New Hawaiian storyteller
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor
Sometimes, he wonders what would happen if a modern-day man angered a shark 'aumakua a guardian spirit or family god. Sometimes he wonders what would happen if Pele took a new lover, or pined for an old one.
One day, marooned in a hotel room in Germany while his wife, Moanalani, gave hula workshops, Beamer sat down at his iBook and began to write a story about a Hawaiian musician who buys a boat he calls My Beautiful Puka as in "a hole in the water into which you pour money." When Moana heard the name of the story, she thought it was about something else and he almost spent the night in "my beautiful doghouse" but that's another story.
Beamer, 51, was full of such jokes and laughter as he sat for an interview on the seaside deck at Kimo's in Lahaina Monday, just before heading over to O'ahu for his book launch and a concert tonight with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.
His first collection of short stories, "The Shimmering: Ka 'Olili, Island Stories," was released Tuesday. That's a new endeavor for a man known primarily as a musician but one he comes by honestly. "My family has a whole bunch of stories," he said. "It's genetic with me."
"My Beautiful Puka" was certainly not a story his Tutu Louise Beamer would have told more like something some kolohe (rascally) uncle would relate after too many Heinekens on the lanai.
The poor musician in the story, who has a bar tab longer than his song list, thinks a boat will be his ticket out of debt. Then disaster strikes in a most hilarious way. (Is the story autobiographical? Well, the author's note at the end does read "I will never ever buy another boat" 20 times.)
Side-splitting though it is, "Puka" does bear a trace of the element that distinguishes Beamer's work: a juxtaposition of traditional ideas with contemporary, old mythology with modern-day sensibilities. In this case, the would-be boatman is guided (misguided?) by his "inner menehune" unfortunately, the little guy appears to have had too many Heinekens, too.
In contrast, the title story, "Ka 'Olili," is the mature product of Beamer's literary artistry, a piece so chicken-skin that his mother educator, chanter, writer and cultural practitioner Auntie Nona Beamer wasn't quite sure it wasn't a little sacrilegious. It tells of a haole volcanologist who is transformed into Kamapua'a, the snuffling, sexy pig lover of Pele.
In it, the volcano goddess doesn't disdain to use modern technology for her own ends, sending the one she desires messages that appear mysteriously on his computer, calling him to her with pahu beats in hula kahiko rhythm delivered via a seismograph.
The fact that Pele's lover is a foreigner is a small homage to the non-Hawaiians Beamer has known who have become first ma'a (understanding) of the culture, and then pa'a (stuck) to it. "They aren't one of us, but it's as if they had been in another life," he said.
In this, "Ka 'Olili" is a story that goes right to many of the ideas that swirl around Keola Beamer's life. Can ancient mythology and cosmology mix with contemporary life? Should traditional arts stay strictly traditional? What is the relevance of Hawaiian thinking today? Is it OK for non-Hawaiians to be part of Hawaiian things?
Beamer is firmly in the "living culture" camp. "As a Hawaiian, I am not a museum piece," says Beamer, with just a touch of heat. "I'm a living, breathing human being."
He reveres his slack-key mentors. But he doesn't want to play the same things they did all his life.
"A living culture has to continue to create," he said. With respect, yes. Giving credit always, yes. But pushing forward, yes, yes.
It is partly for this reason that Beamer jotted down an author's note after each story, designed to place the material in context, particularly in the case of those that draw on Hawaiian 'oli (chant) and mo'olelo (story).
Furthermore, Beamer has seen what almost happened when slack key practitioners were so secretive about their art that it almost died out. The father-to-son tradition had to open up to bring others into the 'ohana, and some non-Hawaiians played important roles.
Beamer, of course, is descended from an impressive line of composers, singers, songwriters and kumu hula. He is a member of the core group of musicians that birthed contemporary Hawaiian music. He is an acknowledged master of slack key guitar and a respected teacher. He has been a theatrical producer and consultant. And he is the creator of an online slack key instruction series.
But he never was a writer of prose before and still isn't sure he is one now, though he jokes that several days spent signing advance copies of his book and hauling boxes of books around should perhaps qualify him for the title.
"Ka 'Olili," he says, is "my attempt to bring Hawaiian storytelling into the 21st century."
Beamer himself is very much of the day. "You gotta be a computer geek now to be in the music business," said Beamer, who has a Web site (www.kbeamer.com) and his own recording company, 'Ohe Studios. "If somebody would take away my DSL, I would freak."
But that, he said, is just his right foot. His left foot is plunged deep into the dark and rich lo'i (taro pond) waters of the traditional ways.
He lives, he says, the 'aumakua life, connected to something larger, other, something that guides, and sometimes takes over
"When you talk to Hawaiian musicians and ask where a song came from, they will often say, 'It just came through me.' They connected to something outside of themselves, the spiritual ether that envelopes the Earth."
So it was for him in writing these stories; when the characters began to ha (breathe), Beamer at first thought he was going a little crazy, but then realized that the experience was familiar. He had felt the same in composing music.