Melody and place connect in the same ways our other senses connect us to our memories. The synchronicity of sense, time and mind always baffles me despite the amount of time I spend trying to understand the phenomena. When I speak of melody and memory, it triggers moments of place which is why listening to He Aloha Mele stirs longing to leak from my eyes.
For the past year, my wife and daughters and I moved to the Big Island of Hawai’i. Not to live a carefree vacation (we’re entirely too poor for that) but to live life with more aloha in a place of natural beauty. We did life – work, school, paid bills – while soaking in the expanse of Pacific blue in the shadow of Mauna Hualalai. Ancient black lava formed the aina and the soft ocean breeze would drift toward the mauna and touch our skin. Palms danced overhead, mongoose scurried between buildings and the sunsets exploded in a metamorphosis of color no painter could replicate.
The girls signed up for hula lessons, learning the sacred moves of the kanaka. Moves of a gentle, spiritual sway where the hands told the story, sweeping and waving to talk story with each movement signifying a deeper resonance with the past and the people.
On one of our weekends before the world turned off, we drove south along the coast to the southernmost region of the United States. South Point gets crushed by strong winds that blow toward the sea where local fisherman send out their lines, using trash bags as sails, to try for ahi or the revered ulua. All the while, tourists come to jump off the 40-foot cliffs into deep water, annoying these same fishermen.
We had no intention of jumping but sought to discover more of the island. After a two-hour drive from Kona, we knew we had to stop at Punalu’u Bake Shop. You didn’t drive to South Point without stopping at ‘the southernmost bakery’ in the country. In fact, this ‘southernmost’ marketing is a selling point for everything.
We walked in to the busy bake shop, sampled some taro sweet bread and bought malasadas. In the front, the bakery had seating in a patio with some gazebos and café style tables where mostly tourists ate their Hawai’ian treats. Tucked in the corner, a local musician played his acoustic guitar through a tinny PA and sang popular Hawai’ian songs passed down from generation or made famous by Hawai’ian artists like Israel Kamakawiwoʻole or Don Ho. His bucket already filled with green bills and change. Under the gazebo, we ate silently and listened.
I’d never heard He Aloha Mele or its author Iva Kinimaka before but, when this old busker strummed and sang the melody, it captured me in the same way the island did. Despite the strains and demands of life, the song and island breathed aloha and peace and a desire for simplicity often in conflict with the colonisation and imposition of the mainland. The title means “A Love Song” and though sung to a woman, the melody sings to the island as well. As it played, my girls stood up and did an impromptu hula based on the moves they had been learning. The old busker noticed and asked them to come up to the front but they smiled and stayed back, swaying and dancing sheepishly yet reveling in the attention. When we finished, I gave a couple dollars to drop in the bucket of the old man and threw a thank you shaka his way.
Hawai’i remains in the past now as we return to life in California where fires rip through the state, race riots and protests become common place and masks have become the newest accessory. Sometimes, as I make my coffee in the morning, I’ll search on my phone and find a version of He Aloha Mele on Apple Music or YouTube. As the ukele picks its melody and the smooth voice sings those first lines, the synchronicity of sense, time and memory transports me under the gazebo or on the cliffs or sitting under the stars and hearing the roar and song of the sea against the sea wall. My own waves of fond memories ebbing with a sense of loss of a time and the taste of lilikoi malasadas.
Stereo Story #543