The Oli Master
story by Lynn Cook
photo by Steve Brinkman
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.
Charles continued to grow into his role as a cultural avatar. In the course of performing as a chanter and narrator for the Old Lahaina Lu¯‘au (which he still does), Ka‘upu met Barry Flanagan of the award-winning Hawaiian musical group Hapa. He became the chanting voice on all of the Hapa CDs and then created one of his own, Ke Aka. Powerful and haunting, it is often heard on Island radio stations; in keeping with Charles’ vision of his role as a teacher, the CD comes with a booklet of mo‘olelo, stories, and English translations of each Hawaiian chant.
As part of Hapa, and as a chanter, hula teacher and cultural specialist, Ka‘upu has traveled from Maui to a dozen U.S. states, Japan, Tahiti and to Washington, D.C., to bless the groundbreaking of the now-completed National Museum of the American Indian. The members of his hula ha¯lau join him in cultural presentations. For eleven years, Ka‘upu has also served as master of ceremonies for the E Hula Mau hula competition in Long Beach, California. He has judged dozens of hula competitions from Japan to Washington state. He has served as a consultant to hotels and businesses and is now the official cultural advisor for the Ka¯‘anapali Resort. He gently says he can only advise. But he says it with the strength of conviction and the knowledge of generations.
Talking of sharing the intimate culture of the Islands with newcomers and visitors, Ka‘upu says, “There are always those who don’t see, or won’t seeI mean, stupid is stupid, no matter what color. But there are also those who long to learn. If I don’t teach, I have failed my teachers.” So he teaches and he shares.
And he continues to learn himself. Like many cultural practitioners in the Islands today, Ka‘upu feels a strong connection to Tahiti, the birthplace of so much of Polynesian tradition. Traveling to the Marquesas to participate in the blessing of voyaging canoes, Ka‘upu had an experience that to this day mystifies him. “We flew in early. The ocean was reflecting the sky’s orange, pink and gold. It was like a blessing. Cultural liaisons met us. We stopped to pick ferns and lehua.” He describes how the group gathered by the road for a pule. “The moment we began to chant our prayer, rain began to fall from a totally clear blue sky. Then three white birds circled over us. The eyes of our drivers were big as saucers!” When the chant stopped, the rain stopped.
The group traveled on to the place where the canoes would be launched. The air was still; it looked like the canoes would have to be towed out. Ka‘upu and his dancers began what he calls “wind chants.” “We were chanting for a really long time. Native birds began to glide above us, first two or three, then dozens and soon hundreds. The villagers came out. They were in awe, watching nature respond to our plea.” A breeze came up, and the canoes were able to sail; later, Ka‘upu found out that a sudden windstorm took place on his home island of Maui at the exact time he was chanting.
These days, Ka‘upu says, he is on a personal spiritual journey, and his travels and teaching are part of that experience. He sits with elders and siblings, talking into the early hours of the morning about the images in his dreams. He pauses, then says, “We need to understand who we are as native people and as humans, both in the Hawaiian way and in the way of all people. Once we are there, at that place of true understanding, we can move forward, collectively, to benefit all.” HH