Kwan, Ke‘ala (on music, family, and Hawaiian language)
Keʻala Kwan grew up in Āliamanu and then moved out to Wai anae with his mother and two younger brothers. It was there that he became immersed in the Hawaiian culture of the day, learning from his great-grandmother the Hawaiian language and Hawaiian-style living. He is currently the head of the language department at Kamehameha Schools high school Kapālama campus.
Camille: Let’s start with where you grew up and where your family is from?
Keʻala: I grew in Āliamanu, near by here (Kamehameha Schools). At about middle school time we moved to Nānākuli. I grew up there from middle school time to graduation. My family is from Maui and the Big Island.
Camille: Is that your father’s side or your mom’s side?
Keʻala: My dad’s side is from Maui and my mom’s side is from Big Island.
Camille: They’re both Hawaiians?
Keʻala: Yeah. Part Hawaiians.
Camille: Did you grow up surfing or fishing?
Keʻala: Not surfing, interestingly enough. I remember friends in high school. if the surf’s up, they’re not there. Fishing, a little bit with the ohana.
Camille: What did you do in Nānākuli?
Keʻala: Oh, it was wonderful. I got to light fires, which I couldn’t do in Āliamanu. I’d burn the rubbish. Then there were pigs that my uncle them kept. It was a real big change from what I’d call the city life to the country life. I just loved it. We lived with my grandmother out there and they had ducks. Several times a year there was kalua pig so all of those things I got to experience. I probably wouldn’t have experienced them had I continued living in the city.
Camille: Did you guys have homestead land?
Keʻala: Yeah. If you talk to people who’ve lived out there a long time the major homestead area in Nānākuli, because there are several now, but off of Farrington Highway, turning on Nānākuli Avenue, there are intersecting streets. There are six of them and they each have a Hawaiian name, but the local folks just refer to them by number, first road, second road. I grew up on third road next to the fire station. It is actually called Manō Avenue or Mano since they don’t have a kahakō on it.
Camille: Did you grow up playing music?
Keʻala: Yeah, a little bit. Both my parents; I can still hear strings of Linda Dela Cruz records, Hawaiian music. My dad especially, but my mom would accompany him with the ukulele, as well as other members of the family. That was part of growing up too.
Camille: Is your dad the Leonard Keʻala Kwan who plays slack key?
Keʻala: Yeah. I’m Junior.
Camille: How was that, growing up with him?
Keʻala: It was nice. Besides slack key, he’s a real good upright bass player. That’s one of the memories I have in church. He’d sit up front, I guess, playing the upright bass. Sometimes I got to sit on the opposite side and put my ear against the body of the bass and just hear the strings resonating. He was a real talented, gifted musician.
Camille: Did he teach you?
Keʻala: Yeah he did, although what I’d call the formal teaching of slack key didn’t happen until I was a freshman in college. It’s a story I tell to the guitar classes here, encouraging them to learn now, the sooner, the better. I was going to the University of Hawai i and Mānoa and he lived on Isenberg, which is ma kai. A couple of times a week, on my ten-speed bike, I’d go down to his house. He was living at our ohana’s church, which is still there. He was real patient and olu olu in teaching me the basics and then taking it from there. He was someone who just got a lot of genes. He’s just so good at doing that. I don’t think I got as many of the genes. He was real patient in going over it. I mahalo him a lot. When I look back, he was always just calm; and the excitement from learning how to tune it maybe learning a song then he’d add at the next lesson, “Maybe you can try this now.” There’s a good feeling and appreciation because when people play stuff, I go, wow! Knowing what that takes.
Camille: How old were you when you first started learning?
Keʻala: I was about 18, a freshman in college.
Camille: From your dad?
Camille: Oh. Would he try to teach you when you were younger and you weren’t interested?
Keʻala: No, my parents were divorced so I think that was part of it.
Camille: You didn’t get to see him often enough?
Keʻala: Yeah. I remember he was going to school and working full-time too. I’m not sure, that wasn’t something he formally said, “Okay I’m going to start teaching you.” But later, in college, I think I approached him. Proximity, he was close by.
Camille: I see. Hence the ten-speed?
Keʻala: Yeah, right.
Camille: Where did you go to school?
Keʻala: I went to Nānākuli High and Intermediate School. I’m a golden hawk.
Camille: What year was that?
Keʻala: First graduating class, 1972.
Camille: What about elementary?
Keʻala: Āliamanu Elementary and then over to middle school. At the time it had already converted to Nānākuli High and Intermediate School, although we were the lead class. We were eighth graders, so we just kept moving up to being the first graduating class.
Camille: It was brand new when you got there?
Keʻala: Organizationally it had just converted. We were still at what is Nanaikapono Elementary School campus, the ma kai campus, which recently got a brand new campus ma uka now. We were there and we continued to be there; I take that back. I entered as a seventh grader so there was a class ahead of us, eighth graders, but after that they move on to high school. So, we moved up to eighth grade. I think ninth grade maybe we’re still there, tenth grade for sure. Across the street is known as Camp Andrews and we had an extended classroom, so there were portable classrooms set up. We were there up to tenth grade. The answers not clear cut. It was kind of old when I got there and then expanded a little bit. When we were juniors, we moved up into the valley to the brand new Nānākuli High and Intermediate School campus along with all the red dirt. Those are memories we have, going to the classrooms and the dirt powder is on your desk everywhere.
Camille: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Keʻala: I have two younger brothers.
Camille: What are their names?
Keʻala: Kenneth and Kevin-Lee.
Camille: What about being the oldest brother? Do you have any memories about helping them grow up?
Keʻala: Yeah I do. You know the other thing I was blessed with was our great-grandmother who lived with us for as far as I can remember.
Camille: Your great-grandmother?
Keʻala: Yeah. She’s the one I write about in Ka iwakīloumoku. I mahalo her a lot because her presents, her ano, her being, I think influenced me a lot along with my parents’ presents. But you asked about my brothers. Connected to her, she would tell me, “Remember now, you have to take care of your brothers.” That was just something that I’ve always carried as being the oldest, along with other things. We were all boys so we all learned how to cook rice, wash dishes, wash clothes.
Camille: No girls in the family?
Keʻala: No, no girls. We lived with my mom after the divorce so she was a single working parent, but we lived as typical of the times in . . .
Keʻala: Yeah, and I love that too because that grandma, I guess she’s actually a grandaunt. She was a typical Hawaiian lady. Other ohana would come and live with us for extended periods of time until they got on their feet. As a kid, that was nice because it meant sleeping on the floor with cousins. A lot of good memories.
Camille: Did she speak Hawaiian?
Keʻala: Yeah, my great-grandmother, she spoke broken English.
Camille: She was more comfortable with Hawaiian?
Keʻala: Yes. One of my personal stories is: I think it must have been in second grade. I was going to Āliamanu Elementary and I got a report card with a comment, saying something about how I wasn’t speaking English very well. This is naturally so because at home I was getting broken English. When you asked about fishing and stuff, through her ano I think I got a nice experience living Hawaiian. She always had a little garden. She always grew food like sweet potato and other things. She would always be out there. Very industrious, even when she was sick, she would wrap her throat with the cloth baby diaper and out she’d go, do her thing. She was a very strong individual.
Camille: Did she cook for you guys?
Keʻala: I don’t remember her cooking too much for us. Although later we get into family stories, I talk to my mom and my mom, she remembers ’cause my mom she was hānai’ed by what was her grandma. Anyway, this great-grandmother of mine and her husband, where they lived was sort of Hawaiians among Okinawans and other folks. They would always do the imu.
Camille: Everybody would come bring there stuff for the imu?
Camille: Where did they live when they did that?
Keʻala: They were in Pālama. It was sort of the condominiums of the time. That great-grandmother, along with my mother, now that I think about it, did ocean stuff. Not so much fishing with poles, but she would gather limu, loli, crab, all with their rice bag. I have memories of—what’s that called—Ka alāwai, out by Diamond Head just pass Cromwell. As a child we’d go there. She’d go out to gather things. She’d have her flowing mu u with maybe her squid box. I remember I was all fearful, there she’s going, but no, she’s really comfortable and just bringing back stuff.
Camille: You could walk out pretty far?
Keʻala: Somewhat, but she was swimming. She knew how to do all that kind of stuff. We got some kind of exposure to that. My mom always wanted us to learn more about that kind of stuff. She would say, “Go out with your uncle them.” I heard the story so much I wonder, did I really do it or did I just hear it, but she would also go to Nu uanu stream to gather ʻōpae. I may have gone once when I was a child, but you know, she’s getting older, less able to do those things, but a lot of good memories about her being there. As I got older, I would help to take her to the doctor. When she’d get her monthly social security check, I’d go buy the crab. I know how to keep the fishes fresh.
Camille: Is she full Hawaiian?
Keʻala: Yeah, as far as I know.
Camille: She wasn’t the one with the homestead land though, it was your grandmother?
Keʻala: Yeah, or grandaunt. Her niece as far as relationships go.
Camille: So you lived with her?
Keʻala: Yeah. Actually she lived with us and our family. She’s close to that ohana too because her brother is the dad to that grandmother we lived with. Most of them lived down that side too by that time.
Camille: Oh that’s good. So everybody could come over for parties?
Keʻala: Yeah, lū au type, and I appreciated that because every time I got to see my uncle them prep the pig. Back then we’d raise pigs. We can go on and on for days, but one funny story, we had a relative who was a bit unusual in that he ended up living with us for a time. Hawaiian. Anyway he got a wild baby pig, a black one. He (the uncle) was unemployed at the time so he would take care of the pigs, including Jojo. Of course the pig got really big at one point so it was time for Jojo to convert into kalua. So that uncle, he leaves that morning knowing what’s going to happen and the other uncles come. Jojo never did jump out of that pen except on that morning. They go to get him and out he goes. He’s so tame; when he was small he would walk around like a dog. Anyway his downfall was that he wanted to get into the main house. We got him on the porch. That was it for Jojo.
Camille: Was he ono?
Keʻala: Yeah he was. I remember that. Then I think of rights of passage. I must have been about 12 years old when we moved out there. We’d have several lū au a year maybe not for us, but for somebody in the ohana. My grandma had one of the older lots. It’s maybe about a half-acre big so it had the imu and everything. As I get older, I can do more things in the preparation like break the banana stumps and get in when they put in the pua a. I loved all that kind of stuff.
Camille: Did you have a big family?
Keʻala: Not what we call a nuclear family. Just my two brothers and myself, but we were a typical Hawaiian family, uncle, aunty.
Camille: And everybody lived on one, two or three street.
Keʻala: Yeah, several of them did live in that area. There was much more ohana near us over there then when we were at Āliamanu.
Camille: How did you get into the Hawaiian language thing? Your great-grandmother spoke Hawaiian to you.
Keʻala: I graduated and I went to UH Mānoa and I enrolled in Hawaiian 101 along with my business course. That was my major. Hawaiian was an oasis. I lived in the dorm. It was the first class in the morning, seven something. It was right across the street in Moore Hall. My first two semesters as a freshmen I took Hawaiian 101 and 102. It was always a different sort of class as far as being more comfortable. That’s how I formally got in to learning Hawaiian. Then I had my great-grandmother at home. I had other grandaunts, other members of the family who spoke Hawaiian. If anything, I wish, maybe, I had taken more advantage of being with them. Most of them have passed on now.
Camille: You’re the first person I interviewed who said they had many people around them who spoke Hawaiian.
Keʻala: My mom could speak a little bit. I would be exposed because when other relatives, well my grandmother, who we lived with, spoke Hawaiian. So, it must have been around more then I even think. But that’s how the formal learning of Hawaiian started and it continued all through my college years.
Camille: Did you switch majors?
Keʻala: No. I graduated with a business degree in management. Aunty Sarah Nakoa, she was one of my kumu. She had worked at the state archives and prior to that at the state hospital. Anyway, she was retired and she went back to college, got her degree and became a kumu. Unfortunately, at the time, UH had an age restriction. I think it was 60. She came over to Kamehameha, actually with the Hawaiian Studies Institute, but working more with the adult education they had at the time. There were Hawaiian language course too. She called me, I was working full time at the University, and invited me to teach. I had not taught formally.
Camille: What were you doing at the UH?
Keʻala: I was a junior administrator in a program called the Haumāna Biomedical Program. It’s a federally funded program to get minority students, i.e. Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans, Hawaiians, into biomedical careers. That was interesting. I did that for about five years.
Camille: That sounds really fun actually?
Keʻala: Yeah I learned all kinds of science stuff because what it did was take undergraduate minority students who were selected for this program and for a year they were married to a professor doing research, be it basic sciences or in med school. We must have had about 20 faculty spread out on campus. I helped coordinate that and the grants. Then Mrs. Nakoa calls me and I end up teaching here in the night. That was my first connection.
Camille: What year was that?
Keʻala: 1981 maybe.
Camille: So Kamehameha Schools didn’t really touch your life until then?
Keʻala: No, except when I applied or I touched them. Coincidently, about the same year I also started teaching in a community class out in Wai anae under the Wai anae Coast Culture and Arts Society. Aunty Agnes Cope, you see her with her son at the hula competitions. Anyway, she started the program and they offered various Hawaiian related classes including Hawaiian. This one was out at—if you know the area, Cornet at the time—Mākaha Valley Road, out in Mākaha, ocean side, just past the Surf Side Condominiums. There was like a hale over there. That was interesting because it was a Saturday morning class for three hours. I call it ohana ed because we had from keiki to kūpuna. It was there that I met Theodore Kelsey he loved Hawaiian stuff, you know, he did a lot of work. He surveyed heiau. He was a Haole from the mainland and his dad worked for the plantation. He was a photographer so he was at the Bishop Museum. He was Papa Kelsey by the time he was in my class. He was a member of the class along with June Gutmanis, an author. He lived with her. She took care of him. He was one of her sources, she wrote about Hawaiian things and he knew the language. I’m meandering but so what. She lived up Wai anae Valley Road and I visited her at least once and there he was in this very spartan room. I think everyday, he was quite disciplined, he would be working, I think on the Kumulipo, putting his own translation. He had his little desk and he was handwriting it. I still have that image of him. There’s another situation where we were in the adult part of the Saturday morning class and we might have been talking about time. The word manawa comes up, which means time. He would always come to class in a coat, a suit, so the discussion is about manawa and he says, “Manawa is the anterior fontanel of the child.” He was giving me the dictionary, fascinating. There were other kūpuna in that class that I remember fondly. So that was going on, and I did that for a couple of years on Saturdays. Then after several years of that, and there were several levels offered, I had fun because these were adults who generally wanted to be there. I still remember some of the kūpuna who didn’t have much language background so there was a spectrum of learners from teachers to . . . we had a good group. Then after several years, I was encouraged to apply for a position in Hawaiian Studies as a resource specialists by one of the key people, Puanani Kini. She had been in the high school for many years and then transferred to continuing education. She encouraged me to apply for this. I was hired. I loved that because I did Hawaiian research and I just loved that, history. Along with Papa Lyman’s questions. He’d have questions about Hawaiian stuff, which overall was good because it meant that there was a person up high in our institution who was interested in Hawaiian stuff. However, he would have his own theories about the answers to his questions. Mahalo ke Akua because I think he had a hand in all of those little life pathways. My children go to Pūnana Leo here in Kalihi. Liana Honda is another parent and I may have met her then. She’s a teacher at the high school here and so a position here for a Hawaiian Language teacher came up. She urges me to apply. I didn’t give it any thought because I didn’t have the teaching background. But with her encouragement, I applied and was hired, and within the first couple of months, I had a real rude awakening. I had come from that adult ed teaching mode of they want to be there. I may have been teaching Leeward too at that time, actual 101 college level out in Wai anae in a satellite office. They were all adults too. So anyway, there I was in my high school classes coming from that same assumption, the kids wanna be here, they wanna learn Hawaiian. So after the first couple of weeks I learned, no, not all of them. Some of them yeah, but some of them, this was just meeting their grad requirement or one of their five classes or six classes of the day. I had to start taking that into account with how I was teaching.
Camille: Where do see Hawaiian language in the future?
Keʻala: I think it will continue to grow and it will continue to grow with challenges and struggle. If you look at 1984, the first Pūnana Leo was born. We’ve come 20 years out. We’ve got Kula Kaiapuni, and we’ve got charter schools too. That’s all good. Some of the challenges are to see that it grows correctly.
Camille: Funding seems to be a problem, especially with those charter schools?
Keʻala: Yeah, that popped up in my brain. Every year it looks like the legislature is cutting so there may not be bus transportation to bring all the kids to Ānuenue. Those will continue to be challenges. More recently there was an article about Pūʻōhala, their enrollment has dropped. So how do we maintain that? That is, people continuing to educate their keiki. We’ve got a lot more speakers of Hawaiian. Part of that correctness has to do with, not only the language, but the culture, the values, the behavior. I think it’s happening, but we need to make sure that it is always a part of learning the language. One can technically learn the language and get all your grammar and spelling all perfect, but it can be void of the na au part.
Camille: Do you think Hawaiian language will ever be respected like a science, math, or English course?
Keʻala: I think so, just based on how much we’ve seen up to this point. Ulukau comes to mind, and there’s a Hawaiian language journal, so I think we’re moving in those directions. The younger speakers are able to speak of things in the contemporary world. We’ve got words and things to talk about the modern things, and that’s a challenge for some of us older ones to be able to convey the mana o in Hawaiian totally. Other challenges are within the country. Several years ago, there was a backlash against bilingualism. Immersion isn’t that, I don’t think. For many years, we have supported other languages by having people in school who can translate. The backlash was when the country said, “Those people gotta learn English.” I think California is one. We do have other laws that support having indigenous languages. That’s part of where Alu Like gets its funding for the work it’s doing with Hawaiian language newspapers. Things like online Hawaiian language courses like at UH Hilo I’m aware of, which is somewhat of a dilemma because the first line of teaching is the live approach, but given that there isn’t a live teacher over there, without online course, there is no class. We do have things on computer that are in Hawaiian. I think that’s really important because internet computer stuff is continuing to be a big part of today’s world. It’s trying to maintain traditional practices. You asked about fishing and things. We’re going to do that this Friday for the first quarter closure of all our Hawaiian 2 classes. We’re going to lawaiʻa and cook fish in ti leaf. It’s fun, connected but also practical and hands-on. Also it will help teach them and continue some of these things I’m talking about. Like, just the focus on food. Food for Hawaiians of course is very important. You don’t waste it, you don’t abuse it. A food fight, for example, would be very un-Hawaiian, but it’s okay for some other cultures, but it’s just totally against our values and practices relating to food. You also cannot waste, which can also have its downside because I can remember going to restaurants and I’m just programmed, I gotta eat everything on my plate. That’s culture with a little “c”. Another one relating to preparation of food is that when you are preparing food, you need to be in a positive mindset. If you’re angry or feel anything negative, then you shouldn’t prepare the food. The belief is that it won’t come out right. These things exist in varying degrees among different ohana. That’s some of what we are trying to do in the classroom, somewhat formalize, but try and teach them . . . like when you are visiting, when you visit the family you never go, “Eww what is that.” The way I was raised it would be too bad. You just be quiet. What they’re offering may be all that they have, may be the last of what they have, and may be the best of what they have. Just know that and appreciate it.