Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Songs of the Ancestors

Story by Julia Steele. Photo by PF Bentley.

Kalama Fallau grew up drawing: scenes from New Year’s festivals in Chinatown, pictures out of books, creatures of his own design. He married young, and soon after, when his wife, Eri, presented him with a soapstone carving kit, he made the jump from 2-D artist to 3-D, whittling a hammer-head shark with a pocketknife and a small file. Next he made a small ki‘i, a sculpture, this one of a god. A family elder gave him a set of chisels and taught him to work with wood. Fallau was studying lua, too—Hawaiian martial arts—and he fused the disciplines and sculpted traditional weapons, including lei o manō, hand clubs ringed with shark teeth. He aspired to make the Polynesian weapon he admired most—the mere pounamu, a razor-sharp Māori club—and when the chance came to study with a master in Aotearoa (New Zealand), Fallau made several clubs, including a final one for himself he named Te Kaha in honor of his teacher.

It was in Aotearoa that Fallau discovered a book on traditional Māori musical instruments: taonga puoro, or singing treasures. He became part of the movement to bring them back. Now working expertly with stone, bone and wood, Fallau has made taonga puoro for venerated Hawaiian artists including Uncle Sam Ka‘ai. He carries his own—a pūtōrino, or flute—and has played it across the archipelago, calling from it both male and female voices.

As his carving life has evolved, Fallau has come to realize that far more than the physical works themselves, what is important to him is the history that the works hold. “The long thread of stories and knowledge is the true treasure,” he says. “The piece is the vehicle.” To always keep that knowledge close, he wears five ounces of pounamu, or greenstone, around his neck, carved into the image of the god of the sea, Tangaroa, inspecting a fishhook. It inspires him to create the finest work as it reminds him that in earlier times the most beautiful hooks were not made to catch fish—rather, they were hung in the sea to delight Tangaroa.