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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Jordan and Aaron Kandell

 

Jordan and Aaron Kandell are twin brothers who are best friends and Mānoa neighbors. As children, they were so close that they would finish each other’s sentences. As young adults, the brothers teamed up in a career in which they completed each other’s creative ideas: screenwriting. The ʻIolani School grads and college poetry majors are best known, so far, for their work as part of the writing team behind Moana, the 2016 Disney animated film. They hit it big after a solid decade of hard work, grinding out script proposals and receiving a litany of rejection letters. Says Jordan: “If you’re gonna take every ‘no’ personally, I don’t know how you move forward.”

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Dec. 15, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Jordan and Aaron Kandell Audio

 

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Transcript

 

It takes a lot of energy and effort to sail across the vast oceans of life to get to where you want to go, and if your worry and fear are energy trains from the focus that you need for the energy of that voyage, you have to go after what you love.  What your curiosity leads you to, wherever that’s going to take you as courageously as you can. And that’s the only way you give yourself a chance of reaching that goal, even if it seems kind of impossible or not even crystallized for you.

 

Together, these Hawai’i born twin brothers continue to pursue their shared dream of making Hollywood movies. Aaron and Jordan Kandell next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short, one on one engaging conversations with some of Hawaii’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou I’m Leslie Wilcox. I found it transfixing to listen to twin brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell of Honolulu when they’re in spirited conversation they are very much in sync and that’s even when they don’t completely agree. You don’t know which one is going to finish the sentence. The brothers are almost inseparable in both their professional and personal lives. They joined the screenwriting team for the 2016 hit Disney animated film Moana, which features the voice of Dwayne The Rock Johnson. And they continue to write together as a dynamic duo and have recently begun producing Hollywood movies such as Adrift, which was released in 2018. Both twins have young families and they even live next door to each other in Mānoa Valley. Aaron and Jordan say their parents, Lloyd and Sherri Kandell, were hippies, originally from the U.S. mainland who once lived on the north shore of Kaua‘i, a near Taylor camp, which was a clothing optional alternative community of people living in tree houses. The couple later moved to O‘ahu and settled down in Kaimuki, and they were surprised when not one baby, but two babies arrived.

 

Being the hippie parents, they didn’t do an ultrasound. They had sort of a natural doctor who just did a stethoscope, and Aaron, had we found out later he’d gotten sort of pushed up, probably kicked by me under my mom’s rib. So that when they did the stethoscope, her heartbeat overpowered the sound of his. It was so close that they only heard one here and one here. So the doctor for her entire pregnancy said, you’ve got one.

 

But everybody, she was huge. I mean, we were like six pounds each. So she had this giant beach ball belly. And their joke was everybody but them and their doctor knew that they had twins.

 

Like, you know, o-

 

Aunties would come up to her at the beach or in the market and touch her belly and go twin when they actually had the births. She tried to do a home birth and it turned into an emergency. Rushed to C-section. And they pulled him out first. And their doctors were getting ready to stitch her back. They said, wait, we have another pair of feet in here.

 

Ohh…

 

Imagine not knowing that there is suddenly the doctor saying we see an extra pair of feet in there after they pulled me out. And so fortunately, it was him and he was healthy and they pulled him out. And for the first two weeks, we were baby A and baby B because they didn’t know that, they didn’t have names picked out. They had to get all of these se- new crib, new sets of clothes. It was just all a surprise.

 

Are you identical twins?

 

We don’t know-

 

–Because of the surprise birth.

 

Yeah.

 

We never had the all of the you know, there’s varying kinds of tests that you can do with the placenta or DNA when you’re born that identify if you’re identical or fraternal that we never had done in the rush of the emergency uhh, delivery. So we never actually verified-

 

Yeah, we don’t know.

 

-to confirm if we’re identical or fraternal. I assume we’re identical.

 

Well, how do the dynamics work between the two of you? Was there a time when you didn’t get along or that you I mean, how-

 

I mean, we’re kind-

 

-has your relationship evolved?

 

I mean we’re kind of Peter Pan and his shadow. Like if one of us gets too far away, the other chases them down and stitches them back to their feet. Uhh, we’ve always been that way. I mean, we’ve- We- all we know is collaboration. We’ve just had to share everything from the same room until we were 18. I think, you know, we were roommates in college. Uhh, we wished we had been able to take the same classes in school. Umm, and the first chance we got, we did. We’ve always been interested in the same everything. Same sports, same books, same girls, same career.

 

Ohh that sounds dangerous.

 

That was dangerous.

 

Same girls.

 

Yeah.

 

Sounds like that’s the real story.

 

Yeah, well we had a- we’ve been, because everything’s been collaborative. We’ve never really fought. It’s just been like having a best friend all the time who thinks like you and looks like you, which you know could be narcissistic, but-

 

Yeah.

 

it’s outside of you. So it’s not.

 

And interestingly, the two girls I think we weren’t both interested in at the same time became our wives like-.

 

Thats right.

 

His high school sweetheart is who he married. And I had a high school girlfriend. So I was never interested in her, any other girls at that time. And so that one ended up working out. But before he met his wife in senior year of high school-

 

Yeah.

 

Umm, one of our good friends set him up on a date in high school with, who became my wife. And they did not hit it off at all.

 

No.

 

They had like the worst date of each of their lives.

 

So this is good right?

 

Well, it’d worked out. Yeah-

 

This is a good thing.

 

Well, then two years later, when the same friends tried to set him up, I was like, its- whats- it’s oil and vinegar. It’s not going to work. What are you thinking? And then they just sparked-

 

Instantly.

 

-instantly.

 

Wow, who would’ve guessed that.

 

So it was a weird.

 

Yeah.

 

You know, a weird dynamic, how that worked.

 

This has been such a strength for you to have your friends, your family, you’re professional collaborators. Is it ever a weakness?

 

Being twins?

 

The way you are twins,-

 

-okay, that’s a good question. I-

 

–Because not all twins are as close.

 

I- I don’t want to speak for other people that I would say it’s probably more of a weakness, for everybody outside of the weird lynchian twin bubble that is our existence, because for us it’s all we know. So anything that’s not sharing and having it- like us going to a movie theater by ourselves to watch a movie feels weird. There was a moment, I think, when I was twenty seven where Jordan moved back here with his wife and I was still living in L.A. and I had uhh, and it was a year and I had a year of oh, this is what the human condition is, is being by yourself and having to find community. And like a deep sense of loneliness because I didn’t have this like shadow attachment to me that I’d always had of everything is a shared experience. So anytime you’re sitting and eating a meal, that’s with somebody else.

 

Right.

 

Umm, And- and so I think for other people to- Not y’know for our wives at first, like dating and having to get used to the fact that we were already born with our soulmates, so finding a second soulmate and bringing that into the mix is a weird alchemy. Uhh, that becomes, I think, challenging.

 

They’re probably cringing hearing you call me your soulmate

 

Probably.

 

From a young age. Aaron and Jordan Kandell were very close and shared friends, sports and activities. But what influenced them the most was their shared love of reading and writing.

 

Whenever we had free time, whether it was at recess or a lunch or a soon as-

 

-eating-

 

we got home after school, we were just like this.

 

Yeah. Umm, We- I think we read a book a day and-

 

-And did ‘Iolani homework?

 

Well, we didn’t have homework until like fourth, fifth grade.

 

Yeah.

 

So those first y’know four grades was just our bookshelf literally collapsed from the weight of all the blocks we were reading. It was a lo-

 

Yeah, we’d read like 300 bucks a year.

 

It was crazy.

 

So you spent your early years reading, reading, reading, reading. At what point did that turn to writing?

 

Early too. Yeah.

 

Pretty early, I think from like second, third grade.

 

We have- I have a memory of getting an assignment that was write a three page, double spaced, huge kid print story that would take, you know, 15 minutes when you got home. And we each separate of each other went and just started writing and both turned in like a 30 page single spaced story the next day, because we just got lost in the world that we started to-

 

-And also we couldn’t charge. So it was easier for words.

 

We still can draw. But umm, and so I have a very distinct memory of going, oh, like that was fun. And I just go where did the time go? And that was second or third grade. And ever since then, we-

 

What did your teacher say?

 

They were like, oh, wow, cool.

 

Future screenwriters and film producers Jordan and Aaron Kandell of Honolulu both pursued their love of literature and studied creative writing at the University of Southern California. However, they did not start off working together on screenplays.

 

Over the course of college, we discovered uhh, something you would think you would have known right off the bat, which is we loved writing- both of us. We wanted to work together. We both majored in poetry.

 

Which is not very collaborative.

 

No it is not.

 

We discovered very quickly that poetry is probably really the least collaborative form-

 

Right.

 

-of poetry you can do unless you’re like- your entire [INDISTINCT] of work is Renzos. Which is a form training lines back and forth. Uhh, but there’s very limited styles of poetry that are collaborative.

 

Right.

 

Screenwriting and TV writing especially are the most collaborative form of writing I can think of. Umm, and so we were studying those as well and started to write our first screenplay in college together and thought, this is- this is so much fun and this is so natural-

 

Yeah.

 

-and combines kind of the best of what we loved in reading growing up. All these novels and these long form umm, stories-

 

Mhmm.

 

-with what we’ve been trained and are pulled towards in poetry, which is saying as much as you can in as few words as possible, which is very much the limitations uhh, that the screenplay form has about things with which words often are, you know, struggle to capture. And that’s the visual medium of- of film and TV.

 

Yeah.

 

And so it kind of combined everything we loved into one form.

 

What did you do after you left USC? Having decided to become screenwriters, which is an almost impossible job-

 

Yeah.

 

–to get in Hollywood if that’s where you’re heading.

 

We ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches.

 

Yeah. No. We came straight home and became teachers. Yeah.

 

That is true.

 

It is what we did. Umm, so we taught at Punahou and ‘Iolani. Umm-

 

What did you teach?

 

I taught tenth grade English uhh, for a year.

 

And I taught ninth grade Spanish.

 

And then in the summers we taught and- and that was the first year. And then we started substitute teaching pretty much every subject you can think of.

 

Every grade, everything from kindergarten to like conducting the full orchestra without any orchestra experience.

 

And- but a lot of moviemaking and a lot of S.A.T. prep.

 

Yeah.

 

You’re saving money, I’m taking it with all these teaching jobs.

 

Yeah. So we were- We- We would teach all day that first year and then write all afternoon when we were done grading and lesson planning and all weekend. Uhh, and then when we went to substitute teaching, we would try to maybe-

 

Just enough to survive. So like teach one or two days a week and then write the rest of it.

 

So we very much saw from the beginning writing as our full time job and teaching was something we loved and we’re very passionate about. But our first and foremost uhh, pursuit was writing, and so that was allowing us to do the writing.

 

And were you also looking for those all important contacts to get you to the screen?

 

No.

 

No.

 

-Because we were here. I mean, there wasn’t- We didn’t- We were not guys born into it, connected in any way, had any uhh, knowledge or access for who to talk to to get there.

 

Even USC couldn’t say, hey, lets- lets-

 

-I mean, USC was-

 

–Lets reach out for you.

 

-USC was great in giving us sort of the launch pad for what the screen writing format looked like. Umm, you know, but most of your teachers at USC were like, don’t become screenwriters because that’s what we want to do-

 

It’s so hard. Yeah.

 

–And it’s so hard. And, you know, if you love anything else and do that. That was their advice. Umm, so you- you had a sense of how daunting the mountain you had to climb was ahead. But you also, you know when you’re 22 to 26, you have that sort of naive, I’m going to climb Everest and I can do it without oxygen or ropes. And here we go, which you need. And it’s important to have that. And if we knew better, looking back, you know, in the 10 year climb, it took us to get to the top of Everest uhh, and the frostbite fingers that we have as a result. Like, we probably wouldn’t have done it. But, you know, it’s good to have that.

 

How many years exactly, teaching and writing?

 

The first screenplay we sold was after four years of writing and we sold it, like we got the call. We just started an S.A.T. quiz and there was a summer course we were teaching at Punahou. And we gave the kids the quiz and then we got a phone call and it was Fox and Disney were both bidding on our first screenplay and we had to go out and close the deal in the 15 minutes they were taking this quiz and come back in feeling like very both excited and like we were maybe going to throw up-

 

-Panicked. Panicked.

 

–And then had to run the class as though nothing had happened and finish out the day.

 

After four years of working as teachers in Honolulu and writing screenplays eight to ten hours a day, Aaron and Jordan Kandell sold their first screenplay to a Hollywood studio. But that show was never produced and it would be another six years and several other un-produced screenplays before the Kandell twins finally saw their work on the big screen with the 2016 release of Disney’s Moana.

 

As anyone who’s done anything creative, countless rejection for years and years, thousands of no’s before someone says yes. And if you’re gonna take every no personally, it’s how- I don’t know how you move forward.

 

How many rejections did you receive?

 

So many.

 

A lot. It was so- It took four years to sell our first thing. We’re like we made it. And then it took another four years till we sold anything else. Umm, and it took ten till Moana, which was the first thing that actually got produced and made, umm, came onto the screen. And so all of that, that whole ten year journey uhh, was informative and challenging, umm, before you kind of figure out how to read the swells and- and steer the canoe. Umm, it took that long to figure that out.

 

Do you think that that period of discipline and- and without a lot of- uhh, a lot of inst- no instant gratification there right?

 

Yeah.

 

Do you think that helped you make it for the long term?

 

I think we would have honestly-

 

-Preferred getting instant gratification.

 

Yeah, I wouldn’t care. I would’ve loved-

 

And you can still do-

 

I would’ve loved the rocket launch straight into-

 

–I-

 

–the stratosphere.

 

Yeah. That would have been great. I think we would have done it anyway. I think we were succ- The success or financial success or any kind of recognition was never our motivation. Uhh, getting it is nice because it allows us to continue to do what we loved and not have to second guess and question how are we going to feed our families? Umm, because we are now getting paid to do what we always loved and were doing since second or third grade. Umm, but we would have done it anyway. For Moana we felt uhh, as fortunate to be called to it because it was not our idea. It was a project that existed for years, three years before we got the call to come and be a part of it.

 

Were you- Were you there to rescue it, to do trouble fixing?

 

Yes. So they had and it’s not just the- it’s typical of the Disney Pixar process, is that over the course of three to five years, usually four to five, they’ll put the movie together anywhere from eight to ten times internally before it’s shown to an audience, and-

 

All hand drawn.

 

-Hand drawn and all, you know, every- every three months. They’re basically rewriting, re scoring, rerecording, redrawing and editing up a version of the film, not as animated as you see. It’s sort of your old school sketch, flip book animation where Mickey’s hand will move like this as you put the pages, but a whole rough cut of the movie. And so they’ve done that for three years and the story had lost its way. And so they needed to find new writers to help them steer a course towards what the story was. And they had a lot of the tent poles- we’ll call ’em- of the story. They had the girl named Moana. They knew that she lived on Motu Nui. They had all the characters kind of drawn and animated. Umm, so we knew that cast. Uhh, she was going to meet Maui. She was going to sail out and try to restore- Spoiler alert- Teka, Teka into Tefiti. But they didn’t know why she wanted to leave. They didn’t know why Tefiti had become Teka, and what would turn her back? They didn’t know what the relationship with Moana would- and Maui would be or where she would find him or what they were sailing out to do. All of that was up in the air. And so we had to come in and help create all the story to connect those dots.

 

Isn’t it interesting the storyline got lost along the way?

 

Mhmm.

 

Yeah.

 

After all that technical work and artistic work?

 

Well, a lot of animation is that same- They’re all amazing artists, like the best artists you’ve seen. You’ll be sitting talking story like this and they’ll be drawing a caricature of you and showing it to you or you’ll be talking about we’ll say, well, what if they encounter these little coconut pirates? We’ll call them the Kakamora and they’ll be like, well, will they look like this? We’re like, uhh maybe a..

 

Wow.

 

-And they’ll, more like this? Yes. And they’ll just be tossing photos behind them. They’ll be just sheets of paper-

 

Drawing. Drawing.

 

–and drawing. And throwing, which is amazing because we can’t draw. So for us. That was like magic of Disney come true before our eyes. Uhh, but-

 

-But yeah it’s [INDISTINCT]-

 

–they start- they start with the visuals because they’re all artists. So they get really excited about visual ideas. And then it’s trying to find… We almost had to come in and be the story way finders and the navigators of the story to connect what these visual motifs and ideas could be through the character work, through the thematics and through the values of the experiences that we had growing up on the islands.

 

And this wasn’t a Hawaiian movie.

 

No.

 

It’s Polynesian.

 

[Both]Yeah.

 

But you really had a role to play in terms of making it authentic and not putting in the wicky, wacky cellophane hula skirts and- and language.

 

We tried. Umm, yeah. Uhh, we came in hoping to- There were characters that existed in earlier versions that we will not mention uhh, that were culturally insensitive, if not offensive, that we- we threw out. We said, you- you can’t do this for- for these specific reasons. Umm, and we then tried to bring in kupuna and advisers like Nainoa Thompson to make the way finding elements as accurate as possible uhh, and to speak towards some of the cultural values we just grew up with that might drive Moana through her journey and in her interactions with Maui. And so, yeah, we played that small part as- as we weren’t the only ones. They had uhh, a board, an oceanic adviser trust from all different island cultures of professors and performers who helped advise. But we did come in as-

 

-We banged the cultural-

 

–story tellers, yes.

 

We banged the cultural drums very loudly.

 

Do you think in words or pictures when you’re a screenwriter?

 

That’s a-

 

–That’s a really good question. Uhh, both. I mean, I think-

 

-It starts with pictures.

 

It starts with pictures-

 

We have to see the movie in our head in order to put it on the page. And then basically the process of writing for us-

 

–Is recording. It’s almost, you have to visual- you almost have to sit in the audience. You have to direct the movie and then you have to be able to edit it, and watch it. And once you can see a whole sequence or a scene, then you’re just essentially reporting what you’re seeing. But you have to go through that process-

 

So you have a story that you-

 

-Then you have to visualize it.

 

–But the pictures have to- you have to lead with pictures.

 

Yeah. I mean, it’s such a- we’re such uhh, visual creatures as humans. And the world has become so much more, like visual focus. There’s so much media.

 

You know, you said you’re collaborative. I assume that each of you has a role. Do your roles remain constant in terms of putting together a screenplay?

 

Uhh, it’s pretty fluid. Yin Yang, We have different strengths. I’d say as writers and that depends on the day. Sometimes one of us is stronger at one thing than the other.

 

And you both recognize that that day one is stronger than the other at something?

 

[Both]Yeah.

 

Okay.

 

Yeah.

 

Yeah.

 

And in general, we have different strengths uhh, and- and weaknesses. I think Aaron is stronger with character and dialog and getting into kind of the core of how somebody expresses themself in a unique, interesting, believable… Just getting at who those characters are and what they want. And my strength is sort of seeing the bigger picture of a story and structuring out what’s going to happen and how we get there. And then writing-

 

-He’s more of the architect. I’m more the interior designer.

 

Uhh, sorry, everyone who’s not a twin. But it helps us be objective-

 

-Right.

 

Because we’re constantly questioning each other’s work, uhh, storytelling choices, quality of what we were putting out and just saying, can we make it better. We’re poking at it.

 

And why are we doing this-

 

-That’s right.

 

–And what do we want to get out of it?

 

And if you’re by yourself, it would help to find somebody who can serve that role.

 

We’ll break out a whole story. We’ll sit and we’ll talk or we’ll go hiking through the forest and just talk and talk and talk and talk and figure out how we both see what the grand vision of it is. And then it’ll usually be architecting it out, which he’s very good at in terms of breaking an outline and detail. And then I’ll come in and be, well, let’s make this is kind of a cliché. Let’s make this more original or fresh or have somebody say something in a way you wouldn’t think. And so and then it becomes sort of breaking out and tackling sequences or scenes on the page.

 

Aaron and Jordan Kandell remain close in their everyday lives. If they aren’t working on their next screenplay together, they’re together surfing, hiking, watching a movie. We’re spending time with their extended family.

 

It works. I mean, you both are married. Each of you has a child.

 

Yeah.

 

And then how do you- and you live next door to each other?

 

Yes.

 

Next door.

 

Very close, walking distance of-

 

-Like-

 

-back back fence kind of thing?

 

Yes.

 

Back fence.

 

Share. Share the same boundary line.

 

Okay.

 

Yeah.

 

So how does it work? I mean, because you’re working together every day. And even if you weren’t working, you’d be seeing each other every day.

 

Yeah. We’re together almost all the time.

 

Yeah.

 

All day. We’re usually together most of the day working, writing, meetings. Umm, and then at night we’ll either all go to his house or he’ll come to my house with his family to have dinner. We kind of trade back and forth. We trade taking the kids to school and picking them up.

 

They go to the same schools?

 

They don’t yet because one, his is-

 

-Younger.

 

–too young, umm, but hopefully they will. Umm, and they very much are like sibling-cousins, we call them. They’re so close.

 

And I’ve heard that the children call each of you uncle daddy.

 

Yes.

 

Daddy. And then Uncle Daddy.

 

Yeah.

 

That’s right.

 

That’s funny.

 

Yeah.

 

So what happens when a spouse wants to do something different than what you two want to do?

 

They usually win.

 

They win.

 

Oh they win?

 

Yeah.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Yeah.

 

You defer.

 

Yes, definitely.

 

Yeah.

 

Yeah. Because we’re together so often-

 

-Yeah.

 

-that it’s only fair.

 

Yeah.

 

So you figured-

 

-Well-

 

–a way to make all of it.

 

Yeah.

 

They’ll win the battle because the war, they already, know is lost.

 

Kind of seems too good to be true that you know, the wives would be happy and- and get this relationship and then- and then you two would get along so well.

 

That we would get along so well?

 

Yeah.

 

Yeah-

 

–Yeah, I mean, I- I don’t know. I would attribute that to nature and nurture. I think-

 

Yeah, ’cause our parents were very uhh, they created an environment. We never really fought with our older brother. He was always super supportive and loving. And we just kind of-

 

-Closed it with him. Yup.

 

They just created a dynamic where it was you were all, y’know, on the same canoe paddling together.

 

As of this conversation in the spring of 2019, Aaron and Jordan Kandell are involved in a multitude of screenplays and film projects, including their dream project called The Golden Record, The True Story of Carl Sagan and his Creation of a Record of Life on Earth for 1976 NASA’s Space Mission. Mahalo to Aaron and Jordan Kandall of Mānoa, O’ahu. And thank you for joining us for this edition of LONG STORY SHORT on PBS Hawai’i. I’m Leslie Wilcox, Aloha Nui.

 

Our mom has just followed her curiosity wherever it’s led her for her entire life. So she’s been really like-

 

The jack of all trades.

 

Yeah.

 

She’s had- she had a different career every three to five years most of our lives.

 

And would you put that under the fearless category?

 

Oh, for sure. Yeah.

 

I think the two things we learned from our mom more than anything, is she always said growing up, the only thing you can control in your life is your attitude. Just everything else is a variable that you can’t predict or control.

 

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

 

[END]

 

 

 

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For a young Kalani Peʻa, music wasn’t just a hobby he enjoyed – it was also therapy, as he worked through a childhood speech impediment. On a new NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG, the Grammy and Nā Hōkū-winning singer and his band perform selections from his albums, E Walea and No ʻAneʻi in the PBS Hawaiʻi studio. Discover Peʻa’s humble beginnings in Panaʻewa, Hawaiʻi Island, his creative drive and how music changed his life.

 

More from Kalani Peʻa:

 

Music Saved Me

 

There’s Beauty Everywhere

 

 

 

Kalani Peʻa

Cover story by Liberty Peralta, PBS Hawaiʻi

 

Kalani Peʻa

 

For Grammy- and Nā Hōkū Hanohano-winning singer Kalani Peʻa, music wasn’t just a hobby. It was therapy.

 

“I stuttered a lot as a child,” he says. “In preschool, my mom wanted me to take speech therapy. That didn’t work.”

 

A pivotal moment came when Pe‘a was only three years old, when his parents found him serenading a mannequin at a Hilo shopping mall.

 

“[My parents] were like: ‘If we put him through choir [and] vocal training, will that really help him, give him the confidence to be comfortable with himself, to be able to overcome such a challenge?’” Peʻa says.

 

The answer was a resounding “yes.” Indeed, Peʻa’s parents signed him up for vocal lessons and choir. Throughout childhood and into his college years, Peʻa would keep singing in talent shows and public performances.

 

NĀ MELE - Traditions on Hawaiian Song: Kalani Peʻa“Music saved me,” he says. “[Singing] helps me to enunciate and pronounce certain words, whether it’s in Hawaiian music or English.”

 

One word that many may find difficult to pronounce – his legal first name. “What the heck is a ‘Trazaara’?” Peʻa laughs. (It’s pronounced “trah-zah-ah-rah.”) “Trazaara is an English men’s cologne. My mom gave that to me. Sounds like an entertainer’s name, right?”

 

Growing up, Pe‘a lived with his family in a pink trailer home in Panaʻewa Homestead near Hilo. “We had lanterns; we didn’t have electricity,” he recalls. “And it was such a loving family. We weren’t rich, we weren’t poor, but I knew that we had to work hard … That home is a reminder of hard work for me.”

 

While continuing to work through his speech impediment in the third grade, he asked his parents about transferring from a mainstream English language school to a Hawaiian immersion program. “I wanted to speak [the Hawaiian language] just like my siblings,” Peʻa says.

 

He would remain in Hawaiian immersion schools, graduating from Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu in Keaʻau, Hawai‘i Island. Wanting to cement his speech abilities, he moved to Colorado for college and earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.

 

Singer Kalani Pe‘a (in red cap) performing in the PBS Hawai‘i studio. He’s accompanied by Aron Nelson on piano, Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals, Henry Aiau Koa on guitar and Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar. In the foreground, from left, are Hula Hālau ‘O Kamuela dancers Julyen Kaluna, Auli‘i Faurot and Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap.
Singer Kalani Peʻa (in red cap) performing in the PBS Hawaiʻi studio. He’s accompanied by Aron Nelson on piano, Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals, Henry Aiau Koa on guitar and Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar. In the foreground, from left, are Hula Hālau ʻO Kamuela dancers Julyen Kaluna, Auliʻi Faurot and Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap.

 

“I was told that I would never be successful,” Peʻa says. “My siblings and I were told that if we spoke Hawaiian fluently, we’ll never go to college. And I went to college. We had to overcome challenges and misconceptions. That’s what I do.”

 

Music saved me

– Kalani Peʻa

 

And he does much of this through music. In a new episode of Nā Mele: Traditions in Hawaiian Song, Peʻa performs selections from his albums, E Walea and No ʻAneʻi, both of which won Grammy Awards for Best Regional Roots Album. Supporting Peʻa are: Henry Aiau Koa on guitar; Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals; Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar; and Aron Nelson on piano. Members of Hula Hālau ʻO Kamuela provide hula accompaniment. And from the lighting on set to his wardrobe, it’s clear that Peʻa has a trademark color, one often associated with royalty and creativity: purple.

 

For a creative like Peʻa, every moment is a chance to craft a melody. “I’m just inspired all the time, whether I’m sipping on coffee, or eating breakfast with my ʻohana …I’m all about pushing the envelope and coming up with ideas.”

 

He says the desire to strive and create are traits that have served Hawaiians well. “We’re all about collaborating with each other and finding innovative things to do,” he says. “Kalākaua was an innovative king. Kamehameha I was an innovative king, collaborating with the people of England. So when it comes to tradition, part of our traditional practices and values play a role in our lives now, but we seek balance between modern technology and our old cultural practices.”

 

Peʻa is familiar with this balancing act – honoring cultural traditions without sacrificing his personal identity. “I would call myself a modern Hawaiian, a Hawaiian of this century,” he says. “I speak Hawaiian fluently, I honor my kūpuna, I understand my values and protocol and teaching. [And] I am the guy with the purple sequined jacket. That’s who I am.”

 

 

 

FRONTLINE
For Sama

 

Filmmaker Waad al-Kateab filmed her life in the rebel-held Syrian city of Aleppo over five years. She fell in love, got married and had a daughter all while filming the violence raging around her — and in particular, documenting the unique challenges the Syrian conflict imposed on women and children.

 

 

 

GREAT PERFORMANCES
Red

 

Experience the passion of painter Mark Rothko in this six-time Tony-winning play dramatizing Rothko’s greatest challenge: creating the murals for New York’s iconic Four Seasons restaurant. Stars Alfred Molina with Alfred Enoch as Rothko’s assistant.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Noa Emmett Aluli

 

“The health of the land is the health of the people” is a core belief for Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli. The Molokaʻi physician comes from a prominent Hawaiian family of medical doctors, academics, musicians and historical figures. In the 1970s, he made his own mark in history as part of the Kahoʻolawe Nine, a group of activists who stood up against the federal government to defend the island, used for decades in bombing drills. Dr. Aluli admits his personal mission to restore the health of Kahoʻolawe, and the health of Molokaʻi’s people, is a challenging long-term journey.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 10, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Noa Emmett Aluli Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

The land is the religion, the health of the land is the health of the people, is the health of the nation.

 

Meet this Moloka‘i physician and Kaho‘olawe defender, Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli, next on Long Story Short.

 

Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli has been serving Moloka‘i as a physician for more than four decades. He’s perhaps best known for his work alongside other protestors to protect and restore Kaho‘olawe, where the U.S. Navy carried out bombing drills for 50 years.

 

Dr. Aluli grew up in an extended Hawaiian family in Kailua, on Windward O‘ahu. His family line includes medical doctors; academics; and the Hawaiian patriot, Joseph Nāwahī, who in the 1890s opposed the U.S. government’s annexation of Hawai‘i. Dr. Aluli’s family also includes notable names in Hawaiian music, including his aunt, the late Irmgard Farden Aluli.

 

The Alulis are known for music.  Are you musical?

 

No.  My father would say: Don’t even try to sing, son.  I’m named after my dad, who was named after his dad, and it just goes on.  Musical—and on the other side, the Meyer girls.  You know, Malia was the oldest, and Mele Meyer, and—

 

Manu.

 

—Manu. Those are all my father’s youngest sister’s kids. And so, it was one, two, skip a couple houses, my dad, his brother, then my Auntie Irmgard were there.  But on the other side is my mother with 14 in her family.

 

You were surrounded by people.

 

Yeah, yeah

 

So, all these cousins, and aunties and uncles.

 

And we had to know them personally.  We just kind of really had to stick together and support each other. My grandpa was one of um … I think seventeen people who testified at the very first hearing on statehood in 1935.  There were about 150; Umm, 90 were in favor, 60 uhh, were against.

 

And he was…?

 

He was—he had conditions.  He said for the wellbeing and wellness, and the non-extinction of the Native Hawaiian, he had hoped that we would be recognized, as they had the year before, recognized the Native Americans and set up them as, you know, governments within-

 

-Mhmm.

 

—the government.  So, he—that was what he was thinking.  He was always—he was one of the organizers of the ummm, homesteading act, and he certainly kind of argued for it. We—we have that kinda like DNA or ancestral memory, or responsibility that—that we’ve kinda like grew up with.

 

Okay. So, with that scene set, that’s a lot of people around you, and people before you, and lots of talents.  But definitely, the DNA, as you mentioned, for standing up and standing against what you felt was wrong. 

 

M-hm.

 

So, you have Chinese and Caucasian, but you pulled on the Hawaiian.

 

Right, three-quarters, give or take.  I don’t know exactly, but you know, those days, you never keep track… English.

 

English.

 

Irish … English, Irish.  We have a coat of arm in—on my grandpa’s side, Cockett.  And the other one—

 

That‘s another famous name in Hawai‘i.  So, Aluli, Meyer, Cockett.

 

Yes; fortunate.

 

Did you feel privileged when you were growing up?

 

Didn’t know it, but yeah, we kind of like were able to afford good schools. Umm, never went hungry. Umm, you know, was able to compete in the ocean, was able to fish and—never hunted, though.  But privileged in the sense that we were given lot of opportunities, and had to prove that we would be able to kind of handle things in the years to come.  That was the big test of growing up.

 

 

One of Noa Emmett Aluli’s first major tests was self-imposed— he chose medicine as his career path, for the sheer difficulty of the training. First he earned his undergraduate degree at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Then he returned to O‘ahu and graduated in the first class of the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

 

I heard that in your high school yearbook, Saint Louis, you said you intended to be a doctor.

 

Well, I did that because it was the biggest challenge that anybody could ever accept.  And umm, it was kind of like in a sense and I’m gonna do it. But then, it was a challenge all the way through, you know, undergrad, and getting into medical school, and enjoying medical school especially in…It was a lot of work.

 

Did you think you were not gonna make it at any point?

 

Umm, yes, because I couldn’t- I couldn’t discipline myself to study things that I couldn’t really put my hands around.  You know, all the science. And the way we were learning things just by memory, rote, repeat-repeat-repeat.

 

You’re better at learning by doing.

 

Yeah, exactly.  So, after my one year in a rotating integrated umm, residency program, I told the professors that I wanted to go and learn from the community.

 

That’s Hawaiian culture, isn’t it?

 

Yeah.  So—and I chose Moloka‘i, because I was there in my fourth year as a rural health elective. Umm, and I wanted Moloka‘i because they were changing too.  And the professors in that time were studying what happened in Kahuku; was happening in Kohala, where the plantations were closed and the big hotels were gonna be the tourist destinations, and how people were gonna make that change.  And Moloka‘i was going to change that way, too.

 

Also, Moloka‘i is known as the most Hawaiian place. Or the most Hawaiian island, I should say.  Because I think it’s, what … the last data I heard was nearly 40 percent of the population is Hawaiian, and many are more than 50 percent.

 

Yeah.  Well, and it’s actually because it was a leper colony there.

 

Kalaupapa.

 

Yeah, Kalaupapa.  People just were afraid of being there.  And because it was actually the beginning of the homesteading program.  The very first homestead was Kalama‘ula.  And then, Keaukaha was the second one on the Big Island, and then came back to Ho‘olehua.  So, it really had a real strong kinda like presence there. And a small island, so everybody knew everybody else.

 

Was it hard for you to make that transition?  You were kind of a suburban guy.

 

Yeah.  No, it was pretty easy.  Because the way we were brought up too was, you know, you go to a house and you eat anything they serve. And- and I think it was because I was kind of like out there and interested, and people wanted me to stay on Moloka‘i, so they kind of took me in—uncle, auntie, and taught me what they could.  And you know, I think it was—when I look back, they kind of like had hoped that I would usher them to the next realm, taking care of them that long.

 

Moloka‘i would not be the only island drawing Dr. Emmett Aluli’s interest. His medical career was just blossoming when his next major life test presented itself: Kaho‘olawe. On January 4, 1976, Dr. Aluli was one of nine people who protested the U.S. Navy’s use of the island for bombing practice. They defied restrictions and landed on the forbidden “Target Isle.” These nine people came to be known as “the Kaho‘olawe Nine.”

 

I was kind of like on call for three days and I was working at the Queen’s emergency room.  And then, we had 72 hours off.

 

Mhmm.

 

So, I decided this was an opportunity; I wanted to do, I wanted to get away.  And so, I just kind of joined the group that was from Molokaʻi that was asked to come and kind of like see whether we could be part of this reclaiming of at least the fishing rights. Fishing around the island was so rich, and the fishermen, local fishermen wanted to be able to go there and fish.  And they were kind of like unable to get there, except that they snuck on.  So, then we just decided: Well, we’re here, we may as well go and look around a little more.

 

How did you all get together?

 

It was a guy named Charlie Maxwell.

 

From Pukalani, Maui!

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Who was kind of like against what was happening uh, with the umm, telescopes at Haleakala.  But he was the one that was really kind of like organized uhh, and reached out.  And uhh, but nobody knew that this was gonna be a publicity thing; they weren’t really serious.  And so, when we kind of like knew the Coast Guard was called, alerted—

 

And you gathered on—

 

Yeah; there must have been like about 30 boats, more fishing boats.

 

So, Charlie had called; he put out a call for: “Let’s go to that island.”

 

Yeah.

 

Even though they say it’s forbidden.

 

Yeah; yeah.  And let’s make a statement.

 

Let’s make a statement and let’s land there.

 

Yeah.

 

Okay; and did he say you might get arrested, and it’s worth it?

 

No, no. We never got that: “Be careful, you might get arrested.”

 

It was more like: “Let’s just do this.”

 

Do it.

 

Okay.

 

But remember, there was an Alcatraz occupation, there was Wounded Knee, and so you know, people were just kind of thinking: “If this is what we gotta do as Native Hawaiians, let’s do it.” So, there was all that push to do something.

 

So, 30 boats left, but then they turned back.

 

They turned back.  Otherwise, they would have been confiscated.

 

And how did you get through?  Did you say: “I don’t care if the boat’s confiscated?”

 

No; so what it is, it was, once again, a reporter who kind of like knew a boat that was the fastest, that can outdo the—pick us all up, boom, take us in, and then get out.

 

Ah

 

So, that was how we did it.  We went, and the reporters turned back, ‘cause it was the boat that they had been on, but they took nine of us to the island.  And then, the Coast Guard came and took all the other seven.

 

But you and Walter Ritte were exploring the island for two days. Were you making yourself scarce, or were you just really exploring the island?

 

We were just kind of—we were bent on exploring the island.

 

And so, it was okay if you just—

 

Yeah. We just took off.

 

Wow.

 

In slippers.

 

For two days.

 

Yeah.

 

Before they came for you with handcuffs.

 

Actually, they cuffed our ankles. And they gave us a bar letter.  And so …

 

What’s a bar letter?

 

I mean, you can never return; you’re barred from the island.

 

Oh, I see.  Which did not happen; you went back.

 

So, we went back.  Because what we felt and saw was something just really different.  You know, like I personally had to go back and see whether it was real, that the land could be suffering that bad.

 

Noa Emmett Aluli and others kept returning to Kaho‘olawe in protest, despite those military restrictions. Then tragedy: On March 7, 1977, the charismatic musician and activist George Helm was heading back to Maui with park ranger Kimo Mitchell, in bad weather and rough water.  The two were never seen again. Dr. Aluli says that Helm, the fellow member of the Kaho`olawe Nine, had great potential and power as an emerging leader of the Hawaiian people. Dr. Aluli was devastated by the loss of George Helm.

 

I was wanting to just drop out completely.  You know, and just kind of move on.  But something just told me that, you know, you just at least carry his suit, and then you see that you’re successful. And so that’s one of the reasons why I’m still there to make sure that their loss or our loss is something that you know. We kind of like can make a difference and be able to kind of show some successes on the island, and show that we can green the island, and show that their life lost, not lost forever.

 

And did you know the other members of the Kaho‘olawe Nine very well?

 

No, not—not very well; not very well.  But I knew, because they were organizing on different levels, the—more like a legal kind of understanding of our claims and our rights.

 

But it wasn’t—there weren’t nine people picked because of their particular relationship and role. It was just- kind of an ad hoc group?

 

No. It was kind of a mixed bag. Yeah.

 

But what an amazing set of accomplishments was made by a group of people who didn’t even necessarily know each other ahead of time.

 

M-hm; m-hm. Well, so the magic—you know, they call it magic.

 

The magic.

 

Umm, because we knew that the more people we could take to the island, the more they would be inspired to kinda like do work that—

 

And you said you felt a kind of spiritual presence there.

 

I did. And I still do.

 

What does it feel like?

 

It feels as if you’re with nature, so strongly connected to it uh, that you’re kind of like feeling uplifted, or you gotta pass that responsibility, you know, that you kind of like sweat on that, and you understand that land.  But then now, you can get uh, get into the worship of the gods of the land. You know, and that was it, you know.  Pele creating new land, her sister Hi‘iaka the healer, and then there’s the other sister Kapo, and all the nature forms of all her brothers and sisters. You know, that’s all the people of old worshipped and had that connection to.

 

Dr. Emmett Aluli and others in the grassroots organization Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, or P-K-O, continued their fight to stop the bombing on the island. In 1980, the U.S. Navy and P-K-O signed a Consent Decree, requiring the Navy to begin cleanup efforts, which are unfinished to this day. Then in 1990, President George H.W. Bush ordered an immediate halt to the bombing. Three years later, Congress voted to end military use, and Kaho‘olawe was turned over to the State. Since then, P-K-O and the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission, a State agency with which Dr. Aluli worked for more than 20 years, have focused on restoring the island that many regard as sacred.

Dr. Aluli draws parallels between the Kaho‘olawe protests four decades ago and the Mauna Kea protests against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawai‘i Island.

 

The land is the religion, the health of the land is the health of the people, is the health of the nation. What it is, is the decision, the Supreme Court decision is, there’s no… “Mauna Kea is already destroyed, so it’s no longer sacred.” They could have used that argument against us. I mean, what, just bomb the s— out of the island; no longer sacred. So, we have to rethink this whole thing through, but you know…

 

Do you think there are a lot of analogies between Kaho‘olawe and TMT?

 

Yeah. It’s the same kind of arguments for Mauna Kea.  And that’s the sad thing.  We’ve kind of like really kind of like got stepped on. I think indigenous folks around the world have their own culture science-

 

Mhmm.

 

—and understanding. And that is respected even more.  It’s just a matter of this next generation kind of coming up and proving it, yeah?  That you can manage the forests, the native forests, like, you know, the Hawaiians of old did, and get as good results as the sciences of today.

 

No longer the Target Island, Kaho‘olawe remains damaged by decades of bombing. There’s a long-term strategic  plan to restore the land, called I Ola Kanaloa, or “Life to Kanaloa.” Kanaloa is the ancient name for Kaho‘olawe, … after the Hawaiian god of healing, voyaging, and the ocean. Elements in the plan are experiential learning for students; and healing programs for abuse survivors and  former prisoners; also, restoration of Kaho‘olawe’s native habitat and cultural sites.

Meanwhile, in his medical practice on Moloka‘i, Dr. Emmett Aluli continues to tackle another challenge: the health of Native Hawaiian people.

 

We still have the only cardiovascular risk factor study. Then putting that together with some of the uhh, economic determinates of health, and you know, the access that poor people don’t have, or uninsured don’t have.  And putting that together, and just really looking at it, and using that as a tool on Moloka‘i: this is where we are. And it’s worked.  And then, from that study, we went into the Native Hawaiian diet study. So, if you eat more taro, sweet potato, reef fish, you know, limu, you should be healthier. You know, how to kind of integrate more, how to kind of like … I guess, extend care more permanently, especially to the Native Hawaiians and how we’re gonna continue together like benefit from the different ali‘i’s kind of like priorities.  Then comes the- A part of that medicine is just trying to finish off some of my research, like creating health systems across the board for Native Hawaiians. That we have Hawaiians that should start looking at the different programs and support that they need, so we can really do a good cleanup and a good kinda future.  ‘Cause the way it looks is, we’re not getting any better.

 

As far as?

 

As our health.

 

As our health; oh …

 

I think more the social and economic determinates of health are increasing, and so … sometimes I look at: How do you change the “ainokea” attitude?

 

To “aikea.”

 

To “aikea.”  You know, the famous—and how do we—can I look at being able to instill that pride again.  You know. That—because I think people are looking at: Oh you was coming- you owe me, you owe me, you owe me for taking the land, for you know, taking the Kingdom, and there’s a lot of pissed-off guys out there. And how do we kind of make them kind of like … ‘Kay, we gotta work a little bit harder, we gotta learn our politics, we gotta bring that leadership back, we gotta bring that trust back.

We will be able to survive, but we just have to depend on our connections to land a little bit more.  We gotta get our strength back, connections to the land, our relationships to the land.  And to make it sincere.  I think that—that’s what we gotta do.  And I’ve seen that happening in different areas.

 

For example?

 

Oh; in some of the fishponds, He‘eia and umm, you know, I see it kind of like umm, flowering in some of the farming projects.  You know, especially in Molokaʻi and the Big Island.

 

Because you think the health of the land is reflect … that’s a determinant of the health of the people.

 

People; right.  Right.  And then, how we work all together as a nation, or as a community, or as a ahupua‘a.  That we just, you know, automatic.

 

But in these decades since Kaho‘olawe, you say, you know, the health of the people has not improved.

 

Well, I don’t see it, because there’s something else that’s interfering.  I think it’s just “ainokea” attitude that’s… we’re addressing suicide also. Umm, on Moloka‘i, we’ve had a string of suicides. Depression setting in.  You know? And we’ve gotta talk this through a little bit more.  We gotta focus on that.

 

Yeah.  I mean, I think you’re a person who’s in it for the long term.  I mean, you hung in there with Kaho‘olawe, and you’re still in there.  And you’ve worked really hard on Hawaiian health.  But you haven’t really gotten to see the fruition of your hopes, all your hopes.

 

I feel like … it’ll come.  I feel it’ll really come.  I mean, I’m seeing it develop umm, in some key people. You know, we’ve had couple of young guys come in and, you know, and get credits working in my clinic, and I just—they’re teaching me more than I’m teaching them. My patients ask me: When are you gonna retire, Doc?  I said: When I don’t enjoy it anymore.

 

Do you still feel like that activist inside?

 

Umm, yeah; yeah.  And like, folks like Art says: We gotta watch you, Emmett.

 

And that competitiveness that you had when you said: I’m gonna be a doctor, just because it was a hard thing to do. 

 

No, that was—that was just … I think that pushed me through, because I said: I’m gonna do it.  Like it’s pushed me through with Kaho’olawe, I’m gonna do it. With the other issues I’ve been involved in, I’m gonna do it.  And you know, I don’t expect to be able to do it all, but at least some footprints.

 

And some continuity,-

 

-Yeah.

 

you’ll leave behind, people who can do it, or who will carry it on.

 

Who will carry it on.

 

You seem like you’re prepared for the long view.  You know, things can’t get done as quickly as you want, but you’re gonna keep at it.

 

Yeah.  And people know that.  People know that.  Stay out of his way.

 

Longterm challenges and the never-ending desire to heal the land and the people—these seem to define Dr. Emmett Aluli’s life journey. As of this conversation in the summer of 2019, Dr. Aluli is 75 years old, and he says he has no plans to stop working to heal people and the land anytime soon. He says he’s most thankful for his family, his medical practice, and his good health. Mahalo to Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli of Ho‘olehua, Moloka‘i, for sharing your story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

 

What do you think the people of Molokaʻi can teach the rest of us?

 

“Molokaʻi, the friendly island” is because we adapted or adjusted to the leprosy.

 

Mhmm.

 

And it was okay to go there, and they’re family. And then, there’s—what I like is: “Molokaʻi ku‘i la‘au.” You know, strong, powerful healing. But the one that is being really shared is: “Molokaʻi ‘āina momona.”

 

Plenty.

 

Plenty fruits. And I think a lot of people are adopting that we gotta make our lands rich with food again.

 

 

 

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