He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

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Chanting with Waves

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Pololū, Kohala, Hawaiʻi

For PASI 301

I once met a man who chanted with waves.

Words s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, vowels e-l-o-o-n-g-a-t-e-d, chanted s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y.

He was not in control of the timing, nor of time itself. The waves were. Thus, his breaths mimicked the rhythm of the ocean, which on that day, were smooth, slow, and steady.

He had not always been this way, of course. In fact, history had stripped his tongue of the taste of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the language his ancestors spoke, making the chant feel foreign in his mouth. He struggled with the words, rolled them around, chewing on them, all the while frustrated at what should have been his since birth, but wasn’t.

When I spoke to him years later, he recalled being led to the shoreline. His teacher pointed to a stone. “Here,” he was told, “stand here.” Nervously, he did as his teacher instructed, steadying his bare feet on the hard, black surface beneath him, eyes fixed on the ocean.

He would rather have eaten stones. But here, he was made to swallow the sea.

Now chant.

Each line had to follow a wave, a single wave, as it moved toward the shore. He was told that he could not complete a line until the water hit the sand. Thus, the once small and simple chant was drawn out, slowed down, made to match the tempo of the waves, the tune of the sea, the flow of his Pacific. There was no rushing the process for there could be no rushing when it came to remembering who and what he was.

It was hard at first, as hard as the stubborn stone he stood upon. But slowly, s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, memorization and recitation gave way to internalization, to feeling the chant, to knowing it, and tapping into an ancestral rhythm that was always there, yes, there, just beneath the surface.

He had learned to chant with the ocean.

His story always comes back to me, much like the incessant waves that beat upon the shore and return, time and time again, no matter how many times they are sent away. It washes over me. Unlike him, however, I grew up chanting the chants of my ancestors, grew up dancing their dances too. I never knew the discomfort he felt, never experienced how the ancestral could feel foreign in the mouth and in the body.

And yet, he had seemed to capture something I’ve been trying my entire life to grasp: the ocean.

As one of my intellectual ancestors, Epeli Hauʻofa, once said, the ocean is “the inescapable fact of our lives” (p. 405). She is always there, always present, always impacting: hitting us when we need to be hit, soothing us when we need to be soothed, and rocking us gently when we need both compassion and reality.

And while many of us “lack the conscious awareness” of the ocean, she never turns away from us or hides away, irritated at our ignorance (p. 405). Rather, she waits because “The potentials [of the sea] are enormous, exciting—as they have always been” (p. 405).

When he said he chanted with waves, that’s when I learned, truly learned, what Epeli had been saying all along: The ocean is in us. Our words, our chants, and our actions are not meant to merely mimic the waves or to follow the sea. They are meant to remind us of the ocean that exists within, of our own fluidity, or as my intellectual hero, Teresia Teaiwa, once said, of the salt water we cry and sweat. Yes, the ocean is in us. Thus, to tap into that fluid and always expanding nature within is to chant, dance, write, stomp, rage, cry, and sing with the waves, never against them (never against ourselves).

Yesterday his story returned to me once again as I said goodbye to a group of students who I have shared the last twelve weeks with. I will not say that I “taught” them. Rather, I will honor the fact that we taught each other, and that we learned and grew together. As we moved around the classroom, listening to each student share their personal reflections, stories, and highlights from the term, I felt like that man, standing on the shoreline, chanting with the waves.

You see these students had become my waves, my ocean.

Over the past 3 months, I’ve watched them rise like the tide to fill spaces that had once been left empty in their own lives, and then to tread in their wholeness, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes passionately. I watched them emerge—struggling at times, as we all do—but emerge nonetheless. Yesterday, they spoke of voice, of passion, of confidence, of pride, of responsibility, of ancestral wisdom, of dreams, of hope, of love. “Love,” one of them said, “is a political act!”

What more could I have asked for?

They had embraced love as a social force, a force for change. They had hopes for freedom, not just politically, and not just for themselves. They knew that if they stared too intently at the stones they stood upon as individuals that they would miss the pull, the draw, and the tune of the ocean. So, they embraced it. They embraced it as part of themselves.

It was liberating.

For it was not just the Pacific that had been liberated, but it was the ocean within them that had been freed. 

Freed to flow.

And it did flow: smoothly, s-l-o-w-l-y, steadily. They created waves and they became waves, beating against my heart, soothing and rocking my soul. They made me want to move and chant with them. They shared their dreams and hopes for our Pacific, and in time, I settled into their rhythm, and their dreams and hopes became my own, for them, for all of us.

As I left the classroom, I carried hope, like the man who chanted with waves, an internal, beautiful, and radical hope for the future. And although I cannot see or predict that future, I know we will create it together: me, my waves, and our Oceania.

References:

Hauʻofa, E. (1998). The ocean in us. The Contemporary Pacific, 10(2), 391-410.

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Author: emalani

I write, read, dance, and study stories that span the Pacific. From my island home in Hawaiʻi, to the shores of Tahiti, to the mountains of Aotearoa, I travel over ancient pathways, sharing stories along the way.

10 thoughts on “Chanting with Waves

  1. Beautiful and rhythmic.

  2. How beautiful! Thanks Emalani for this 🙂

  3. As always, I am moved by your words.

  4. Malo Emalani, I am blessed to have you as my lecture and mentor. All the best with your future role at University of Hawai’i. At least, you will be close with your ancestors, family — & eating unlimited island food.

    I have learnt so much from you in both PASI201,PASI202. Thanks for sharing your ‘poto’ and your huge passion of Pacific studies with us – hope we cross paths in the future!

    perez!

  5. Learned to chant with waves in the late 80’s at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau under the guidance of Keli’i Taua and the late Charles Kaupu. This was in preparation for the ceremonies precluding the felling of the koa tree that would become the outrigger sailing canoe “Mauloa”. From time to time, will chant in this manner as a way to meditate, and open the door between the then and the now…

    • Beautiful!! The man who shared his story with me also took part in building that beautiful waʻa, Mauloa. Mahalo for sharing your experiences here and for reminding us of the meditative and spiritual powers of chanting. Aloha.

  6. Poetic & meaningful, interesting in your comparing and symbolism. Moving, like the ocean. for things that are maybe less lost than some think. Mahalo

  7. I am moved by everything you have explained about chanting and being connected with our ancestors through nature. I fully agree that we are in tuned with our history through nature, the ocean, the forest also through our chants and dances that explain the cultural beauty of our ‘āina.

  8. such a great meaning and comparison of how we connect to our culture and our ancestors. i love how this explains so much of our Hawaiian chanting.

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