“Kela mea whiffa” is no more.
During the mid-1970s I worked as a part-time instructor in Lahainaluna High School’s “Occupational Skills” program. My job was to take the boys who were least academically inclined and prepare them for careers in “yard maintenance.”
As you can imagine, most of these boys were rascals—large, loud, very local. Certain other teachers called them my “animals,” but I liked these boys very much. They made me laugh and challenged my assumptions every day.
Every so often the boys and I would pile into a pickup truck and head off toward the pali on some errand or another. Those days, the road was pretty much as it is today, except lined with green cane and almost devoid of traffic, almost as quiet as the road out to ‘Ulupalakua Ranch these days.
In those days, whenever you passed through Launiupoko, the stench was so bad that it made your eyes water. It was a deeply sticky, rotten wind that went on for miles, coating your nostrils like a fetid lard, all the worse for the little sweetness deep down that let you know this was the reek of rotting sugarcane.
If you were in a passenger car, you would roll up the windows and hold your breath. But these boys, riding in the back of a pickup, would start whooping and cheering. They peeled off their t-shirts and held them up, streaming in the wind, like flags. And they would shout: “KELA MEA WHIFFA!” It was a battle cry, a shout of triumph. And they would holler “TO THE ROOTS!” and other such slogans of native Hawaiian pride.
In those days, 30 years ago, we were at the dawn of the Hawaiian Renaissance, and Lahaina seethed like a cultural caldera. The U.S. Navy was still rattling our windows with Kaho’olawe bomb-blasts, but the protests and defiant landings had begun. Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana (PKO) founders like Dr. Emmett Aluli and Uncle Harry Mitchell would show up at Waiola Church services and talk to the mostly-Hawaiian congregation. The Friends of Keopuolani, one of whose founding members was Willie K’s dad, Manu Kahaiali’i, drove the cultural agenda at Waiola Church.
In 1976, the Hokule’a launched from Ka’anapali for its historic first voyage to Tahiti. In that year, Ka’anapali was a brand new resort, Wailea was opening its very first hotel, and Kapalua was still a concept on blueprints. Maui Mall, Maui High, the Maui County Building, and Ka’ahumanu Center were all brand new. Any tourism beyond the scale of the Pioneer Inn was an infant idea. It was almost as hard to find a haole in Lahaina Town as it was to find a traffic signal.
But at the time, I didn’t understand the connection between all this and “kela mea whiffa” (literal translation: that stinky stuff)—not until last week when I had a good conversation with Eddie Kamae.
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I met with Eddie at the Old Wailuku Inn. He and Myrna had flown over from Honolulu that morning so that Eddie and the Sons of Hawai’i (in their present incarnation) could give a benefit concert for the Hawai’i Nature Center. He was watching the clock because they had to get to a sound check. But he was just as keen to talk about the debut of their latest documentary film, Lahaina: Waves of Change, which premiers at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater on Friday, Oct. 19.
We sat in the Inn’s antique-rich dining room while leaf-blowers and weedeaters competed with 80-year-old Eddie’s quiet, chant-like voice. I had to lean forward as though he was telling me secrets.
“Change will always come,” he said. “That’s why I make documentary films. Because my teachers told me, do it now. For there will be no more. It’s true. You look at things today, the change is happening. All the people I have filmed, they’ve all passed away. But their stories and the places, I have that on film. And that’s what I’m trying to share with the children in the schools.”
With Myrna acting as his producer/Energizer bunny, Eddie has made a dozen documentaries that help audiences bridge the chasm between our times and the deep Hawaiian past. For example, two years ago they released Keepers of the Flame, a portrait of three monumentally important Hawaiian women from the Big Island—’Iolani Luahine, Edith Kanaka’ole and Mary Kawena Pukui. Pukui, whose work with the Bishop Museum gave us the Hawaiian Dictionary and many of our most precious works of native scholarship, was also Eddie’s teacher.
In order to disseminate their documentary evidence, the husband and wife team created the Hawai’i Legacy Foundation. Through it they have met with hundreds of thousands of school kids.
Eddie told me: “When I go to a school and show them a film, I say, ‘Now, I don’t want you to waste my time. I want you to ask me questions.’ Then I tell them, ‘I want you to go home and talk to your grandparents. And if they shoosh you away, you just go back and tell them you must know—instead of reading about it in the paper. And you come to the class and share it with the rest of the kids.'”
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Eddie’s late-life accomplishments as a documentarian grew as if inevitably out of his mid-life success as a musician, and both stories converge at stinky Launiupoko. So here’s my thumbnail doc of Eddie’s career:
Honolulu parents, but he spent a lot of small-kid years in Lahaina. Reason was his grandmother lived there, on a plot of land given her because she had served as a court dancer for King David Kalakaua.
Kauhai Likua was her name, a woman who spoke only Hawaiian and was known throughout the islands as an expert in traditional healing practices. Eddie’s connection to Lahaina runs deep. His parents met while attending Lahainaluna High School. (His dad was a boarder who came from the Waipi’o area on the Big Island.) And it was there in 1965 that he met his bride-to-be, Myrna.
Eddie began playing the ukulele while in high school, but at first didn’t play Hawaiian music. Instead he developed dazzling picking techniques for pop, Latin and classical tunes. He teamed up with another ukulele virtuoso, Shoi Ikemi, to form The Ukulele Rascals and started astounding audiences with high-flying renditions of the Cole Porter tune “Malaguena,” and Ravel’s “Bolero.” During the 1950’s he had a regular gig at the Biltmore Hotel in Waikiki and was considered one of the most influential ukulele stylists of his time, but not a force in the perpetuation of island musical traditions.
That changed abruptly in 1959 when Eddie stopped by Gabby Pahinui’s home in Waimanalo. The jam session that ensued went on for three months. Bassist Joe Marshall joined them, as did steel guitarist David “Feet” Rogers. This was the core and launch of the Sons of Hawai’i and the beginning of contemporary Hawaiian music.
The brilliant interplay of uke and slack-key guitar, the naked emotion of Gabby’s singing, the ringing dance of Feet’s steel punctuations—it all came together into a sound that blew the doors off people’s musical expectations. Except for Eddie, personnel in the Sons of Hawai’i have shifted over the years. (Members have included Moe Keale, “Atta” Isaacs, Dennis Kamakahi, Sonny Chillingworth and Diana Aki.) And yet the group continues to be the sonic foundation of the music we now live by.
This musical shift started Eddie in a new personal direction. He became a student of Hawaiian culture, a historian and musicologist who searched the countryside for the old songs and the people who still played them. He became the student of two remarkable women, Mary Kawena Pukui at Bishop Museum and Pilahi Paki, a wise elder from West Maui who had once known Eddie’s tutu.
Pilahi helped Eddie write the words to the song “Kela Mea Whiffa,” which became a big island hit song in 1975.
Eddie told me the story, how in the early ’70s he came over to visit friends in Lahaina. His pal Louie Kalahui had picked them up at the airport. “So we come over and we gotta pass Launiupoko, right? So my friend [Louie], he says stop the car.” They parked right in the center of the stench. “He had all the wives waiting in the car, screaming at him.” But Louie got out of the car and took a deep breath. “And he salutes the area. And he calls out: ‘Aloha, kela mea whiffa!’ I say, ‘What you say, kela mea whiffa? What is it?’ He said, ‘It’s the breath of love!'”
That’s a classic Hawaiian-style joke, sarcastic and big-hearted at the same time. Eddie thought it was so funny that it was worth a song. Back on Oahu, he called Pilahi and told her about it. “She came all the way from the other side of the island to meet me downtown Waikiki,” he said. “We sat in a restaurant for two hours writing this song.”
The song itself comes across as rather somber and lofty. In fact, though, the two of them were laughing the whole time they wrote it: “The breath of love! Ha ha ha!”
Two years later, Lahainaluna boys were shouting the phrase from the back of a truck. And then in 1999, when Pioneer Mill closed, the smell went away. And Eddie returned to Lahaina to make a documentary film about the end of an era.
Never was a bad smell a better inspiration.
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In 1999, Eddie’s friend Jerry Kunitomo, owner of BJ’s Chicago Pizzeria in Lahaina, took him and Myrna out to lunch in Lahaina. At the table was Jerry’s friend Chris Smith, who worked for Paradise Television. “My friend Jerry told me, ‘I just want to let you know that the plantation is going to phase out in eight days.’ That got my mind thinking,” Eddie told me.
He started feeling the power of his memories, his tutu, how the town used to be. He decided on the spot to do a story of Lahaina. “I said, ‘Where’s the plantation office?’ He said, ‘Right across the mill.’ So I told Chris Smith, I said, “˜Can you get a camera?’ He said, ‘In two hours.’ And you know how your mind starts thinking about things. I said, ‘Get it!'”
With no story line or plan, he began creating the documentary that afternoon. He walked into the office of a Pioneer Mill executive and got permission on the spot.
Chris showed up with the camera, and Eddie had him shooting the cane-haul trucks as they came in with their loads. When Chris lay flat in the powdery red dirt to get a good close shot of churning wheels, Eddie was impressed. “I said, ‘By golly, I’ve never seen a cameraman do that.’ All he said to me was, ‘I got it.’ I like that. I told him, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?'”
That’s how the film Lahaina: Waves of Change came to be. It includes footage of the last cane burn and haul on West Maui. It shows Eddie dropping spent cane into the flume that formerly carried all the mill’s waste out to Launiupoko, where it would pile up and stink before being flushed out to sea. And it contains invaluable portraits of some admirable old-timers.
We meet Florence Hasegawa, a feisty 99-year-old who is still issuing marriage licenses. We spend time with Shigesh Wakida, who has been teaching tennis to the children of Lahaina, without charge, for the past 50 years. And so on.
All of it is captured with spontaneous honesty, which befits Eddie’s documentary style. “You just go along,” he said. “You go along with the mood and the feel and whatever you feel is right at the moment. Nothing is planned. Who knows who you’re going to meet and what you’re going to do. If it happens, it happens.”
And always he focuses on the people, those who have seen and done a lot of living. Although this film is Eddie Kamae’s aloha to the place of his boyhood, the tone is not sorrowful, but admiring.
“Change will come,” he told me. “That’s the way it is. But the thing is, they did it. And that’s important. Because people can talk about things, but if they didn’t do it, then their talk doesn’t make sense. I don’t listen to them. I like to listen to the elders as they tell me things about life. Because the elders—they know.” MTW