06 May Happy Lei Day! A Word on Hawaiian Songs: Resistance in the Open + Last Taxi Dance Q/A!
May Day is Lei Day in Hawai’i!
That famous phrase is sung and shouted throughout the islands every May 1st. Schools will choose a prince and princess to represent each Hawaiian island from every grade. Ask anyone who grew up going to school in Hawai’i about their school’s May Day, you’re guaranteed to hear some fun stories.
This time of year, every class would learn a hula to dedicate to their prince and princess on the day. For weeks we’d work on costumes, choreography, props and more. Some of the famous songs I recall as a keiki (child) are “Pupu Hinuhinu” (My Shiny Shell) and “Little Grass Shack.” One year, we even carved out our own surfboards from cardboard and surfed the air to “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” from Lilo & Stitch.
At the end of the day, we’d have a luau fundraiser under a massive white tent. It was such a fun chance to wear your best Aloha shirts and eat delicious Hawaiian food – kalua pig, lomi salmon, poi, chicken long rice, celebrating the day together.
Music and dancing resonate strongly in Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians are a warm people, and through islands flow an air of aloha that is almost tangible to anyone who’s visited. We communicate that with our mele (music) and hula. When I’m feeling a bit disconnected, I’ll dance a hula on my own, and immediately feel rooted again.
Dancing is powerful. Even if someone doesn’t understand the lyrics you’re moving to, the energy in your hula can speak a million words. Our songs are our way of communicating what was happening around us.
In the beginning, they were about the land we lived on — the ocean, mountains, the fish we caught from the sea, the birds we’d admire in the trees. As time went on, they became about the issues we faced as a people.
A lot of Hawaiian songs are so melodic, they can get anyone swaying. As lyrics became more serious and reflective of the times, the soothing melodies never changed. Resistance came in the form of a catchy tune.
For example, Kaulana Nā Pua, composed by Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright Prendergast in 1893, is a song much loved by many – both residents and visitors of Hawai’i for it’s beautiful melody. However, its history will reveal that it was written as a response to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
Here is one of my favorite renditions of the song, presented by Project Kuleana and sung by some of Hawai’i’s most treasured musical artists.
Kaulana na pua a’o Hawai’i
Kupa’a mahope o ka ‘aina
Hiki mai ka ‘elele o ka loko ‘ino
Palapala ‘anunu me ka pakaha
Famous are the children of Hawai’i
Ever loyal to the land
When the evil-hearted messenger comes
With his greedy document of extortion
Pane mai Hawai’i moku o Keawe
Kokua na Hono a’o Pi’ilani
Kako’o mai Kaua’i o Mano
Pa’apu me ke one Kakuhihewa
Hawai’i, land of Keawe answers
The bays of Pi’ilani help
Kaua’i of Mano lends support
All are united by the sands of Kakuhihewa
‘A’ole a’e kau i ka pulima
Maluna o ka pepa o ka ‘enemi
Ho’ohui ‘aina ku’ai hewa
I ka pono sivila a’o ke kanaka
Do not fix a signature
To the paper of the enemy
With its sin of annexation
And sale of the civil rights of the people
‘A’ole makou a’e minamina
I ka pu’ukala a ke aupuni
Ua lawa makou i ka pohaku
I ka ‘ai kamaha’o o ka ‘aina
We do not value
The government’s hills of money
We are satisfied with the rocks
The wondrous food of the land
Mahope makou o Lili’ulani
A loa’a e ka pono o ka ‘aina
A kau hou ‘ia e ke kalaunu]
Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana
Ka po’e i aloha i ka ‘aina
The sorrow and disdain for the end of the reign of Queen Lili’uokalani is laid out in plain sight. But to non-Hawaiian speakers, the song is just another beautiful Hawaiian mele. I remember learning this song from my kumu hula (teacher), performing the motions of Queen Lili’uokalani regrettably signing her beloved Hawai’i away. I was only a child, but that move always broke my heart just a little.
last taxi dance: a film about connection
Brayden Yoder, the director of Last Taxi Dance, speaks about this powerful characteristic and even features Kaulana nā Pua in his film.
Last Taxi Dance is set in mid-1940’s Hawai’i during World War II, a time where soldiers would spend their time on the island dancing the night away with the local beauties to cheerful Hawaiian music. A soldier would have to present a 10-cent ticket to his desired partner in order to get a dance — when he was out of tickets, she would “taxi” away to the next partner.
The film’s strong main character, a Hawaiian singer named Mahea, plays Kaluana nā Pua when the taxi dance club has emptied. She later translates the song to a soldier who’s curiosity at first upsets her, but eventually connects them.
“No song in our film expresses its theme more than Kaulana nā Pua,” Brayden said in a behind the scenes video. Reflecting the attitude of the time, he recounts, “The Royal Hawaiian Band wanted a way to express their displeasure in a way of hiding out in the open.”
In addition to featuring Kaulana nā Pua in his film, Brayden also hired a local songwriter to write a song that mimicked the upbeat melodies of hapa-Hawaiian tunes in the 1940’s, with lyrics that reflected current events and landscape of Hawai’i during the time. The song is titled “Kalākaua After Hours.”
Written by Gavan Daws and Stephen Inglis, the tune is sung by Mahea in the joyful dancing scenes. However, as the camera zooms in on Mahea, you hear the lyrics:
“Kalakaua after hours
Lipstick ladies, in the night…
Waikiki girls, take reservations…
prostitution, easy meat.”
The ukulele, slack guitar, and beat never falter behind these lyrics, delivered by Mahea with a slight bitterness as the Soldier looks on. Mahea has a deep resentment for soldiers and any imposition to her homeland. But through a dance, she finds that she can find connection with the soldier, and her world expands.
The attention to detail and small tributes to Hawaiian local culture are sprinkled so plentifully in Last Taxi Dance, it made me nostalgic for a time I didn’t exist in.
So, I ended up calling my papa today to ask if he had any experiences with the taxi dancers in his time as a soldier. Usually a man of few words, he lit up as he talked about the power of dancing in that time. That’s how he met my grandma.
My grandma was a beautiful Hawaiian woman who could strum an ukulele for hours and dance the most graceful hula. Even in her last days, when she couldn’t quite remember our names, she’d remember the strings of an ukulele like no other. I’ve always thought of that as the true power of Hawaiian music carrying her through.
Back then, he had seen her from a top balcony, walking away with her friend into a cab. He knew after watching her dance he needed to meet her. Although he never went to the taxi dance joints in Chinatown, he was well aware of them on Hotel Street and had buddies that would frequent them.
As we kick off Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I feel drawn to share my personal memories and draw up treasures from the past. I feel like this is a beautiful time and opportunity for us to come together and reminisce, connect with ancestors, and celebrate our moving towards a strong representation of our culture in the media. The further we journey, the more hearts we can touch with our stories.
I can’t wait to share more about Last Taxi Dance in our live Q&A, and celebrate AAPI Heritage Month with Brayden and Last Taxi Dance’s producer, Ciara Lacy. We also have a special guest, Cheryl Hirasa, Manager of Programs for Pacific Islanders in Communication, another incredible platform for AAPI film! Our Q&A will be live on PacArt’s Instagram and Facebook at 12pm PST this Friday, May 8!
Born and raised in vibrant, multicultural Hawai’i, Chesiree’s passion lies in connecting with others through travel and storytelling, and sharing their tales.