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Oahu's Legacies Live On

Information the culture, customs, historic practices, and traditions of Oahu.

The legacies of past generations come to life in the cultural revival of ancient Hawaiian customs and practices. From the native language to the traditional arts, people on Oahu and throughout the islands - from elders to the young and from locals to the visitors - are dedicated to preserving all that is Hawaiian and passing it on to future generations. With guidance from historians and cultural experts, the rich cultural diversity is thriving on Oahu.
Traditions of Hawaii

Feather-Made Articles - In ancient Hawaii, feathers were treasured possessions and symbolic of the spiritual power and social status of their wearer. Feather capes, cloaks and helmets were reserved for the highest ranking male chiefs, while female royalty wore feather lei around their necks and heads. The Hawaiians, ever conscious of their resources, would trap birds by setting branches smeared with sticky sap on favorite perching locations. Once the birds were caught, the hunters would pluck only the choicest feathers, then clean their claws and set the birds free. Passed down through the generations, featherwork remains a unique art form, practiced today by only a handful of skilled artisans. A single lei may use as many as 2,000 feathers and take as long as 40 hours to complete. You can witness intricate craft demonstrations in Aunty Mary Lou’s Na Lima Mili Hulu No’eau ("Skilled Hands Touch the Feathers").

Lei Making - The lei was the jewelry or body ornamentation for hula dancers in ancient Hawaii. The lei’s composition and the manner in which it was worn were integral parts of their dance. Leis were made of human hair, feathers, leaves, vines, seeds, nuts, shells and flowers. Today, the lei symbolizes friendship and goodwill, and can be made of almost anything: flowers, fruits, leaves, candy, money, etc. Leis mark events such as birthdays, wedding anniversaries and graduations. There is more variety today than ever before as traditional lei makers increasingly draw upon past styles for their inspiration while incorporating new materials, such as exotic protea flowers, into their creations. May Day (May 1) is Lei Day in Hawaii. Stroll down Maunakea Street in Chinatown to discover first-hand the art of lei making.

Hawaiian Name Giving - Name giving is a significant tradition for the Hawaiian people. The future of a child rests upon the name selected by a Hawaiian name giver, such as Pat Bacon. Of pure Japanese ancestry, she is the "hanai," or foster child, of noted Hawaiian author Mary Kawena Pukui. Bacon was brought up in a traditional Hawaiian household and learned to "think" and "be" Hawaiian, and developed the skill to "sense" the appropriate name for a child. Bacon is one of the cultural practitioners honoring this tradition today.

Koa Wood Working - Before Hawaii was settled, there were approximately 250 species of trees. The tallest, oldest, most valuable and considered most beautiful of these trees is the Koa. The Polynesians who arrived in Hawaii around 325 A.D., were expert woodcrafters and developed a full appreciation for the forests of Hawaii and the beauty of their wood. Today, woodworkers still use "Hawaii’s Wood" to craft everything from bowls and frames to four-poster beds, and many local homes boast a few of these beautiful and prized items. The Hawaii Forest Industry Association (HFIA), a nonprofit organization with over 300 members interested in managing and maintaining healthy, sustainable, productive forests, help to promote responsible forestry, creating a balance between the forest products industry of Hawaii and environmental concerns for Hawaii’s two million acres of forests where "Hawaii’s Wood" is gathered.

Quilters - Although most quilts are found atop beds, Hawaiian quilts are not primarily made to warm Hawaiians at night. Most kamaaina quilters would agree that quilts are a loving communication between people, and sometimes a record of historical events. Interest in Hawaiian quilts has skyrocketed in the last few years. Today, they are heirloom art and gifts, as well as good investments. Hand-stitched quilt bedspreads cost between $1,800 and $6,000. Well-preserved historical Hawaiian quilts sell for upwards of $40,000. Hawaiian quilters concentrate on the mystique of island life, its history and culture.

Some of Oahu’s well-known quilters are:

    -Elizabeth Akana of Kaneohe, who is an expert on the evolution of quilting and has given numerous presentations in several countries.
    -Deborah Kakalia, designs original quilts and instructs two days a week at Bishop Museum’s Atherton Hall.
    -Elizabeth Root, owner of Elizabeth’s Fancy in Kailua, has designed Hawaiian quilts for more than a decade. Her delightful store offers Elizabeth’s own line of bath gels, crystals, lotions, gourmet teas, jams and jellies, brass ornaments, bookmarks and mugs carrying her quilt designs.
Umeke - Once a powerful symbol of Hawaiian royalty, the umeke or elaborately, covered calabash bowl mounted on a pedestal, disappeared as an art form after the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian nation. Today, Oahu master craftsman Stewart Medeiros has revived the lost tradition nearly 100 years later. Medeiros, recently distinguished as a Living Treasure, carves his umeke out of plum or koa wood, Norfolk pine or mango wood. Each umeke has its own character reflected in the images he coaxes naturally from the wood grain.

Royal Hawaiian Band - The Royal Hawaiian Band traces its history back to 1836, when Kamehameha III appointed a man now known only as "Oliver," the leader of a 10-piece unit called the King’s Band. It became The Royal Hawaiian Band in 1885 and underwent three more name changes before regaining its regal cachet in 1909. Aaron Mahi is the bandmaster, a position he has held since 1981. In addition to performing every Friday at Iolani Palace and every Sunday at Kapiolani Park, there also are regularly scheduled concerts at ceremonial events, parades and numerous other functions. All performances are free, and the band plays everything from European orchestral music and American pop tunes to Hawaiian standards.

The Royal Hawaiian Band is the only intact organization from the time of the monarchy that is still fully functional and preserves in living form Hawaii’s musical history. Mahi is the knowledgeable and articulate guardian of this special legacy.

Ukulele - In 1916, Samuel Kamaka founded Kamaka Ukulele and the company is still run by his sons and grandsons. Introduced to Hawaii by the Portuguese in 1879, the ukulele or "leaping flea" was adopted wholeheartedly by the musically prolific Hawaiians. Each year this small Kakaako factory produces 4,000 to 5,000 ukulele, which retail at a baseline price of $350 and up. A custom ukulele can cost $1,500 or more. Amazingly, a handful of the workers are hearing impaired, but have become adept at tuning the ukulele. They "hear" the vibration through their sense-heightened fingers. Ernest Kaai was the first Hawaiian-born virtuoso ukulele player and was a formidable figure in the Hawaiian music world in the first quarter of this century. In the mid-twentieth century, Eddie Kamae learned all that he could about the ukulele and within a short time, became one of Hawaii’s great players. Kamae became immersed in his own culture and studied the old ways of Hawaiian music. He later met a young boy named Herb Ohta, who he taught a number of sophisticated techniques. Now, 50 years later and some 30 albums, Ohta-San is recognized as one of the world’s top ukulele players. His son Herb Ohta, Jr. inherited his father’s talent and established a following of his own focusing on more contemporary island sounds. Jake Shimabukuro, Hawaii’s youngest ukulele talent, is known for his innovative contemporary sound and today is considered by many as the best ukulele player in the world.

Slack Key - This uniquely Hawaiian style of music has been called Hawaii’s back porch, folk and soul music. Slack key has become another way for native Hawaiians to tell their story and pass the passion of their culture from one generation to the next. Many people were introduced to this music by the late Gabby Pahinui, the first recognized master of slack key guitar. His son Cyril continues tradition with his own slack key music. Pianist George Winston brought solo slack key guitar to the forefront with recordings by other slack key guitar musicians including Raymond Kane (often referred to as the Ambassador of Slack Key), Keola Beamer and Ozzie Kotani.

Hawaiian Cultural Experts

Woody Fern is known throughout the islands as an excellent storyteller whose favorite subject is the Alii or royalty of Hawaii. Fern remembers stories his grandmother told him about the monarchy of Hawaii. He is the author of more than a dozen books and gives lectures to schools and different organizations throughout Hawaii.

Kahi Wight is head of Kapiolani Community College, Hawaiian Culture Department. She published the first text/tape package as an introduction to the Hawaiian language, "Learn Hawaiian Language at Home," and teaches Hawaiian on television. She is currently involved in planning the first Hawaiian language CD-Rom. Wight also has referrals for individuals who are working on an educational level to teach Hawaii’s culture.

Rubellite Kawena Johnson is considered a "Living Hawaiian Treasure." A dedicated researcher, inspiring teacher, astute scholar, author, collector and translator of ancient texts, and interpreter of Hawaiian culture and traditional Hawaiian literature are but a few of the many talents that describe this extraordinary woman. Johnson’s published works cover a wide range of subjects in linguistics, folklore, anthropology, archeoastronomy and the sciences such as "Kumulipo: Hawaiian Hymn of Creation," a new interpretive study of an ancient Hawaiian chant of creation; and "Na Inoa Hoku," a catalog of Hawaii & Pacific star names working with John Kaipo Mahelona. She also published two books that interpret articles from Hawaiian newspapers entitled "Ka Nupepa Ku Okoa: A Chronicle Entries 1861-1862" and "Kukini Ahailono Ilono: ‘Carry on the News,’ " which covers articles written from 1838-1948.

Women Entertainers of Oahu

Irmgard Aluli was Hawaii’s most prolific female Hawaiian composer after Queen Liliuokalani. Born in 1911, Aluli is best known for her hit song "Puamana." She has a collection of more than 400 songs written throughout her 40-year career. Although Aluli recently passed away, her music lives on.

A passion for Motown and pop music has kept songstress Nohelani Cypriano on Hawaii’s stages and airwaves for more than 20 years. She has recorded six albums, all of which have appeared on Hawaii’s top 10 list, with such songs as "The Best of Me" and "Rainy Night In Honolulu." Cypriano mixes pop music with a little island flavor.

If you’re looking for traditional and exciting Polynesian entertainment, look no further than Cha Thompson. Thompson is a mix of Hawaiian, Scotch, Irish, Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and English. She was dancing professionally by age 13 and became a regular performer at many Waikiki hotels. For more than 20 years, Cha and her husband Jack have built Tihati Productions into a $10 million, 900-employee entertainment company that supplies Polynesian shows and "thematic conventions" in Hawaii, Europe, Thailand and on the U.S. mainland.

Kane O Ka Aina (Men of the Land)

Jason Scott Lee rose to stardom in "Dragon," a big screen movie based on the life of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee (no relation), but Jason Scott Lee never forgot his roots. Born in Los Angeles, Lee moved to Honolulu at age two and spent his youth honing his athletic abilities. The Pearl City High School graduate moved to Los Angeles as a restless junior college student and found his niche in acting. Small roles in "Born in East L.A." and "Back to the Future II" eventually led to a lead role in the critically acclaimed "Map of the Human Heart" and then the coveted role in "Dragon." This was followed by leading roles in "Rapa Nui" and "The Jungle Book." Today, Lee makes his home on Oahu where he enjoys spending time with his family, eating Hawaiian food, diving, hiking and hunting.

Popular local musician Henry Kapono is known by many of his longtime local fans as one-half of the Hawaiian duo Cecilio & Kapono. Today, Kapono is a solo act and his music has evolved in to an eclectic assemblage of rhythms, including rock, reggae, African and Hawaiian. His music can now be enjoyed on most Fridays at his restaurant and bar, Kapono’s, in the Aloha Tower Marketplace.

Peter Moon is known by many titles: creator, leader, manager, agent, lead guitarist, arranger, record producer, travel agent and accountant of the Peter Moon Band. Moon’s musical career spans several decades, and he is best known for organizing the first "Kanikapila" (Hawaiian for "let’s play music"), a benefit festival of Hawaiian song and dance, staged at Andrews Amphitheatre on the campus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. More than two decades later, the annual event draws performances by traditional (Eddie Kamae, Genoa Keawe) and contemporary musicians (Kapena, Frank DeLima) to solo dancers and kumu hula masters.

Best known as the "Portuguese Prince of Hawaiian comedy," Frank DeLima is one of Hawaii’s most popular comedians. DeLima bases his humor on the culture and idiosyncrasies of Hawaii’s own melting pot of ethnic diversity. His endless wire of Portuguese jokes leading the parade of ethnic humor, is the trademark of his show.

A high school football star with a sociology degree from the University of Hawaii, Don Ho spent five years as an Air Force pilot before resigning his commission to help run Honey’s, his mother’s bar in Kaneohe. He later recreated Honey’s at another Waikiki bar and, in 1964, began headlining at Duke Kahanamoku’s in the International Market Place with the Alii. Ho quickly became the biggest star in Hawaii. Today, people still line up at the Waikiki Beachcomber to hear Ho perform "Tiny Bubbles," his biggest hit.

A new name with a talent for singing, songwriting and guitar playing that will live on is Makana. Transcending category and trends by integrating elements of folk, rock, classical, jazz, traditional and Hawaiian slack key, Makana’s performances appeal to a wide variety of audiences. With the release of his second solo CD, his concert schedule for 2003 includes Europe, Japan and the U.S. Mainland.
Contact Information:

Feather-Made Articles
762 Kapahulu Avenue
(808) 732-0865

Kamaka Hawaii, Inc.
(808) 531-3165

Koa Wood Vendors
Hawaiian Koa Furniture
3366 Koapaka Street
(808) 833-6692

Koa Gift
2330 Kalakaua Avenue, Shop O
(808) 923-8199

Kings Custom Koa
(808) 261-1765 (Kailua)
(808) 841-6043 (Kalihi)

Martin & McArthur
Aloha Tower Marketplace
(808) 941-0074

Hawaii Forest Industry Association

Quilt Vendors
Hawaiian Quilt Collection
(800) 367-9987

Kwilts ‘n Koa
1126 12th Avenue, Suite 101
(808) 735-2300

My Little Secret
1050 Ala Moana Bldg 2
(808) 596-2990

The Pineapple Patch
64-1550 Kamehameha Hwy.
(808) 622-3494

The Royal Hawaiian Band
(808) 523-4141

-Kapono’s closed in 2006
-Don Ho died in April of 2007

Article provided courtesy of the Oahu Visitor's Bureau

See also:
- Hawaiian Culture Activities on Oahu
- Nature and Culture Adventures on Oahu
- History of Oahu
- The Hawaiian Monarchy

Related Links
Oahu Island - Main Menu
Islands of Hawaii
Hawaii for Visitors

A NOTE FROM KATHIE: If you have any corrections or updates to the information on this page or if you would like us to add any information or links, please send a message to the email address on our contacts page.

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