Story by Derek Ferrar
Photos by Elyse Butler
Slack key guitarists Dennis Kamakahi and Stephen Inglis are perched on folding chairs at the front of a weathered wooden rec hall in Kalaupapa, the notorious former leprosy colony that juts out on a lonely peninsula beneath the sheer sea cliffs of Moloka‘i’s north side. Playing along beside them is young musician Patrick Landeza, and an appreciative audience of sixty people or so — a packed house in Kalaupapa these days—sways along to the soothing, resonant music as the three men’s fingers dance across the strings.
Layers of chipped paint on the hall’s floor planks speak of country dances and hula, heated community debates and many soles gone by. A plaque on the faded back wall recounts some of the other entertainers who have come to perform for the settlement’s residents over the decades: Shirley Temple, Abbott and Costello, Irving Berlin and John Wayne.
In this tiny place apart from the world, everyone is an old friend. The crowd includes several of the one-time leprosy patients who still choose to live in the protected settlement, along with workers from the National Park Service and the State Department of Health, which co-manage the peninsula’s facilities, and several nuns whose Franciscan order has long cared for Kalaupapa’s patients.
For each of the musicians, the concert is a homecoming of sorts. Dennis, one of Hawaiian music’s best-known composers, is making his first return since 1975, when he was in his early 20s and had just joined the classic revival band Sons of Hawai‘i. Today he’s here because he and Stephen, a young guitar prodigy whose activist parents were close with many Kalaupapa patients, have just released an album of songs that pays tribute to the settlement’s rich musical legacy.
Joining them as they bring the songs home to ring through the hall’s open rafters is Patrick, a relative of Dennis’ whose mother hails from Moloka‘i, although he himself was born and raised in California. Something of a Hawaiian hipster in a mod aloha shirt and newsboy cap, Patrick is on his own homeward quest. A slack key player and promoter on the Mainland, he recently answered the call of a kupuna (elder) to “bring the music home” and established a nonprofit foundation to bring prominent Hawaiian players to Moloka‘i and other islands.
Dennis, a spiritual man who goes by the title of Reverend, is dressed in his trademark black—replete with silver-trimmed boots, long Western preacher’s coat and a finely woven cowboy hat. The prolific author of more than five hundred poetic Hawaiian songs, he chokes the crowd up with a story from his visit to the peninsula decades before. During their stay, he and his Sons of Hawai‘i bandmates played for patients in the terminal care ward, including one aged woman whose hands had been claimed by leprosy.
“We were playing for this beautiful old woman who had no hands and was getting ready to go on to the next place but who still radiated a deep joy,” Dennis says. “When we were done playing, she smiled and clapped with what was left of her arms. I like to think I’m a strong man, but I broke down and burst into tears.”
Then he launches into the lilting title song he composed for the new album he recorded with Inglis, Waimaka Helelei, or Falling Teardrop:
Waimaka helelei i Kalaupapa, auwe e, auwe la,
Ua kaumaha i ka ‘iu‘iu, auwe e, auwe la…
Falling teardrops at Kalaupapa, grieve, grieve
Down-pouring rain in the heights, grieve, grieve …
Lima‘ole ku‘u kino ke pule au, auwe e, auwe la,
Kulana ka leo, ‘eha ke kino, auwe e, auwe la.
My body is armless when I pray, grieve, grieve
The voice shakes, the body aches, grieve, grieve.
Paniku a‘u i ko‘u mau maka, auwe e, auwe la
A lana malie i ka maluhia, auwe e, auwe la.
I suddenly shut my eyes, grieve, grieve
And float calmly in peace, grieve, grieve.
In the CD liner notes, Dennis writes that in the end the song is joyous because the woman, who died soon after, “had shown me that she accepted her deformity and her soul was about to be released. … I knew in the next world she would be whole again.”