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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015


A Hawaiian in Paris 
Written By: Shannon Wianecki
Photographs By: Kevin German

So many people nurture fantasies about Paris—the two-thousand-year-old “City of Lights”—that it’s as much a dream as an actual place. In the Paris of fantasy, Edith Piaf still sings, the Impressionists paint dancers beneath the windmills of Montmartre and Hemingway sits in a brasserie scribbling about bullfights. Couples kiss on the Pont Neuf, beautiful girls bicycle down the Champs-Élysées and even the dogs are fashionably coiffed, poised beside their owners in the shade of La Tour Eiffel.

The real Paris is all of this but more: grittier, more diverse and brimming with lively contradictions. If the celebrated French capital is often mistaken for its postcards, it’s not alone. It shares that distinction with one of the world’s other most desirable destinations: the Hawaiian Islands. Everyone dreams of escaping to Hawai‘i; few expect to explore the depth of its indigenous culture.

Kilohana Silve has spent her life navigating the nuances of both paradises, Parisian and Hawaiian. She’s discovered that when they mix, magic happens. In Montparnasse her regal carriage, commanding gaze and extra-long black mane might draw second glances; in Honolulu they’re immediately recognized as the hallmarks of a kumu hula (hula teacher). For twenty-two years Silve has run the only hula halau (hula school) in Paris, serving as a living conduit between the Old World and Oceania.

She first arrived in France in 1972, a 20-year-old art history student from Manoa, O‘ahu. A family friend told the adventurous girl that she needed to leave Hawai‘i in order to find it. The remark proved prescient. In Paris, as anyone might’ve predicted, she fell in love. She married a handsome French sculptor and set up house in the ninth arrondissement—the home of the magnificent Opéra de Paris and former haunt of the Impressionist painters.

Silve dived into the French art world, working as a curator, critic and professor. Hawai‘i was never far from her thoughts; every franc she earned she spent on airfare home. These globe-spanning trips doubled after the birth of her daughter, Vanessa Leilani Thill. When Vanessa was old enough to express an interest in hula, her mom—who doesn’t do things in small measure—studied up and opened Halau Hula o Manoa, Paris’ first hula school. In 2012 the halau celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Rather than throw a party, Silve launched a citywide hula festival. Why not, she thought, seize the opportunity to introduce Paris to traditional Hawaiian arts? 

The French may be familiar with Tahiti, but their knowledge of Hawai‘i tends to begin and end with stereotypes of big-wave surfers and smiling girls in coconut bras. Two decades ago the Maison du Cultures du Monde (World Cultures Institute) hosted an exposition celebrating the indigenous arts of Polynesia—excluding Hawai‘i. When Silve complained, the organizers told her, “We don’t want all that kitschy Waikiki stuff.”

Little did they know. It would take time, but the Parisian kumu hula would deliver the real deal. For the inaugural Festival des Arts d’Hawai‘i in 2012, Silve and and her daughter (who now assists her mother in running Halau Hula o Manoa) invited some of Hawai‘i’s most renowned cultural practitioners and musicians to Paris. Luminaries included slack-key guitarist Makana, ‘ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner, chant and protocol master Sam ‘Ohu Gon III and members of Halau Mele, the school started by revered kumu John Lake. 

Silve’s running joke is, “Ou va faire quelque choses de très simple”: Let’s keep it simple. Whenever she says this, her haumana (students) brace for work. Before their first big fête was finished, Halau Hula o Manoa began planning the next one. In June 2014 the international team reassembled to host the second Festival des Arts d’Hawai‘i: a ten-day whirlwind of hula, ‘ukulele and slack key guitar, lei making, seminars and storytelling. Several thousand people attended events at venues scattered around Paris. The cultural exchange gave Parisians a true taste of the Islands and visiting Hawaiians a chance to indulge in impeccable French fare. 

The 2014 fête began with a stirring performance of sacred Hawaiian dance at the prestigious Musée du Quai Branly. Just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, the Branly houses artifacts from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. It served as a perfect backdrop for hula kahiko, the Hawaiian Islands’ oldest dance form.

The theater filled with the sweet, unmistakable fragrance of maile, hand-carried from Hawai‘i. The Halau Mele dancers from O‘ahu joined their French hula siblings on stage. Together they embodied the ancient stories of the Hawaiian archipelago, from the Kumulipo to the epic tale of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele. The swish of ti-leaf skirts and reverberating heartbeat of the gourd drums evoked the cloud-wreathed summit of Haleakala and the smoldering caldera of Kilauea.

Anyone who came expecting a saccharine recital of “Lovely Hula Hands” likely had their fuses blown. As the program progressed, the French dancers showed the caliber of their training—performing grueling seated dances and adeptly incorporating kala‘au (percussive sticks). In a show of respect, the Hawaiians brought their finery to the festival: rare mamane seed lei and hand-stamped kihei (capes) made especially for the occasion. Lucky Parisians witnessed choreography and costumes of a quality that even Hawai‘i residents rarely get to see.

Outside, the sky had finally darkened after a languorous twilight. People streamed back onto the streets, shaking open umbrellas against a light summer rain. The evening’s performance might have prompted some local Parisians to wonder whether this rain shower had a distinct identity and name, as so many rains in Hawai‘i do. This sensual opening night was just the beginning, the amuse-bouche of the movable feast to come.