Guest Blogger: Carol Yotsuda on Puakea Nogelmeier
Editor’s note: Guest blogger Carol Yotsuda recaps the third performance of E Kanikapila Kakou on Kauai. In its 27th year, the Hawaiian music program is held Monday evenings through March. The gatherings are conducted in the style of backyard musical jam sessions for which Hawaii is known, with many bringing their own ukulele to strum along and hula dancers stepping up to share their gifts. This year’s theme is “The Stories behind the Songs.” The February 1st event featured award-winning composer and Hawaiian language specialist Puakea Nogelmeier. He was accompanied by Lolena Niau Nicholas and Hau'oli Akaka.
OMG….that song is sung by Raiatea! Wow! That is on the Kupaoa album! That’s a hit song by Keali’i! Amy Hanaiali’i sings that song! All evening long these comments came up as Puakea went down his check list of songs he wanted to share at EKK. If he had gotten to the bottom of that list, we would have been there until sunrise…or at least out on the lagoon with the nene birds.
It took persistence to finally get Puakea to EKK. He kept declining … he says he writes in perfect pitch but may sing off key; he finally accepted when I told him he could bring someone else. He showed up with his “dream team.” Harmonizing with Puakea were Lolena Niau Nicholas, his longtime colleague, and Hau’oli Akaka, whose lively side commentary added much flavor to the stories.
Puakea started with two compositions for Kaua’i – a welcome ‘oli and “Lei Mokihana,” a hello-to-Kaua’i song that speaks of the intense beauty of the Mokihana berry that can leave burns on your skin for six months.
Serious songwriters may have felt a bit daunted by Puakea’s description of how he writes a song…a kumu hula shows up asking for a song, he walks to the other side of the room and pantomimes writing on his open palm and makes sounds like, “Du…du…dudu…” which means he is jotting down some words on a piece of paper and in minute-and-a-half he hands over a song…which ends up being a hit. No Fair! He’s either paid his dues early on or was standing in the line labeled “brilliant” when the talents were being doled out.
Puakea admits that with no television, his bar for entertainment is very low. His observation of the natural world around him feeds his entertainment needs and these experiences translate into songs such as the “Toad Song,” which was made famous by Keali’i Reichel and also won first place for Chinky Mahoe’s men in the Merrie Monarch hula competition. The catchy low octave intro that Keali’i added to the song --Oom mama, Oom bebe, Oom Mama, Oom bebe…oom ma oom--became Puakea’s recording debut; he could hit those low notes.
Upon request from one of the participants, Puakea shared the story behind one of his monumental projects in which he translated the most remarkable and sensual grown up tales of the Pele/Hiiaka saga which were part of a newspaper series written in Hawaiian at the turn of the century. This resulted in two beautiful hard-bound books titled Hi’iakaikapoliopele – one in Hawaiian and one in English. “Pili O Ke Ao” recorded in exquisite harmony by Kupaoa is a song inspired by one of the passages in the book with the message, “don’t let the night end” even when the “Moa Kua Kai” or three chickens of the night are announcing the start of a new day. Those relentless chicken crowing concerts at 2:00 am, 4:00 am and sunrise that we all know so well on Kaua’i appears to be a chicken tradition since time immemorial and serves at the Hawaiian clock. Hereafter when I hear the first chicken crowing at 2:00 am, I won’t complain but will blast my boom box out to the jungle with the song “Pili O Ke Ao”. Kaua’i is undoubtedly the chicken capital of the world; Niumalu pasture where I live is the chicken capital of Kaua’i, so I know the 2:00/4:00/sunrise regimen all too well. Actually, the 2:00 shift tells me to get to bed.
The “Bum-bye” song written for his foster mother Ululani Kumukahi, mother of Ku’uipo Kumukahi of Hilo, was to prompt her out of her failing health at age 89. She refused to eat or drink for days, fearful of choking, no matter how much Puakea coaxed her with delicious food. She kept saying bum-bye or “latahz” so Puakea told her that bum-bye yesterday is today now and called her the “Queen of Bum-bye”. As he was leaving her hospital room, she called out, “Don’t forget your bum-bye song,” so he showed up the next day and sang her a song of metaphors of all the things she is to him. She laughed so hard, drank some water, ate some food, vacated the hospital the next day and lived to be 90 years old. “It was the music that did it,” concluded Puakea.
The “Coqui Frog” song or “Mele Koki,” which was taught to the ukulele group earlier, was written during his visit to Mrs. Kumukahi in Hilo where the delicate single sound of one coqui soon became the uncontrollable screech of car alarms when the minitature critters, 20,000 per square mile, joined together in cacophony. Puakea hopes that one day Roy Sakuma and his 500-kid ukulele band will play the Coqui Song in unison. Maybe they could all fly to Hilo and play the song there.
We ended as always with Lorenzo Lyon’s “Hawai’i Aloha” whose words “may the lyrical language of this land live forever” has served as a model for Puakea.
In 2006, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii named Carol Yotsuda a “Living Treasure” for her efforts in preserving the culture of Hawaii. Carol is the executive director of the Garden Island Arts Council, a volunteer position she’s held since 1998. She is also a retired teacher and artist. You can read Carol’s complete account of this event and see the 2010 E Kanikapila Kakou schedule at www.gardenislandarts.org.