When George Kahumoku Jr. was a keiki kane, Hawaii was not a state, the native language of his people was not taught in schools, and students were disciplined for practicing hula. In the ensuing decades, George (once you’ve met the man, it becomes impossible to call him Kahumoku) has been at the center of the state’s cultural renaissance. An accomplished slack-key guitar artist, George has won four Grammy awards for his compilations.
I’ve had the privilege of attending George’s concerts on Maui for nearly two decades, but I most recently saw him perform on the mainland in the blissful month before COVID-19 lockdowns. George always holds a raffle the end of each concert, and this time my name was drawn for A Hawaiian Life, Volume 2, a collection of autobiographical stories. I have the first volume kicking around in my office somewhere, and once I stumble across it I’ll be sure to review it as well.
In addition to being highly entertaining, each of George’s tales provides insight on Hawaiian culture. When a young George and his buddy capture a large tuna in ”Million Dollar Ahi,” parts of the fish are distributed among the neighborhood; George details the unique use of each family in his multicultural community.
Many years later in “A Flat Tire Changes My Life,” George aids an elderly man whose car breaks down along Oahu’s Old Pali Road, said to be haunted by ancient spirits who harass travelers for food. George recalls an earlier incident where his family’s car mysteriously stalled on Old Pali Road while traveling back from a luau, and how his father dismissed those spirits in a way that was “indigenous and very primal.”
His teaching at Lahainaluna High School on Maui is the setting for “Three Chickens, Four Lessons,” where George uses feral chickens he’s captured to teach students about drawing, biology, and cooking. The fourth lesson, about the replacement of Hawaiian traditions by mainland values, comes when George is later disciplined for having slaughtered the chickens on school grounds.
The conflict between native and mainland cultures is also the setting for “Taking Back the Beach.” In 1974, George fishes for spiny lobsters off an Oahu beach; like all of George’s fishing stories, the details are precise, lending authenticity to the tale. Yet on returning to shore he is arrested for having used a private hotel beach. With the help of two haole lawyers, George organizes native Hawaiians and wins public access to all Hawaiian beaches.
A personal favorite of mine, a story George often tells during his slack-key concerts about his family’s overly exuberant use of a hotel room, isn’t included in this volume. I’m hoping he’ll tell that story again the next time I see him on Maui… whenever that will be. We still have much to learn about the current pandemic, and non-essential air travel is one of many conveniences we can no longer take for granted. But should I have the privilege to see him again, I’ll be sure to thank George for pulling my name during that cold night raffle.