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PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS
Ohta-san: Virtuosity and Legacy

 

Herb Ohta is one of the giants of the ‘ukulele who snatched the simple four-stringed instrument out of the background and planted it firmly at the front of the stage. In this special, Herb Ohta, known as Ohta-San, brings his solo ukulele riffs to the PBS Hawai‘i studios, playing numbers such as “Rhapsody in Blue,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” and his chart-topping ballad, “Song for Anna.” He also teams up with his son, Herb Ohta Jr., for their take on the Hawaiian classics “Hi’ilawe” and “Sanoe.”

 

 

NA MELE
Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom and Willie K

NA MELE Amy Hanaialiʻi Gilliom and Willie K

 

These two Na Hoku Hanohano Award winners present their unique brand of musical artistry in this vintage performance. In both solos and duets, Amy and Willie display wide-ranging versatility that showcases their diverse musical backgrounds. They are accompanied by Jack Ofoia on bass and the late Chino Montero on guitar.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Sam Low: Raising Islands

 

As a crewmember on the Hōkūle‘a, waterman Sam Low experienced the chicken skin moments when, as the canoe would approach a Pacific island, the island itself would appear to be raised out of the distant horizon as the canoe sailed closer.  As a documentarian, author Sam Low heard the vision, fears and dreams of master navigator Nainoa Thompson and those involved with sailing the canoe. On this episode, Sam Low shares his stories of sailing on Hōkūle‘a.

 

Sam Low Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Nainoa has said that early on he’s been hindered by a fear of failure. Do you know how he resolved that? Because he certainly succeeded.

 

Courage. He resolved it by being courageous, I think. It was Nainoa’s job to be the first Hawaiian in perhaps a thousand years, after that devastating accident, devastating loss of Eddie Aikau, to take the canoe as navigator on the first voyage in a thousand years that a Hawaiian has navigated. So, naturally, he was fearful. He was fearful for his own ability, but he was fearful for his people. Because if he failed, that would have been, Oh, Hawaiians, yeah. I have the feeling that his father helped him understand that there’s a deeper mission. That everything is based on helping your community, helping your people, and that your fear or your immediate reluctance is nowhere near as important as pushing through it to get that mission accomplished.

 

In researching his book, Hawaiki Rising, Sam Low spent hours interviewing his cousin, Nainoa Thompson, talking to him about the double-hulled canoe Hōkūle‘a, and what drove his dream to voyage in the wake of his ancestors. Sam Low, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Sam Low was born and raised in Connecticut. His Hawaiian father left the Big Island to attend prep school on the Continent, where he got married, never to return home again. Their son Sam inherited his father’s love of the ocean and of boats, and grew up spending summers at the beach on Martha’s Vineyard, where he still lives at the time of our conversation in 2014. Sam Low made his first trip to Hawai‘i as a young naval officer, and has been coming here ever since, connecting with his family that includes Nainoa Thompson. Sam’s background as a documentary filmmaker, his ocean skills, and his family connections eventually led him to become a crewmember on Hōkūle‘a, where his role on the voyaging canoe was that of the documentarian. His job was to observe, and through that, he got to experience what life is like sailing on a canoe in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles away from land.

 

My role on Hōkūle‘a has always been as a writer, as a documenter. Usually, on Hōkūle‘a, you’re a crewmember, and so that’s basic. You know, you stand your watch, and you do all that. But you have another role as well, which is, you could be a cook, you could be a watch captain, you could be a carpenter, or you could whatever. And my role was as documenter. And so, that fit, you know, what I had been doing for so many years prior to that, going out and documenting, either filming or writing about, or doing a thesis at Harvard about a way of life that I wanted to bring back and I wanted to give you, wanted you to have this gift. I have seen this, I have been there. And now, I want you to have it. And that was a perfect blend of what the job was. As a documenter, the kuleana, or actually as any crewmember, the kuleana on Hōkūle‘a.

 

Isn’t it interesting that all your interests sometimes come together and inform each other into one wonderful culmination?

 

Yeah. I probably never would have gotten on the canoe if it hadn’t have been that I did have this skill of being able to write. And of course, it didn’t hurt that Nainoa was my cousin, and I had a relationship with him. I was invited on the voyage to Rapa Nui. And that was actually my first trip on the canoe. The voyage to Rapa Nui was supposed to be the hardest voyage, because the prevailing winds are against you. And so, Nainoa had predicted that it would have to be tacking into the wind. So, this would be a zig-zag all the way. So, what was maybe, I think about seventeen hundred miles could easily become three thousand miles, if you had to tack. So, he chose a veteran crew. He had on board those folks like Tava Taupu, and Michael Tongg, and Snake Ah Hee, and Bruce Blankenfeld, and you know, Kalepa Baybayan. The best of the best. They set off. Now, I should say that this was the first voyage that I was actually invited to go on. But Nainoa wasn’t quite sure about me. I had made one voyage on the escort boat, and that went fine. So, he just wasn’t sure, and he put me on the escort boat and he said, You’re gonna be on the escort boat for four or five days, we’re gonna see how it goes, and if everything’s going okay on the canoe, then we’ll bring you over.

 

Why was Nainoa unsure about whether to have you on the Hōkūle‘a? ‘Cause you’re a waterman, you’ve been around water all your life in different kinds of craft.

 

Right; but you have to remember that on that voyage, there were the tested men, they were the best of the best. These men had probably voyaged thirty thousand, forty thousand miles. Not only that, they’re surfers, and they’re athletes.

 

And did Nainoa figure you could document it just as well from the escort boat?

 

I think he knew I couldn’t do that. But I think he wanted to just be sure. I think he wanted to go out and to see, and if it was a slog, and it was what he expected it to be, the most severe test of endurance, then maybe I would have stayed on the escort boat. But it didn’t turn out that way; it turned out to be easier. And so, I think that’s why he invited me.

 

So, it had to do with physical conditions?

 

Physical training.

 

Not fit?

 

Not fit. Not like those guys. No; uh-uh. Those guys, well, look at them. I mean, look at Tava. You know, look at Snake. All of those guys are watermen, all the time. You have to remember, New England, it’s the winter, so I get to swim four or five months out of the year. I was not in the kind of shape that those guys were, so I think that’s what his reservation might have been. So, I think on the fifth day, we got word that they wanted me to go over. And I’m like, Yes! And it was one of those rainy, kind of drizzly days, not a lot of wind, and I was rowed over by one of the crew on the escort boat. And Hōkūle‘a is up here, and I kind of crawled in. You crawl over the hulls, and then you crawl up over this canvas kind of space shield. And I remember crawling out and looking up, and there was Mike Tongg. His appearance is like this gentle, loving Buddha, you know. He has that kind of loving appearance. And the rain was just dripping down off his face, like this. And he was looking down at me with this beneficent smile. He didn’t say a word; just … Welcome, good to see you. And so, I just immediately felt at home with Mike’s blessing. He’s such a veteran on that canoe. But Nainoa had felt that we had to be prepared for the slog of wind. But as it turned out, fortuitously, at that time of year, down in the roaring forties … I hope I’m right, but I think that we were probably up around twenty degrees south. And down around forty degrees south, there were a number of low pressure areas that were spinning storms up toward us, spinning wind up toward us. And so, they broke the trade winds, and they created following winds. So that Nainoa seeing that, set off basically in a storm, and sailed along with the wind coming from behind, spun up by these storms down in the roaring forties, until that storm went through, and then we were kind of the calm. And then the trades would fill in again, and we’d do a little tacking, and then another storm would come along. And we made the trip so much faster than what was predicted, that we got there a week before our welcoming party.

 

Nice when storms are your friends.

 

Yeah; yeah. So, it turned out to be a lot easier in terms of the crew, and in terms of the endurance than we thought it was gonna be. More difficult from the navigation point of view, because often you would have cloudy skies. In fact, on that voyage to Rapa Nui, two or three days before Nainoa found the island, we started to have cloudy skies, and he had no real sight of his guiding star. He was steering pretty much by swells, and he was navigating by dead reckoning. So for three days, he was navigating by instinct, trained instinct. And on the day that we sighted Rapa Nui, the winds shifted. He was going to do a zig, and instead of doing a zig, the wind shifted and kind of pushed us in the direction that he thought we wanted to go. And he said, We’ll follow the wind; we’ll just stay, we’ll follow the wind. Hōkūle‘a knows where she wants to go.

 

Now, when you can’t navigate by stars, does he sleep at all? I mean, because he’s always watching current conditions.

 

Yeah; he is. Well, when you’re not navigating by the stars, you’re navigating pretty much by the swells and the wind. Of course, the wind was gyrating around and changing, so he was using the swells to navigate. Normally, if he’s alone on a voyage, then he will sleep in catnaps. He’ll sleep for maybe twenty minutes, thirty minutes, and then jump up and be awake for, say, eight hours, and then lie down for twenty or thirty minutes, and jump up. And he’ll do this for thirty days at a time. One of his great fears on that first voyage in 1980 was he wouldn’t be able to stay awake. That’s Mau’s secret, not mine; I can’t do that. But it was one of those first, as he calls them, the doors of perception had opened. One of those first doors that opened was that when they set sail out of Hilo and started on the voyage, after about fourteen hours, he decided he was really tired, he was gonna take a little nap. And he lay down, and he lay down for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and he jumped up and he was refreshed. And he said that was the first kind of sense that there is something in navigation, there is something in accepting the challenge and the risk that comes from another level, and that he was able to that, on that first voyage. And that’s what he normally does. On this voyage, the Rapa Nui voyage, he had Kalepa Baybayan on board, he had Bruce Blankenfeld on board; he had trained navigators with him. So, he could sleep.

 

If you don’t have enough sleep for enough time, I mean, I would think your judgment becomes impaired. So, I guess you have to have a limited goal in terms of time? How do you do that?

 

He does it for a month at a time.

 

Amazing.

 

I have no idea; I couldn’t do it.

 

So, maybe because you have a goal and you’re trained, and you’re generally in good shape, you can manage your mind and your brain cells for that amount of time.

 

Yeah; it’s a mystery to me, how he can do it. You know, it’s always chicken skin if you’re crew, and/or a documenter particularly, my job being to watch everybody, and to record. But you know, I’ve watched Nainoa pretty intently, and it’s always that moment when he says, Post lookouts, land is near. And then, I would get to go ask him, Well, what’s going on? He’d say, Well, I think Rapa Nui is there. And he put Max Yarawamai, who is Carolinian, who has great eyesight, he put him on watch. And about five hours later, there it was, Rapa Nui. And it was pretty much where he said it was. And Rapa Nui is tiny. And so, he found this island after seventeen hundred miles.

 

After sailing to Rapa Nui, Hōkūle‘a navigator Nainoa Thompson invited Sam Low aboard the canoe for the trip home. This second experience gave Sam even more insights into how Nainoa used nature and his intuition based on experience to guide him to exactly where he wanted to go.

 

The second voyage I got to make was from Tahiti to Hawai‘i. And we’d been at sea for, I think, about twenty-four, twenty-five days. Had lots of storm on that particular voyage, lots of squalls. I’m going to say it was the twenty-fifth day, I forget exactly, Nainoa turned the canoe downwind. We’d been headed into the wind all the time to get to the east of the Hawaiian Islands, and he turned downwind. So, we knew something was up. And steering downwind on Hōkūle‘a, the sails are on either side, wing-on-wing, ‘cause the wind is directly from behind. And we were steering that way for a while. We couldn’t see anything; there was this gentle mist wafting over the canoe. You could feel the sun, but you couldn’t see it. Visibility ahead was maybe oh, I don’t know, half a mile.

 

And during this time, do you say, Hey, Nainoa, what’s going on? Or do people not talk about what’s up?

 

Well, I got to be bratty, because I was the documenter. So, I didn’t say anything for a while, but we went wing-on-wing, and then the wind changed slightly, and so one of the sails came over. So, now, we’re sailing like this. We felt that. And around six o’clock, I saw Nainoa was just back there on the navigator’s platform, just peering intently ahead. Again, this mist was coming over. We couldn’t see anything; I couldn’t see anything. So, being a documenter, I get to go back and say, you know, What’s going on? He said, Well, Hilo is right there. After twenty-five hundred miles, twenty-five days, Hilo is right there? So, I said, How do you know? And he said, Well, do you remember when the sail, when we couldn’t sail wing-on-wing? Well, that’s because we got into that place where the winds are coming and being broken by Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, and churning around the island. And so, that wind shift, that gentle wind shift told me that we’ve gotten into that zone where the winds are breaking. You know, these mountains are fourteen thousand feet high. And he said, Look ahead, you see that mist seems to stall, it seems to slow down. So, I looked. Yeah; okay. Keep going. I know I couldn’t see it. And he said, If you look—the sun was starting to go down. If you look on either side, you can see it’s kind of dark ahead of us, and it’s a little bit lighter there.

 

You couldn’t see it?

 

I couldn’t see it. And so, I wrote it all dutifully down. And then we sailed on for a while, and then he tacked. And I said, Well, why’d you tack? He said, We’re on the Hamakua Coast, and I don’t want to get too close. Of course, none of us can see this. This is after twenty-five days. I don’t want to get too close, and Hilo is right over there. And so, I said, Okay; write it down. And then, we all felt it. And we all went over to the rail, and the whole crew is standing there looking, and Nainoa said Hilo is there, and they know Hamakua must be there. And we waited for about fifteen minutes, and then fortuitously, that low cloud layer lifted; just lifted. And there it was, the twinkle of the coast, Hilo over here, the lighthouse. And at that moment, Nainoa just said, We’re home.

 

Wow.

 

After twenty-five days. So, that’s the chicken skin, that when you’re navigating with someone like Nainoa or Kalepa Baybayan, or Bruce Blankenfeld, or Chad Paishon, or Shorty Bertelmann, any of these great navigators who have dedicated their life to merging with the signs of the sea, and you have the privilege to be on a canoe after that much time, and to see land is there, exactly where they say it is.

 

What happens over the twenty-five days, say, of a voyage? Is there a lot of talk? Is there a lot of laughter? What do people do, day-by-day?

 

I think it depends a lot on the crew and on the chemistry of the crew. And I think it’s all of that. But if I think back on it, I think more of a kind of … quietness, actually. I don’t think so much of laughter; there’s that. I don’t think so much of talk; there’s that. I don’t think so much of music, although there’s that. I think of the quietness of being at sea, and the feeling of being out in an immense ocean, completely alone, and you don’t see another ship, you don’t see another person, you don’t see land, and you get into kind of a rhythm of watch-standing, of being alert, and being relaxed, and being alert, and being relaxed, of the stars turning, and the moon and the sun. And there’s a blending with that diurnal rhythm so that it’s a meditation you get into. I think it’s a meditational state. I think it’s a very relaxed state. I think that even in storm aboard a vessel like Hōkūle‘a, which is so staunch and so seaworthy, and so sea kindly, that you’re not afraid. You know that if you do everything right, if you follow the instructions of your captain, if you bring the sails down, if you stand your watch properly, you’ll be fine. So that’s not it. It’s not anxiety, it’s not fear; it’s contemplation, it’s meditation. And actually, I think for most of us, say after five or six days, you’re just in the rhythm, and then when the canoe turns down and the navigator says, We’re there, we’re almost sort of like saying, Well, that’s good, we can have a hamburger, we can have a beer, but you know, why don’t we just keep going. ‘Cause you’re in this world. You’re with your crew, you’re with the weather, you’re with the canoe, you’re in this meditational almost Buddhist, Hawaiian meditational state, and you don’t want it to stop.

 

Sam Low started working on a book about Hōkūle‘a after he returned home from the Rapa Nui voyage in the year 2000. At first, he didn’t know what would be in the book, but it finally came together, and Hawaiki Rising was published in 2013. It tells the story of Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance.

 

There was a period of time, and I think it was uh, 2010. See, I’d been working on this book for ten years. I mean, I didn’t really know that I’d been working on it for ten years. I was just recording, and I was writing articles. The first idea for a book would be a picture book, and then I went off and did my grandpa’s book. And I got partway there, and then I came back onto this. But there was a time, I think it was 2010, when I did have a chance to interview Nainoa very extensively. I was living in the family compound, and the guest house is, you know, a hundred yards from his house. And I would sit and wait, and every time he came out, I’d say, Hey, Nainoa, how you doing? You know, and he’d say, Not today, Sam, not today. Okay, okay. And then, How you doing? Yeah; okay, come. And so, we’d sit and spend two or three hours with a tape recorder, and I think the exchange did help him bring together all his experiences. Well, it was certainly great for me, because I was able to get this raw material for Hawaiki Rising. But I think it also helped him bring together his own experiences and correlate that, and put it together into kind of a set of values and a philosophy. It’s his philosophy, but I think in being able to exchange with another person who he was fairly intimate with, that it did help him in that. And at that time, about three years ago, the concept of moolelo became very important. And he expressed that; he said, You know, we stand on the shoulders of heroes, and it’s very important that as we move forward around the world, that we look back, and that we celebrate and bring with us the spirit of those people who made all of this possible, and the lessons that we learned from them, from his father Myron Pinky Thompson, from Mau Piailug, from Wally Froiseth, from Ben Finney, from Herb Kane, from all of those who had built the canoe, who had the vision of the canoe, who had sailed the canoe, and that evolving vision, that gift that they gave to all of us who’ve sailed on the canoe. He wanted that to be celebrated, and part of that was the book, Hawaiki Rising. It is a celebration of those heroes whose shoulders we stand on today. He expresses in Hawaiki Rising very clearly how fearful he was of that time of his first voyage. You have to understand that everything depended on it, that the canoe had capsized, that they had lost Eddie Aikau, and that Hawaiians were on the cusp of being able to, through voyaging, and all the other arts as well, not just voyaging, but Hōkūle‘a was the symbol of the Renaissance. Through voyaging, to recapture this great pride of ancestry. And the canoe had capsized. There was a great deal of anxiety, which he expresses in the book. And he pushed through, and he discovered deeper reserves, I think, of courage and of a sense of connection to his ancestors that allowed him to enter a world of understanding and of comprehension that was deep and that was powerful.

 

You went back and talked to a number of the people we associate with Hōkūle‘a over the years. What did some of those conversations yield in terms of insight about the voyages?

 

Well, they were key. The book is made up of what I like to think of as a chorus of voices. See, I’m not in it. It’s not my story. I’m the person that’s behind the camera, if you like, or that’s writing the story, singing the song, I hope. And I had this opportunity to interview dozens and dozens of crewmembers, and I wanted the book to be a chorus of voices. I wanted it to be told in the voices of the people that experienced it, not an impersonal narrator, a personal narrator. And I didn’t know that that would work. It’s like an oral history. And I’ve been very interested in oral histories, something told directly, authentically from the person who experienced it. So, the opportunity—and of course, I was very kind of shy and bashful. I mean, Tava Taupu, and Snake Ah Hee, and Herb Kane, and Nainoa and Pinky, and Marion Lyman-Merserau, and Dave Lyman. I mean, these are heroic figures to me. So, to have the honor that they would sit down and talk with me was terrific. And I didn’t want that to end. You know, so writing the book, you have to eventually do that; right? But the great pleasure was to have those moments, those intimate moments with people on whose shoulders we all stand on, and to have them tell me their story. That in itself, was the process, is sometimes more important than the product.

 

Through the eyes and ears of Sam Low, we all get to experience what it’s like to sail aboard Hōkūle‘a as she makes her way across vast oceans, guided by the stars and other natural elements, to faraway destinations. Mahalo to Sam Low for sharing his stories with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Pinky evolved a philosophy that came out of voyaging. He said, You first have to have a vision, and you have to have a vision of an island over the horizon. And once you have that vision, then you have to formulate a plan to raise that island from the sea, Hawaiki Rising. And then, you need to have discipline to train, to achieve that plan. And then, you need to have the courage to cast off the lines, and then you need to have the aloha to bind your crew together to find the island. So, those are values that were inherent in Pinky’s view in voyaging, and also in the world, and also all cultures of the world. So, he brought this philosophy from the past, brought it to the present, and made it a possible future. And Hōkūle‘a is voyaging around the world with that philosophy in mind.

 

[END]

 

 

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS
Kid Kine Kurses

PBS HAWAII PRESENTS Kid Kine Kurses

 

Kid Kine Kurses harkens back to the days when local people didn’tlock their doors, kids played outside until the sun went down and friends and family got together to talk story.

 

In Lemon Tree Billiard House (1996), written by Cedric Yamanaka, Dean Kaneshiro plays a young pool hustler who believes that he was cursed as a young child. He plays the match of his life against an older version of himself…cocky, talented and also cursed. Together they face their demons over the pool table. The older pool hustler is played tongue-in-cheek by the late Ray Bumatai. The late James Grant Benton plays an exorcist, and familiar face Dan Seki plays the owner of the Lemon Tree Billiard House. Directed by Tim Savage.

 

Dancing With The Long Bone (1996) tells the story of a young girl who finds a bone buried in the forest. Innocently, she brings the bone home and a series of suspicious events unfold around her and her loved ones. The spirit of a pig hunter haunts her dreams and eventually she realizes the steps she needs to take to restore peace in her life and her household. Natalie Young stars as Mina, the young girl who learns the lesson of respect for those who have passed; Karen Keawehawaii brings her exceptional talents to the role of Minaʻs aunty; and Henry Kapono makes a cameo appearance as the pig hunter. From a story by Nora Cobb-Keller.

 

Songs of Joy:
A PBS Hawai‘i Holiday Celebration

 

Hawaiian Christmas medleys, original compositions and re-interpretation of a popular song are featured on this holiday special. These accomplished local artists offer their gifts of music: Manu Boyd; Ho‘okena with Maila Gibson; Kuana Torres Kahele; Henry Kapono; Nina Kealiiwahamana with Aaron Salā; The Leo Nahenahe Singers; Gail Mack with Gordon Kim; and Peter Medeiros with Joshua Silva and Nate Stillman.

 

HIKI NO
Focus on Local Business

 

This episode, hosted by HIKI NŌ graduate Shisa Kahaunaele, looks back at past stories about Hawaii-based, locally-run businesses:

 

–A story from Maui High School about a grocer in Happy Valley, Maui who has figured out how to use the influx of big-box retailers to his advantage.

 

–A profile from Waimea High School on Kauai about a successful t-shirt artist who grew up in Waimea so poor that all he could afford to wear were t-shirts.

 

— A history by Seabury Hall Middle School about the iconic, family-run Komoda Bakery in Makawao.

 

— A story from Roosevelt High School on Oahu about a café that sells slow-drip coffee but whose real draw is the unrushed, face-to-face interaction between its customers.

 

— A study from Kamehameha Schools Maui Middle of Maui Soda & Ice Works and the strong set of family values that has made that business a success.

 

— A story from Kalaheo High School on Oahu about a chocolate manufacturer in Kailua whose product bears the name of a valley in Honolulu (Manoa Chocolates) and that uses cacao beans from all over the world.

 

— A profile from Konawaena High School on Hawaii Island about a family-founded -and-run hotel that is nearing a hundred years of age and whose success can be attributed to the allure of nostalgia and a great pork chop.

 

This program encores Saturday, July 16 at 12:00 pm and Sunday, July 17 at 3:00 pm. You can also view HIKI NŌ episodes on our website, www.pbshawaii.org/hikino.

 

HIKI NŌ
Hosted by Farrington High School

 

This episode of HIKI NŌ is hosted by students from Farrington High School on Oahu.

 
Top Story:
Students from Iolani School on Oahu tell the story of a young Iolani graduate who, despite becoming a quadruple amputee due to a devastating disease, continues to live life with grace and appreciation. She visits her alma mater, sharing her inspiring message of perseverance.

 
Also Featured:
Students at Maui Waena Intermediate School on Maui explore the controversy surrounding  the construction of a new Central Maui Sports Complex; students at Kainalu Elementary School on Oahu profile a Kailua woman who shares the art of ribbon-lei-making with people from around the world; students at Mid-Pacific Institute on Oahu show how science and spiritualism are coming to the aid of a historic Waikiki icon – the Moana Hotel’s majestic banyan tree; students at Lahainaluna High School on Maui share the story of a Lahaina woman who proudly maintains her Hawaiian heritage through pa’u riding; students at Waiakea High School on Hawaii Island spotlight a locally owned surf company in Kapaa, Kauai that gives back by supporting the community’s sports teams.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Henry Akina

 

With only a piano, a conductor and some lights, Henry Akina founded an opera company in Berlin in 1981. Under Henry’s direction, the fledgling Berlin Chamber Opera grew into a successful venture. Now, as Artistic Director of Hawaiʻi Opera Theatre, Henry Akina has presented Hawaii with The Mikado, Madame Butterfly and other visually stunning productions. Whether it’s with a small company in Berlin, or on a grand stage in Hawaii, Akina’s respect for the art of opera remains the same.

 

This month, Hawaii Arts Alliance is recognizing Henry Akina with its Alfred Preis Honor, for his commitment to arts and arts education in Hawaii. PBS Hawaii congratulates him on this honor.

 

Henry Akina Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Did your parents expect you, hope that you would go into medicine?

 

No; my father actually thought of law as a career. And my mother said, No, he will do what he wants to do. And so, I chose opera. [LAUGHS]

 

And how did that go over?

 

Well, that didn’t go over all that well.

 

Did you know that opera has been performed in Hawaii for more than a hundred sixty years? The royal family of the Kingdom of Hawaii first attended opera in Honolulu during the 1850s, and Queen Emma herself performed in an opera. In more recent times, Hawaii Opera Theater has been producing visually stunning operas under the guidance of its first ever Hawaii-born artistic director. Henry Akina, artistic director of Hawaii Opera Theater, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. He’s quick to laugh, but often, his demeanor is reserved. Don’t let the guarded personality of Henry Akina fool you. Behind it lies a passion for one of the most emotional and visceral artforms, the opera. Henry Akina has directed opera in prestigious opera houses in Germany, Hungary, France, China. Thailand, Canada, and the United State. Today, Henry Akina is the artistic director of Hawaii Opera Theater. Under his direction, Hawaii Opera Theater, or HOT, has staged acclaimed productions like Madam Butterfly, Tosca, The Tales of Hoffmann, and The Mikado. While attending Punahou School in Honolulu, Henry was drawn to the performing arts, taking a very different direction than his mother and father, with their careers in medicine.

 

So, you’re the only child of two medical doctors?

 

That’s correct; that’s correct. My father was Dr. Henry Akina, and my mother was Dr. Eleanor Akina. And my mom is still alive, so that’s … is it ninety-three? And she’s wonderful. My father was an ophthalmologist before, and a well-known politician. And my mom was an internist, and then a child psychiatrist.

 

What were your parents like in raising you?

 

Well, I remember my mother being very strict, and my father being sort of not there. He was older; he would have been a hundred a few years ago. But I’m sixty now, so that … probably colors it a little bit. [LAUGHS]

 

But your mom was the one who primarily raised you?

 

Right; right, right. Well, Mom really did, I think, a decent job.

 

What were you interested in as a kid?

 

Theater, and the garbage man. [LAUGHS]

 

Because you watched him out the window in the morning?

 

Right; right, right, right, right, right, right. Well, like most Hawaiian kids, I watched the garbage men pick these things up, and I thought they were great, and brawny, and wonderful. And I liked them, but I had nothing to do with them in my later life.

 

[LAUGHS]

 

So [LAUGHS] …

 

So, the other interest was music?

 

Theater and music; I played three instruments, growing up.

 

What were the instruments?

 

Piano, flute, and um, violin as well.

 

And what part of theater were you attracted to?

 

Spectacle, I think, mostly.

 

I know you were a student at Punahou for your entire—

 

Fourteen years; yeah.

 

And did you do theater there, too?

 

Yes; I was president of the Punahou Playmakers for a couple of years. I don’t remember how many, but [LAUGHS] …

 

And acted in plays.

 

And I acted in plays from a very young age, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I really hadn’t thought about opera until quite a bit later.

 

And when you thought about opera, were you thinking about you singing, or were you thinking about directing opera?

 

I’ve been directing for about thirty years, and I don’t think I’ve ever been paid to sing. [LAUGHS] So, there you go.

 

That’s not how you came up to through the ranks.

 

No, no, no; that’s not. I didn’t start as a singer like Quinn Kelsey, or like any of the others.

 

After graduating from Punahou School, Henry Akina attended Tufts University in Massachusetts, and then moved to Germany to attend the Freie University of Berlin graduate program. At the time, Akina did not realize he would live in Germany for the next twenty years.

 

At that time, Berlin was like a political island, and I had been raised on an island, so I knew what an island was like. And I wasn’t as bothered by the wall as other people seemed to be.

 

The Berlin Wall.

 

The Berlin Wall.

 

Which was up then.

 

Which was up then, and which colored my life a lot. It took two hours to get to the other side of Berlin. And I had taken Berlin because there were three opera companies there. The only other city at that time that had three opera companies was London. And I thought, Well, you already speak English, you know.

 

So, you wanted to go to a country where you didn’t speak the language?

 

That’s true; that’s true; that’s true. I thought it would be good for me. So, I did it. [LAUGHS]

 

And what was it like learning German on the spot?

 

Well, I don’t think I spoke. I had read everything by the time I got there. I had read, you know, Goethe. But nobody speaks that way. [LAUGHS] And so, we had to learn how to speak like a normal person. And so, we did. [LAUGHS] You know. As normal as we can be.

 

And you just learned it; you didn’t take a course. You learned by …

 

Well, I had German in school; I was in advanced placement at Punahou, and took that with me. And I had a couple of years of college German as well. And then, went into it. So, I didn’t go in exactly cold.

 

No; you had an immersion experience, with some background.

 

With some background. Yes; there you go.

 

And did you feel at home right away?

 

No; it took a while. It took about three or four years to feel at home. But then I felt at home, and then it was kind of a little bit … strange coming back

 

Tell me about life in Berlin.

 

Life in Berlin was interesting. It was very liberal, as life in Hawaii is, too. I didn’t have a car in Germany. I used the subway system and the bus system.

 

Well, that’ll introduce you to people quickly.

 

Oh, yes. [LAUGHS] I knew a lot more people in Berlin, than I do here. And I think that’s interesting, too. Here, I know the people I work with, and the people who I’ve seen. You know, I walk a dog every day for three miles, and those people I see. But I don’t really see very many other people, except for Ann and the people I work with.

 

And were you accepted in Berlin? You said open society.

 

I was accepted; I was accepted very readily.

 

And you had a job going in?

 

I was a student, going in, and then I had a job. And then, it was … it was interesting, because my career developed there, and I was a directing assistant, which meant that I got coffee, and I did all these other things. But at that time, I was an assistant for language particularly, because they needed someone who spoke English, and I did. And I was able to parlay that into a career.

 

At what point did you say, This is it, I’m not going back home, I’m not going back to the East Coast, this is home now?

 

Well, it took a while. And I think I was back in Berlin, and I was going to come here to work, to the Santa Fe Opera in ’79. I was going to do an office job in ’80. And I didn’t do the office job; I stayed in Berlin and grounded a company, which, you know, went for many years. And it wasn’t until I’d done that, that I felt that it was home. And that was after I’d been there for about four or five years.

 

Although Henry Akina was fascinated with theater from a young age, it wasn’t until he was living in Berlin that he discovered opera, this newfound discovery, which shaped the course of his career and life.

 

So, it sounds like when you talk about your past, you know, what went before, your childhood, your growing up, it’s not as important to you. It’s almost as if your life began when you discovered opera.

 

That’s true; that’s true; that’s true. And it’s been my life ever since. I worked with some of the best opera directors I could find at that time. But I don’t know if those names mean anything nowadays or not. Uh, Kurt Horres, Gotz Friedrich, and Harry Kupfer, who just did Der Rosenkavalier at Salzburg.

 

And he was an enormous influence in your life.

 

Yes, he was; he was.

 

How so?

 

Well, he was a director’s director. You could really learn from him; he had a technique, and people didn’t. Frau Berghaus was wonderful. You know, she had wonderful things, and she had wonderful images. But you couldn’t learn from her. But he had a technique that you could learn from, a method that you could learn from. And there was something interesting about it. An actor doesn’t have the information that a singer does, for instance. One doesn’t know this, necessarily. But singers actually have more information than actors do about a character, for instance.

 

Why? Because they’re …

 

Well, because the composer has written everything out, and there’s a lot of … a musical score needs to be done by an actor, whereas the singer has a musical score already in front of them. And so, the musical score needs to be put together by the actor, who will say that something is quicker, and something is slower.

 

Does that mean the actor has more choice than the singer?

 

The actor might need more therapy than the singer. [LAUGHS] I discovered that therapy was not my long suit, if you will.

 

[LAUGHS] You know, I think you’ve described opera as singing your guts out. I mean, it is a raw, and it’s emotions expressed in music. It’s a physically demanding job, being an operatic singer.

 

It is very physically demanding.

 

And you’re directing these people. I mean, tell us something about what that’s like.

 

Well, directing an opera singer is like directing a gladiator, and someone who’s right in your face, and sweating, and doing all these things for you. And you have to think about what you’re asking them to do, obviously, because you’re not asking them to eviscerate themselves, or do things like that. We don’t want that. We want to create a full performance. And I’ve usually had very collaborative relationships with singers to try and get that out of them.

 

And how do you get it out of them? I mean, you have to be empathic, you have to kind of know what they’re going through, and give them a vision, give them some kind of—

 

Well, I think vision and something to hold onto is important.

 

Something to hold onto, meaning …

 

Meaning, there are guideposts in every score, I think, and there’s you know, a moment in each measure that makes the singer respond in a way that—

 

So, you say, emphasize this, pause here?

 

Well, that is given by the composer. So the pause, you might take, say, in the case of a flauta, you might say, Well, here, you can be free, or here, you can’t be free. Here, you need to move it ahead, or you need to stay with what’s written.

 

So, if the composer has essentially directed the singer, then tell me how it is you add a dimension to that performance.

 

Well, the composer has written notes on page, and you’re there to make things live, to make things live for the singer.

 

Henry Akina admits that he can be impulsive. In 1981, he stepped out on his own, and founded his own opera company, The Berlin Chamber Opera, with conductor Brynmor Llewelyn Jones. Then, in 1996, after twenty years in Germany, a whirlwind offer led Akina back to Honolulu.

 

You actually cofounded an opera company in Berlin?

 

I did; I did.

 

Tell us.

 

I did; I did; I did. There was an English conductor and a class of singers that was leaving a conservatory and wanted to do something. And I thought, Well, this is a good thing to do. So, I did. [LAUGHS]

 

You didn’t think of all the reasons you couldn’t. You said, Oh, good idea, I’m gonna do that?

 

Well, yeah; yeah, yeah.

 

What did it require? It sounds like it would have required something on all fronts, including real estate.

 

Well, it did, and we were lucky that that was a company of young people that gave us a rehearsal hall. That was very nice of them. And it started out as a very sort of mom & pop of kind of thing. We had a piano, and this sort of thing. And then, it morphed. We became a candidate for state funding very quickly, very early on. And once the state funding started to flow, then there were more things. There was a conductor, and there were lights, and there were things that you couldn’t have imagined before, and we weren’t as dependent on rentals, and things like that. So … that was one of the wonderful ways that it actually happened.

 

And it functioned, and was successful?

 

Well, it functioned and was successful. I had very good press to begin with, and very good press with the conductor. And that that helped a lot.

 

And why did you decide to come back to Hawaii, after this successful time in Germany?

 

I was recruited. And state funding had gone down. This was something that Simon and I talked a lot with Donna Blanchard about, was state funding had done a downturn. And I thought, Well, you know, maybe if Hawaii wants me, that might be a good thing to do. So, they did want me, and they wanted me in two months’ time, which I remember being very challenging.

 

You mentioned that when you lived for twenty years in Germany, you’d have to go around the Berlin Wall. And then, the Berlin Wall fell. What were some of your feelings about that?

 

Well, it was ambivalent, because with the Berlin Wall, also this adventure left Berlin. So, I was essentially very poor at that time. So, that when HOT called, it seemed like, you know, Heaven had said, you know, Come home. [LAUGHS] Well, here we are. You know, and we had great luck, because that year was the first year that Quinn Kelsey was in the opera, opera studio, and Quinn is the new Hawaiian singer. And although there has been one in every generation, we were very happy it was Quinn.

 

Under Henry Akina’s direction, Hawaii Opera Theater, or HOT, has become known for vibrant, creative productions, sometimes incorporating modern updates and collaborations with top international artists. Akina directed a reimagined version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

 

I love that approach, in sense modernizing with Harajuku costumes.

 

You’re referring to The Mikado, then.

 

Yeah, Mikado.

 

Right; yeah.

 

And you feel free to do that. You don’t take the same opera and present it again. You add new touches. You’ve had Anne Namba’s designs, you’ve had Dean Shibuya change things up. 

 

We have a resident designer at HOT, Peter Dean Beck, who’s resident in New York, but who’s nonetheless been seminal for design here.

 

How do audiences feel about those changes?

 

I’m not sure. You know, people say nice things to me, so I’m assuming that they’re honest about those things. But I think that the audiences in Hawaii respond well to good stories, and we try and make good stories wherever we are, from wherever we are.

 

Do you look for ways to take a classic story and localize it or modernize it?

 

Well, modernize it, perhaps. Localize it, not so much. But modernize it, perhaps. And in the case of Mikado, for instance, we knew that we couldn’t go backwards; we had to go forwards. And we had to look at the Japan of today, which was a lot different than the first time we did Mikado, which was ten years ago.

 

So, in ten years, it changed.

 

In ten years, life has changed. Yeah.

 

So, how did your production change?

 

Well, the first production of Mikado was very traditional; it had a lot of traditional costumes. The second production of Mikado had nothing that was traditional at all. Except for the gentlemen of Japan, who were gentlemen. But as soon as the three little maids from school arrived, well, you knew that you were someplace else. [LAUGHS]

 

Pitti-Sing.

 

Right; right. 

 

Meaning, pretty thing as a name.

 

Right; right. Well, Pitti-Sing … she was interesting, because ten years ago, she was very Japanese, and today, or last June, she was very modern in a way made her different. that made her stand out particularly.

 

You’ve staged Mikado …

 

Twice. [LAUGHS]

 

And when you stage it again, let’s say you do it in ten years, would you imagine another jump?

 

Well, in ten years, Harajuku is already old, so we may find something else, you know.

 

Did audiences know Harajuku girls? Because that was the play.

 

I think that we tried to let the audience know that we were doing the style. But you’ll have to ask Anne about the Harajuku things, because it was based on one of Anne’s trips to Japan. But I think that in contemporary life, we would be someplace else in ten years.

 

Right. I think she reimagined those characters as hip shoppers out for retail therapy.

 

She did; she did. And using cell phones every five minutes. Right. And using an iPad; things like that. So, whatever we’re using in ten years will be reflected in the staging at that time.

 

In 2009, Henry Akina returned to the European opera scene. This time he received an invitation for a new production of Madam Butterfly at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland, as well as performances in Sweden. In 2014, Akina and HOT revived Madam Butterfly and shipped the set and costumes from Europe to Honolulu for Hawaii audiences.

 

[OPERATIC SINGING]

 

Ladies, this is much better; much improved. And so, I should see that again. Okay? And you should reanimate from frozen to [EXHALES]. It would be helpful on both sides, I think, so that each * is well designed and well imaged. You’re doing great.

 

[CHUCKLES]

 

Well, I would say that one of the signature operas that HOT has done a lot of is Madam Butterfly. And the latest version was with sets by Dean Shibuya and costumes by Anne Namba, which were very beautiful. And we did this five years ago, and this was developed here in Hawaii and taken then to Finland, and done in a theater in Sweden as well. So, that was a very beautiful production. Dean had been to a Butterfly I’d done here in ’92, and he did a template for the Bangkok Opera in … well, what year was that? 2004 or 5, or something like that. And then, Anne had done another Butterfly here at HOT. And so, we came together in 2009 to do that.

 

How did you connect with Anne?

 

Well, I went to her shop a lot, and she talked a lot with me about various things concerning Butterfly. And at that time, she was doing a lot of kimono work, so there was a lot of traditional kimonos in Butterfly.

 

And when you get together, you all know the story, you all know what it feels like. So, do you all envision it looking differently?

 

Well, for our particular Butterfly, we decided that the Asuka Period would be the period that you commence with, instead of being the Meiji Period, which is traditional with Butterfly, that we would take it a little bit more modern and do the Taisho Period. Which had more to say about the costumes than it did about the set, which was a traditional set.

 

So, the Hawaii costuming got its first showing in Finland, and then came back here on a slow boat.

 

That’s correct; that’s correct. That’s correct; that’s correct.

 

Some may perceive the average age of an opera audience in Hawaii to skew older; but according to Henry Akina, the local audience has been shifting over the last few seasons.

 

What’s the average age of somebody attending a performance of HOT?

 

I would say that we were a graying population, but lately, we’re a very young and vibrant crew. And it’s a very intergenerational kind of thing. So, you would say that the mean age was maybe thirty-five or something [LAUGHS] as opposed to fifty-five, which is what it was a long time ago.

 

Your parents introduced you to opera.

 

That’s correct; that’s correct.

 

And I assume that’s still happening, when you say intergenerational?

 

I would hope so; I would hope so. But I know that my generation doesn’t like opera as much as it could, and that there are very many people who haven’t experienced the opera yet. And there are people who’ve come with their children; because their children came, they come. So, that’s very interesting, too.

 

Opera has such fans. That’s where the word fanatic comes from; right?

 

Right; right.

 

I mean, fan. Why do you think opera exerts such a strong pull on those who enjoy it?

 

Well, I can only speak from experience, but I would say that because it’s that form of theater, and it’s that form of theater that uses everything that we have. We know that the plays in ancient Greece were essentially operas. And there’s something mythic about having things sung at you, and things developed in music.

 

Henry Akina was selected by the Hawaii Arts Alliance as the 2014 Preis Honoree in Arts, one of the highest honors for the arts in Hawaii.

 

You are winning. You’ve already been announced, I believe, as the 2014 Preis Honoree in Arts, which is a tremendous honor, probably the largest honor we have in Hawaii in arts.

 

Well, I knew Alfred Preis, and I think that that’s … I was saying that, you know, people who know me well don’t expect this honor. And I didn’t expect it, either. [LAUGHS]

 

Why? Why didn’t you expect it? I wasn’t surprised to hear that you were named.

 

Well, I was, in a weird way. And I went to a board member, Jean Rolles, who had been honored herself. And she said, You will do it for this organization. And since then, I have decided that I will do it for the organization.

 

But you didn’t think you deserved it? Is that what you’re saying?

 

Well, I’m not sure I did. I think that, you know, being the head of a collaborative artform, I feel that like a lot of people deserve this honor.

 

Like you’re only as good as the people who perform for and with you?

 

Exactly; exactly, exactly. Like I’m only as good as this Butterfly was, and I’m only as good as Anne and Dean can be.

 

As someone who had to live abroad for many years to learn about opera, a big part of Henry Akina’s life is sharing this artform with younger generations. According to Akina, the Hawaii Opera Theater’s educational programs reach more than twenty-five thousand students each year. In addition, he helped to found the Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio to train the next generation of operatic artists here in Hawaii. With Henry Akina’s passion, and with opera gaining popularity with younger audiences, it won’t be curtain call any time soon for Henry and his company of talented performers. Mahalo to Henry Akina for sharing his story with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Would you ever be convinced to switch to a different kind of stage performance direction?

 

I have done that, and it hasn’t gone well. You know, so I would assume that I’m doomed to do opera. [LAUGHS]

 

In the best tradition of opera; right?

 

Right, right.

 

In the best emotional way.

 

[END]

 

 

HIKI NŌ
Hosted by Lahaina Intermediate School

 

This episode of HIKI NŌ is hosted by Lahaina Intermediate School on Maui.

 

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