Honolulu Festival, showcasing Pacific Rim cultures, was in full bloom during my recent visit to Hawaii, though subdued in respect for the devastating losses in Japan. A fireworks show that took three years to plan was cancelled, though the three-day festival was poised to begin when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Performers and artists from many Japanese Prefectures had arrived, and so the event went on.The
The Festival finale was a parade down Waikiki's Kalakaua Street thoroughfare, where groups from dozens of countries and regions marched and performed in native dress. Dragon costumes held up by two or more walkers opened their mouths to collect donations to help stricken Japanese. Occasionally, a high school marching band from some unexpected place like Montana would sound in its formation wearing long maroon felt uniforms completely out of place in the 80-degree heat.
And then there were the proud representatives of various native groups, distinctive in their costumes as well as their movement. Two such groups took what appeared to be bamboo matchstick-style place mats and formed them into shapes as they walked--suddenly there were bridges and birds and spires in the hands of (usually quite mature) paraders.
However, the most eye-catching collection were the men and women who chose to identify with their Samoan heritage through traditional body tattooing, called "pe'a" for men and "mala" for women. This isn't your typical anchor or angel wings or a girlfriend's name--instead, it's designation of chiefdom or high rank that enduring its deeply painful application attests. On men, pe'a is a dense web of geometric forms that includes large solid black swaths and extremely closely-knit designs covering the body from ribs to knees.
According to Wikipedia, tattoos are applied using a series of "combs," that are hammered into the skin using a two-foot-long mallet made of palm spine called a "sausau." The people in the parade seemed cheerful and friendly, but to see each with an
intricate fishnet-stocking type ink pattern to his knees, and elaborate swaths of very detailed dark etching, was eye-catching and personally, I'll admit, surprising.
The parade announcer said that these were younger people who chose to identify with their heritage by reviving the nearly-lost tattooing tradition (in fact, it's said the English word "tattoo" derives from the Samoan term, "tatau"). While I support ethnic pride, I wonder if these people will find that their acceptance in the workworld--even with increased prevalence of all sorts of tattoos generally--will be impeded.
Apparently, the arduous process of being traditionally Samoan tattooed requires five steps, done over many days due to inflammation and pain. Certainly, anyone who undergoes this has permanently cast his lot with the tribal history of Samoa, as well as demonstrated a willingness to suffer for that identification.
I loved the Honolulu Festival not only because it was colorful and exciting but because I saw and learned so much. Several groups had created "mikoshis," shrines in which spirits dwell, carried upon the shoulders of perhaps a dozen marchers. Jake Shimabukuru, beloved ukulele master (I have several of his albums--Yay Jake!) rode in the parade and later did a benefit concert for Japan. Australian aborigines, the world's largest aloha shirt, costumed performers from many Japanese prefectures--all contributed to my awe.