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Charles Ka‘upu: A cultural icon passes

By Staff | Sep 15, 2011

Known for his chanting, Charles Kauai Ka‘upu Jr. was an esteemed Hawaiian cultural practitioner.

LAHAINA — On a beautiful late August Saturday morning, with waves pleasantly lapping to announce their arrival on the shore, a slight breeze wafting through, catamarans bobbing gently in the ocean, Maui and Hawaii commemorated in memorable manner a man who has done as much as anyone to celebrate Hawaiian culture.

Charles Kauai Ka’upu Jr. — revered cultural practitioner, master chanter, former cook and master of ceremonies for 22 years at Old Lahaina Luau, one of the founders of the Celebration of the Arts at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, one-time KPOA disc jockey known as “Bushman,” kumu hula who mentored dancers on Maui, Kauai, Japan and the Mainland — has long been on this columnist’s long list of prospective interview subjects.

Alas, he has joined a few others on the list whose voices have been stilled early. Once again, it is clear no one knows who will be here today and gone tomorrow, with things unsaid or questions unanswered.

An interview had long been postponed so that this columnist could get somewhat up-to-speed on Hawaiian culture in order to ask probing, informed questions. An interview almost took place this spring, but Charles was preparing to go off on another trip someplace.

At the Ritz, one of my first conversations with this imposing, large man years ago began with this question and a gesture to the heart: “Why would a guy from Chicago feel so passionate about Maui? Where does this come from?”

“Well,” Charles noted, “you have probably, in another life, been here once before.” A pleasant thought I have never forgotten.

On this Saturday, the majesty and spirituality of Hawaiians — and the feeling of those of us who admire Hawaiian culture but come from other places — was eloquently evident as we all sat or stood in silence, except for frequent chants in a broiling sun for 150 minutes as the tributes came forth.

Kupuna, Charles’ sisters, friends and workers all stepped to the Old Lahaina Luau stage in groups and individually to chant or come forward in silence to offer up ho’okupu.

Some 129 people by actual count, including Hawaiian brothers with shaved heads and bodies (a show of respect), some dressed in black with red, others in white or green, brought up ceremonial gifts in the form of chants or intricately woven forms of lei as a tribute and sign of respect.

Saturday evening, the people who knew him best and some who simply admired him came to celebrate a life that was full of teaching the culture.

Hokulani Holt of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, an active planner along with Charles of the Celebration of the Arts, said her close friend was always ready to teach the culture, to share. He taught the various hotels in Kaanapali and Wailea what it really means to be part of this land, the ocean, by the wind, by the rain and all that envelops us, she said.

Maui Visitors Bureau head Keli’i Brown, who made many Mainland trips with Charles to bring the Hawaiian cultural story to local travel writers, remembered when he heard of his passing that — strangely — he smiled and was actually happy.

Afflicted with asthma that sometimes took his breath away, Charles was no stranger to calling 911. He did so unsuccessfully for the last time on July 12.

In a previous near-death experience, according to Brown, Charles had already been to the other side. He was ready, and he said he was ready.

In a laugh-filled eulogy, a repeat of one she gave at services in Oahu, his sister, Ke’ala, recalled Charles the boy who always had to be cleaned up for, with the family not knowing what he would become in the future. Those who knew him, Ke’ala said, would know cleaning up for him was a horrendous task.

As an adult, Charles loved to cook, but he used every pot in the kitchen, she reported. Though quick-witted with a strong sense of humor to the point where

tears would run down his face, Charles was better known for his serious side. He wanted to teach where Hawaiians came from and would say the breath of the culture was in its language.

Charles loved hula, kahiko, the ancient kind, but Holt pointed out that he had a grand time doing auana (modern) as well.

Charles last words on his Facebook page were, “I am.” Today he rests at peace in Kaopala Bay.

Columnists Notebook: A future column will feature an interview with Clifford Nae’ole, the cultural advisor at the Ritz who was mentored by Charles.

Book news: The third edition of “Voices of Maui,” with the original columns plus new ones on cultural advisor Lori Sablas; entrepreneurs Bob Cartwright, Joan McKelvey and Wayno Cochran; County Councilwoman Gladys Baisa; and King Kamehameha, can now be purchased for a modest amount on Kindle. Computers with Kindle color capability will be able to see those profiled in glorious color for the first time in book form.