “Celebrating 33 years of bringing ARTS to the people and people to the ARTS”
E Kanikapila Kakou 2010 -- Hawaiian Music Program is funded in part by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, the County of Kaua’i Office of Economic Development, and Garden Island Arts Council supporters with support from Kaua’I Beach Resort.
Garden Island Arts Council programs are supported in part by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts through appropriations from the Legislature of Hawai’i and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.