The Cultural Scene in Molokai
The cultural scene in Molokai is an interesting mix of East and West. Its essence is marked with a diversity that still somehow manages to be uniquely Hawaiian.
The people of Molokai are a hardy and friendly bunch. Their history is rich with trials and triumphs that have molded them into who they are now.
The island is often referred to as “The Most Hawaiian Island.” Perhaps, this is because the people have managed to keep the old Hawaii alive. They’ve preserved the relics of the past. Buildings are kept at low-rise levels, nothing taller than a coconut tree. Life is slow and simple. People still work in plantations and ranches. If not that, they see to the people who visit the island, manning tourist stops and the like.
There has always been a constant struggle for sustainable living. The culture is one with nature, even with an active fishing and agriculture industry, as well as constant tourist traffic. This is no simple feat but somehow, the people have succeeded.
The people of Molokai are of a mix of settlers from the Marquesas, Tahiti, and several other South Pacific islands. They were the earliest known inhabitants of the island, and occupied the Halawa Valley. European settlers followed, beginning with Captain George Dixon’s landing on Molokai land. Likewise, during the health crises in the reign of King Kamahameha V, leprosy patients were banished in Molokai’s remote town of Kalaupapa.
Of course, today, the threat of leprosy’s gone. And, the people of Molokai are just that – of Molokai, coming onto their own as a friendly, kind, and hospitable people.
The birthplace of hula
Of late, there has been a revival (of sorts) of the traditional Hawaiian dance, hula. Hula halaus (schools) have begun to sprout like mushrooms. Aside from the usual presentations in tourist hubs, hula has also made its way back to pop culture.
Molokai is one of the best places to watch and learn hula. The island is actually regarded as the birthplace of hula. According to legends, Laka was the goddess of hula. She gave birth to the dance in the sacred grounds of Ka’ana, and the dance has been practiced by locals since then. Her death completed the cycle of hula’s rebirth and renewal.
Thus, the island of Molokai has been referred to as Molokai Ka Hula Piko, or Molokai, The Center of Dance. Every May, the communities get together to celebrate the birth of hula, in a festival called Ka Hula Piko. Dance is the main showcase of the celebrations. There are many performances, feasts, plus opportunities to learn hula.
To the people of Molokai, hula has been a way to look back and honor the legacies of their ancestors. Hula is a graceful dance that fuses movements and chants. It merges water’s fluidity and the fire of life – an aptly vibrant dance for a kind and tempered people.
Old culture revival
Along with the renewed interest in hula, traditional arts and crafts are also making their way back. There has been a steady return to traditional arts and themes, such as lei making, and tapa and quilt weaving. There are exhibits for these items, as well as opportunities to watch how these are made.
The language of Molokai, and the rest of Hawaii for that matter, is quite distinct. English is widely spoken but you would notice that this has been mixed in with the locals’ several other languages, such as pidgin, Tagalog, and Portuguese. The result is a way of speaking that’s uniquely Hawaiian. You cannot rely on your everyday knowledge of English. The Hawaiian language remains uniquely different and needs some getting used to.
Play it again
Hawaiian music has always been a distinct part of the culture of Molokai and the rest of the state. It often comes alongside hula during cultural presentations. The music of Molokai and the rest of Hawaii represents a slice of its history and traditions.
Traditional chants (mele) were once the main way to document myths, local history, and the deeds. This was then passed on verbally between generations, preserving the information, as well as the music. Today, chants mostly dwell on the locals’ love for land, fitting for a community that continues to live off and with nature.
The Hawaiian chants were expanded with the introduction of western string instruments and the local steel guitars in the nineteenth century. This also led to other local music genres, such as Christian songs and songs that focus on steel guitars like rock and blues.
Steel guitars were actually a major development in local music as it opened the doors for many local bands. These guitars were invented locally, supposedly by either Joseph Kekuku, Gabriel Davion, or James Hoa. Whoever did allowed many local bands to get global recognition. It started with the San Francisco 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. This led to the popularization of Hawaiian bands, music, and the steel guitar all over the world. By the 1930s, major recording labels were already into the music. Other groups had likewise incorporated steel guitars in their music, especially in rock, country, and African, and Indian music.
With the boom in local tourism, local music also got a boost. Performances were held for travelers. Today, traditional chants play alongside modern Hawaiian music, within and outside the usual tourist hubs.
Myths and legends
A traveler, during his or her explorations, will likely be regaled by several myths and legends. This is expected in a land where everything seemed rooted to nature, and all its magic. Here are some of the common myths and legends:
Pele: This volcano goddess is a mainstay in local stories. She resides in one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the Kilauea in the Big Island. Typically, her stories are told whenever the traveler visits the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. She is said to be stationed in one of the craters along the trail. Bad luck follows people who take souvenirs from her home.
King Kamehameha the Great: He is said to be Hawaii’s greatest king. He has several monuments in his honor, one in Molokai and others in the rest of the islands. Likewise, his deeds have become part of several chants.
Maui: Aside from being an island name, Maui, a demigod, is actually the brother of Pele. Legend has it that he slowed down the sun so days would last longer in the island named after him.
Menehune: The menehune is Hawaii’s version of leprechauns. They come out at night and dig fishponds.
Humuhumunukunukuapua'a: This is not just a made up lyrics in the Little Grass Shack song. The Humuhumunukunukuapua'a is actually the state’s official fish.
Queen Liliuokalani: The queen is Hawaii’s last monarch and ruled up to 1893. She was an able and fair ruler, as well as a song composer. The farewell song Aloha Oe was written by her.
Cultural events and places
The best way to experience the local culture is to visit Molokai during events. Popular events are April’s Merrie Monarch Festival and June’s King Kamehameha Day. The Merrie Monarch Festival is Hawaii’s biggest hula competition and lasts for a week. The King Kamehameha Day honors its greatest king with parades, hula, chants, feasts, and local competitions. The Aloha Festivals of September are also worth experiencing. These festivals conduct canoe races, parades, and concerts. There are also several cultural shows during this time. If you’re interested in lei, May is when Lei Day happens. On this day, there are several lei-making demonstrations and competitions.
There are also several monuments, relics, and museums that you can visit to get a good sense of local culture. These include the following:
Kalaupapa National Historical Park: This restored colony still has a standing church and olden homes and structures. It can give you a glimpse of old Hawaii and the way life was for banished leprosy patients.
Molokai Museum and Cultural Center: The museum shares a glimpse of Molokai’s history and culture. It used to be the home and sugar plantation of German professor Rudolph W. Meyer and his wife high Molokai chieftess Kalama. Many of the old structures and equipment have been restored. Likewise, ukele making, wine making, and taro making demonstrations are conducted here regularly.
The Kawela Battle Field: This marks the battlefield where local warriors fought against each other during the time of intense tribal rivalries. The grounds are still littered with slingshot stones once used during battle.
Love for land
The characteristic that defines Hawaiian culture is Aloha Aina or “love for land.” This can be seen across all media, in songs, dances, and literature. It is in the people’s way of life, how they value and respect nature.
“Aina” pertains to a sustaining land. The people of Molokai and the rest of Hawaii are not oblivious to the fact that they live off nature’s bounties. They rely on their land and seas for food and livelihood. As such, they have a profound respect for it and would not defile it, as other civilizations have defiled the land and ocean that provide for them.