Issue 15.4: August/September 2012

Songs of Kalaupapa

Story by Derek Ferrar

Photos by Elyse Butler


Slack key guitarists Dennis Kamakahi and Stephen Inglis are perched on folding chairs at the front of a weathered wooden rec hall in Kalaupapa, the notorious former leprosy colony that juts out on a lonely peninsula beneath the sheer sea cliffs of Moloka‘i’s north side. Playing along beside them is young musician Patrick Landeza, and an appreciative audience of sixty people or so — a packed house in Kalaupapa these days—sways along to the soothing, resonant music as the three men’s fingers dance across the strings.


Layers of chipped paint on the hall’s floor planks speak of country dances and hula, heated community debates and many soles gone by. A plaque on the faded back wall recounts some of the other entertainers who have come to perform for the settlement’s residents over the decades: Shirley Temple, Abbott and Costello, Irving Berlin and John Wayne.


In this tiny place apart from the world, everyone is an old friend. The crowd includes several of the one-time leprosy patients who still choose to live in the protected settlement, along with workers from the National Park Service and the State Department of Health, which co-manage the peninsula’s facilities, and several nuns whose Franciscan order has long cared for Kalaupapa’s patients.


For each of the musicians, the concert is a homecoming of sorts. Dennis, one of Hawaiian music’s best-known composers, is making his first return since 1975, when he was in his early 20s and had just joined the classic revival band Sons of Hawai‘i. Today he’s here because he and Stephen, a young guitar prodigy whose activist parents were close with many Kalaupapa patients, have just released an album of songs that pays tribute to the settlement’s rich musical legacy.


Joining them as they bring the songs home to ring through the hall’s open rafters is Patrick, a relative of Dennis’ whose mother hails from Moloka‘i, although he himself was born and raised in California. Something of a Hawaiian hipster in a mod aloha shirt and newsboy cap, Patrick is on his own homeward quest. A slack key player and promoter on the Mainland, he recently answered the call of a kupuna (elder) to “bring the music home” and established a nonprofit foundation to bring prominent Hawaiian players to Moloka‘i and other islands.


Dennis, a spiritual man who goes by the title of Reverend, is dressed in his trademark black—replete with silver-trimmed boots, long Western preacher’s coat and a finely woven cowboy hat. The prolific author of more than five hundred poetic Hawaiian songs, he chokes the crowd up with a story from his visit to the peninsula decades before. During their stay, he and his Sons of Hawai‘i bandmates played for patients in the terminal care ward, including one aged woman whose hands had been claimed by leprosy.


“We were playing for this beautiful old woman who had no hands and was getting ready to go on to the next place but who still radiated a deep joy,” Dennis says. “When we were done playing, she smiled and clapped with what was left of her arms. I like to think I’m a strong man, but I broke down and burst into tears.”


Then he launches into the lilting title song he composed for the new album he recorded with Inglis, Waimaka Helelei, or Falling Teardrop:


Waimaka helelei i Kalaupapa, auwe e, auwe la,

Ua kaumaha i ka ‘iu‘iu, auwe e, auwe la…


Falling teardrops at Kalaupapa, grieve, grieve 

Down-pouring rain in the heights, grieve, grieve …


Lima‘ole ku‘u kino ke pule au, auwe e, auwe la,

Kulana ka leo, ‘eha ke kino, auwe e, auwe la.


My body is armless when I pray, grieve, grieve

The voice shakes, the body aches, grieve, grieve.


Paniku a‘u i ko‘u mau maka, auwe e, auwe la

A lana malie i ka maluhia, auwe e, auwe la.


I suddenly shut my eyes, grieve, grieve

And float calmly in peace, grieve, grieve.


In the CD liner notes, Dennis writes that in the end the song is joyous because the woman, who died soon after, “had shown me that she accepted her deformity and her soul was about to be released. … I knew in the next world she would be whole again.”




More sensitively referred to today as Hansen’s disease, after the Norwegian doctor who identified the bacteria that causes it, leprosy first appeared in Hawai‘i around the 1830s. As with other foreign diseases that decimated the native population, the illness struck Hawaiian families particularly hard. Before long a public panic had erupted, and in 1865 the Kingdom of Hawai‘i passed An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy, which required the arrest of “any person alleged to be a leper” and authorized the Board of Health “to send to a place of isolation all such patients as shall be considered incurable or capable of spreading the disease of leprosy.”


Little wonder, then, that the disease became known to Hawaiians as ma‘i ho‘oka‘awale, or “the separating sickness.” The cruel irony is that it’s now known that leprosy is in fact one of the least contagious of all infectious diseases, and only about 5 percent of the human population is even susceptible to it.


The first exiles, nine men and three women, were deposited on the harsh windward side of the peninsula in 1866, without access to adequate shelter, food or water. New outcasts arrived regularly and many quickly perished. Somehow, however, the community managed to eke out the basics of survival and even organized a church congregation within the first year.


At the colony’s peak in the early 1900s, more than a thousand patients resided in the settlement, which eventually had its own police station, movie theater and other facilities. The tragedy of isolation continued, however. Newborns were immediately taken from their patient mothers for fear they would be infected. Railings and other devices kept the patients separate from staff. Visitors were escorted by police and could talk with patients only through a prison-style screen to prevent touching.


Years later one patient described the agony of being torn from his home: “They told me right out that I would die here, that I would never see my family again. I heard them say this phrase, something I will never forget. They said, ‘This is your last place. This is where you are going to stay and die.’ That’s what they told me. I was a 13-year-old kid.”


In 1941 an antibiotic cure was discovered, and five years later it began to be administered to the Kalaupapa patients. Complete treatment could take a number of years, but once a patient was declared noncontagious, they were free to leave the settlement. The patients called this being “paroled.” Many, however, chose to remain in the beautiful place that had long been their home.


“Kalaupapa used to be a Devil’s Island, a gateway to hell, worse than a prison,” wrote the late patient-activist Bernard Punikai‘a. “Today it is a gateway to heaven. There is spirituality to the place. All the sufferings of those whose blood has touched the land—the effect is so powerful even the rain cannot wash it away.”




In Kalaupapa the dead are ever present. Graveyards are scattered across the peninsula, with markers ranging from polished modern stones to crumbling remnants, their inscriptions long worn away. And those are just the marked graves: Of an estimated eight thousand souls who were brought to the settlement, the gravesites of only a little more than a thousand are known today.


In 2003 the patients and their supporters formed an organization, Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa (The Family of Kalaupapa), to assist families in uncovering information about relatives who had been sent to the colony and to advocate for the patients’ wishes for the future of the peninsula once they are gone. Valerie Monson, a former reporter for the Maui News, helps coordinate the organization. Val says she first came to Kalaupapa more than twenty years ago on an assignment. “Then I got to know the residents,” she says, “and I became so impressed by their talents, their accomplishments and their strong personalities. People here have gone through such hardships, and they still say they’re blessed. I didn’t want them to be forgotten, and it turned into kind of a mission.”


Before their concert, Val takes the musicians to pay respects at the resting places of some of the patient-composers whose songs Dennis and Stephen recorded for their album. By a sun-baked strip of graves sandwiched between the road and a perfect golden beach without a single footprint, Dennis takes off his hat and stands quietly by the simple concrete grave of Ernest Kala, a prolific composer of Kalaupapa church hymns. His rousing song “E Na Kini,” or “The Multitude,” is considered a kind of “national anthem” for the settlement’s people, Dennis says, and the patients used to stand whenever it was played:


Paio no ka pono e, e na kini o ka ‘aina I ka lawe, lawe a lilo I ka pono, pono a mau …

E na mano kini a lehu e ala mai! A‘e ala pu!


Fight for the rights, O people of the land. Acquire, acquire and receive The rights, rights forever …

O numerous multitude and masses rise up! And rise up together!


Nearby lies the grave of Samson Kuahine, a blind patient who had been brought to Kalaupapa as a toddler. His 1950 love ballad “Sunset of Kalaupapa” was popularized by famed Waikiki bandleader Harry Owens after Owens’ brother, who often visited the settlement to teach piano, heard Kuahine sing it. Harry donated the proceeds from his recording to the Kalaupapa community, who used it to purchase a collection of musical instruments.


Val shows Dennis a shiny headstone engraved with the image of a guitar. It’s the resting place of his cousin Henry Nalailehua, whom he never had the opportunity to meet. Sent to Kalaupapa in 1941 at the age of 15 and told he would likely die within a few years, Henry survived to become a policeman, carpenter, painter and musician. Before his death in 2009, he wrote a moving memoir of his life in the settlement, No Footprints in the Sand. “Many, many years I looked for Henry,” Dennis tells Val softly. “I never knew he was in Kalaupapa, because I think maybe the family didn’t want anyone to know. Then finally one day, I saw his obituary and realized he had been here all along. But today we’re having our closure, and in the next world we’ll talk.”


“Henry was a renaissance man; he could do anything,” Val says. “He should be remembered.”


Just a few feet away, Stephen places a lei on a plain white cross at Bernard Punikai‘a’s grave. In the late ’70s, Bernard and Stephen’s politically active father Wally became close friends during the emotional struggle to save Hale Mohalu, a homey hillside facility in Pearl City where the patients had been able to live if they chose. Eventually the state forcibly evicted Bernard and others in 1983, a painful scene that remains one of the most vivid images of the era’s social struggles.


“Growing up, Hale Mohalu was like church for us,” Stephen reminisces. “We went there every Sunday, and there was always music and laughter. I was too young to understand anything about the prejudice the patients faced, so I just knew them as people.”


At a deep level, Stephen was also bonding with the sweet Hawaiian music that his Hale Mohalu aunties and uncles played. A Suzuki Method piano whiz at age five, Stephen switched to guitar in his teens and was soon ripping rock licks that seemed destined for the stadium stage. In 2002 he headed to the Bay Area to perfect his chops and take a shot at the big time. As it turned out, rock godhood wasn’t in the cards; instead Stephen began to reconnect with the hypnotic slack key music he had grown up with on those Hale Mohalu Sundays.


“I know it sounds like a cliché,” he says, “but I really feel like Hawaiian music chose me.”


He moved back to Hawai‘i a few years later and soon became a staple on the slack key festival scene. For the next couple of years, he says, he had a monthly gig on Moloka‘i and would often stop to visit friends in Kalaupapa. He wrote several songs during those visits and eventually decided to record a Kalaupapa-themed album to honor Bernard’s music, including Punikai‘a’s loving tributes “Kalaupapa My Hometown” and “Hale Mohalu.”


After he learned that his friend and teacher Dennis had also known Bernard, Stephen invited him play on a couple of songs for the recording. “Within forty-eight hours, Dennis had composed two new Kalaupapa songs for the album,” Stephen says with an amazed laugh, “and we quickly realized that this was going to become a much closer collaboration than we had imagined.”


Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, who has taken up the mantle of advocate for the remaining patients, sits in a wheelchair beneath the broad canopy of a banyan tree in front of the settlement’s small, modern medical care facility. One of his legs is in a thick cast, healing from a recent operation. Among the inscriptions decorating the cast, someone has written “Slowing down … to smell the flowers.” His wife Ivy, a fellow patient who runs the town’s one-pump filling station, stands quietly by his side, her hand on his shoulder.


Boogie was first diagnosed in 1949, when he was nine. Antibiotic treatment was available by then, and although patients with serious cases were still required to be isolated, they could choose whether to live at Hale Mohalu or go to Kalaupapa. Boogie chose Kalaupapa, to join a brother and sister who were already there. Now in his early 70s and president of the Kalaupapa ‘Ohana organization, Boogie has done everything from operate the settlement’s movie projector to manage its bookstore.


“When we were flying here,” Dennis tells Boogie, “I looked down at Honolulu and I thought, ‘This city has changed so much, I hardly recognize it.’ But when we landed here, I thought, ‘Man, this place never changes. I don’t think there’s anywhere more peaceful.’”


“That’s how we like ’em,” Boogie says with his gravelly pidgin voice and knowing grin. “I always tell people: ‘When we get home to Kalaupapa, we should get down and kiss the ground.’”


Cast and all, Boogie bundles into a van and leads an impromptu tour down the two-mile dirt road to the original settlement of Kalawao, on the other side of the peninsula. The first stop is the tiny, New Englandstyle Siloama Church, a later incarnation of the Protestant congregation founded by the first exiles within a few months of their arrival. Beside the simple altar, a plaque commemorates the founding members:


“Thrust out by mankind, these 12 women and 23 men crying aloud to God, their only refuge, formed a church, the first in the desolation that was Kalawao.”


Just down the road lies the brightly painted St. Philomena Church once presided over by the Belgian priest Father Damien—now Saint Damien—who arrived in Kalaupapa seven years after the first patients and helped improve their lot greatly before he himself succumbed to the disease. Standing outside the church, Dennis gazes down the coast at the soaring wall of sea cliffs—some of the tallest in the world at up to three thousand feet. “I can only imagine what Damien thought when he first got here,” he muses. “‘Where do I start?’”


To one side of the church is the former site of Damien’s home, where according to the memoir of longtime patient and resident superintendent Ambrose Hutchison, the teenage boys of the settlement once sang a song they’d composed for the priest:


Eia a‘e o Damiana, ka makua o kakou, He poniponi na maka, He ‘alohilohi na aniani Ke ‘ike aku ‘oe kau e ka lia.


Here is Damien, our father, His eyes are like the first glimmer of dawn, Clear and sparkling Upon seeing him, fond memories come to mind.


Hutchison preserved the song’s lyrics and Bernard Punikai‘a later set them to music. Dennis and Stephen say they felt particularly honored to cut the first known recording of the song, “Eia A‘e o Damiana, ka Makua o Kakou,” a centerpiece of their Kalaupapa album.


Across the road a broad, wooded field, bounded by the rock walls that crisscross the old settlement, marks the site of Baldwin House, the colony’s former group home for boys and men. “I bet if these stones could talk, each one could tell a heck of a story,” Boogie says. “That’s history right there.”


He explains that the field is the location that the ‘Ohana organization prefers for a memorial that the patients have long dreamed of to recognize by name all those who were banished to the colony. Several years ago President Obama signed a law authorizing the creation of the memorial, and the ‘Ohana is working on plans for a design competition. But Boogie says National Park Service officials, who are in the process of developing a management plan for Kalaupapa’s future, have opposed the patients’ choice for the location, due to what in his mind is essentially just bureaucratic stubbornness.


“They doing good as far as taking care of the place,” he says, “but it’s like they wanna do all the planning for us. I tell ’em, ‘Hey, no need plan for us. We know what we like happen.’”


There are fewer than twenty patients still alive, and what will become of Kalaupapa after they’re gone weighs heavily on everyone’s mind. “Here we are, standing with the last of everything,” Dennis observes, “and all the families want is to make things pono [right] for the memory of those who were here.”




Sweet tones of slack key reverberate down the hallway of Kalaupapa’s old bunkhouse- style visitors’ quarters as Dennis and Stephen warm up for the show. Out on a bench with a millionaire’s view of the ocean and cliffs, Patrick is plucking a small, six-string hybrid instrument he says is called a “guitarlele.”


“Man, this is awesome,” he marvels. “I think I could write like seven songs right now.”


He grabs his iPhone and records a quick Facebook video update: “Hey folks, I’m sitting here right now at the visitors’ quarters in Kalaupapa! Can you believe it?”


Later at the concert, Dennis gets a little misty as he recounts for the audience the day’s emotional visits. Whenever he used to tell stories about his earlier Kalaupapa visit, he says, “People would say, ‘It must be a sad place.’ But I would always say, ‘For who? Because if you go down there, there is such a sense of peace. But now that I’m back again after so long, I have to say that it has been a little sad, because so many of the wonderful people I met the first time are buried in the graveyards now. But it’s OK because I can see them in all of your faces.’”


His comments segue seamlessly into a powerful rendition of Stephen’s song “Na Pua o Kalaupapa” (“The Flowers of Kalaupapa”), a tribute to the settlement’s courageous souls who are facing an uncertain future:


I keia huliau ke nalowale nei ka nohona i ka wa kahiko ua hala ke kualau e kinai ai i na pua o Kalaupapa …


In this period of change and transition, the lifestyle of old is slipping away the sea showers have passed and have quenched the flowers of Kalaupapa …


Mai na Pali uluwehi i ka ‘ehu o ke kai Ko ‘oukou mau leo e mau ai He makana ia kakou, he mau pua mae ‘ole …


From the lush, verdant cliffs to the misty sea spray Your voices will forever live These never-fading flowers are a gift to us all …


Stephen Inglis’ and Dennis Kamakahi’s CD, Waimaka Helelei, won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Slack Key Album of the Year in May 2012.