The Royal Non-Hawaiian Band
Mr. Mahi Was the Last Native In the Musical Troupe
By Kara Scannell, The Wall Street Journal March 10, 2005 (excerpted)
For 169 years, the government here has fielded a band to help keep alive the rich culture embodied in Hawaiian music. And the taxpayer-financed troupe was long dominated by native Hawaiians.
But late last year, Honolulu's new mayor ousted the 34-member municipal band's only remaining full-time ethnic Hawaiian -- the bandmaster, Aaron Mahi. His removal, after he had wielded the baton for 23 years, has turned into a fierce fight in the long-simmering struggle to preserve Hawaii's native Polynesian identity.
Fans of his from Germany, Iowa, Montana and California have weighed in, as has jazz great Dave Brubeck, who called the move drastic and publicly pleaded for an encore for Mr. Mahi.
A city councilwoman introduced a bill to require future bandmasters to be familiar with Hawaiian language and culture.
"Native Hawaiians look to the Royal Hawaiian Band as truly part of their Hawaiian culture -- it's an institution," says Vicky Takamine, a native and Hawaiian dance teacher at the University of Hawaii.
Native Hawaiians have been fighting for their culture since the 1970s in response to an influx of Asian immigrants and U.S. mainlanders. State lawmakers are lobbying for a federal bill to grant native Hawaiians the same protected status as American Indians. Three different groups advocate declaring independence from the U.S.
|The band was formed in 1836 by King Kamehameha III, about a decade after he assumed the throne at the age of 11, to entertain visiting European rulers with the sounds of flute, clarinets, drums and brass instruments.|
For a time, the band was all Hawaiian, including, at one point, 26 reform-school boys. Yet almost from its inception, it was subject to outside influences. Its second bandmaster was an escaped mainland slave, and only a few of its 18 other leaders have been natives.
In 1872, King Kamehameha V ... asked the Kaiser of Prussia to send a teacher to bring discipline to the group. Henry Berger, a Prussian military-band leader, went on to lead the group for 43 years and now, oddly, is considered the father of Hawaiian music, a hybrid of indigenous native melodies and German marches.
Over time, the band has included fewer and fewer native Hawaiians, but it has long had at least one...
[The band members had a lot of complaints about Mr. Mahi, for instance, he made them perform in the hot sun without hats.] His critics also complained that while the band knew more than 200 songs, he usually had it play the same few.
The band's frustration boiled over late last year. Two band-union stewards asked Honolulu's newly elected mayor, Mufi Hannemann, to oust Mr. Mahi. ... A petition supporting the move was signed by 25 of the band's 34 musicians.
"It's now the Royal non-Hawaiian Band," laments Don McDiarmid Jr., founder of Hula records, a distributor of the band's music ...
|Perhaps the problem isn't really Mr. Mahi - it's that there are not enough Hawaiian musicians in the band. It would be interesting to know why.|
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