In Kalaupapa the dead are ever present. Graveyards are scattered across the peninsula, with markers ranging from polished modern stones to crumbling remnants, their inscriptions long worn away. And those are just the marked graves: Of an estimated eight thousand souls who were brought to the settlement, the gravesites of only a little more than a thousand are known today.
In 2003 the patients and their supporters formed an organization, Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa (The Family of Kalaupapa), to assist families in uncovering information about relatives who had been sent to the colony and to advocate for the patients’ wishes for the future of the peninsula once they are gone. Valerie Monson, a former reporter for the Maui News, helps coordinate the organization. Val says she first came to Kalaupapa more than twenty years ago on an assignment. “Then I got to know the residents,” she says, “and I became so impressed by their talents, their accomplishments and their strong personalities. People here have gone through such hardships, and they still say they’re blessed. I didn’t want them to be forgotten, and it turned into kind of a mission.”
Before their concert, Val takes the musicians to pay respects at the resting places of some of the patient-composers whose songs Dennis and Stephen recorded for their album. By a sun-baked strip of graves sandwiched between the road and a perfect golden beach without a single footprint, Dennis takes off his hat and stands quietly by the simple concrete grave of Ernest Kala, a prolific composer of Kalaupapa church hymns. His rousing song “E Na Kini,” or “The Multitude,” is considered a kind of “national anthem” for the settlement’s people, Dennis says, and the patients used to stand whenever it was played:
Paio no ka pono e, e na kini o ka ‘aina I ka lawe, lawe a lilo I ka pono, pono a mau …
E na mano kini a lehu e ala mai! A‘e ala pu!
Fight for the rights, O people of the land. Acquire, acquire and receive The rights, rights forever …
O numerous multitude and masses rise up! And rise up together!
Nearby lies the grave of Samson Kuahine, a blind patient who had been brought to Kalaupapa as a toddler. His 1950 love ballad “Sunset of Kalaupapa” was popularized by famed Waikiki bandleader Harry Owens after Owens’ brother, who often visited the settlement to teach piano, heard Kuahine sing it. Harry donated the proceeds from his recording to the Kalaupapa community, who used it to purchase a collection of musical instruments.
Val shows Dennis a shiny headstone engraved with the image of a guitar. It’s the resting place of his cousin Henry Nalailehua, whom he never had the opportunity to meet. Sent to Kalaupapa in 1941 at the age of 15 and told he would likely die within a few years, Henry survived to become a policeman, carpenter, painter and musician. Before his death in 2009, he wrote a moving memoir of his life in the settlement, No Footprints in the Sand. “Many, many years I looked for Henry,” Dennis tells Val softly. “I never knew he was in Kalaupapa, because I think maybe the family didn’t want anyone to know. Then finally one day, I saw his obituary and realized he had been here all along. But today we’re having our closure, and in the next world we’ll talk.”
“Henry was a renaissance man; he could do anything,” Val says. “He should be remembered.”
Just a few feet away, Stephen places a lei on a plain white cross at Bernard Punikai‘a’s grave. In the late ’70s, Bernard and Stephen’s politically active father Wally became close friends during the emotional struggle to save Hale Mohalu, a homey hillside facility in Pearl City where the patients had been able to live if they chose. Eventually the state forcibly evicted Bernard and others in 1983, a painful scene that remains one of the most vivid images of the era’s social struggles.
“Growing up, Hale Mohalu was like church for us,” Stephen reminisces. “We went there every Sunday, and there was always music and laughter. I was too young to understand anything about the prejudice the patients faced, so I just knew them as people.”
At a deep level, Stephen was also bonding with the sweet Hawaiian music that his Hale Mohalu aunties and uncles played. A Suzuki Method piano whiz at age five, Stephen switched to guitar in his teens and was soon ripping rock licks that seemed destined for the stadium stage. In 2002 he headed to the Bay Area to perfect his chops and take a shot at the big time. As it turned out, rock godhood wasn’t in the cards; instead Stephen began to reconnect with the hypnotic slack key music he had grown up with on those Hale Mohalu Sundays.
“I know it sounds like a cliché,” he says, “but I really feel like Hawaiian music chose me.”
He moved back to Hawai‘i a few years later and soon became a staple on the slack key festival scene. For the next couple of years, he says, he had a monthly gig on Moloka‘i and would often stop to visit friends in Kalaupapa. He wrote several songs during those visits and eventually decided to record a Kalaupapa-themed album to honor Bernard’s music, including Punikai‘a’s loving tributes “Kalaupapa My Hometown” and “Hale Mohalu.”
After he learned that his friend and teacher Dennis had also known Bernard, Stephen invited him play on a couple of songs for the recording. “Within forty-eight hours, Dennis had composed two new Kalaupapa songs for the album,” Stephen says with an amazed laugh, “and we quickly realized that this was going to become a much closer collaboration than we had imagined.”
Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, who has taken up the mantle of advocate for the remaining patients, sits in a wheelchair beneath the broad canopy of a banyan tree in front of the settlement’s small, modern medical care facility. One of his legs is in a thick cast, healing from a recent operation. Among the inscriptions decorating the cast, someone has written “Slowing down … to smell the flowers.” His wife Ivy, a fellow patient who runs the town’s one-pump filling station, stands quietly by his side, her hand on his shoulder.
Boogie was first diagnosed in 1949, when he was nine. Antibiotic treatment was available by then, and although patients with serious cases were still required to be isolated, they could choose whether to live at Hale Mohalu or go to Kalaupapa. Boogie chose Kalaupapa, to join a brother and sister who were already there. Now in his early 70s and president of the Kalaupapa ‘Ohana organization, Boogie has done everything from operate the settlement’s movie projector to manage its bookstore.
“When we were flying here,” Dennis tells Boogie, “I looked down at Honolulu and I thought, ‘This city has changed so much, I hardly recognize it.’ But when we landed here, I thought, ‘Man, this place never changes. I don’t think there’s anywhere more peaceful.’”
“That’s how we like ’em,” Boogie says with his gravelly pidgin voice and knowing grin. “I always tell people: ‘When we get home to Kalaupapa, we should get down and kiss the ground.’”
Cast and all, Boogie bundles into a van and leads an impromptu tour down the two-mile dirt road to the original settlement of Kalawao, on the other side of the peninsula. The first stop is the tiny, New Englandstyle Siloama Church, a later incarnation of the Protestant congregation founded by the first exiles within a few months of their arrival. Beside the simple altar, a plaque commemorates the founding members:
“Thrust out by mankind, these 12 women and 23 men crying aloud to God, their only refuge, formed a church, the first in the desolation that was Kalawao.”
Just down the road lies the brightly painted St. Philomena Church once presided over by the Belgian priest Father Damien—now Saint Damien—who arrived in Kalaupapa seven years after the first patients and helped improve their lot greatly before he himself succumbed to the disease. Standing outside the church, Dennis gazes down the coast at the soaring wall of sea cliffs—some of the tallest in the world at up to three thousand feet. “I can only imagine what Damien thought when he first got here,” he muses. “‘Where do I start?’”
To one side of the church is the former site of Damien’s home, where according to the memoir of longtime patient and resident superintendent Ambrose Hutchison, the teenage boys of the settlement once sang a song they’d composed for the priest:
Eia a‘e o Damiana, ka makua o kakou, He poniponi na maka, He ‘alohilohi na aniani Ke ‘ike aku ‘oe kau e ka lia.
Here is Damien, our father, His eyes are like the first glimmer of dawn, Clear and sparkling Upon seeing him, fond memories come to mind.
Hutchison preserved the song’s lyrics and Bernard Punikai‘a later set them to music. Dennis and Stephen say they felt particularly honored to cut the first known recording of the song, “Eia A‘e o Damiana, ka Makua o Kakou,” a centerpiece of their Kalaupapa album.
Across the road a broad, wooded field, bounded by the rock walls that crisscross the old settlement, marks the site of Baldwin House, the colony’s former group home for boys and men. “I bet if these stones could talk, each one could tell a heck of a story,” Boogie says. “That’s history right there.”
He explains that the field is the location that the ‘Ohana organization prefers for a memorial that the patients have long dreamed of to recognize by name all those who were banished to the colony. Several years ago President Obama signed a law authorizing the creation of the memorial, and the ‘Ohana is working on plans for a design competition. But Boogie says National Park Service officials, who are in the process of developing a management plan for Kalaupapa’s future, have opposed the patients’ choice for the location, due to what in his mind is essentially just bureaucratic stubbornness.
“They doing good as far as taking care of the place,” he says, “but it’s like they wanna do all the planning for us. I tell ’em, ‘Hey, no need plan for us. We know what we like happen.’”
There are fewer than twenty patients still alive, and what will become of Kalaupapa after they’re gone weighs heavily on everyone’s mind. “Here we are, standing with the last of everything,” Dennis observes, “and all the families want is to make things pono [right] for the memory of those who were here.”