Hula offers a powerful lesson about journalism

By Jon Funabiki

Another confession: My wife and I are infatuated with Hawaiian music and hula. At its heart, hula is about storytelling. Through dance, chants and music, performers can tell stories about anything from the courtship between two lovers to the epic myth of the creation of the Hawaiian islands at the beginning of time. And the best performers do it with an almost spiritual reverence to their history, culture and traditions.

One of the most popular local groups is Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, the San Francisco-based halau (school) that draws sold-out crowds. When Patrick Makuakāne founded the school in 1985, he helped to popularize interest in Hawaiian culture on the mainland.

Big surprise: This year’s annual concert at the Palace of Fine Arts was inspired by an audacious campaign to rescue the history and culture captured in Hawaii’s ethnic newspapers. It’s a rich legacy: More than 100 Hawaiian language newspapers were published between 1834 and 1948, covering everything from music and the monarchy to government and gossip. Recognizing that paper inevitably deteriorates into dust, historians faced the need to digitize hundreds of thousands of pages of old newspapers. While many of these pages already have been electronically scanned, the text is not searchable, which makes it difficult for researchers to explore and catalog.

The solution: volunteer typists. Leaders of the ‘Ike Kū’oko’a (Liberating Knowledge) initiative asked people to type—yes, I said type—the pages into computers. Volunteers responded from around the world. They got access to scanned images of newspaper pages via the Internet, and they just typed the stories into their computers. Incredibly, many of the volunteers could not read the Hawaiian language. They just typed, one letter at a time. The finished stories were uploaded into the archives, and then reviewers checked the stories for accuracy. The archives have been opened to the public via the Internet.

High schools, church groups and, yes, hula schools joined the campaign. In fact, the members of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu won the prize for copying more pages—241—than any other halau in the world. Then Makuakāne and his students choreographed dances inspired by what they had read in the newspapers. One segment was called “Kalapu Jazz,” was based on advertisements for a music band comprised of blind musicians. Another, “He Kanikau Aloha No Ka Haku,” was a haunting lament, or chant, for a loved one who had died. It brought people in the audience to tears. And, of course, there was “He Mele Nūpepa,” a newspaper song, with the dancers fanning newspapers as they swirled around the stage.

I think this story offers a big lesson about the role of culture and the power of passion in our lives. Makuakāne and his talented performers don’t do hula just because they enjoy dancing and music. They do it because it brings Hawaii’s rich culture and traditions to life, and because it gives them a sense of connection to Hawaii and to one another.

In the same way, ethnic newspapers played a powerful role in the development of local communities on Hawaii’s islands. Newspapers not only became vehicles for sharing news and ideas, but also culture and knowledge. They helped to shape community identity and voice. Even today, as we move from newspapers to digital media, there is a continuing role for ethnic news outlets, as seen in the growth of media catering to Latino, Asian and other cultural groups in San Francisco and throughout the United States.

Memories of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu’s performance came to me recently while I participated in a rich dialogue about philanthropy’s need to stimulate robust and productive forms of civic engagement. It was sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based group, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE). Even though people today have a flood of new gadgets, channels and digital ways to get information, we were concerned that people aren’t devoting enough time to the kinds of thoughtful deliberations that are needed to address the pressing issues of the day. A report prepared for the conference drew an important distinction between “thick” forms of civic engagement – such as town halls or moderated online conversations over an issue – and “thin” activities – such as Facebook “likes” or quick, online polls. “Thick” engagement may lead to greater insights, but attract only small numbers of people. “Thin” engagement, on the other hand, my reach millions, but only for fleeting moments.

In today’s technology-driven times, it’s alluring to believe that a silver bullet will come in the form of a new iPhone ap, PlayStation game or Google-like data mash-up. I like all these things (well, actually, I prefer Androids over iPhones). And some of these tools are helping us to reinvent journalism, which is exciting.

But in the rush to find solutions, it’s important to remember that technology in itself is not a fix, especially if it fails to take into account the powerful role that shared history, culture and passion play in our lives. Hula thrives in the 21st century because it springs from the natural heartbeat of a community. Media especially thrives when it resonates with what it is naturally and organically forming in community, even when the people are spread out all over the globe, like hula dancers and ukulele players are today. That strumming you hear is the sound of passion.

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