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Willie K: ‘Let’s get that canoe into the water!’

By Staff | Dec 17, 2009

The sun sets to frame the canoe Mo‘olele.

LAHAINA — “Are there any Willie K fans out there?” From his weekly gig at Mulligan’s on the Blue to the First Annual Gathering of the Voyagers on Dec. 5, the question posed by Willie Kahaialii is always the same. The crowd always answers with cheers. 

At the gathering at Kamehameha Iki Park, Willie played for two hours, strumming the usual “Molokai Woman,” an energized “Winter Wonderland” and singing a mesmerizing “Oh Holy Night.”

The very busy, highly talented entertainment icon (“Beyond the Beach,” April 16 issue) is much more than a music man, however. At the last Whale Fest, Willie told a packed audience: “I am out to save the world.” Read on…

Willie grew up living in a kind of shack near a mango tree (one of the subjects of the many songs he has written). For years he played for what could be called a pittance. Today, with good paydays, he no longer has to worry about money and chooses to give many performances for free to benefit good causes. 

He played on a cold, cold night at a festival for Women Helping Women. This fall, he sponsored his sixth annual Willie K Charity Golf Tournament, luring in celebrities he knows to play to help cancer victims.

Three years ago, Willie was named president of Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua (Assembly of the Double-Hulled Canoe), a group formed way back in 1993 to build the Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani, a 62-foot voyaging canoe. Now, Willie is also a man with a mission. 

He said he wants to bring better understanding of Hawaiian culture and its rich heritage to both Hawaiians and newcomers. He even wants to bring this knowledge to the rest of the planet through his international appearances. One of the means: the canoe.

Eons ago, Tahitian sailors guided by the stars journeyed all the way to Hawaii in double-hulled canoes. To show that two-way voyages celebrated in Hawaiian oral traditions could be done without instruments, The Polynesian Voyaging Society — made up of people from throughout Hawaii and elsewhere — built the Hokule‘a and sailed it from Honolua Bay to Tahiti and back.

Molokai’s Penny Rawlins — who, like many Hawaiians, was never given a Hawaiian name, because years ago this was not the fashion — crewed on Hokule‘a. She also took the stage at the Lahaina concert to benefit the hui and regards the voyage as a life-changing event for her.

“When the Hawaiians sailed into the harbor at the end of their spiritual journey,” she told this columnist, “we were greeted by 15,000 people (on the shoreline). The first words we heard were, ‘Welcome home.’ ” 

Descendants of Polynesians in Hawaii had returned from whence they came.

Penny Rawlins Martin has been teaching Hawaiian culture since that journey. 

“The canoe is like an island,” she said she realized. “You have to learn to live together and make the most of your resources. You have limited water. The canoe is like magic. My mission is to teach the culture and the environment. I teach about trees, streams, forests and the land. Kids love learning about it. They are interested in all aspects of the culture.”

Lahaina’s canoe is a replica of the Hokule‘a. To Willie, building and sailing it is a way to restore Hawaiian culture to its rightful place. Three years ago, with the canoe far from completion after more than a decade of delays, Willie stepped in to provide focus and used his considerable influence to get things done.

“This canoe is for all of Maui County — not just for Hawaiians but for everybody,” Willie told the audience. “We all are trying really hard. We are just trying to make everyone in Maui aware. I do this (concert) for free. I donate my time just to make sure this happens. To me, this is one of the most important charities to be for.”

Willie went on: “You can say, ‘Willie, that was a good show.’ But will you do your part? Get involved. If you don’t, ladies and gentlemen, I guarantee to you when this canoe hits that water, everybody will come out. But if you help, you will truly be a part of it.

“Don’t be scared (to participate) We have people from Oakland to New York City cleaning up this place (Kamehameha Iki Park, where the canoe is being built). Very few come from (our community). Now you have been here, so you have no excuses because you know.

“As president of this hui, I say thank you very much for all of your help.” Then back to the music. As the last applause faded, one guest said, “It’s been a long time since we came together like this as a community.”

The spirit is there. Let’s work to get that canoe into the water. To donate time or money — hiring skilled craftsmen and purchasing materials is costly — contact Myrna Ah Hee at 667-4050 or e-mail hhuiowaakaulua@hawaii.rr.com.

(In answer to inquiries, the new book “Voices of Maui” based on these columns will debut early next year. It seems that self publishing a book is a lot more complicated than anticipated.)