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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Melveen Leed

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Melveen Leed

 

Melveen Leed’s music career spans over five decades and has taken her around the world. However, in many ways, she says she’s still “da tita from Moloka‘i.” She opens up about life’s challenges: a childhood spent in two households and on two islands, a “nightmare” performance in Russia, and why she’s found a new sense of peace and personal happiness in her life.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 25, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Melveen Leed Audio

 

Melveen Leed Transcript

 

Transcript

 

We know what your nickname is.

 

The Tita?

 

Yeah; The Tita.   Now, tita means …

 

Sister.

 

Sister.

 

Yes.

 

Does it mean that, or fighter?

 

Both.

 

And both are true.

 

Yeah; both are true.  Yeah.  But you know what?  In those days, you know, we didn’t get—I know, I didn’t, I never got into real big trouble.  Yeah. And I fought for my rights.  Yeah; we all did, yeah?  But it made me more confident.  You know what I mean?  Because there were a lot of bullies in those days.

 

Melveen Leed has made good use of that confidence, entertaining audiences for over fifty-five years, from Waikīkīto Carnegie Hall, and around the world.  Melveen Leed, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Melveena Ku‘uleipuanani Leed, better known as Melveen, is an icon in the local entertainment industry.  As a young girl, her first performance venue was kanikapila night at her grandparents’ home on Molokai.  Since those childhood days, life has dealt Melveen Leed her share of highs and lows, but the one constant, the unwavering achievement, is a talent that moves easily across musical genres, from Hawaiian to Jazz, to Gospel, to Country.  She can sing and perform all of them, and at high level.  Melveen Leed, the vocalist, musician, and composer, grew up in the 1940s and 50s, having the best of both worlds with her family on Oahu, as well as with her grandparents on Molokai.

 

 

I was born here.  My mom was very young; she was only seventeen years old, and she was a child herself, you know.  And so, she couldn’t really, you know, mother me as much as she should have, you know, because she had her career and her life to think about.  And I don’t blame her.  So, my grandparents came and took me away, and raised me on Moloka‘i.

 

What part of Molokai?

 

‘Ualapu‘e; it’s the eastern part of Moloka‘i, God’s country.  And so, every vacation or anything, my grandparents would put me on the plane. It was Cockett Airlines at that time, small little airline, rubber band airline, we call it.  And they’d send me to my mom, to spend vacations with my siblings. I have my sisters and my brother who was children of my stepfather; yeah?  And so, we spent time like that together on Easter and Christmas, and summer vacation, and all that.  And then, she’d send me back to go to school on Moloka‘i, at Kilohana School on the eastern part of Moloka‘i.  And I was brought up a real, real old-fashioned way, and I’m so glad I was. Washing our clothes in the streams, you know, growing up like that, growing our own vegetables and fishing, hunting, you know.  And we knew how to work hard.

 

What did the family hunt for?

 

Well, my uncles and them, especially.  I went on just a few, but I would never do that again. As I said, my grandfather used to say: You carry down what you shoot.  Oh, shucks.  You know, no, I’m not going carry the deer down by myself.  Uh-uh.  So, I wasn’t interested in that.  I was more interested in fishing.  And my grandfather taught me how to make fishnets, from scratch.  Yeah.

 

Did you try to throw them, too?

 

Oh, he taught me how to throw.  And so, we had a needle to make the nets; that’s called a hia. Okay?  And then, we had the rectangular wood, and that was the size of the eye of the fishnet.  And that was called the ha ha.  See? So, my grandfather would teach us how to patch the nets, and he had a pocketknife that he used and we made the hole, and we patched the nets, you know.  And so, things like that.  My grandfather was a remarkable man, and he was the one that actually made an ukulele for me when I was only about three years old.  And so, I played the ukulele and sang for all my grandparents’ guests.

 

How did you learn; did you watch somebody else?

 

My grandfather; yeah, I just watched him. For some reason, I’d watch someone play an instrument, and I’d grab the instrument and I’ll play it.  You know?

 

From the beginning?

 

Yeah; by ear.

 

From an early age?

 

Yeah; early age.

 

Did your family teach you all kinds of songs?  ‘Cause you’re good at all kinds of genres.

 

Well, my grandparents, you know, they had kanikapila nights, you know, and so, they’d have people come over, and they all played music, and I would watch and I’d grab the ukulele, and I’d play with them, you know, and everything, and learn all these beautiful songs.  And Lena Machado used to come over to the house, and of course, you know, we had musicians friends that came over, and our family.  You know, everybody knew how to play the ukulele and guitar.  You know, my auntie could play slack key, and it was really nice. And so, I learned all this.  And plus, my mom now, in Honolulu, she had those 78s.  And so, I’d listen to all of the jazz music, so I was raised with jazz music; yeah? That old music, and I love it. And so, I’m so glad that I learned how to sing jazz; I learned by myself.  And then, I was very fortunate, years later, to hang out with Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.  You know.

 

How did that happen?

 

Because I was working the SS Lurline.  You know, the ship.

 

Yeah.

 

And they were the main stars in on there.

 

And what were you doing; you were singing too?

 

Downstairs; yes.

 

Oh, different—

 

Yeah.

 

Different floors.

 

Yeah.  So, we hung out together.  So, we went off the boat, and I took her all over, and you know, we hung out and I’d sit and watch her, and I learned a lot just by watching them.

 

That’s a great opportunity.

 

They were so professional.  Yeah.

 

You were in two households.  You were in your grandparents’.

 

Yeah.  And my mom.

 

Oh; and so, you’d go on the rubber band airline.

 

Yes; the rubber band airline to Honolulu.

 

Okay; now, where did your mom live?

 

Halawa Housing; you know, where the Aloha Stadium is?

 

Yes.

 

That’s where we stayed.

 

Halawa Housing; bit of an urban tone there.

 

It was a very rugged district.  It was; yeah.  But we all took care of each other; we watched each other’s backs, you know, all the children.  You know, so they all knew me, ‘cause I went on vacations, yeah, and stayed there. And then, I went to fourth grade. My mom decided she wants me to go to fourth grade to Halawa Intermediate, or whatever.  And I got kicked out of the school because I got into a fight.

 

With whom?

 

With a girl.  I went on detention.  I’ll never forget that big Peterson Field.  We had to crush all the white chalk, and then we had to pour the chalk, ‘cause it was a baseball field; yeah?  So, we had to put the chalk in.

 

Now, what was the fight about?

 

I’m so embarrassed to say that.  But yes, I was a naughty girl.

 

What was it about?

 

Oh, well, this girl was rocking her chair, and she kept bumping to me, and I was sitting in back of her.  And she had long braids.

 

Uh-oh. 

 

And she kept telling me to shut up.  You know, kept telling me to shut up, and she kept banging me.  So, I grabbed her hair, and went boom, right down, and I finished her off.  And then, I got into big trouble.  Oh, my god, I got called in.  And then, a note was sent home to my mom, so my mom sent me right back to Molokai, which is what I wanted anyway.  I wanted to be with my grandparents.

 

And you didn’t really mind the disruption?

 

No.

 

When you went back to the school, did you worry about another run-in with her?

 

Oh, no; it didn’t bother me.  She was scared of me already.  I don’t even remember her name.

 

Well, what about a bigger bully; did you ever have to deal with that?

 

Yes, I have.  Yeah, I have.  But the problem is, I’m not afraid of anybody.  You know what I mean?  So, I got into trouble, yeah.  But it’s okay.  You know, it’s cool.  Yeah.

 

I remember one story, when I was going to Radford.  And this one girl got into a phone conversation with me, and she was from a bad district.  I won’t even say where.  And so, she wanted to meet me in Foster Village, ‘cause I went to Radford; yeah? So, I told my friends, I said: Hey, you folks coming with me, there’s gonna be a big fight.  And they said: Yeah, okay, okay, we’ll come.  Nobody showed up; only me.  So, was waiting on the corner.  I wore my sweater and, you know, put my hair in a ponytail, I made sure I was—

 

You were ready.

 

–all ready; oh, yeah.

 

Can’t pull it; right?

 

So, I thought to myself: Yeah, okay.  So, I waited and waited, and nobody showed up. Years later, I was performing at the Garden Bar, Hilton Hawaiian Village, and the waitress comes to me: Oh, Melveen.  I was really skinny at that time, but before, I used to be hefty; yeah?  And I used to lift weights and I took, you know, martials arts and stuff.  But anyway. And so, she said: Oh, Melveen, there’s a couple over there that wants to see you, and they want to say hello.  And I said: Oh, okay.  Was dark; yeah?  So, I went up and I saw this massive woman in the dark, and her skinny little husband next to her.  And I said: Yes?  And she said: Eh, you remember me; my name is so-and-so.

 

 

I said: Let me see, the only name I know, I said, was long time ago.  She said: Yeah, that was me.  And she had tattoos on her arms.  And I went: You?  And I said: You know, I showed up that day.  She said: Yeah, I know; we saw you.  And she said: I told my friends, Anybody can show up by themselves, they must be good, they must be, so we took off.  She said: We just left, we left you alone.

 

That’s right; you kept the date and stayed there, even though you didn’t—

 

Oh, yeah.

 

–have any backup.

 

Yeah; knowing I was gonna get beat up anyway. You know what I mean?  But oh, that was something I never forgot.  And we became good friends.  You know, it was really nice.  Like, whew.  Oh, god.

 

You’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people again; right?  You’ve met them at different stages of your life.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

You must have had some surprises about how people turned out.

 

Oh, yes; of course.  And you know, especially because I’ve been singing all over, and for everything, and doing a lot of charities, you know, and people that I haven’t seen.  But I remember … my classmates, I remember their names, and I remember their faces. Yeah.  And the kids that I grew up with, you know, I remember them.  And they’re amazed that I do, you know.

 

Some of them have changed a lot, so that is really surprising.

 

Oh, yeah.  Oh, listen; there was one—I must tell you about this one.  Okay; I was at a class reunion.  Now, in high school, I wasn’t that popular; yeah?  I mean, I sang and everything, you know, but because my stepfather, he was quite strict with me; yeah?  And it’s understandably so, because they don’t want me to get into trouble, you know.  So, my mom and her husband, they were really strict.  When I had to go and perform, you know, it didn’t bother me to sing in school.  And we used to go to different schools and perform.  But the thing was, this one guy I had a crush on in high school, but he never knew I was alive.  And we used to walk down the hallway, and the guys used to stand on each side of the hallway and look, and hey, and whistle at us, and we don’t pay attention.  We wanted them to pay attention, but we just walked.  And then so, years later at the class reunion, I was standing with my friends and they said: Eh, there’s so-and-so over there.  And I said: Where?  I looked, and I went: What?  He was kinda bald, and he was big, he had a big belly.  And I went: No; really?  And they said: Yeah.  I said: Follow me.  We went there, and I knew that uh, he would call me; yeah?  So he says: Eh, Melveen.  And I said: Yes?  And he says: You remember me?  And we all had our little patches on with our high school picture on; yeah?  And our little buttons, yeah, big buttons, you know. And I said: Um …  I already knew who he was.  I said: No.  I said: I’m sorry.  And I looked at his.  He said: Yes, you remember me, I was, I played football.  And I looked at his picture, I went to his face, I went to look at his picture again, I looked at his face.  I said: Oh, yes; what happened?

 

Oops. That’s the last reunion he went to.

 

I said, that’s the ultimate revenge, you know.  I was terrible but, oh, we laughed, we all laughed and it was so funny.

 

So, your mom was seventeen, but along the way, she—

 

Yeah.  My mom had a career.  Because she was working.  Oh, she had to work; she worked two jobs, you know.

 

Did she finish high school after having you?

 

No.  But she went to Farrington for a while, and then they finally gave her, her diploma. Yeah; years later, yeah.  So, it was nice.  But anyway, so she had to work.  She moved to Honolulu from Molokai.  Because in those days, it was a disgrace to have a child when you’re young. You know what I mean?  And all your family’s out there; you know that, yeah? But my mom held her head up high, and she went to work.  I give her credit; she worked hard.  Yeah. And then, she had all these children; yeah?  And she still worked.  Yeah; she worked until she retired.  And even when she retired, she went back to work again, you know.

 

What did she do?

 

Well, she was a cashier hostess at the Hilton Hawaiian—well, it was the Hawaiian Village, Kaiser Hawaiian Village before. And so, she was a cashier hostess, and then she went to the front office cashier.  And then, she went to the main office, accounting.  And so, she was always working with figures; yeah?  And she was good at that.  And then, she finally retired from that.  And then, she was working also at Leed’s Shoe Store. Yeah.

 

She was very—

 

Yeah.

 

And to have a lot of children.

 

Yeah.

 

How many children?

 

She had five; yeah, with me, five.  Yeah.  But she had four from this man; yeah.  And then with me, five; yeah.  But she was a great dresser.  I think that’s why I like to dress up, you know, because my mom was like that.  She never left the house not looking nice. She was a beautiful woman; very gorgeous.

 

Tell me, did you know your biological dad?  Was he in your life?

 

I learned about him only when I was about fifteen years old.  That’s when I knew who my real father was.  ‘Cause it was kept a secret from me.  Walter Chun Kee; that was my dad.  He was from Maui.  And then I found out I had siblings on Maui.  So, I have one sister and three brothers.  And so, one brother, we lost; that’s Jimmy.  So, I found that we have siblings, siblings there.  And then, we found one more sister in Puerto Rico.  My dad was busy.  My mom never married my real father.

 

I see.

 

So, she married Palmer Leed.  He was from Tacoma, Washington, and he was in the Navy.  So, my mom married him.  And I was named after his brother, and he had a high official position in the Navy, and they named me after him.  His name was Melvin.  So, my real name is Melvina.  And my grandmother gave me my Hawaiian name of Ku‘uleipuanani, and then they took the name Leed.  So, that’s how I got that name.

 

Did you find it confusing to have two different families, two different islands, or did it all seem normal?

 

It was normal to me.  Yeah.  I was looking forward to seeing my mom, and my sisters and my brother, yeah, every trip that I took, yeah?  And I was lonesome for my grandparents and my uncles and aunties, you know.  And so, I’d go back home, you know.  It was like that, so I had the best of both worlds. Let’s put it that way.

 

Melveen Leed started her professional singing career when she was invited to the stage to sing with the band at the Garden Bar of the old Hawaiian Village Hotel. She soon left her secretarial job and became a fulltime entertainer, singing, recording albums, producing music shows, and traveling the world.  Yet, while Melveen’s career was hitting high notes, her personal life often too a different direction.

 

You’ve been married several times.

 

Yes.

 

Do you have stepchildren and …

 

Oh, yes.  They’re all like my children, still, you know.  Yes.

 

Lots of family, all along the way.

 

Yes.  And you know, it was a learning time for me, too.  Because I had gone down to the bottom.  I picked myself up, you know, every time and I said: I can do this. Yeah?  And I’d start from scratch.  I’d leave everything behind, and I’d start from scratch.  I mean, everything; my clothes, everything behind.  I just walked out and started from scratch.

 

Wow.

 

Yeah.  It’s not easy to do, but you gotta have that willpower.  All you women out there, you can do it.  You know, you have one life to live; you push your own buttons. That’s what I say.

 

So, each time, you could have packed, you could have taken some things.

 

Yeah.  But I’m not like that.  Because they had children, so I didn’t want to take anything away from them.  And they could have my stuff.  It doesn’t matter; it didn’t matter.

 

So then, what did you do when you walked away?

 

I just started from scratch again.  I was still singing, working, making good money, you know, and I had to go on my own and find my own jobs; yeah?

 

What’s the hardest thing you’ve been through up ‘til now?  And we’re talking in March of 2018.

 

When I had to leave my daughter, and I had to move to Tahiti.  That was the hardest thing I had to do in my whole life.

 

How old was she then?

 

She was just … senior, high school.  Junior or senior.  And I had gone away to start a new life.  And it was a big mistake in my life, of course.  I realized that after, yeah, I’d gone there.

 

You were getting married.

 

Yeah; I was getting married, yeah, there.  And she came for the wedding, and I could see her face; she was so sad through the whole time, you know.  And I thought to myself: Okay, Melveen, you know, you gotta make this work.  So, what happened was, when I moved to this island, this desolate island; it was an atoll, it was called Aratika.  Because my ex-husband was the luna, the boss of that island.  And it’s a black pearl farm.  He built a house for me on that island, and there was no running water, no electricity.  So, I had to leave all my beautiful gowns and nice clothes, everything, my beautiful things back in Hawai‘i and move there with only pareaus and shorts and tee-shirt. Which I didn’t mind, because I grew up like that on Molokai.  You know what I mean?

 

Yeah; I was thinking before, you were washing your clothes in the stream.

 

And they were all amazed.  The Paumotu people there; they were amazed, even my ex-husband, that I could just adjust immediately.  Then, when I started patching their nets and throwing my net and catching my fish, they were like: Where’d this woman come from; yeah?  So, the Paumotu women would come up to me and say: How come you’re doing this; us women never do that.  And I said: Well, us Hawaiian women do back home.

 

I said: You do what you do, and if you don’t want to watch, you just go away.  So, I’m busy working.

 

Did you pull her braid?

 

No, no, no.  No. And I caught my own fish.  And then, I realized that I couldn’t stay on the island with all these twenty-seven men, alone.  It’s dangerous, you know.  So, he said: I’m gonna teach you how to free-dive, ‘cause we gotta go out fishing.  So, he had a floater on the top, and a rope with knots every so many meters, and down to fifty feet where the big block of cement was on the bottom, sat on the bottom. And my graduation was to go down fifty feet and grab that sand, and bring it up to him, before I could go and fish. ‘Cause I wanted to spearfish so badly. So, I went, and my last day he said: I’m gonna pull that up, and you can’t go out fishing with us.  I was determined.  I went down; I didn’t come back.  And he says: Okay, pull it up.  I said: No, wait; give me one more chance.  He says: You Hawaiian girls can’t do it.  I said: Oh, yeah?  Watch me. I went down, got the sand, came up, and I threw it in his face.  And then, he had a special spear made for me, and he taught me how to spear fish.  And we only caught what we ate.  And so, it was really a wonderful whole year, though, that I learned and I lived there, because I loved the cleanliness.  The water was so pristine, you know, and oh, the air was fresh, and it was wonderful.  It brought back memories of Molokai.

 

You seem like a very hopeful and optimistic person, because you got married again.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, again.

 

Yes.  I probably was looking for like, my grandfather’s image.  You know, ‘cause he was a perfect father, grandfather, husband to my grandmother.  You know, he was a great caretaker, and he was an inspiration.  And I could sit and talk to him.  He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, they were words of wisdom. You know, I look up to him.  And I finally found that man, and that I’m married to now.  Yeah. And he reminds me so much of my grandfather; very dignified, you know, and very caring, and puts me on a pedestal, puts me first like how my grandfather put my grandmother on a pedestal first.  She always came first.

 

Okay; you have to tell us how you met him, then.

 

My husband?

 

Yes.

 

Mike?

 

Mike.

 

We knew each other when I was fifteen years old. When we lived in Halawa Housing, when I was on my vacation, I was only fifteen, and his sister lived right next door to us.  So, that’s how we met.  And then, we didn’t see each other until years later.  I was singing at Chai’s, and he walked in with all of his siblings; yeah?  And his family, and they sat there.  And he was well-dressed.  He’s always well-dressed.  And so, we said hello, but nothing, you know.  I said: Oh, hi.  You know, he came, and I was setting everything up.  He comes on stage, and he says hello to me, you know, and hugs me, and I said, oh, okay.  So, after the show, I usually go and eat at a place; this cook always cooks for me in this small little bar.  And so, I said: Oh; what are you gonna do?  You know.  No; I think he asked me what I was gonna do after the show.  And I said: Hang out with you.  I think that’s what I said.  Yeah?

 

So, that means you made the first move?

 

I think so.  So, I said: Well, I’m gonna go eat; you know, you folks can come out, you know. So, I jumped in his car, and so we went to that place, and we sat together, and we laughed and everything. And then, we started emailing each other.  We exchanged emails, and stuff.  So, that’s how it started.  Yeah. Was really nice.  And after a year, then he proposed to me on one knee.

 

Tell me; was Michael wary of you because there had been several husbands. Three others.

 

You know, I think because he’s so mature, and he’s a smart, very intelligent man, and he had a very good position—he’s a retired quality assurance director for the nuclear subs for the Navy and federal government, and he had a very high, important position.  So, he had a thousand people working under him.  You know, he knows exactly what he wants, and he’s very consistent.  And not only that, he’s very clean and he doesn’t leave a stone unturned.

 

Even if your career had ended twenty-five years ago, you would have had an illustrious career.

 

Yeah; I did.  Yeah.  But you know what?  Getting to where I am now, yeah, if it weren’t for all those curves that I’ve had in my life, I would not be the person that I am today.  Yeah.  And what I love about now is that I have the love that I’ve always wanted, from my husband. You know?  He truly deeply loves me, for me.  And I love that.  You know.

 

You feel like you didn’t really have that before?

 

Not fully.  Something was missing.  But now, it’s just all there.  Everything in the puzzle is there; that last piece is there.

 

In her mid-70s, Melveen Leed confides she worries about losing her voice someday. Yet, at the time of our conversation in the Spring of 2018, the former Miss Molokai says as she’s gotten older, her voice has actually become stronger.  She says she’s able to hit high and low notes that were never part of her register before.  Mahalo to Melveen Leed of Mililani, Central Oahu for sharing part of your life story with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

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.

 

For all you Molokai people out there, this is for you. Yee-ha!

 

MOLOKA‘I NUI A HINA
Ua like no a like
Me kuʻu one hānau
Ke poʻokela i ka piko o nākuahiwi
Me Moloka`i nui a Hina
ʻĀina i ka wehiwehi
E hoʻi no au e pili
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu
Ua nani nāhono a Piʻilani
I ke ku kilakila i ka ʻōpua
ʻO kuʻu pua kukui aia i Lanikāula
ʻO ka hene wai ʻolu lana mālie

Ua like no a like
Me kuʻu one hānau
Ke poʻokela i ka piko o nākuahiwi
Me Moloka`i nui a Hina
ʻĀina i ka wehiwehi
E hoʻi no au e pili
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu

Ua nani nāhono a Piʻilani
I ke ku kilakila i ka ʻōpua
ʻO kuʻu pua kukui aia i Lanikāula
ʻO ka hene wai ʻolu lana mālie

Ua like no a like
Me kuʻu one hānau
Ke poʻokela i ka piko o nākuahiwi
Me Moloka`i nui a Hina
ʻĀina i ka wehiwehi
E hoʻi no au e pili
E hoʻi no au e pili

Woo-hoo!

 

 

 

NĀ MELE
Chad Takatsugi

 

Chad Takatsugi has found his voice as a haku mele, a songwriter. While this isn’t his first Nā Mele – he performed on the program with his band ‘Ale‘a in 2003 – this performance, alongside guitarist Ryan Gonzalez and bassist Glenn Mayeda Jr., finds him in a new season of his life, with a different story to tell.

 

For Takatsugi, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i is the cornerstone of his songwriting. Using the Hawaiian language, a lot can be said with few words, with Takatsugi’s songs capturing snapshots in time. His songs speak to universal themes of his present world – family, love for his wife, home – with firm roots to the past.

 

“Ka Lei Hiki Ahiahi” is a song Takatsugi gifted to his second daughter. The Lopes family – “friends that became ‘ohana,” as Takatsugi puts it – perform the song together, with Keawe Lopes on piano, and wife Tracie and their daughters performing hula.

 

 

Written by Takatsugi’s wife, Lisa, “He Aloha Nu‘uanu” tells the story of their beloved home in Nu‘uanu, with hula accompaniment from Lisa and her sister, Diane Paloma. Also featured is “Kaulana Ka Inoa ‘O Hōkūle‘a”, a playful tribute to Hōkūle‘a’s return, with hula dancers from Hālau Ka Lā ‘Ōnohi Mai O Ha‘eha‘e.

 

 

The backdrop of this Nā Mele reflects how ancient and modern sensibilities can co-exist, with tropical flora and kalo silhouettes set against a nighttime cityscape. Takatsugi echoes this sentiment, about the dynamic nature of the Hawaiian culture and how he doesn’t consider it to be a “museum culture.” “It’s still rooted in something that is very uniquely, very intrinsically ours,” he said. “It’s from this ‘aina, but it’s developing, it’s evolving, it’s
moving forward. I think that’s really exciting.”

 

NĀ MELE: Chad Takatsugi

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Manaola Yap

 

Kohala native Manaola Yap grew up processing dyes from native roots and plants, while helping his mother, kumu hula Nani Lim Yap, create elaborate hula costumes for performances. These early experiences now inform his brand of Hawaiian luxury clothing, Manaola Hawai‘i, which made its New York Fashion Week debut in September 2017.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, May 27, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Manaola Yap Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

At a MAMo show, I wanted to make underwear, and I actually started with men’s underwear. And that’s a touchy subject. I mean, even at that time when we had first started moving into that space, I did get a lot of backlash. [CHUCKLE]

 

Why is that a touchy subject? I don’t get it.

 

Because it’s kind of promiscuous, and it’s sexy, and a lot of—

 

It’s too personal.

 

It’s too personal. And not only that; they’re like: Oh, you know, it’s exposed, and this and that. And I was like: Okay, well, let’s look at our kupuna. I mean, they were topless. You know, the body was celebrated, all these things. A lot of the mindset that comes from ignorance, and the ignorance of being schooled in the traditional concepts of the missionary mindset.

 

He’s a fast-rising star in the international fashion scene, while he remains firmly rooted in Native Hawaiian culture. The phenomenon known as Manaola Yap, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Top New York fashion houses learned a new name in 2017: Manaola Yap. The name belongs to a young Hawaiian from Kohala, who dazzled with his first runway collection at the prestigious New York Fashion Week. He wowed the audience with bold and modern designs inspired by his knowledge of Native Hawaiian culture. Manaola Yap was born on Hawaii Island to Edward Yap and Nani Lim Yap, who are both Hawaiian music teachers and entertainers deeply immersed in their cultural heritage. In addition, mother Nani, from the renowned Lim musical ohana in Kohala, is a much respected kumu hula. These parents gave their son a powerful and eclectic name, Manaola, which mean life force. It’s just part of his name.

 

First of all, there’s your name.

 

Yes.

 

And I’m not talking about Manaola. [CHUCKLE]

 

Okay. So—

 

How did you get your name? And what is your name?

 

My full name. Okay; so my full name is Carrington—

 

Carrington?

 

Yes; Carrington first.

 

Where did that come from?

 

So, Carrington actually came from Dynasty.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

The soap opera. So, my mother and her friend loved Dynasty, and they loved Blake Carrington. And at that time, I think all women did at that time. [CHUCKLE] So, when they were in the hospital, they were watching … or during just that whole time through their pregnancy, they were watching Dynasty, the show. And they and they had a bet that whoever would give birth first would be Blake, and the second would be Carrington. So, her son is Blake, and I’m Carrington.

 

And has anyone ever called you Carrington, really?

 

Yeah. It’s kind of funny, because I feel like my name changed throughout my lifetime thus far. So, I have people that still call me Carrington from, you know, certain events and circles of my mom’s social circles that she has. And then, some call me Manaola, some call me Mana, some call me Bubba. A lot of people call me Bubba.

 

Why Bubba?

 

My sister used to call me Bubba when she was small. And a lot of people in our hula halau, and that’s close to the family. In my family too, they call me Bubba. So, it’s definitely changed. So, Carrington is my first, Edward is my middle name. Well, one of my middle names; that’s from my dad, got that from my dad. So, Carrington Edward, and then Manaolahoowaiwaiikaleikaumakalani. [CHUCKLE] It’s a long one.

 

Now, if Manaola means life force, what does the rest mean?

 

The whole idea, because the name can be read in many different ways. Manaolahoowaiwaiikaleikaumakalani is heaven’s power of life enriching the beloved child. And my aunt, who named me, she’s a late kumu hula, her name was Joan Lindsey, she’s ohana on my mom’s dad’s side. And when she named me, she named me with the intention that everyone that will look upon Manaola in his lifetime will be looked upon with love, with eyes of kindness and love only.

 

Do you think names shape you?

 

Definitely; I’m totally a firm believer in the belief of a name and the energy that a name has once it’s borne into the air. Totally.

 

I know your mom is part of the Lim family, which is legendary. Would you tell us about her family, and then your dad’s family?

 

Yeah.

 

The Yap family.

 

My mom’s family is the Lim ohana. They used to live up on Puu Hoi Ranch. My grandfather was the foreman for Parker Ranch; he’s one of the original cowboys. They grew up in a very, very country style traditional home. My grandpa on my mom’s side was also very Chinese, as well.

 

And there are members of the family all over the Kohala side, generally performing, generally music.

 

Yeah; lots of music and dance, too. My cousin Namakana, she’s actually a Miss Aloha Hula. She’s a really, really beautiful dancer, as well. And aside from our main family, my mom’s also graduated a bunch of kumu that have passed on her legacy of dance. And not even just dancing alone; my mom has also shaped them into beautiful women.

 

And is your father on the creative side, as well?

 

My dad’s super-creative. So, Edward Yap; he’s from Honolulu. My dad and his whole family; very, very loving as well.

 

Your father is Chinese, or Chinese Hawaiian?

 

Chinese Hawaiian; yeah. So, my dad’s Chinese Hawaiian side, he grew up doing a lot of kung fu, martial arts, and all of that, and then, passed that on to me, as well.

 

From a young age, Manaola Yap gravitated toward performing arts and design. By age thirteen, he already started one of several businesses that would help him express his passion for the arts, and put money in his pocket.

 

I always also had a fascination in Asian art and artifacts. Actually, all kinds of ancient artifacts from all over the world. I was also known in my community in Waikoloa. Still yet, they still kinda know me, the old-timers; they know me as the boy that did the garage sale. So, I used to have this big garage sale in our garage, and in our whole lot, actually, full of muumuu, old costumes, fabric, kitchenware, old furniture. All kinds of stuff.

 

And did people negotiate with you?

 

Oh, all the time.

 

And did you like that part?

 

I loved it.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

But in the midst of all of this, ‘cause I know how collectors work, I would put one artifact. Like, I’d put a bunch of, you know, junky things, tchotchkes and all that, and then in the middle of that, I’d put like a Ming Dynasty sculpture in the middle, and just see. Because you can tell if a collector has an eye. And they’ll kinda like pick it right out of the bunch, and they’ll just walk by and be like: Oh, my god, like, they probably don’t even know what it is. [CHUCKLE] And the first piece I sold was a wooden Kwan Yin statue. And I think I sold it for like, six hundred bucks. Should have been sixteen hundred, at least. Sold it for six hundred bucks. And my dad’s like: What are you doing? He’s like, You’re not gonna sell that here. You know, he was like: I don’t think people are gonna buy that kinda stuff. And this guy came out; he was like: How much is that? I’m like: Six hundred bucks. And he pulled out cash, and my dad was like, whoa.

 

And how old were you at this point?

 

At that point, I was like thirteen; twelve or thirteen. Yeah. And a lot of people would come in. And at that time, you know, purchases with designers that were coming in were already spending around seven to eight thousand dollars at a time, in my house.

 

On the Kohala Coast of Hawaii Island, Manaola Yap’s mother, Nani Lim Yap, creates hula shows based on Hawaiian mythology. As a keiki, Manaola would assist in the creative costuming, which would set him on the path to fashion desing.

 

Being in the entertainment business in the Kohala Coast, it was important for us to figure out a way to engage the audience, because they didn’t understand much of what we were doing, or dancing about. So, what Mom started to do, a lot of different people started to do is, create little hula dramas, even in her productions. So, hula dramas where we would explain, you know, the storyline. We’d read a story, tell you what the story is about, and then dance the dance, so that you could make the reference of: Oh, she’s pulling something or, Oh, a volcanic explosion happened. Those kinds of things, so that they could see us becoming the dance, and really make that connection and help them be engaged in the story. So, when that happened, that lent for creative costume. It gave us the creative freedom to be able to step outside of the box, and really start to be expressive in our costume. ‘Cause we were able to look at mythology and say: Oh, she wore a skirt of flames, or Oh, she wore a skirt made of lightning bolts.

 

As the person who’s gonna come up with this costume, how do you do that? What comes to mind?

 

That was the most exciting part of my childhood, the fact that every day, like, my mom was putting together a show, she’d be like: Okay, we have to make a headpiece for Namakaokahai. Okay, she’s the sister of Pele, she’s the sea goddess. Okay, so we’d go to the ocean and we’d find things and be creative.

 

How fun.

 

Yeah.

 

And deep.

 

And deep; definitely. Or we’d go to the forest and be like, okay, Hiiaka, she had pau palai, which is a skirt made of palai ferns.

 

M-hm.

 

So, we’d go and, you know, gather those kinds of things, or look at, Okay, how can we imitate this fern through this fabric, how can we texture this, how can we, you know, add a train that looks like a lava flow. That whole thing really was a start of me getting into costuming and fashion. And what would happen is, after the show was done, even with our myth show, we had girls that were like: Oh, my god, could I borrow this top to go out after? Like, I’m just gonna put jeans with it. And you know, they would go out, and they’d use it. Or they’d be like: Oh, you know, I have a red carpet event, or I’m going to this fancy dinner, can I wear this outfit? And that whole thing started a conversation with other artists or other friends, dancers that would be like: Oh, you know, I’m going to the Hokus, can you make me this outfit; this should be at the Hokus, you know, not just in a show. So, I was like, okay. So, I would create different looks for them, but everything was always done by hand; you know, the concept. I’d draw the concept, we’d cut the patterns, me and Mom would cut the patterns. And Iwa; Iwalani too, she was a really, really important part of my journey, Iwalani. She has her own line, Iwa Wai. But she also was a very close friend that helped me with my construction in summer.

 

You had crossed that divide. You had decided, I’m now gonna charge for costuming, for clothes.

 

Not even yet.

 

You’re doing this for free?

 

I was still doing that for free, even for the Hokus. I didn’t know how. You know. I think the first person I charged … even that was really hard for me.

 

Well, they were your friends, too.

 

They were my friend, too; right? And the way that we create is, I want to know them first. I want to know what is something that they’re missing, or are they a very aggressive person, what can I do in this design to soften that, or help to balance them. That’s what our job is.

 

Well, that sounds a little spiritual, right there.

 

Yeah; totally. So, that’s actually what the brand is based off of, that concept of balance for lifestyle.

 

And somehow, you worked through your feeling like: I can’t charge for this, this is spiritual, this is mana.

 

Definitely. Because what I was able to do is, I was able to see that this piece created … one thing for sure, it’s definitely a different time. Yeah? So, one thing is the times have changed, and there’s that adaptation to time. And also, that the piece itself has been able to change someone, and create more money to create more products, to change more people, and to move our mission forward to help to sustain indigenous culture.

 

Manaola Yap began creating fashion pieces for the Maoli Arts Movement, or MAMo, a festival that celebrates Native Hawaiian art. In 2014, he decided to make a bold statement at MAMo with his very first clothing line.

 

When we did the underwear, that was the scary one for me. Because I was like: Mom, I’m gonna make an underwear. My theme was Kumulipo, we did all the first wa, which is all the animals and the sea creatures. And there was this boy, and he really was an aspiring underwear model, so I was like: Okay, you’re perfect, we’ll do him. He had a great body and all this. And my mom sewed the underwear. So, we cut the underwear, we printed it, we sewed it. And I just remember, you know, we’re in the back, and … it was a big move for us, you know, to even put him out there. We were just like: Oh, my gosh. First of all, even the whole collection itself was artistically very beautiful. Some things were a little sexy. And you know, we had gone to the rehearsal, we had seen the regular muumuu, the traditional beautiful arts, tattoo, and all these different things. And … I literally went in the back, and I was like, freaking out. I was like: Mom, they’re gonna think we’re crazy. I was like: I can’t do this, we gotta pull out of this, we can’t even present. And she’s like: Oh, absolutely not. [CHUCKLE] She’s like: We just came all the way over here.

 

She’s a rock, isn’t she?

 

Yeah, yeah. She’s like: No, no. She’s like: What is your intention? You know, I had listed my intention, this is what I want to do. And then, even with the underwear, I was like: Should we take it out, should we not do it? She’s like: What’s your intention? I was like: Okay; well, I’m trying to think like a smart Hawaiian here. Okay; a smart Hawaiian businessman, we’re looking at underwear. Okay; first of all, Hawaiian underwear is sexy. Right? And that’s what drives this marketplace, whether you like it or not. And any marketing advertising is gonna tell you that is the main attraction, human attraction to sales. It’s a sexy thing. Two, I’ve always wanted to see a Hawaiian man underwear model ad, big. We’re still working on it.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I also looked at the underwear being something we need every day. You know, that’s something we use every day, and it makes you feel good. I love a good pair of underwear; they’re always under my basketball shorts and my tank top. But, that is something that we always want to use. So, she’s like: Well, if that’s your intention … there’s your intention. And we’re like, freaking out in the back. Of course, now things have changed, ever since we’ve opened that gap. But if you look at it before, we’re just like: Oh, my god, like … you know, should we like, do a reveal, or should we like, have him just be like, boom, he’s in his underwear. You know, like, what do we do?

 

What happens is, you feel naked.

 

Yeah, yeah; exactly.

 

And you’re exposed.

 

Exactly; we’re exposed. So, we’re like: No, you know what, do all your traditional protocol, do your oli like you normally do, and then on the end, we’ll put him out. So, he had a tie on, he had like a wrap on. And you know, he’s just walking out, and everybody’s just like, watching. And all of a sudden, he just drops his wrap. And all the forks and everything, you could just hear go, clank.

 

Clatter. [CHUCKLE]

 

And just dead silence, and everybody was just like … looking at him. And then, I was like: Oh, my god, they’re gonna kill us. And it was so funny, because I had a lot of traditionalists that were in the audience, too. We had, you know, a lot of kupuna, too. But the funny part was, when I was outside, you know, like taking pictures with my gang, so many people too, that were … I won’t mention their names, but very, very influential people in the Hawaiian community, they came up to me and they were like … Oh, my god, brother, don’t tell anybody, but that was awesome. I can’t believe you did that; that was the most amazing thing that ever happened.

 

So, private approval.

 

Yeah; private approval, you know. And then, later on, you know, I even had some artists too that later on did buy my underwear. And they’re like: [GASP] I have your underwear on right now, they’re so cool. But don’t tell anybody. You know, that kinda thing.

 

But I mean, you want to create something that will be useful.

 

Exactly; useful, for sure, and comfortable and fun. And that’s why with that underwear, I feel like you could feel as that whole wrap dropped, that the whole history of Hawaii changed that day.

 

Manaola Yap learned traditional Hawaiian clothing techniques through his kupuna, and he picked up modern design through experimentation with his mother’s creative hula costuming. He knew early on that college and fashion school were not for him.

 

My background in design, and everything that I do, comes from hula, from dance. You know, I do not name myself to be a designer that went to school and did all of that. I never really pursued going to fashion school. And it wasn’t really necessarily because I know it all, and I knew it all, and all that. It was more so because I also didn’t want to tamper with the organic nature of my mind and my creative mind, and how it was nurtured in that space, especially being on the Big Island. I didn’t want anything to interfere with it, so that I could keep it as authentic as possible. Because that is something in the industry that … corporations at large have the hardest time to develop, especially when selling to a consumer or to even make that exchange, you know, in business. So, that was my choice; from a long time, I was already thinking ahead.

 

Pewa, for me, was created … it’s a very traditional design, and this sample can actually be found, the original sample can actually be found in the Bishop Museum, where a lot of the native artifacts are kept. I chose pewa because for me, it spoke to me on a different level. Pewa are the fishtail repairs that are used in woodwork, in traditional woodwork. And I bent the patterns back and forth because in today’s time, we’re open to a lot more new ideas.

 

Just three years after launching his Native Hawaiian inspired clothing label, Manaola Yap was able to establish a retail store called Hula Lehua at Ala Moana Shopping Center. Then came the national spotlight; he received a coveted invitation to showcase his collection at the prestigious New York Fashion Week 2017.

 

They actually came upon us by reviewing Honolulu Fashion Week, which is a production that’s done by Lynne O’Neill and Honolulu Magazine. But they went online, and they watched that whole, you know, Honolulu Fashion Week, and watched all the designs. And then, they had sent us the invitation. So, out of the eight thousand, there’s about twenty-four designers that show throughout four countries, which is London, Paris, Milan, and New York. And out of those twenty-four designers, only ten designers get exclusive shows. We were very honored to have been able to show a full collection, which is super-crazy, especially for our first time in New York.

 

How much time did you have to get ready for this?

 

We had about three weeks.

 

Three weeks?

 

M-hm.

 

What did you have to do, to get ready?

 

Everything from … we textiled everything from scratch, we had to print all the fabrics from scratch, cut and sew. We had to fit, we had to silhouette all the pieces. And I’m a crazy, so we actually had more than the amount of pieces that we put in. We finished at about forty pieces; we did forty looks in that collection. It was actually the largest collection Oxford had ever shown in all four countries. Period. Which was kind of crazy. [CHUCKLE] But that’s always how I’ve been. I just love creating things, so yeah; it was definitely a crazy journey. We also broke some of the rules, because we really, really wanted to share some of the local talent, especially with the models. ‘Cause we had been working with these models that have supported us all these few years.

 

Normally, you would use the models up there.

 

It’s usually only industry models.

 

Oh; so how did you get the local girls in?

 

So, when they looked at us, they loved the fact that we’re based in indigenous culture, and that we’re a cultural label, which is something that they had only really seen a lot in African designers at the time, Indian designers, Chinese, Japanese, those kind of things. But nothing in the context of looking on the Polynesian side, for couture especially. So, when they seen that, they thought that that was super-interesting. But I was like: Okay, if that’s the thing, then you have to have some Hawaiians then, because that’s the uniqueness of the brand, and that’s what makes us who we are; it’s the people. We also had some that were native-speaking, which was very, you know, important to us, as well.

 

And I understand you had a Go Fund Me campaign.

 

We had a Go Fund Me campaign.

 

You didn’t have a bunch of money lying around to go to New York with all these people.

 

Oh, no; not at all. Yeah; we did not have the the means to go. ‘Cause even when we first did it, I was like: There’s no way we’re gonna go to New York. You know. ‘Cause our company is based on organic growth, completely.

 

Were you behind stage, or next to the runway? Where were you?

 

Oh; I stood on the side of the runway so that I could watch. It was an intense moment. Even the people in the audience, I think, a lot of them were pretty blown away, because especially how we started the show. We started with protocol. That’s usually how we always start. I always start with a hula. And for me, that’s creating the ceremony for us as a label for this time as a brand is, I always set hula first. Because like I said, hula is where I come from. That is my world, that is what I know. You know. And that’s where my source of inspiration, and everything is borne from that place. So, I use that ceremony and that dance to start um, our runway shows.

 

Does an individual garment tell a story?

 

So, it depends. Some pieces have different inspiration. So, some things are basic silhouettes that are, you know, flattering, comfortable, especially to what the market is bearing at the time. I have one top that is very special to me; it’s called the Hihimanu top. The Hihimanu top is inspired by the Hihimanu, its namesake, which is the big stingray, manta rays. You know how they have those big wings, and their tail. Then, some of them, I get really, really intense with. And then, that was the last piece that was on the runway, one of our finale dresses. That piece was dedicated to Liliu, Liliuokalani, our last reigning monarch. So, creating the mourning garment to mourn the loss of the lahui, of the Kingdom, in remembrance of Liliu, and in remembrance of the Kingdom, but also to show the forward movement in that garment. So, the garment is actually all black, and it’s the only piece that was all black in the whole collection.

 

Did you get a good crowd for your appearance?

 

Yes. Our show was actually over sold out. But yeah, I think it was great. And it was really good for us to go up there, especially for Hawaii.

 

[DRAMATIC MUSIC]

 

Anything that we do outside, our heart’s always here first. And you know, whether it be New York or London, Paris, wherever we may go next, it’s always making sure that we have that sense of pride at home, because that’s our home base.

 

Because of his selection for New York Fashion Week, Manaola Yap gained the opportunity to showcase his work at the other fashion weeks in London, Paris, and Milan. In 2016, Hawaii Business Magazine celebrated Yap as one of its 20 for the Next 20, and Honolulu Magazine named him Islander of the Year in Fashion. It’s quick and high ascent for Manaola. At the time of our conversation in Fall of 2017, he was just thirty years old. Mahalo to Kohala native Manaola Yap, now living in Honolulu, for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

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.

 

I used hula as a … example. I looked at hula, and I looked at … ‘cause I always go back to the dance. Any time I’m stuck, any time I need an answer, I always go back to the dance. And sometimes, I even just dance, myself, because it gives me that clearance and that space for me to think.

 

[END]

 

 

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