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Hawaiian wisdom from the late Charles Ka‘upu

By Staff | Oct 20, 2011

Charles Ka‘upu at the Celebration of the Arts. Photo by Norm Bezane.

KAPALUA – Clifford Nae’ole, cultural advisor to the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua and the chief planner over 15 Celebration of the Arts programs that have increased understanding of Hawaiian culture, once said Hawaiians want newcomers to understand “who we are and what we have become.”

But what would Charles Ka’upu – Clifford’s mentor, best known as a kumu hula (hula teacher) and presider over Old Lahaina Luau – have said?

Responding to e-mailed questions about his friend who passed away in July, the busy Mr. Nae’ole wrote, “I believe that Charles would have agreed that to better understand and appreciate this place, you need to know the people first.”

Clifford began to get close to Charles when a group of dads that had children in the Hawaiian language immersion school wanted to get involved and learn more about the culture.

“We decided that learning hula might be a good step (pardon the pun) to begin. Hence came the involvement of Kumu Hula Kelii Taua and Kumu Hula Charles Ka’upu,” he noted.

More of Nae’ole’s e-mail says as much about Clifford as it does Charles, and the ideas are well worth capturing in print.

Q. What did hula bring to you? Clifford: “From the hula, studying the language became easier; the chant (oli) was introduced. The spirituality of Hawaiians became more evident, and then the doors opened in the sense of understanding our people.”

Q. What were the three most important things Charles taught you? Clifford: “The intricacies of hula… the power of oli… the ability to look around yourself and realize the accomplishments of our ancient people and how they can be used in our contemporary times.”

Q. What do you remember about his involvement in Celebration of the Arts? Clifford: “Charles had a magical way with words, coupled with emotions. He could speak and draw a crowd to tears (including himself)… or he could lecture and spark a flame of controversy…. Christianity in comparison to Hawaiian spirituality was one of his favorite topics. They were one in the same: the acknowledgment of a creator, the honor of our ancestors, the magic of prayer.”

Q. What was his view of the ancestral beliefs of Hawaiians? Clifford: “Ancestor worship was HUGE in kumu’s view. (Highly respected kumu are often addressed as kumu rather than by their first names). He would talk to his ancestors every day in prayer. Sometimes he would break out in a smile that evolved out of nowhere, because he had just received a ‘message’ from them, and he appreciated their lessons. His family is involved with the Episcopalian Church, and his uncle is a pastor on Oahu. He would always say, ‘Pule (pray). You need to pule.'”

Q. What kind of kumu was he? Clifford: “He was extremely strict in his protocol for hula. I can always remember him saying (yelling at times), ‘Don’t change the dance!’ He could do it all… from gathering flora… to weaving… creating his instruments… and of course his powerful voice and oli brought it all to a crescendo. (To be continued.)