Article: Hula, The Door to the Heart...


Ray Whisperer by Phil Roberts

The Door to the Heart of the People

“One turns from the study of old genealogies, myths, and traditions of the Hawaiians with a hungry despair at finding in them means so small for picturing the people themselves, their human interests and passions …”

“… but when it comes to the hula and the whole train of feelings and sentiments that made their entrances and exits in the halau (the hall of the hula) one perceives that in this he has found the door to the heart of the people.”

“So intimate and of so simple confidence are the revelations the people make of themselves in their songs and prattlings that when one undertakes to report what he has heard and to translate into the terms of modern speech what he has received in confidence, as it were, he almost blushes, as if he had been guilty of spying on Adam and Eve in their nuptial bower.”

“Alas, if one could but muffle his speech with the unconscious lisp of infancy, or veil and tone his picture to correspond to the perspective of antiquity, he might feel at least that, like Watteau, he had dealt worthily, if not truly, with that ideal age which we ever think of as the world’s garden period.”

“For an account of the first hula we may look to the story of Pele. On one occasion that goddess begged her sisters to dance and sing before her, but they all excused themselves, saying they did not know the art.”

“At that moment in came little Hiiaka, the youngest and the favorite. Unknown to her sisters, the little maiden had practised the dance under the tuition of her friend, the beautiful but ill-fated Hopoe.”

“When banteringly invited to dance, to the surprise of all, Hiiaka modestly complied. The wave-beaten sand-beach was her floor, the open air her hall; Feet and hands and swaying form kept time to her improvisation:”

“Look, Puna is a dance in the wind;

The palm groves of Kea-au shaken. Haena and the woman Hopoe dance and sing On the beach Nana-huki, A dance of purest delight, Down by the sea Nana-huki.”

“The most telling record of a people’s intimate life is the record which it unconsciously makes in its songs. This record which the Hawaiian people have left of themselves is full and specific.”

“When, therefore, we ask what emotions stirred the heart of the old-time Hawaiian as he approached the great themes of life and death, of ambition and jealousy, of sexual passion, of romantic love, of conjugal love, and parental love …”

“… what his attitude toward nature and the dread forces of earthquake and storm, and the mysteries of spirit and the hereafter, we shall find our answer in the songs and prayers and recitations of the hula.”

“The hula, it is true, has been unfortunate in the mode and manner of its introduction to us moderns.”

“An institution of divine, that is, religious, origin, the hula in modern times has wandered so far and fallen so low that foreign and critical esteem has come to associate it with the riotous and passionate ebullitions of Polynesian kings and the amorous posturing of their voluptuaries.”

“We must make a just distinction, however, between the gestures and bodily contortions presented by the men and women, the actors in the hula, and their uttered words. ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’”

“In truth, the actors in the hula no longer suit the action to the word.”

“The utterance harks back to the golden age; the gesture is trumped up by the passion of the hour, or dictated by the master of the hula, to whom the real meaning of the old bards is ofttimes a sealed casket.”

“Whatever indelicacy attaches in modern times to some of the gestures and contortions of the hula dancers, the old-time hula songs in large measure were untainted with grossness.”

“If there ever were a Polynesian Arcadia, and if it were possible for true reports of the doings and sayings of the Polynesians to reach us from that happy land …”

“… reports of their joys and sorrows, their love-makings and their jealousies, their family spats and reconciliations, their worship of beauty and of the gods and goddesses who walked in the garden of beauty …”

“… we may say, I think, that such a report would be in substantial agreement with the report that is here offered; but, if one’s virtue will not endure the love-making of Arcadia, let him banish the myth from his imagination and hue to a convent or a nunnery.” (All here is from Nathaniel Bright Emerson, a son of missionaries.)

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