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Hawai‘i has been lending its mystique to the bikini for sixty years
Vol. 8, No. 6
December 2005/January 2006

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The Oli Master 

story by Lynn Cook
photo by Steve Brinkman

Chanter Charles Ka‘upu

The voices of the chanters are timid and low. They almost whisper the words, “E Laka E, Pupu Weuweu E Laka E...” Their kumu, their teacher, commands, “Stand up! Take a big breath. Now let me hear you!” The teacher, larger than life in his
massive signature green head lei, is renowned Hawaiian hula and oli, or chant, master Charles Ka‘upu. His students on this day are mostly visitors to the Islands, gathered in a formal Maui hotel ballroom at an annual spring festival of native Hawaiian culture called Celebration of the Arts. The chant they are doing is a pule kanaenae, a prayer of petition to the goddess Laka, asking permission to enter her forest to pick ferns and flowers. These visitors aren't actually going to the forest. They won’t be picking ferns. What they are doing is getting a rare lesson in Hawaiian chant, something that is usually held exclusively for serious students of hula and Hawaiian language.

“I see only human beings wanting to learn,” Ka‘upu says when asked why he is teaching the chant in this place, to this audience. He seeks, he says, to give visitors more than a “beach and coconut tree” vision of the Islands to take home. He tells these students that, like the ecosystem of the Islands, the Hawaiian culture is strong yet fragile. He wants them to appreciate the paradise they are visiting. “I have been called a tree-hugger many times,” he says with an infectious laugh. “But if we don’t take care, well, no need to go on. We all know that these islands are a finite treasure.”

Ka‘upu is a kanaka maoli, a native Hawaiian, though like so many in these Islands today, his genealogy also reflects the newcomers to Hawai‘i; his Okinawan grandfather worked on Kaua‘i sugar plantations. Son of a military man, Charles was born at Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu, and when he was a boy, his father’s tour of duty took the family to Okinawa and Charles spent time with relatives there. As a teen, searching for more family history, Charles heard that his father’s mother claimed to be related to Captain James Cook. He searched out historical records and found documents at the Bishop Museum that suggested that high chief Ka‘eokulani’s daughter may have had a child with Cook. “If it’s true, it would make Cook my grandmother’s seven-times great grandfather. Interesting, yeah?” he says with a smile. “What I am sure of is the fact that my mother was a direct descendant of Kaikea Kahuna Nui, the last practicing priest of Moloka‘i and a great grandson of Kamehameha.”

Finding the family history was a catalyst to Charles’ cultural awakening. At seventeen he found himself in the King Kamehameha Civic Club’s hula classes, where he studied hula and chant with Uncle Henry Pa; his classmates included Mahi Beamer and Mae Lobenstein. He was an avid student, but it took years, he says, to truly appreciate how lucky he’d been to be sitting at the feet of the masters at that point in his life. When he was at Leeward Community College, he studied hula with Keli‘i Tau‘a; his ‘uniki, or hula graduation, was in 1979. At that point, needing a job, he became a tour bus driver. “I learned a lot about how much I didn’t know,” he recalls, “and about how much tourists really did want to know.” Moving into management, he was soon training all the drivers, even teaching them Hawaiian words. He moved to Maui to take over the Maui office, and once on the island he was courted to take a job as disc jockey and later program director for KPOA Maui Radio.