My husband and I went to several holiday parties this year and perhaps the most heartfelt took place in early December, at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco.
We were invited to the J-Town hui’s annual holiday show and potluck. The hui (Hawaiian for a club or association) was made up of students in the music and vocal classes led by a beloved and longtime Hawaiian music teacher in the city named Carlton Ka’ala Carmack. There were ukeleles, hula performances, and mountains of delicious food. As the island saying goes, it was real ono!
Ka’ala grew up on Oahu and performed in a play written by John Dominis Holt, whose 1964 essay “On Being Hawaiian” helped spark the Hawaiian Renaissance movement. Also known as Dee, Ka’ala moved to San Francisco in 1978 and played a key role in educating a new generation of students in the Bay Area on the subtleties of Hawaiian music.
An ethno-musicologist who speaks six languages and a gifted singer and musician, Ka’ala’s done everything from serving as an artist-in-residence for the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University to teaching a pilot course in Pacific Islander Studies at San Francisco State University.
For more than a decade, Ka’ala directed the J-Town Hui, a well-loved ukulele and vocal ensemble based out of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JNCCNC) where he teaches ukulele classes and a course called “Hawaiian Expressive Singing.”
I got to know Ka’ala when he very kindly agreed to play some of Queen Lili’uokalani’s songs at a gathering for the launch of my book, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, earlier this year.
After that, we did a number of events together – including appearing on KQED’s Forum show with Michael Krasny, the Foothill College Authors Series in Silicon Valley for Pacific Islander month, and as keynoters at this year’s Hawaii Book and Music Festival in May.
If you’d like to hear Ka’ala, he composed and performed the music for the recently released documentary, “Towards Living Pono,” produced by the award-winning filmmaker, Rick Bacigalupi. (Pono is a Hawaiian word with many meanings, including goodness, uprightness, morality.) You can also watch him perform Queen Lili’uokalani’s Aloha Oe here.
Patrick Makuakane, the hulu kumu of San Francisco’s well known Na Lei Hulu troupe was also at the party to pay his respects to Ka’ala. He was one of a large number of people who waited in line to greet and thank him.
The afternoon of ukulele playing, hula dancing, singing, and a lot of hugging was made even more poignant because it was also a goodbye party for Ka’ala, who is taking a job teaching chorus, voice, and an introduction to Hawaiian music at the Windward Community College on Oahu starting this spring.
Hau’oli Lānui (happy holidays in Hawaiian) and aloha, Ka’ala. See you soon in the islands!