George Kahumoku Jr.
with Paul Konwiser,
A Hawaiian Life
(Kealia Press, 2001)

Listen once to the music of George Kahumoku Jr. and something becomes immediately apparent: he's a fine musician -- a talented slack key guitarist and a soulful singer. And the more you listen, the more you fall under his spell. It's the same with this book, which he wrote with Paul Konwiser. As pianist George Winston says in his foreword to this collection of autobiographical vignettes, "There is no better example ... than George Kahumoku Jr. in his music and the way he lives" to tell you about Hawaiian life.

In A Hawaiian Life, Kahumoku writes about the ups and downs, comedies and tragedies, easy times and hardships he's faced. One way or another, he has lived through it all, and more. Just as his music gently leads you into another world, so too does his book.

Over the fourteen stories, told with wit and poignancy, Kahumoku conveys more than a sense of friendly people, idyllic shorelines, tantalizing food and beautiful music -- the romance that is Hawaii. The Islands belong to the people and the people lead lives (rarely seen by the tourist) that help create the atmosphere of the place, which Kahumoku ably captures. The apparent affluence is not shared by all. Without being maudlin, he manages to convey a sense of the difficulties faced by many Hawaiians, along with the riches -- not necessarily financial -- that come their way.

Kahumoku talks of his life and the way it has unfolded, in an intimate style -- as though you're sitting on the sand at sunset and he's there, laughing and joking, immersing you in the tales of his upbringing, his family and his people. You listen and you become a part.

Unlike many islanders, he belongs to two worlds -- the one he was born into and the one across the sea. Raised in a relatively traditional setting mainly by his grandparents, he traveled to the West Coast and spent a number of years studying and working there before returning home. This gives him an insight into life which, combined with his story telling ability and his humor, allows him to show the reader a view beyond the resorts and hotels of Hawaii.

Each chapter recounts an event or episode in his life from when he was 6 weeks old to the present. "I know how delicate is the veil between life and death," he says and proceeds to joke at his own mortality. A near drowning, a fight against cancer, a bout with a killer shark -- he has had an eventful life. But you can hear the ringing laughter in his writing. Life is for getting on with and we should use whatever is at our disposal to succeed.

"I am a modern American who has flown high over the ocean at nearly the speed of sound, and I am an ancient Hawaiian, who travels slowly and low in the sea." From this vantage point, he is able to deal with the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease while only 27 and with a young family. While undergoing the accepted chemical and radiation treatments, he also is involved in a more traditional cure. Perhaps it was the Hawaiian medicine; there again, perhaps it was the western. For Kahumoku, the answer is simple: "Just as I am the product of two different cultures, I can be influenced and maybe cured by both."

With the advent of electricity to his farm, he finds himself on the outside of one of these cultures. He tours China, leaving the recently upgraded farm in the capable hands of a few relatives who worked with him, only to find on his return how the West had encroached into their world during his absence -- the compulsion of the TV screen.

It would be easy to be turned off by some of the pastimes found in the islands. Cockfighting, for example; illegal and frowned upon in many places. Yet Kahumoku is able to show insight into its existence and even draw you into the excitement of an event by revealing a more universal character -- that of the boy as he is growing up.

He is open and honest about himself, his family and his people -- his own stubbornness; a description of his son's debut as a professional performer, hilarious and harsh; the not exactly commendable treatment of his grandfather by his relatives.

Kahumoku has amassed a collection of thoughts and stories told, as in days gone by, to while away the evenings, teaching lessons and continuing the culture. And as a teacher, farmer, musician and more, he is the perfect person to tell the stories. He talks with the naiveté of an innocent. Yet as a story ends, like a sly fox in a fable, it's Kahumoku who walks away with the riches and the more worldly-wise among us who are left wondering.

Using narration skills developed over the years in part on stage as a storyteller, in part as a teacher, and as part of his heritage, Kahumoku combines levity with an element of the serious as he illustrates Hawaiian society, its traditions, structure and beliefs. For many, being from two worlds -- Hawaiian and American, traditional and modern -- might cause problems. But Kahumoku knows his identity because he knows where he has come from. It is possible to belong to two places at the same time, just as it's possible to belong to two times in the same place. A Hawaiian Life leaves you with a smile on your face and a deeper knowledge of the ways in another part of the world.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]
Rambles: 24 November 2001

Buy it from