Skip to main content

Keepers of the Flame

Kīhei de Silva

Eddie Kamae’s "Keepers of the Flame" premiered on October 27 at the Hawai‘i Theatre as part of the 25th Louis Vuitton Hawai‘i International Film Festival where it received the Hawaiian Airlines Audience Choice Award as best documentary. Kamae’s eighth project in his Hawaiian Legacy Series serves to commemorate—through still-photos, film clips, interviews, and voice-over narration—the lives of Mary Kawena Pukui, ‘Iolani Luahine, and Edith Kanaka‘ole, three women "who, perhaps more than any other 20th century figures, helped to revive the flame of traditional Hawaiian culture."

Like the seven legacy films that precede it, "Keepers" is a resource of considerable value, especially for a people whose culture heroes are so frequently marginalized and misrepresented by the western media. Kamae worries about young Hawaiians who tend to follow "what is going on today" and have little interest in the old. His work can be characterized as a subtle but unrelenting counter-revolution of "we need to remember." We need to remember the often unsung, post-overthrow keepers of our culture; we need to know them, whenever possible, on a Tūtū, ‘Anakē, and ‘Anakala basis. Their names ought to be on the tips of our tongues, their voices and faces readily accessible to memory’s ear and mind’s eye. Kamae has consistently provided us with knowledge of this sort—with a personal, "come, honi Tūtū-man Li‘a" understanding of kua‘āina geniuses, recidivist kūpuna, family members we’ve never met, and old kolohe-comrades that Papa could tell us about if only Papa were still here to tell it.

"Keepers" is about three awe-inspiring but still very honi-able women, about Tūtū and the Aunties. Here, says Eddie, is Tūtū Kawena who defied her critics and gave us back our language, chant, and dance—come honi her. Here, he says, is Aunty ‘Io who defied a century of stereotypes, grabbed the world by the ears, and made it view hula with respect, with awe—come honi her. And here, he says, is Aunty Edith who exemplifies the pu‘uwai kila that stands at the core of aloha; hers is the ‘ohana that does not yield, generation after generation, to the outside world—come honi her.

Ma ka ihu nō e kama‘āina ai—It is by the nose, the honi, that we will know each other. "Keepers" does this. In its best moments, it is a passing-on of life’s breath. It is a record of heroic, kua‘āina lives told by daughters and intimates who, in the interim, have themselves become Tūtūs, Aunties, and Uncles. "Keeper’s," therefore, is a hedge against that day in the not-too-distant future when all our first-hand sources have passed away. When our children and grandchildren need to connect with Kawena and ‘Iolani and Edith, this honi will be waiting.


  • The grainy, still-photo face of Kawena Pukui’s maternal grandmother Nali‘ipo‘aimoku. This is the woman who took Kawena in hānai and raised her as punahele—as the child selected by her family to become the living repository of its traditional knowledge. We can see "Po‘ai" lurking in the bone structure of Kawena’s own face; the grandmother’s intensity, resolve, and patience are all there in the granddaughter, unchanged, immutable.
  • The Ka‘upena Wong interview segment in which he summarizes Kawena’s influence on ‘Iolani Luahine: "She saved ‘Iolani for all of us." It was Kawena who, in the 1940s, completed ‘Iolani’s education in the dance tradition of Keahi Luahine and steered her away from what had been a career in comic hula.
  • The rarely-seen footage of ‘Iolani in a variety of dance settings, both staged and live. These clips provide us with an opportunity to catalog the qualities of her dance style: the raised eyebrows and extraordinary range of facial expressions, the slightly down-slanting upper-arms, the variable/imprecise/almost-impromptu arm-hand placement, the upright posture and minimal upper-body movement, the finger-rolls and flexes, and the proclivity to rise up on the balls of her feet.
  • The rarely-seen footage of a serene Patience Namaka Bacon dancing "Kalaniana‘ole," in simple top and lā‘ī skirt, to Kawena’s ho‘opa‘a accompaniment. The contrast in styles between Patience and ‘Iolani is very instructive. Both are rooted in Keahi Luahine, but ‘Io brings considerable drama and personal interpretation to what is, essentially, a tradition of understated hula. Patience illustrates; ‘Io becomes.
  • The in-depth interview of Aunty Edith Kanaka‘ole that originally appeared in Bob Barker’s old PBS series "Pau Hana Years." The segment serves as an important reminder of the essence of Aunty Edith’s personality. He keu ‘o ia a ka wahine ‘olu‘olu—she was the epitome of graciousness.
  • The rarely-seen footage of Pua and Nālani Kanaka‘ole—in their wā u‘i—dancing a serene "Ho‘opuka" to their mother’s ho‘opa‘a accompaniment; the equally rare and disarming footage of baby Kekuhi dancing a hula ‘ili‘ili while her tūtū keeps time on the ipu. Both clips reveal the strength and warmth of the bonds that hold this family together. Both clips, when compared to much later footage of Hālau o Kekuhi at Halema‘uma‘u, also suggest an evolution of style that parallels, in some respects, the Patience-‘Iolani contrast detailed above. The hula at Halema‘uma‘u is extraordinarily intense, physical, expressive, and absorbed—the vibe is considerably more "‘Io" than in the earlier, family hula footage.

Not So High Lights:

  • Our ‘ōlelo makuahine is not always comfortable in the mouth of the film’s narrator, Elisse Dulce. Listening to her, as a consequence, is not always a comfortable experience. I have often thought that kumu Sarah ‘Ilialoha Keahi (formerly Quick) would make a wonderful narrator for projects of this sort.
  • The modern, pahu-drumming-at-sunset footage with which the documentary opens and closes is quite removed, both in rhythm and arm-hand technique, from that of the premier keeper and transmitter of traditional, Kaua‘i drumming styles: Mary Kawena Pukui. Kawena’s own drumming and chanting of "‘Ūlei Pahu i ka Moku"—as filmed by Huapala Mader—might have been a better choice, particularly because it is, by contrast, so devoid of contemporary fervor and flash.
  • Kamae’s writers—Lisa Altieri and Robert Pennybacker—might have researched their material more thoroughly. We are told, for example, that all three flame-keepers were taken from us "in their prime." This is not consistent with accounts of Kawena’s "advanced age and fragile health" as discussed in other biographical pieces by Eleanor Williamson. We are also told that Kawena, unlike other kūpuna who took their knowledge with them to the grave, "gave us everything she knew." This is not consistent with the text restrictions noted in Kawena’s contribution to Hula: Historical Perspectives, nor is it consistent with Aunty Pat Namaka Bacon’s discussion, in other venues, of family dances that will not be passed on because no one today can understand their context.

Things to Ponder:

  • One early section of narrative and interview describes the damaging stereotypes of "vaudevillian" hula against which Pukui and Luahine battled. Unfortunately the archival movie-clip sequence that accompanies this commentary includes a very traditional solo performance by Joseph ‘Īlālā‘ole, one of Pukui’s teachers and a steel-hearted keeper, himself, of the ancient flame. Uncle ‘Ī’s presence in the vaudeville sequence serves as an alarming example of how inept we’ve become at recognizing traditional hula: we assume that this man’s odd little dance can’t be authentic because it doesn’t look at all like Lupenui, Eselu, Wilson, Ka‘imikaua, or Cazimero.
  • Viewers of the documentary might not be aware of the interpretative nature of ‘Iolani Luahine’s hula pahu performances with Tom Hiona. She and Hiona had been taught these versions of "Kaulīlua" and "A Ko‘olau Au" by Keaka Kanahele and Eleanor Hiram. Neither teacher was happy with the footage because: "Tom and ‘Iolani had not performed [the dances] exactly as Keaka and Eleanor had taught them . . . Keaka and Eleanor did not approve of new or changed versions of old hula, especially from people they had taught" (Kaeppler, Hula Pahu Vol. 1, 45–46). A perspective of this sort is vital to a careful definition of ‘Iolani’s role as "high-priestess of hula." She was able to combine knowledge and art in a way that can never be duplicated—and in a way that did not always please the earlier keepers of traditional dance.
  • Somewhere past the half-way point in the hour-long documentary, Boone Morrison tries to lay it on the line for us: Kawena, he says, gave us the language, Edith gave us the dance and the hālau, and ‘Iolani gave us the magic. This makes for a great sound-bite and holds a fair measure of truth (especially with regard to Pukui), but it also raises a hackle or two of dissent from the recipients of other hālau traditions and magics. "Keepers" is laced with talking-head memories and assessments of this sort. Some are compelling; others are a bit wobbly. The most effective comments are voiced by those closest to the honorees (by Patience Bacon, Ka‘upena Wong, Pua Kanahele, Kekuhi Kanahele, and Hoakalei Kamau‘u); the least convincing are delivered, in sometimes scripted fashion, by those whose connections are more peripheral. Little, on the one hand, could be more quietly powerful than Aunty Pat Namaka Bacon’s description of Kawena’s response to being cursed over the phone for daring to compile a Hawaiian dictionary: "If I don’t, then your mo‘opuna and mine will not know anything." Coline Aiu, on the other hand, is somewhat out of her depth as the film’s recurring advocate of Kawena’s contributions to the survival of Hawaiian language. Kalena Silva might have been a more credible choice, as (again) would Sarah ‘Ilialoha Keahi—both are kumu hula in the Maiki line; both, in addition, are highly respected teachers of the language.

Mana‘o Panina (Closing Thoughts)

Mai kuhihewa mai ‘oe: he waiwai nui ‘o "Keepers of the Flame," he kilohana nō e pa‘a ai. Make no mistake: "Keepers of the Flame" is a work of great value, a treasure to which—after reviewing highlights, lowlights, and ponderables—we cannot help but hold fast. The reason, of course, is the integrity of Eddie Kamae himself. We trust his vision and its underlying truth.

Born in 1927, Eddie Kamae is only a few years shy of 80. He has eight documentaries under his belt and at least three more in the works: "Lahaina," "Feeding the Soul," and "My Teachers and Me." When he introduces "Keepers of the Flame," at the Hawai‘i Theatre, he explains his work simply and humbly: "I have it in front of me, and that’s what I do every day. Sometimes it starts at four in the morning, and it lasts until whenever. When I start talking to myself, I get my ‘ukulele and I sing."

When he talks about his films and the people who inspire them, the years he already carries so well fall away in deference to the buoyant intensity of his commitment. And when gets his ‘ukulele and sings for us the songs that his teachers taught him, or sent him to find, or composed with him ("Mauna Kea," "Komo Mai," "Ke Ala a ka Jeep") . . . well, those years are burned away by a flame that is every bit as bright as the three flames he honors in his current film.

He, too, is a keeper—make no mistake about it.