Issue 10.2: April / May 2007

Pipe Masters

story by Becky Maltby
photo by Monte Costa

In 1845 Scotsman Nichol MacIntyre arrived in Hawai‘i on HMS America and, at a festive dinner, entertained King Kamehameha III and guests with a formidable music that poured from a wildly foreign instrument. It was official: The bagpipes had arrived in the Islands. Not long after, another Hawaiian monarch, King David Kalakaua, heard the pipes when he visited Scotland on his round-the-world journey. In the twentieth century, Hawai‘i’s own piping community grew, particularly as three annual Celtic celebrations—the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Burns Night and the Highland Games—took hold. Today, Honolulu’s fifteen-member Celtic Pipes and Drums ensemble can often be found around town, playing the classics (think “Amazing Grace”) as well as local favorites like “Aloha ‘Oe” and “Hawai‘i Pono‘i.” Decked out in full regalia, including plaid kilts and leather Sporrans, they evoke Scotland as surely as a bottle of Macallan’s eighteen-year-old scotch. But if Debbie Nakanelua-Richards is dancing with them, the Hawaiian Islands are instantly evoked, too. Gone are the vertical springs and bouncy rhythms of the Highland Fling—Debbie’s graceful, fluid movements belong to the hula.

Debbie—a former Miss Hawai‘i and celebrated hula dancer—has embraced the fusion of hula and bagpipes. In her white mu‘umu‘u and tartan sash, she moves with an elegant certainty that honors both cultures. From the pipes, she feels “a vibration that resonates in the very core of one’s spirit. It’s like receiving a call from centuries past. It’s haunting. In hula, the pahu drum has the same effect on me.”

Debbie has danced with the Celtic Pipes and Drums for a decade now. “People are entranced by it,” says piper Hardy Spoehr, who recently authored a 345-page definitive tome on Hawai‘i’s bagpipe history, ‘Upoho Uka Nui ‘O Kekokia (Scotland’s Great Highland Bagpipe). “We’re proud that Hawaiian culture is part of our repertoire.” This year’s Highland Games will take place on the first weekend in April in Kapi‘olani Park—and Debbie will be dancing.