Written By: Shannon
Photographs By: Kevin
So many people nurture
fantasies about Paris—the two-thousand-year-old “City of Lights”—that it’s as
much a dream as an actual place. In the Paris of fantasy, Edith Piaf still
sings, the Impressionists paint dancers beneath the windmills of Montmartre and
Hemingway sits in a brasserie scribbling about bullfights. Couples kiss on the
Pont Neuf, beautiful girls bicycle down the Champs-Élysées and even the dogs
are fashionably coiffed, poised beside their owners in the shade of La Tour
The real Paris is all of
this but more: grittier, more diverse and brimming with lively contradictions.
If the celebrated French capital is often mistaken for its postcards, it’s not
alone. It shares that distinction with one of the world’s other most desirable destinations: the Hawaiian Islands.
Everyone dreams of escaping to Hawai‘i; few expect to explore the depth of its
Kilohana Silve has spent
her life navigating the nuances of both paradises, Parisian and Hawaiian. She’s
discovered that when they mix, magic happens. In Montparnasse her regal
carriage, commanding gaze and extra-long black mane might draw second glances;
in Honolulu they’re immediately recognized as the hallmarks of a kumu hula
(hula teacher). For twenty-two years Silve has run the only hula halau (hula school)
in Paris, serving as a living conduit between the Old World and Oceania.
She first arrived in
France in 1972, a 20-year-old art history student from Manoa, O‘ahu. A family
friend told the adventurous girl that she needed to leave Hawai‘i in order to
find it. The remark proved prescient. In Paris, as anyone might’ve predicted,
she fell in love. She married a handsome French sculptor and set up house in
the ninth arrondissement—the home of the magnificent Opéra de Paris and former
haunt of the Impressionist painters.
Silve dived into the
French art world, working as a curator, critic and professor. Hawai‘i was never
far from her thoughts; every franc she earned she spent on airfare home. These
globe-spanning trips doubled after the birth of her daughter, Vanessa Leilani
Thill. When Vanessa was old enough to express an interest in hula, her mom—who
doesn’t do things in small measure—studied up and opened Halau Hula o Manoa, Paris’ first hula school. In
2012 the halau celebrated its twentieth anniversary.
Rather than throw a party, Silve launched a citywide hula festival. Why not,
she thought, seize the opportunity to introduce Paris to traditional Hawaiian
The French may be familiar
with Tahiti, but their knowledge of Hawai‘i tends to begin and end with
stereotypes of big-wave surfers and smiling girls in coconut bras. Two decades
ago the Maison du Cultures du Monde (World Cultures Institute) hosted an
exposition celebrating the indigenous arts of Polynesia—excluding Hawai‘i. When
Silve complained, the organizers told her, “We don’t want all that kitschy
Little did they know. It
would take time, but the Parisian kumu hula would deliver the real deal. For
the inaugural Festival des Arts d’Hawai‘i in 2012, Silve and and her daughter
(who now assists her mother in running Halau Hula o Manoa) invited some of Hawai‘i’s most renowned cultural
practitioners and musicians to Paris. Luminaries included slack-key guitarist
Makana, ‘ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner, chant and protocol master Sam ‘Ohu
Gon III and members of Halau Mele, the school started by revered kumu John
Silve’s running joke is, “Ou va faire quelque choses de très simple”:
Let’s keep it simple. Whenever she says this, her haumana (students) brace for
work. Before their first big fête
was finished, Halau Hula o Manoa
began planning the next one. In June 2014 the international team reassembled to
host the second Festival des Arts d’Hawai‘i: a ten-day whirlwind of hula, ‘ukulele
and slack key guitar, lei making, seminars and storytelling. Several thousand
people attended events at venues scattered around Paris. The cultural exchange
gave Parisians a true taste of the Islands and visiting Hawaiians a chance to
indulge in impeccable French fare.
The 2014 fête began with a stirring performance of
sacred Hawaiian dance at the prestigious Musée
du Quai Branly. Just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, the Branly houses
artifacts from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. It served as a perfect
backdrop for hula kahiko, the Hawaiian Islands’ oldest dance form.
The theater filled with
the sweet, unmistakable fragrance of maile, hand-carried from Hawai‘i. The Halau
Mele dancers from O‘ahu joined their French hula siblings on stage. Together
they embodied the ancient stories of the Hawaiian archipelago, from the Kumulipo to the epic tale of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele. The swish
of ti-leaf skirts and reverberating heartbeat of the gourd drums evoked the cloud-wreathed
summit of Haleakala and the smoldering caldera of Kilauea.
Anyone who came expecting
a saccharine recital of “Lovely Hula Hands” likely had their fuses blown. As
the program progressed, the French dancers showed the caliber of their training—performing
grueling seated dances and adeptly incorporating kala‘au (percussive sticks).
In a show of respect, the Hawaiians brought their finery to the festival: rare
mamane seed lei and hand-stamped kihei (capes) made especially for the
occasion. Lucky Parisians witnessed choreography and costumes of a quality that
even Hawai‘i residents rarely get to see.
Outside, the sky had
finally darkened after a languorous twilight. People streamed back onto the
streets, shaking open umbrellas against a light summer rain. The evening’s
performance might have prompted some local Parisians to wonder whether this
rain shower had a distinct identity and name, as so many rains in Hawai‘i do.
This sensual opening night was just the beginning, the amuse-bouche of the
movable feast to come.