Pass It On!
The Journal of the Children's Music Network
"Keep Your Love":
An Interview with Nona Beamer
conducted by Phil Hoose
We are pleased to announce that the 2006 recipient of CMN’s Magic Penny Award will be Nona Beamer. An extensive interview with her was published in Pass It On! #17, Summer, 1994. For those CMNers who were not members back then, we have reprinted a long excerpt from it, here, in this issue. Phil Hoose, who conducted the interview in 1994, sent this statement:
“Of all the interviews I’ve ever done for Pass it On!, none was more memorable than the conversation below with this year’s Magic Penny Award recipient Nona Beamer. Always I had the feeling that I was in the presence of someone who had altered the very history of the place where we were talking. She listened very carefully to questions, and often answered with stories. She was profound, passionate, and funny. Nona’s unforgettable presence and the insights she offered, coupled with the sheer, soft beauty of our setting, made this an exchange I will long remember.”
An interview with Nona Beamer does not begin at once. First there are papayas to cut and spread out on the table, pineapples to sample, children to discuss, Hawaiian plovers—streamlined shorebirds who will soon take flight for Alaska—to admire as they feed on the lawn. Hers is a wide, often smiling, freckled face with strong cheekbones, framed with still-black hair. She listens attentively, laughs frequently, corrects mispronunciations gently, and, as often as possible, answers a question with a story.
Winona Kapuai1o-hiamanonokalani Desha Beamer is a renowned teacher, composer, choreographer, historian, and originator of Hawaiiana, a word she coined in 1948 to mean “the study of the very best in Hawaiian culture.” She has spent nearly sixty years studying and transmitting the beauty and complexity of her Hawaiian heritage. Singing to and with children is the very heart of her work.
Nona grew up on Hawai`i, which is also known as the “Big Island,” the easternmost and by far the largest of the 132 islands in the Hawaiian chain. It is an island formed of still-active volcanoes. It is a land of black lava, whose coastline is cut with thousand-foot waterfalls and fringed with beaches of black and green sands which were formed instantly when glowing rivers of lava hissed into the Pacific. The city of Hilo, where Nona grew up and lives now, is located in the rain shadow of the giant, still active volcano Mauna Loa. One of the wettest cities on earth, Hilo is also the world’s orchid capital.
The Big Island provided the stage for the most telling early encounters between indigenous Hawaiian people, who had first reached the islands from eastern Asia perhaps 1,500 years earlier, and white explorers. It was at the island’s Kealakekua Bay that captain James Cook, the renowned British circumnavigator who “discovered” Hawaii in 1778, was slain the following year in a skirmish over a boat.
Cook’s crewmates returned to England with stories of an island paradise centrally located in the Pacific. Almost overnight Hawaii became an important Pacific base for trading ships and whaling vessels. Within a few decades the cooperative subsistence economy which had been developed in harmony with a Pacific island ecosystem was transformed into a forced economy of trade.
Foreigners carried diseases that halved the native population by 1820, as well as guns and metal tools that were quickly employed by chiefs and kings. In 1819 a civil conflict arose between native Hawaiians faithful to traditional beliefs and those favoring the new, white ways. Using weapons provided by whites, the reformers prevailed. Within days, temples were torched and the old religions forbidden. Coincidentally, in that very same year of 1819 the first missionaries to Hawaii—a group of militant Calvinists who could not accept the Congregational Church’s ever-relaxing stand on the doctrine of predestination—set sail from Boston. They arrived in a sweltering Pacific climate wearing long-sleeved New England woolens. The Hawaiians they met were in an his-toric moment of instability, their entire belief system having collapsed just months before. The Christian soldiers sized them up as bewildered primitives and set about the century-long work of purifying them of sin.
First they sought to scrub from Hawaiian customs, poetry, games, chants, and dances the sin they detected everywhere. They were especially shocked by the slow, swaying hula, through which much of the long and magnificent history and culture of Hawaii was transmitted.
A century later, when Nona Beamer grew up, Hawaiian culture was still under attack, now often by disheartened Hawaiians themselves. Children were taught to look forward toward an Americanized future, not backwards toward their kings and queens. Most children went to English schools, where the teaching of Hawaiian was forbidden or simply neglected.
Born in 1923, Nona was raised by her grandmother, Helen Kapuailohia Desha Beamer—whom she called “Sweetheart Grandma”—in the time-honored Hawaiian tradition of hanai, a sort of informal adoption. At that time Hawaiian traditions were quietly maintained by an underground of families, usually led by determined women like Sweetheart Grandma. Seating the members of her family before her on rows of mats in her living room, Sweetheart Grandma taught them the many chants and stories and subtle varieties of hula that she knew. Transfixed from the start, Nona absorbed all she could of her grandmother’s remarkable knowledge. Soon she was more than a student. Nona performed her first hula in public at the age of three, and by eleven was teaching hula in her mother’s Waikiki studio.
As a schoolgirl, Nona repeatedly challenged her school’s anti-Hawaiian policies, demanding explanations and teaching chants and hulas to her friends. After graduating, she created her own course of Hawaiian study at Barnard College and then returned to Hawaii and took over her mother’s Honolulu dance studio, where she conducted teacher workshops on how to transmit Hawaiian culture to children.
Along the way she also became a very famous entertainer in Hawaii. She has produced many records and videos and has organized countless productions of Hawaiian dance. (She recognizes nearly 250 varieties of hula.) She taught movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Jane Russell, and Sonja Henie how to approximate Hawaiian movement before a camera without embarrassment. Her two sons, Keola and Kapono Beamer, also became famous by playing traditional Hawaiian instruments in somewhat contemporary arrangements. Their album Honolulu City Lights is far and away the best selling recording in the history of Hawaii.
Above all, Nona Beamer has sought to preserve her culture by using music to teach children. At her studio, and in classrooms wherever she goes, children surround “Auntie Nona” as soon as they see her. They pull at her muu muu and fling their arms around her neck and run their fingers through the wreath of flowers in her hair. And they learn. Through her music, her stories, the chants and dances, Nona passes to them the love and pride that Sweetheart Grandma gave to her. And the flame of Hawaiiana grows brighter.
PIO!: Please tell us about the Kamehameha Schools, which, as I understand it, were set up to educate children of Hawaiian blood. Is that right?
NB: Yes, there is a boys’ school and a girls’ school. They were founded in the 1880s and are maintained through the income of the estate of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. She was the last descendant of the Kamehamehas, beginning with the kings, one through five.
PIO!: You’ve taught there for many years. Did you also attend?
NB: Yes, from seventh grade on. Before that I had gone to an English standard school in Honolulu. My great-grandfather had gone to the trouble of building a home near Honolulu so that all the children in our family could leave the Big Island to go to an English school. I come from a long line of students from Kamehameha. My grandmother was in the first graduating class for girls. My parents met as students there. I entered in 1935.
PIO!: If your great-grandfather insisted on an English grade school for you, why didn’t he object to the “Hawaiian” high school?
NB: We wish that the school’s theme was to preserve Hawaiian culture, but the school’s theme is “to produce good and industrious men and women.” That’s a carryover from the missionary days. I think the Kamehameha School was the first Hawaiian institution to formally say, “No language, no culture.” We did have our staple food, poi, once a week, but that was it. We learned everything else in an English way: how to set the table, which fork to use, how to hold a teacup. To a lot of us, this wasn’t sufficient. We wanted language and culture and chant and dance. Along these lines I was expelled twice for being “willful.” I wanted to see the Princess’s will establishing the school: I asked the principal and the trustees, “Did this princess say in her will that Hawaiians would not be taught their language? Or their chanting? Or their dancing? We were told that it was the Princess’s wish, in her will.” So I said I wanted to see the will. They were puritanical and narrow. Very conservative.
PIO!: That’s one expulsion—tell us about the other.
NB: I started a Hawaiian club at Kamehameha when I was twelve, in my first year there. And I got expelled for that, too. We wanted so badly to be Hawaiian. My friends kept asking me, “Can’t you teach us how to chant, can’t you teach us something about the Creation Chant of the Hawaiian people?” Well, I had come from a big family, and we were used to talking together, dancing together, singing together in our home, so I had some knowledge to share. I had been teaching informally since I was very young. I was the oldest child in my family, and I had cousins, too, that I had to supervise. I told them stories. The best ingredient of a big family is storytelling. I would come home, change into my play clothes, and we would go out. We’d have a snack and a rest period. We’d lie out on the lanai, and look up at the clouds and make up stories about the shapes until the children were asleep.
In fact, I had started teaching professionally in my mother’s studio just a month or so before. She had opened the studio in Honolulu in 1927. She taught hula, Hawaiian dancing, and chanting. I started teaching in the summer of 1935, just before I became twelve years old. My first student was Mary Pickford, the movie actress. My mother was ill that morning, so my father took my sister and me down to the studio. We opened the studio and looked at the appointment book. It said: “8:00, Mary Pickford.” Then my father said, “Have a good day,” and left.
PIO!: What was Mary Pickford like?
NB: Oh, she was lovely; sweet and gentle. She had very soft hands. We were trying to do “To you, Sweetheart, Aloha.” [Sings it, completely, and with tender expression.] She was very dear. And her feet were tiny. In fact, my eleven-year-old feet were bigger than hers. She helped me get over the shyness of teaching someone outside my own family.
PIO!: When did you first know you wanted to teach Hawaiian culture to children as a profession?
NB: That same autumn. The very first day of school at Kamehameha I saw a notice on the bulletin board: “Any girls interested in teaching Hawaiian children at the Kaka’ako Mission School please sign up.” I signed up. I said to myself, “I know how to teach. Why, just last month I taught Mary Pickford.”
The next week we went down to the mission school and met these little children. They were very poor. They really didn’t know much about sanitation. There were running sores and scabs of impetigo on their arms and legs.
I began storytelling, and chanting, and writing songs. I had started out by chanting about this little bird [chants ko-lea, ko-lea] and the children would huddle up and whimper. They were frightened because, as city children, they hadn’t heard chanting. So I added notes and made it a song, and I thought, “That’s the way to reach these children: sing to them.”
Actually it started while I was bathing the children. So we were given big washtubs and big bars of soap, like tar soap, vile-smelling brown cakes of soap. It wasn’t a task that I particularly liked, so I began singing to myself as I scrubbed their hair and feet. [sings] One by one they’d leave the other two lines and come join my line, because I was the singing lady. Before I knew it I had a long line of children to bathe. That’s what started me singing to children.
PIO!: Was this the first time they had heard melody?
NB: Oh yes. They were little kids. And poor. Maybe some of them had been to church. Only now are we beginning to develop that area of town.
PIO!: You have also studied Hawaiian culture academically, haven’t you?
NB: Yes, I had a Guggenheim Fellowship to Barnard and a foreign student scholarship to Columbia. I wanted to get a degree in Hawaiian Culture. No such thing at Barnard. The anthropology that I could get a degree in required me to study four years of German. I said, “I don’t have time.” I didn’t have time to study Indian or Polynesian either. I had to go home and earn a living. So I just carved a niche out for myself. Here in Hawaii, at the university, the regents said they couldn’t grant me a degree because there was no way I could earn a living in Hawaiian culture. And I’ve made a living in it all my life. They had no foresight that there was real educational value in the culture. There’s lots of educational value in all cultures if we just have the eyes to see it. They were too busy trying to suppress our culture, too busy trying to change us. We have to be what we are: Hawaiians.
PIO!: When you got home, how did you set about earning a living and making your own way?
NB: I started by going back to my mother’s studio. At the beginning, her students were from all the local families in Waikiki. Then the tourist industry began to build up in the ’30s, and Pearl Harbor gave Hawaii more recognition in the ’40s. The studio grew like Topsy. Then when I came home from college I knew I had to teach and I had to help my mother. My father wanted to retire and move back to Hilo, to ranch. So I took over the studio. My mother handed me the keys and kissed me goodbye. I was twenty-four. But now I wasn’t nervous.
Then I started teaching at Kamehameha in 1949. They had no Hawaiiana department until I got one started. I fought for twenty years to get the trustees to include a preschool. I said, “The culture has to be taught there, down in the early years, not as a pre-college course for Hawaiian seniors.” It was dreadful. Now all grades are getting Hawaiian culture. I used to be the only one teaching it. Now there is a department of twenty-five.
PIO!: What is your teaching methodology like? Suppose we were in one of your hula classes at the studio.
NB: First we had an orientation. We let the children get to know each other. All the families were sitting around. We taught children and the parents, too. Establishing good feelings was first. Then determining how to teach a particular group. If there were boys in the class, we would gear in a little more rhythm and a little more action, maybe. If there were teenaged girls, there would have to be some sweetness and glamour, because they wanted to be beautiful. If they were mamas and papas, maybe we would teach them some songs and dances that the King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalanii did.
PIO!: I noticed today when I was at a bookstore chain a big “Hawaiiana” department. I understand you coined the word. How did that happen?
NB: Well, I was working with a group of teachers—I have done teacher workshops for nearly sixty years now—and I wrote on the board one day that we were going to study Hawaii’ana and I underlined it. “Ana” is like measuring the very best of everything. We were going to teach the very best of the literature, songs, dances, chants, and poetry of Hawaii. I meant it not to mean “a collection of,” but rather “the best of.”
PIO!: It’s amazing, isn’t it, how recent the history of Hawaiian settlement is, when you compare it to the mainland. Captain Cook didn’t arrive here until the American Revolution was well underway. If you started learning Hawaiian culture at age three, you’ve been witness to nearly a third of the time since Europeans arrived.
NB: It’s true. My parents actually knew Queen Liliuokalanii. Especially my father. I so wish I had. She died in 1917. And I was born in 1923. My parents tell charming stories of her waving from an open surrey. Once my father saw the tips of her fingers coming out of her gloves as she waved. And he went home crying to my grandmother that the Queen was so poor that she couldn’t buy new gloves. Of course that was the English style.
PIO!: I have been reading as much as I can about Queen Lili. What a remarkable woman. She was queen at the time Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. and taken over by a small junta of sugar growers, backed by a few boatloads of soldiers. The remarkable thing to me is that during the eight months she was imprisoned, she spent much of her time writing 200 songs and chants. Have those songs been important to your work?
NB: Her life has been important and inspiring and educational to me. Not just from the standpoint of what a wonderful woman she was but because she shared her feelings and her tenderness and her compassion. Even after they imprisoned her she wrote “The Queen’s Prayer,” in which she asks for forgiveness for those who were unkind to her. So much of her life involved music, and teaching, and children. All my life I have taught Queen Lili’s songs and music to children.
PIO!: Was ever a time when all trace of Hawaiian culture was almost lost forever?
NB: Yes. King Kalakaua who be-came king in 1874 and ruled until 1891 gave it resurgence and renaissance. He was noted for his revival of the Hawaiian culture and customs, and the hula. The Merry Monarch Hula Festival, a magnificent festival of dance that occurs on the Big Island each May, is named for him. After his death the culture just had to stay alive underground. A lot of the families practiced it underground, sometimes not even openly in their own homes. My own family is an example: there was my grandmother in 1902 beginning to teach and my mother in 1927.
PIO!: So the Beamer family really were pioneers.
NB: Yes, I think so. We loved the history. My first excitement in being Hawaiian was through the chants. We didn’t know anything about ourselves until we learned the chants. I had learned some of them as a girl, but there were many more. I just finished volume two of a collection of chants for University Press and in September I’ll begin volume three. The focus of volume three is now going to be my students who are composing new chants and teaching in a more creative manner. Now the culture is flourishing. Did you get to see the Merry Monarch Festival? That is the most stunning example of the resurgence of our culture. The pride. Oh, the love that comes right across through these young students. Their faces are alive and their bodies are alive. It’s such a heartwarming thing to see. They are living the resurgence. I’m just one of thousands of others in the same predicament.
PIO!: Surely your work has influenced the grade school curriculum in Hawaii.
NB: I think it has had some impact. Teachers workshops were my forte. My idea was that the way to reach the children was in the classroom. So many teachers, not having had any Hawaii`ana, would ask me to do these workshops in order to bring information to the children. I did many, many teacher workshops on the islands, and on the mainland, too. I was doing California workshops forty years ago.
PIO!: How do you connect, or how do you feel your work connects with the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement?
NB: Well, I was on the Native Hawaiian Study Commission ten years ago when this issue first came to the fore. And the mandate was to study the needs and the concerns of the Hawaiian people. We found first that there was a psychological hurt that had occurred at the period of contact [with whites] when the culture was suppressed. That this hurt was carried over from generation to generation. That we were feeling it today. That we were crying for the same things that our great-grandparents cried for: to have our identity and to have some self-determination. I think the general desire is—much like the [American] Indian culture—to have a nation within a nation. We can work within the framework of the United States, but we must keep our identity, as the Indians have. The Maoris want to keep their culture. It’s much the same with native cultures all over the world.
PIO!: When you think about cultures around the world, what do you think is so special about being Hawaiian?
NB: The reputation of Hawaii precedes it as being a very warm and loving place. And this spirit of aloha is very real. I think that has permeated the world. Perhaps we have gained a reputation for warmth and friendliness and being a loving people?
PIO!: More than perhaps.
NB: [warmly] I think so too.
Phil Hoose is a writer, conservationist, musician, father, and utterly proud, long-time CMN member. He lives in Portland, Maine.