Honoring Hawaiian Heritage at Maui’s Celebration of the Arts

Before you read this post, check out my article about the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.

It takes a heck of a lot to get me out of bed at 5 a.m. Forget wake-up calls — I practically need a fire alarm to nudge me out of Slumberland. A morning person I am not.

So imagine my reaction when I learned that the very first item on my Maui press trip itinerary was “E ala e,” a traditional ceremony held at the crack of dawn to awaken the sun and rejuvenate the spirit. Translation: we would be diving into the chilly Pacific at some ungodly hour while chanting ritualistically. Not part of my usual coffee and bagels routine, admittedly, but this was a privilege that is rarely afforded to non-native Hawaiians. It was a true once-in-a-lifetime honor. What choice did I have but to get my bed-bound booty up?

Iokepa Nae’ole, a renowned spiritual guru and Hawaiian historian, guided us through this “sanctified” journey, as we prepared for the opening of the 19th Celebration of the Arts, an annual festival bringing together Hawaiian artisans, cultural practitioners, speakers, and entertainers for two days of classes, discussions, and performances. Clifford Nae'ole, in-house cultural advisor for the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, is the force behind this amazing affair and can be seen hopping from event to event in his relentless effort to educate and inspire.

As it turns out, the “dip at dawn” was my favorite part of the whole festival. There’s something both ridiculously surreal and amazing about forty-something people silently running into the Pacific Ocean. (And, for some reason, we all were running, though it wasn’t required or even suggested.) It was a virtual group baptism — a literal start to a brand new day. A fresh beginning.

Damp and rejuvenated, we gathered together and chanted in Hawaiian for 30 minutes. It took me a while to get the hang of the native tongue but I’m guessing it translated to “Hand me a latte.” Regardless of the meaning, it was rhythmic and relaxing. After years of trying to master meditation, I can now say that I finally get it (sorta). That made the early rise worth my while.

The rest of the Celebration schedule was fairly flexible. With multiple events staggered throughout the weekend, I was able to mosey around and explore the resort’s vast grounds and the endless cultural opportunities.

That same morning, I managed to carve out a cozy little nook for myself in the jam-packed lobby, where I would observe “Wehe ka ipuka,” or Hawaiian chants of genealogies and origins, which officially kicked off the opening ceremony. Native performers of every age danced and sang their way through the doors of the Ritz-Carlton. Grass skirts and colorful flowers graced happy, twirling little girls, while big burly men with bare chests slapped their thighs and grunted with enthusiasm.

Later, I toured the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton and admired a treasure trove of native craftwork, from paintings to sculptures to intricate quilts. Here, guests could attend various workshops with individual artists to learn traditional skills and create their very own keepsake. I, on the other hand, decided to try my hands — and more importantly, hips — at hula dancing.

I made my way to the expansive lawn overlooking the golf course to join the already-in-session Hularobics class, led by the surprisingly snarky dance instructor Lopaka Keali’kanake’ole. Apparently, Lopaka doesn’t believe in the concept of “fashionably late.” (He also chided me for wearing my sunglasses and told me I was trying too hard to be sexy. Um, hello?! This is Maui!)

Desperately seeking shade, I returned to the lobby, where I sipped a Mai Tai and enjoyed the sounds of hula music performed with “sass and class” by senior citizens off nearby Lahaina. There’s something super obnoxious about calling 80-year-olds adorable, but, honestly, the way those little old ladies were shaking their artificial hips was nothing short of precious. (Were they trying too hard, Lopaka?)

After hanging with the old-timers, I was yearning for a little child’s play. So I joined an audience of youngsters for “E Na Aumakua,” a unique, avant-garde blacklight puppet show. It was colorful, kitschy, and kept the kiddies’ attention. What’s more, it kept mine.

The grand finale was an outrageous feast for the senses in the indoor-outdoor Aloha Garden Ballroom. We ate some amazing cuisine (we also ate poi — ahem), while listening to renowned singers and watching talented dancers. The drinks were flowing and the vibe was infectious. It was a celebration worthy of the Celebration, and I soaked up the joy and passion Hawaiians feel for their history and culture. I was surrounded by the inspiring aloha spirit: Maybe I would even wake up early again the next morning to meditate on the beach… Then again, maybe not.

Visit http://www.celebrationofthearts.org/ for more information regarding the 2011 event and the upcoming 2012 Celebration.