Living in the Land of Lono
by Jake Rohrer, July 5, 2017
The rain moves in ghostly horizontal sheets that march out of step across the landscape. Propelled by tradewinds gusting at 40 mph, curtains of water float across the terrain, bending and weaving in translucent forms that behave something like an earthbound aurora borealis. Out in the channels between the Islands there are storm warnings: 30 foot seas with winds gusting to 55 knots. No matter where your paradise, an angry weather pattern will find it now and then. Here in Haiku, four days of relentless wind and rain have pushed the rainfall up and under windward roof shingles, where gravity and the nature of water have combined to produce a leak. Small rivulets slink uninvited down the wall and mess with things that are of no concern to water.
A brief lull in the weather, together with a ladder and a tar bucket, helps to bring the leak to an end. Still the wind blows the ladder over, trapping me on the roof, but I was wise to this trick. My wife is nearby to set things upright. Roofing tar should come with a legislated warning. It doesn’t matter how careful you may be, the tar will get you. Open the lid and stand away. It will come out of the can of its own accord and get on your clothes, tattoo your skin. Spooning the black goo from a bucket with a spatula in high winds guarantees a mess of epic proportions, but my back is to the wind and I am wearing clothes from a previous encounter, creating only a manageable mess.
Up in front by the neighborhood mailboxes (ours is the one with the duck on top), ripe and not-so-ripe mangoes cover the ground under the aged and battered mango tree. Gently sloping toward the sea, the ground is scattered with windblown eucalyptus debris. Down in the gulch things look a little better. Protected from the assault of the wind, the papayas and bananas have done well. The ground is soggy and feels a little like pudding underfoot. Lei flowers and vegetable patches need some attention. Close inspection reveals armies of hideous little bugs on the chili peppers, some forming communities on the citrus. The wife will set out non-toxic baits she has assembled and the bugs will have no more a chance than peasants armed with rakes taking on a battery of tanks. One bunch of bananas is showing yellow, in need of harvest before the rats and birds have their way with each ripening finger of fruit.
Here’s a lesson in banana harvest: first, make sure the bunch you’re after is attached to the trunk you’re about to cut down (you can be fooled in a banana forest). Then, with your Brazilian banana knife, cut a notch in the stalk as high up as you can. If it's a big stalk, grab a ladder; the higher the better. Similar to falling a tree, the notch will determine the direction of the fall, assuming an upright stalk. If it's leaning, cut your notch consistent with the direction of the lean. The stalks give only one bunch before they die off. Banana stalks are mostly pillars of water. Some grow to 20 feet or more and can be thicker than a running back’s thigh and weigh as much as a well nourished lineman. After notched, a hanging leaf attached to the upper part of the stalk comes in handy; pull gently until it starts to move in the desired direction. If it doesn’t come, cut your notch a little deeper, but go easy. Try to bring everything down slowly enough so that the weighty stalk doesn't crush nearby vegetation and the fruit doesn’t slam into the ground, getting bruised and scattered. If the wife's around, position her where she can support the bunch as it makes its way down. Don’t tell her about the rat that’s nesting in there. It’s best that she learn of the rat after she’s helped to keep the bananas from crashing into the ground. When the bunch is at chest level the rat hops out and scurries away through the undergrowth, coming my way and not looking back to see the stunned look on my wife's face. Thankfully, she doesn't scream. Finally, harvest the banana bunch with a deft swing of your blade across the stem that holds the bunch to the stalk, then cut the stalk into 18-inch sections and split them into mulch for the next generation (bananas are self-propagating). You are, of course, wearing your banana clothes? Banana water splashes everywhere as you hack away. It looks harmless enough, but it’s really a cousin to roofing tar and will leave permanent stains on whatever you happen to be wearing. Don't worry about that sturdy banana spider that's hitched a ride on your shoulder; he won't hurt you, he's just creepy. Bananas are a lot of work, but here's the reward: many think the apple bananas that grow in Haiku are among the best bananas in the world.
Back on top, out of the gulch, I see that mud puddles have formed in the driveway where the sometimes forgetful occupant-caretaker neglected to secure a load of gravel before the change of season. Makahiki. Here it is again already. This is the time of year when the benevolent god, Lono, sits in for the war god, Ku, and during which time the Hawaiians celebrate four months of peace and feasting before the return of Ku sends them back to war. Traditional Hawaiians celebrate Makahiki like it was Thanksgiving. Imagine holiday-style feasts going on for four months, then wonder no more why there seems to be so many large Hawaiians.
* * *
Not much happens around here without some sort of spiritual attachment and attaching herself to the spirits is my wife, Laurie, also known as “Lolly” (my own bastardization of the Hawaiian translation for Laurie: Lauli). I picture her among few haoles (people lacking “ha,” the spiritual breath of life, mostly white people) who have so successfully immersed themselves into Hawaiian culture, language, song, and history with learned understanding. For her it is both a passion and a place to direct her great store of energy which, all gods know, needs to be channeled into things that occupy her love and intellect.
Early on I remember her clumping down our hallway, sounding like Ahab stumping around on the Pequod. She was sporting a cast on her left lower extremity where she suffered a fracture of the fibula in a fall as a volunteer worker at Kukuipuka, a newly rediscovered Hawaiian heiau (temple). Her friend and kumu (teacher), Lei’ohu Ryder, found the heiau and championed it in song, spiritual archeology, and restoration. Just Laurie’s ticket. A little rain, a muddy slope, and—I insist—lack of proper footwear, all teamed up to cause this foreseeable and mechanical event. Not so, said Laurie. “It was a message from the gods. A reminder to slow down.”
If a broken leg is a “reminder,” I wonder what might be in store for those who fail to be reminded. But I detected a new openness in my wife, an acceptance of those things inexplicable, a nod in favor of a spiritual world. And I saw the influence of Lei’ohu, an intelligent and talented woman of Hawaiian ancestry who believes—sincerely believes—that song and direction are channeled to her from the spirits of her kupuna, her late elders. A unique but not unprecedented claim. The Reverend Gary Davis said he never wrote any of the songs credited to him; those songs were revealed to him by a higher power. The great Hank Williams said, simply, “People don't write music. It's given to them.”
A school teacher by profession, Lei`ohu is the first to admit that these can be troublesome beliefs. Nonetheless, she is steadfast in her interpretation of her personal experience, and it’s not hard for me to understand Laurie’s acceptance of the unconventional. To hear Lei`ohu talk of her spirit-experiences is to listen with rapt attention. To hear her sing is to wonder at the strength and confidence embodied in her lovely, clear soprano. According to Lei`ohu, her songs come to her through her departed kupuna, flowing melody and Hawaiian lyric inexplicably coming to her fully formed. And for each, she is able to recite exactly where and when it happened. Untrained as a musician or singer, her natural musical abilities speak volumes for that Hawaiian “thing” found in so many Hawaiians who take to music like a duck to water.
I was similarly untrained, lacking laurels and professional accolades as a recording engineer and producer of music, all of no apparent concern to Lei`ohu. She knew of my love of music, that I had the rudimentary beginnings of a recording studio, and the once-magic initials—CCR—on my resume, though that association had nothing to do with the technical end of music production. After bringing my wife home with her broken leg, she enthusiastically proposed, “Let's make a record!” Over the next 15 years or so, we would make a half-dozen of them. [Here I might add that the best of those were enhanced by the fine and inventive guitar playing of AVA's Jeff Costello, who one day found his way into my studio as though guided by wizardry.]
* * *
In a remarkable—maybe clairvoyant—job of packing, Laurie brought from our home in California a high-tech orthopedic device, a removable cast for her leg.
“How did you know it would be the left one?” I asked.
“Don’t be silly,” she says. “There is no left or right to these things.”
“I suppose one size fits all?”
“Of course not. I was fitted for this when I broke my foot.”
“Oh yeah. I remember. I guess one never knows when they may run afoul of the gods (snicker) and be subjected to orthopedic retribution.”
The doctor was surprised that a patient would bring their own state-of-the-art cast to the clinic. Apparently, such apparatus didn’t exist on this island at the time. Laurie looked at him with pleading eyes: please, oh please, Mr. Orthopedist, I promise I’ll be a good girl. Honest. Might I wear this rather than have my leg encased in fiberglass? The doctor was impressed with the device, but warned: “…okay, but don’t let this be an excuse for over-activity. This leg needs rest in order to heal.”
Those who know her know that inactivity doesn’t rest well with my wife. Right away she's fussing with her plants, harvesting mangoes and citrus, watering things, making pies, stumping around with her crutches, poking here and there, seeing to chicken issues, attending new classes under the tutelage of celebrated kumu, singer and songwriter, Uluwehi Guerrero, whom she met through Lei`ohu. Two days later she wants to go into the gulch to harvest lychee, pick some lei flowers. I forbid it.
“Too steep, too slippery. It’s been raining for days, you know. Do you remember how this happened in the first place?”
She relents, pouting only a little. Under her breath, “...it was the gods, not the landscape.”
Lolly can’t stand more than, say, a day and a half of rain. And that’s pushing it. Sun can be found somewhere on this island, don’t you know?
She hobbles to the shoreline on her crutches and leaves them on the sand at the water’s edge. A one-leg hop and flop! She moves into the water feet first, scrootching forward while seated on her butt, the broken leg conveniently uncased and held aloft until she’s floating, turning to swim free with the delicate leg gingerly trailing while the other kicks, slightly. The folks at “Baby Beach”—so-called for its protective reef and calm waters—haven’t seen such an odd performance since two ladies in the final stages of pregnancy danced naked on the sand, celebrating the full glory of their condition.
I waited for Laurie to attempt a launch of Kai Makika (“Sea Mosquito”), her ocean-going kayak, but I suppose she knows that I know that even she knows that that’s just a little too adventurous until she is healed. Months later, when launched for a foray among visiting humpback whales, a mano kilakila (huge shark) surfaced right behind her when she was still a half-mile from shore. She heard the water run off its back and turned to see the immense fish, imposing in its size—larger than her kayak—its mouth filled with frightful teeth and “ … right on my ass!” The shark, a tiger said Laurie, lazily followed her for what doubtless felt like an eternity, its nose never far from her stern. Aided by her Hawaiian gods, she managed to not huli (turn over), aware that frantic and adrenalin-fueled paddling might tip the kayak's delicate center of balance. Also aware she couldn't outdistance the sleek predator no matter how energetic her efforts. Two companions in a single kayak, initially a hundred yards off, were alerted by shouts from Laurie and spotted the dorsal fin following behind her. They bravely paddled their way to her to add their presence, hopefully to be seen as threat rather than menu choices. The shark submerged in a graceful, unhurried dive under the arriving kayak, disappearing into the clear west Maui waters, and wasn't seen again.
Laurie reported the incident to a Department of Land and Natural Resources official whose opinion of the encounter was curiosity on the part of the shark, noting there was no aggressive behavior. Both agreed that she had been privileged to experience this singular and uncommon meeting. Lolly later suggested that the passive shark may have been hand-picked by the gods, someone's aumakua (family guardian-god) on loan for the occasion, sentiments likely enhanced by virtue of dry land underfoot.
* * *
I spent my first year on Maui, or most of it, building a garage, shop, and a cottage unit I was pretty sure would be needed for my mother (it was). That, and some rehabilitation to our home. I spent a lot of the second year feeling my way at how to make a living in this foreign land. Enter my brother, Robbin, always eager to give me a hand. He wondered if I could make a radio commercial for his travel business. Of course I could, couldn't I? I had a multi-track cassette recorder and a single decent microphone. Laurie and I created a substantial listener awareness for him. Business had never been better. Our commercials were built around a musical ditty, anything from rock & roll to island slack-key. Laurie would sing the lyric and tag while I did the voice-over. Ukulele, a little percussion, and a few guitar parts provided the backup. We knew we were a hit when the Rolling Stones played in Honolulu and half of Maui flew to Oahu for the event, most of them buying tickets from my brother’s travel business.
Then I got the idea that I could do ads in a talking-blues style, a la Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. Lack of an acceptable singing voice invites another approach, so I talked the whole spiel over a simple guitar lick. Then, just before Laurie came in at the end to sing the tag, I drawled, “…we’ll let the haole girl sing it.” An instant hit with lots of feedback. Everyone wanted to know about the “haole girl.” Who is she, anyway? We did a series of talking-blues radio spots, clever little stories to be told in 60-seconds, most with a cameo appearance by the haole girl. Pretty soon people were listening for our commercials in serial fashion, anxiously awaiting the next chapter. Laurie achieved an underground celebrity status, even though there are those who equate the “h-word” to the “n-word” as racist. I've never met a Hawaiian who considers haole derogatory unless preceded by some form of the “f-word.”
From these humble beginnings we developed a recording studio capable of commercial recordings and started our own label. Laurie's passion for Hawaiian music and culture resulted a string of local artists who came into our studio to make their recordings to be released and distributed on our label. When it comes to Hawaiian music, she is unsurpassed as a talent scout. On occasion she came home barely able to contain her excitement: “You've got to come to the airport with me and hear Pueo Pata!” who was performing there for arriving tourists. Not long afterward he won a prestigious Hawaiian falsetto contest that included a recording contract with a competing Honolulu label. “So much for having him record here,” said Lolly, happy for Pueo but heartbroken. To our great surprise and delight, he eschewed the contract invitation he had won and came to start his recording career with us, Lolly's great love and respect for Hawaiian music and culture, I think, key to his decision.
“Ata Damasco's a part of the lineup at the MACC (Maui Arts & Cultural Center) tonight! He's the most Hawaiian Hawaiian I've ever heard!” said Lolly, urging me to come along. I wondered where his shoes were as I watched him cross the stage barefoot. All of our artists are special in their own way. When Ata was born, the gods reached down and gave him a gift of music that he would wield like Achilles would his sword. Similarly, Ata also had a vulnerability, a social failing that resulted in multiple incarcerations, several of which seemed to coincide with our CD projects. Following the completion of his first CD, Lolly and I were shocked to read in the local paper that Ata was set to be sentenced on theft charges for his part in stealing two baby pigs from a local rancher. A year and a half later, I somehow arranged to have him released to my custody on a work furlough program during which we recorded his second CD. The furlough program required that he have no contact whatsoever with other felons. Escaping any thoughts of perjury, I signed the guardian-custody agreement, assuming I was personally exempt from the no-felons requirement. I didn't ask, but neither did they.
All but finished with his third CD, Ata managed to commit a parole violation and was again locked up. I made a plea to the warden: I needed Ata for just 3 or 4 hours in the studio and a photo opportunity for graphics in order to complete the project. A week later the prison van with Ata and a guard pulled up in front of the studio. We weren't allowed to remove his prison ID bracelet for the photo-shoot, so Lolly wove a traditional ti-leaf bracelet to cover the prison ID. For many local people, including the guard and warden, Ata was a local celebrity and accorded certain benefits.
During his next period of freedom, we recorded the beginnings of his fourth CD, 14 songs with just Ata singing and accompanying himself with guitar, ukulele or keyboard. Then, as though a requirement for each of our projects, another parole violation occurred. His crimes never involved violence. I think his biggest problem stemmed from a refusal to follow rules laid down by occupying haoles who had stolen the Kingdom of Hawaii from his people. But the judge was angry and erased time previously served. Now he would be shipped off to Arizona to be imprisoned for five years. The recordings we had made were considered rough tracks, intended to serve as guides and foundations. Vocals would be done in earnest after the underlying tracks were finished. A couple of years later, I began toying with the idea of finishing the project without Ata, using what I had, constructing various arrangements to cover any glaring defects. I enlisted Liz and Joni, a talented local duo I recorded as Ahumanu (a gathering of birds), to serve as musicians and harmony singers. Pueo and Kaiolohia Smith, a wonderfully skilled singer and musician from Hana, would also lend their talents. We did what we could do, as best we could do it. It was good enough to win Ata a Na Hoku-hanohanoaward, Hawaiian music's highest tribute. Laurie appeared for Ata at the awards ceremony, promising the audience Ata would be back soon.
At the end of our first year as a label, our three initial releases were in local radio's top 10 CDs of the year, Pueo's E Ho`i Na Wai in the number one spot. Lei`ohu's “Lady of the Mountain” was number four and Ata's first Hawaiian gospel CD “From the Valley to the Throne” was number seven. How sweet it was. In a 15-year period we released 20 commercial CDs on our label and made many more for other musicians, once even hosting the celebrated Willy Nelson, until the cruel and relentless march of technology resulted in the loss of the retail CD market as it once existed. Nonetheless, many of our CDs today continue to have modest sales through the tourist market and internet. In the meantime we managed to make a living doing what we enjoyed most.
* * *
The weather pattern has changed as it always does and I'm traversing the slope into the gulch under sunny skies. I am of course wearing my proper footwear, on my way to harvest papaya and check on the general condition of things, musing about Laurie and her broken leg. A smug chortle escapes my lips as I recall her extravagant contention about “…a message from the gods,” and I am wondering if the zeal with which she has immersed herself into Hawaiian cultural and spiritual teachings hasn’t overtly affected my extremely bright wife. One needs only to keep their eyes open and exercise common diligence. Gravity, not gods, is the key factor in a fall.
I near the bottom of the incline at a leisurely pace and stop to survey a stand of bananas. Quick as a light, immeasurable, my feet and legs are airborne, zipping up over my head as though caught in a snare. There is a momentary halt in time and a split-second, dizzying blur as the panorama whizzes by. For a few nano-seconds I am conscious of weightlessness, of helplessness. My back hits the ground with a sickening thud! as though I’d fallen from a great height. There is a soft whoosh! as air leaves my lungs. I find myself stretched out, flat on my back, looking straight up into a cobalt blue sky. The silence is eerie. I take stock of my condition, gasping a bit as air returned to my chest. Then, from way off, a distant and sourceless voice feeds into my consciousness— somewhere from some unseen, unimagined corridor, a maze without end, someone wants to know of me: “… you scoff?”
Then laughter deep from the belly, some belly other than mine.