Amlan Ganguly is a lawyer-turned-social-entrepreneur who has transformed some of the poorest slums of Kolkata, India by empowering children to become leaders in improving health and sanitation, using street theater and dance.
Amlan Ganguly is a lawyer-turned-social-entrepreneur who has transformed some of the poorest slums of Kolkata, India by empowering children to become leaders in improving health and sanitation, using street theater and dance.
Leslie Wilcox talks with Desmond Tutu, the South African former archbishop who openly and peacefully opposed apartheid. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate recalls tough experiences that taught him peace and compassion. Archbishop Tutu also explains why it’s best to forgive, even in the most difficult situations. He even reveals his lighthearted side and talks about how humor can defuse tense moments.
My father was a schoolmaster, and I went with him to shop, and all the shops were in town. And there was a slip of a girl behind the counter, a White girl, young enough to be my father’s grandchild, really. And she turned to serve my father and said, Yes, Boy? And I wondered what my father was feeling, the headmaster of a school, and here he is with his seven-year-old son, and he is called Boy in the presence of his son.
Many of us live our lives trying to make a difference in our world. Whether we do it by donating our time or money to worthy causes, or just taking the time to listen to someone’s troubles, making a difference can sometimes define us as human beings. But what if we devoted our lives to changing an entire culture, righting a wrong in place for decades, putting ourselves and our loved ones in danger because we decided to stand up against a system of injustice? Such is the life of Nobel Peace Laureate, Desmond Tutu.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program
produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In August of 2012, the retired Anglican Arch Bishop of Cape Town, South Africa, Desmond Tutu, was invited to Honolulu to help mark the 150th year of the Episcopal Church in Hawaii. A Nobel Peace Laureate, Arch Bishop Tutu is best known for his strong, peaceful opposition to Apartheid that’s the legally mandated racial segregation that divided South Africa from 1948 to 1994. During his visit to Hawaii, Arch Bishop Tutu kindly allowed us to sit down with him and talk story. He’s seen some of the worst that life has to give, and his response his peace, understanding, and forgiveness.
The person who is regarded as the architect of Apartheid, Dr. Hendrick Verwoerd, who became Prime Minister of South Africa at one point, used an odd. He said, Because we can’t feed all the children, we won’t feed some. Now, just imagine if you say, Well, we can’t cure all the people who suffer from TB, so we’re not going to try and cure the ones that we can. Now, a crazy justification but … racism is crazy. [CHUCKLE] There weren’t too many occasions when you sort of felt sorry for yourself. I mean, we played, and just went on and thought, Well, this is how life is ordered, and that is how it’s going to go on. It was a little later that you began asking, when you read a history textbook that said almost always, it would describe the Khoisans stole cattle from the settlers. Okay. But each time, they would say the settlers captured cattle from the Khoisans. And you said, But, I mean, where did they get their cattle from? I mean, coming as they did from overseas, they surely ought to have had to buy or do something to own cattle, because the only people who owned cattle when they came were the Black farmers. That was when you began to be slightly politicized. We were far less politicized on the kind of kids you got in 1976, the 16th of June in Soweto when you had the uprising.
But even with a growing awareness of the racial oppression by the White upper class in South Africa, Desmond Tutu’s heart could not hate. And as a teen when he was stricken with a disease that nearly took his life, the future Arch Bishop learned about compassion from an Anglican priest, a White priest.
By and large, many of us would not have been educated, had it not been for the schools that were established by missionaries from overseas. Many of us would not have been alive without the clinics and hospitals that that they provided. Yeah. Well, I, like many others succumbed to tuberculosis, and I spent, in fact, twenty months.
Yeah; twenty months. It was when they didn’t have all the new style drugs, and you went into what was really an isolation hospital. I was in this large ward, and noticed that almost always, those patients who hemorrhaged, coughed up blood, ended up being pushed out to the morgue, what we call a mortuary. And, lo and behold, one day, I went into the toilet and started coughing, and I coughed up blood. And I said, Well, anyone who does this that I’ve seen, end up being carried out on a stretcher out to the morgue. And very strangely, actually, I said, Well, if I am going to die, I’m going to die. But I had wonderful people who cared for us.
Including a White man, who’d become a mentor of sorts by that time.
Trevor Huddleston. He was quite amazing. I knew that he would visit me at least once every week, and I knew he was a very busy person. I mean, his schedule was very tight. And it did something to you inside to say, Here is this guy from overseas, a White man who makes you feel so special. You’re a township urchin, and I owe a very great deal to him. I know that many others regarded him as an incredible mentor. I don’t know whether you know Hugh Masekela. Hugh Masekela is one of our top jazz musicians, and he’s a trumpeter. And Trevor Huddleston bought him his first trumpet from Louis Satchmo Armstrong. Really. And that was just a fantastic thing. But that was Trevor all over. He really helped to, I think, exorcise from many of us hate of White people. Because you said, Well, if there’s someone who can put himself out to such an extent for us, then they can’t all be bad. [CHUCKLE]
In his play Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote: Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Influenced by a White clergyman who did not see the world in Black and White, unwilling to enable a society that perpetuated racism, Desmond Tutu had greatness thrust upon him. He likes to say that nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s how he became a leader.
I had wanted to be a physician. And I was admitted to medical school, but then, we didn’t [CHUCKLE]—we didn’t have enough money to be able to send me to medical school. So, I opted to go and train as a teacher, because we were getting scholarships to be able to do that. And it was only when the government introduced what they called Bantu education that my wife and I, who were both teachers, decided no, we didn’t want to be part of this where we were going to be giving our children this horrendous stuff.
Yeah. I mean, it was worse than what we had had. Ours was also in some ways unequal. I mean, the resources were unequal. When Verwoerd came in, he decided, no, things like mathematics, what does a Black child need mathematics for? No, they mustn’t study the American War of Independence, the French Revolution. Those will put subversive ideas into their heads.
So, the government became more regressive.
Yeah. And was awful. It was quite awful. And he said quite unabashedly, the aim of Bantu education is to teach Black children enough English and Afrikaans, which were the languages of the White people, enough English and Afrikaans so that they can understand instructions by their White—he said that publicly, openly. So, we decided, no thank you, we don’t want to be part of this, having to feed our children a travesty. And I didn’t have too many options, so I said, Maybe, maybe I might become a priest. And it so happened that the Bishop decided he would accept me. Yes. And I have said that I was a leader by default, really. It was because our real leaders were either in jail, Nelson Mandela and all these others were on Robben Island, or they were in exile. All were restricted somehow or other by the Apartheid government. So, God doesn’t allow, or nature doesn’t allow for a vacuum, and I happened to go and fill in that particular vacuum.
In a time when high emotions threatened to turn into bloodshed, Arch Bishop Tutu put himself in harm’s way to quell the potential violence in South Africa. In one incident, he saved the life of a man who was being beaten because the Black community suspected him of being an informant. Another time, Tutu stood between armed White police officer and hundreds of angry young Blacks, and diffused a situation that could have easily turned into violence.
And the way you filled that vacuum was extremely dangerous to you. I mean, there literally were people on one hand throwing stones, and people on the other hand with guns, and you got up by yourself and stood between them.
When you’ve got a crowd of ten thousand, you can’t really depend on a script. You’ve got to try to hold the people somehow in the palm of your hand, their mood can change just like that. And, yeah, we were fortunate. I mean, people got to accept that we were their leaders, even if we were leaders by default. Partly, you gained a credibility by the fact that you did stand up to a vicious system. I mean, you did say, We won’t accept this. You might want to turn us into less than human beings, we are human. We know that we have been created in the image of God, we don’t need your permission, White people, to realize that we too have been created in the image of God. We too have an intrinsic worth that doesn’t depend on you. I mean, for me, it wasn’t a political creed. It was my faith, it was my Biblical faith that inspired me.
When violent uprisings threatened South Africa, Arch Bishop Tutu called upon other nations not to invest any money in the country until it did away with legally mandated racial segregation. Though he was aware that this economic boycott would hurt everyone in South Africa, especially the Black populous, he believed that a nonviolent protest would have better long term results for the nation as a whole.
And did your faith tell you that one day, Apartheid would be abolished in South Africa?
Yes. I mean, the way things happen in a moral universe is that ultimately, right will prevail.
Now, what makes you say it’s a moral universe?
Because it is. I mean, it might take long, but wrong will ultimately get its comeuppance. Just look. I mean, when you look at history, you see, I mean, that, hey, here is Caesar, and he’s ruling the roost and thinks he’s cock of the walk. And, he bites the dust. Hitler … Mussolini … Amin. I mean, you look at them. Yes, it may take a very, very long time, but as sure as anything, they will get their comeuppance.
Which reminds me of the questions you must get all the time from people as a faith leader. You know, people saying, Well, why does God want us to suffer, why does He allow this suffering, why am I suffering more than other people?
Oh, yeah; yeah.
You must get that all the time.
Well, yes. I mean, ultimately, you can’t pretend that you know everything aspect of it, but you can say some things. One is that God created us to be persons, which means that we have freedom of choice. And God, incredible. I mean, it really is incredible. I mean, look at the Holocaust. You say, For goodness sake, God, why did You not intervene? And God says, Look, I gave them freedom of choice, I gave them the freedom to choose good, and to choose wrong. And if the Nazis who are in power choose wrong, if I intervene, I am subverting the gift that I have given. And there is a time when God is impotent, you know. And that is the glory of our God.
Spend any amount of time with Arch Bishop Tutu, and you’ll hear him laugh. It catches you by surprise, because he laughs at some of the most unexpected moments.
We only talked a short time, but I’ve noticed a couple of things. You tend to understate, the conditions were very bad and you were deathly ill, but you don’t paint that grim a picture, and you laugh. The Dalai Lama does the same thing, doesn’t he?
Yeah, he’s more mischievous. I’m more serious.
You are not that serious. [CHUCKLE]
I mean, I’ve had to say to him, he’ll probably pull my cap off my head, and I say, Sh-h, the cameras are on us. Try to behave like a holy man. [CHUCKLE]
The two of you are laughing over there.
But do you find that humor is needed in a profession such as yours, when there’s just so much misery you’re exposed to?
I don’t know that I could have, I mean, I wake up in the morning, and I say, Now, look here, Tutu, you’ve got to joke about this or that. It just happens that well, maybe that was a gift that God gave for us to be able to survive. Yeah. And actually, our people were remarkably I mean, they had a wonderful funny truth, actually. Because even at their worst moments, like you have a funeral where you’ve had a massacre of thirty, forty people, and it’s gloom, and there’s a lot of tension, telling a funny story made—I mean, the tension just eased out of people, and they realize, I mean, that despite what the Apartheid system was trying to do to them, they were human. They had a dignity, and they needed to know that there was nothing ultimately that someone else could do which would undermine their humanity, ultimately. That they were in charge. If you didn’t laugh, if we didn’t laugh, we would have been crying far too much.
Arch Bishop Tutu has seen firsthand the abominations that human beings can inflict on one another. He has seen mankind at its worst. And yet, one of the teachings that he communicates to the world is forgiveness.
What you’ve said is, It gives us the capacity to make a new start, and forgiveness is grace by which you’re able to get the other person to get up, get up with dignity to begin anew. But how do you see forgiveness? You can’t forgive someone without being very clear on what they did to hurt; right?
Yes. I mean, forgiving isn’t saying you’re pretending that they didn’t hurt you. You don’t pretend, and you don’t pretend that it’s all okay. There are certain conditions. Yeah. I mean, you’re saying, I hope the culprit will have the grace to acknowledge that they made a mistake or they hurt me. But, if you are going to wait for the perpetrator to be ready to ask for forgiveness, to be penitent, you are binding yourself into a victim mode. You are saying, I depend on him. Whereas, you can say, I am ready to forgive you, and I forgive you. And then, it is like a gift. It is up to him or her to accept the gift. But you are then released from the victim mode, and you can get on with your life. But it isn’t easy, it isn’t also feeling good. You know, it’s a decision that you have to make. It’s not anything that has to do merely with feeling, but you can, in having forgiven, get to feel good. But it is, in fact, also [CHUCKLE] good for your health.
Not to become embittered and hang onto these griefs.
Yes. You know anger, it raises your blood pressure, and can get to a point where it gives you stomach ulcers. So, forgiving, apart from anything else, is good for your health.
Have you had trouble forgiving?
I have had times when I thought this was very close to being unforgivable. During the times of the struggle, Leah and I often got telephone calls with death threats. And sometimes, I mean, the people who called were not able to get directly to us. Maybe one of the children would pick up the phone, and you could see by the fact of your child stiffening, that, oh, one of those kind of calls has come. And I often thought, I mean, this is really unconscionable. This person is aware that they’re not speaking to me or to Leah, they’re speaking to a child, and they still say something like, Go tell your father that we are going to kill him, or something, you know. And that, for me, was very close to being unforgivable, where they also were trying to get at us by getting at our children, which I didn’t think was playing by the rules. [CHUCKLE]
In today’s celebrity-driven world, it’s getting more difficult to find real heroes, men and women who are willing to put themselves at risk for what they believe in, someone like Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, who helped make a difference for the people and the country he loves. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story
Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.
I think each of us is being asked to help make this world slightly more beautiful, slightly more gentle, slightly more caring, slightly more compassionate. Uh, and it can be. I mean, if we … just realize, I—I mean, that um … we are ultimately meant to live as members of one family. God’s family.
Air date: Mon., Aug. 17, 8:00 pm
Discover how yoga can come to the aid of anyone, regardless of age, who wants to increase strength and mobility. Yoga is both a natural weight-bearing exercise that builds strength and a low-impact way to work wonders for balance. Peggy Cappy, whose gentle yoga approach has helped many reduce stress and create greater comfort and ease in body, mind and spirit for more than 40 years, shows how yoga poses can increase range of motion, improve awareness of the body and help keep the metabolism running efficiently.
Original air date: Tues., Jun. 31, 2012
Dean of the Hawai’inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge
Leslie Wilcox talks story with the dean of the Hawai’inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii at Manoa about how her culture and her grandparents’ influence guided her through life.
We’ve been going through what I call this period of survivance, relearning how to be powerful, relearning how to be strong, how tell our stories, and all we really needed to do was to go back and listen to our kupuna, and make that connection for ourselves in this contemporary world.
Maenette Ah Nee-Benham, the first dean of Hawaiinuiakea, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Hawaiian Knowledge; next, on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short, with Leslie Wilcox, is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. The gift of story passed on from one generation to the next has been the guiding force behind Dr. Maenette Ah Nee- Benham’s journey of self discovery. Stories as shared by her beloved parents and grandparents, and other kupuna have informed her core values as a kanaka maole, a native Hawaiian. As a leader in the field of education, Maenette Ah Nee-Benham heads Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her journey began in Monterey, California where she was born, and it continued in Germany where her father, Albert “Sonny” Henry Ah Nee, was stationed in the military. His service took the family away from the islands for the first five years of Maenette ’s life. The family included her mother, Emmaline Padeken, and two younger brothers.
I grew up with the mele, the hula that my parents surrounded themselves with. We had luaus in Germany. I don’t know exactly what we ate, but I see pictures of us having luaus, and people dancing, and stuff like that. So everywhere we went, my parents, parents were deeply grounded.
Was it ever a negative to be Hawaiian where you lived?
I never felt that way. I’m sure, I’m sure that I was shielded by a lot of that. I think it wasn’t until I got older. I think being Hawaiian, and not appreciating who you are actually started, sorry to say, when I moved back home. When I started growing up and started going to school, and started hearing from people that it wasn’t really good.
How old were you then?
I think I started to feel that when I was more like in third or fourth grade. I’ve always felt proud to be Hawaiian, my entire life. And I would get very upset when people would put me down, or my family down. And I remember hearing all these really rotten stories, stereotypical stories people would tell about us, so to say.
What were the things you heard?
You know, that we were very lazy, we were not smart. People would tell me, Oh, you know, you’re just gonna grow up, you know, and get pregnant and, you know, if you really want to do well, what you’re gonna do is, you’re gonna either have to marry a Japanese person or a Haole person.
That’s what you were told.
That’s what we were told. I remember thinking to myself, Well, this can’t be true, ’cause my grandparents were just, like, the salt of the earth. They were the smartest people I knew. They weren’t lazy. None of the people that I knew were lazy. Well, maybe my brother was. No, I’m kidding. [CHUCKLE] But, no, people worked really hard, everybody I knew. And so, all the stereotypes flew in the face of everything that I knew. But I constantly heard that; constantly heard that.
What were the values you grew up with?
My grandmother, who was a fisherwoman, would teach us many things growing up. But there are certain things that I have sort of kept with me. My Grandmother Ah Nee always taught us to always take what you need, and never more. My Grandma Padeken taught me some really important lessons about how to be a person. And she could make anything out of nothing. Like, you would have like two dozen people sitting around the table, around a bowl of poi. She had two cans of canned corned beef, man, and you’d have a feast. Right? I mean, she was very, very entrepreneurial, she was very innovative and creative. One of the things my grandmother taught me is not only how to make something out of nothing, and how to appreciate that. But at her table, I remember people dropping in and feeling welcome and at home, and having conversations just about anything. And I remember just sitting there and listening to these big people talk, and laugh, and tell stories, and how much I loved that feeling of engagement.
Everybody was welcome, even though they were planned for, and everyone felt comfortable.
That’s right. And everybody sat around the bowl of poi and ate, and everybody was well nourished. That in itself is a life lesson of how to be, of how to live. And so when people say, What does it mean to be Hawaiian?, I tell that story.
Maenette Ah Nee-Benham excelled at Hawaii’s public schools, but at young age, felt strongly that Kamehameha Schools could offer better educational and leadership opportunities. On her own initiative, she recalls, she completed the application process and was accepted for her freshman year of high school. Later, she found a means to finance her college education, capping off her senior year by winning the title of Hawaii’s Junior Miss of 1974. With a full college scholarship in hand, she left for California to earn her bachelor and master’s degrees in theater and communications from San Francisco State University. Her first post-college work experiences were as a curriculum specialist and administrator at schools in California and in Texas.
Both my Grandma Ah Nee and my Grandma Padeken explained to me when I was very young about my name, Kape‘ahiokalani. And it is a name of one of my great-great-aunts, who was a chanter in King Kalakaua’s court. And basically, what they said to me was that because I held this name, I had the responsibility of remembering the moolelo of our family, and I had the responsibility of contributing to the health and wellbeing of my family. That was it. That’s what they told me. I said, Okay. Because that’s what you do. Your kupuna tell you that, and you say, Okay, so what do I need to do?
And there are all kinds of ways to accomplish that too.
Yeah, there’s all kinds of ways to do that. And I just found this to be my journey, you know, in educational leadership. I just found that to be what really gets me excited, what really inspires me. And it all started because in fifth grade at Koko Head Elementary School, Mrs. Kwon made me do flannel board stories for the kindergartners. And I loved it. I loved just telling stories, creating stories and telling them to young kids, and watching the light bulbs go off. So my first job was as a kindergarten teacher. What a great job, you know, where you get unconditional love every single day. And teachers are leaders; and good leaders are great teachers. I have worked with some very tough people. I have worked with some very tough situations. I’m not a Pollyanna, I’ve been through a lot. When I was an administrator in Texas—I won’t tell you where, because when I was an administrator in Texas, I was put into a principal position in an elementary school that was gonna be closed down because the students were primarily migrants, primarily Spanish-speaking, and it was failing school. And this was during a time when you could only teach English only in the schools, to a population whose first language was Spanish. And they’re taking a test in English. Hello; they’re not gonna pass anything. Of course, they’re gonna have, you know, tremendous problems. So I walked into that situation. At the same time, teacher testing was introduced into the Texas schools. And so, if you as a teacher did not pass a particular test, you were out. Didn’t matter how many years you were there, you were just out.
And you got to tell them that.
Thank you. So I was twenty-seven years old. So of course, you’re twenty-seven years old, right, you know everything, right? I had just come from California, we were doing bilingual ed, and so we did it. Now, that was a very tough situation for me, because the law said I couldn’t do it. And I did everything, you know, to ensure the success of the students in that school. And in the first year, we did teach bilingually, ’cause all the teachers knew how to do it, and they were very successful. The testing was good. I brought in some friends from Trinity University to come in and help the teachers, so that all the teachers passed the test except for two of them. Eventually, one of the two did pass, and one retired. So the first year, we did everything bilingual. I caught, and I got a talking to, you know.
By the superintendent. That it was against the law, that I could be thrown in jail, bla-bla-bla-bla. And I argued that the kids could speak bilingually, we just needed to teach them that way, and they would be stronger for it. So the second year, what I did is, I instituted a coding system. We still taught bilingually, but every time somebody from the district came, the codes went out and everybody switched. Okay. And so, we did okay until some parents were very upset, because they wanted their kids to speak English only, and they didn’t want bilingual, so they reported me. Right. Now, listen. I am sitting in rooms with the superintendent and other school principals, and I’m being railed at. But there are lessons that I learned about integrity, about standing for what you believe in, and about doing things for the kids, because that was what was really important, was the kids learning. Not my job, ’cause I could get another job. But I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t stand up for what I believed was right. I learned what I was made of. I really did. My last meeting that I had, the superintendent was, you know, through clenched teeth saying how much he appreciated the work I did. I’m like, yeah, right. And whatnot, and that he had a gift for me. And I said, Oh, wow, a gift; oh, my gosh. And so, he gave me this little box, a little red box, you know, and I thought, Oh wow. He said, Well, open it, open it. So I opened it, and it was two silver stress balls, you know, the Chinese stress balls. And I was like, Oh, this is interesting. So I opened up the envelope, and in the envelope it said, Now that you have the balls, maybe you can do the job. I didn’t say a thing. I didn’t even say thank you. I just looked at it, I put it back in the box, and I just sat there, waited for the meeting to be done, and I was out of there. I was out of there. I was so full of rage … so full of rage, and there were so many things that I wanted to say. But one of the things I remembered is that you never want to put anything out there that you can’t be proud of saying. And I remember saying to myself, If what I have to say in this room could make a difference, then maybe I’ll say it. But I didn’t feel at the time that it would make any difference in the world. I’ve learned how to really understand my rage, and through that, learn how to talk with people about how we can come together to do good things together, how I can do that, even though I might be angry, even though I might disagree with what you have to say, but how I can do that through love. That was the beginning of my learning of how to work with people.
How do you do it? How do you it, when people are constantly throwing out personal slurs instead of just sticking to what needs to get done?
Well, one of the things is that you have to understand where that intent is coming from, where that hurt is, and you know, that the person is doing that because there is hurt there. There’s fear, there’s hurt, there’s history there that they still need to work through. And so, oftentimes, I just allow that to be there. I was asked to do a genius speech, and I talked about the genius of leadership is living into grace. And it’s that idea of creating a space where people can feel really safe, even though you say the worst things. I want you to feel safe here, I just want you to feel safe. And no matter what you have to say, no matter how angry you are, go ahead, go and do that. And when you’re pau, let’s get to work. And in the end, everybody will know that there will be a direction we’re gonna go.
Maenette Ah Nee-Benham taught at Kamehameha Schools, Chaminade University, and Kaiser High School while working toward her doctorate in educational administration from the University of Hawaii in 1992. In 1993, Dr. Ah Nee-Benham began a sixteen-year association with Michigan State University as a faculty member with the College of Education. Her work with indigenous educational institutions brought her in close touch with the American Indian Tribal colleges and universities, and led to a greater appreciation for the life lessons imparted by the stories of native peoples.
When I started working in Indian country, I’m not Native American. I’m not native to the Americas. And I walked into my very first meeting with another elder, and I sat there in a circle. And Lionel Bordeaux, who is a large man, you know, sits in his chair, and he has this cane like this, and he stomps the floor with his cane. And he goes, What right do you have to come and tell our stories? And I was near tears. And I thought to myself, Well, what do you say to that? And all I could say to that was, My name is Maenette Kape‘ahiokalani Padeken Ah Nee-Benham; let me tell you about my grandmothers. And so, I talked about my Grandma Padeken, and my Grandpa George, and our life in Kaaawa. I talked about my grandma, how she raised me in the ocean. So I talked about the way that I had been raised, and the stories my grandmother would tell me. And my point was that, I have my native stories, you have your native stories, and together, we can learn about each other, and together we’ll tell the stories. But, when I was doing work on the reservations, the elders would sit down, and they would tell stories. And it just captured you, just took you to another place, and I began to make connections. I was having a hard time, they were talking about finding medicine here, and how it helped them. And it helped me. And pretty soon, I began to remember the stories my grandmothers used to tell me, and appreciating that more. And that just made me feel so much a part of my skin, and so much a part of the islands. It takes time to retell the stories. And I think that’s what we as kanaka maoli have been going through too, is that we’ve been going through what I call this period of survivance, relearning how to be powerful, relearning how to be strong, how tell our stories, and all we really needed to do was to go back and listen to our kupuna and make that connection for ourselves in this contemporary world. If we go back and listen to our kaleo tapes, if we go and take a look at our newspapers, if you go back to that rich resource of knowledge, and experience, and stories, you’ve got all that. We have a strong history of being a self-governed nation, of being witty and wise, and prosperous. We have that. We just have to go back and relearn it. Because my mother died when I was very young, when I was six years old—and she was a very accomplished woman. Beautiful dancer, she danced at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, she had a master’s degree in education back in the 1950s. She was just so very talented, and she died in her early 30s, so at a very young age. Because my grandmothers and my mother’s friends loved her so much, there are many stories they would tell me about her. And of course, you want to live up to those things. And I have to admit, at times I was like, Oh, please. You know, Really? Just really, do I really have to do this?, kind of a thing. But I think that the really deep sense of kuleana, of deep responsibility to live a life that she would be proud of, I think … because I lost her at such a young age, that was just so important to me. And maybe, thinking about it, maybe that’s why I never thought less of myself. I’m Native Hawaiian … I’m a woman … I can be pretty dipsy at times, and I can be smart at times. But I never really felt down on myself, because I always had that memory of her, and the stories of her.
What is your memory of your mother? Your own, you know, direct memory.
My own memory. My own memory of my mother is that she was very driven. I remember her working, I remember her singing, I remember her dancing. I remember her teaching; she taught at two different schools.
This is all looking very familiar when I look at your life.
Yes; isn’t it? [CHUCKLE]
In 2008, Maenette Ah Nee-Benham was offered the opportunity to come home. She was named dean of Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, located at the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii. It’s the first new school or college established on the Manoa campus in twenty-five years, and it’s one of the largest schools of indigenous knowledge in the United States.
What does Hawaiinuiakea mean?
This is the name of our place. Of the islands, and the area around it. It is our home. And it embraces everybody. I think that’s one of the things I really tried to make clear to my colleague deans, and to my colleagues in other faculties who are non-Hawaiian, is that one of the values is ohana, and ohana does not always mean that we are of the same blood. Ohana means that we can agree on a set of principles and a mission for the work that we’re doing, and we’re gonna be innovative and entrepreneurial, and we’re gonna work together really hard to get there. That’s ohana. So when I came home … I am very committed to the promise of just that, of being the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a research run institution that is a land, sea, and sky grant, that is indigenous or kanaka maoli grounded. One of the things we’re working on right now is a lot of really nice signage that not only will tell the story of UH Manoa, but also of this pai aina that we’re sitting on. What used to be here before, you know, Cook arrived in the islands. Story of the land, our stories, the moolelo of this place. So when people come here, they know, Oh, Manoa. Oh, here’s the story of Kane and Kanewai. Oh, here’s the story of the winds. Oh, that’s why—you know, knowing the place. Knowing this place. Connecting yourself to this land will connect yourself to the University of Hawaii Manoa. Many Native Hawaiians, when they look at the University, that’s not our story. I mean, this institution is not our story. You know, it’s somebody else’s story. But it is a venue where we can learn the skills of the 21st century global world, to live into the stories of our time, you know, still holding on to our stories of lineage. And so, what Native Hawaiians, at least my community, needs to learn to do is, we need to learn to re-story this story, the academic story. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it for myself that I can live in this universe, I can be successful in this university, and I haven’t given up any of my kanaka maoli values.
Well, what is your idea for yourself of being a Hawaiian who’s true to her belief s and her culture in the 21st century Hawaii?
One of the joys of my work right now is actually working in community with youth. And so, I’m working a lot with Mao Farms, which you’re familiar with, with Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth and their youth leadership training program. And I have relations with these young people who are learning their value as people, they’re learning the moolelo of Waianae, and they’re learning to craft something that is going to sustain their community. And they’re going to LCC, and they’re graduating, and then they’re coming to Manoa in a variety of different fields; in agriculture, in engineering, in medicine. And the reason why they’re doing that, because when they get those skills, they’re gonna go right back home and make it a better place. I have a big project with the Kellogg Foundation; it’s called Engaging Communities in Education. We’re bringing together youth leadership groups, several from Hawaii, some from across the continent, and we’re converging on Youth Radio, which is located in Oakland, California. And for people who know digital media, Youth Radio is like right at the top of their game.
Right; one of the first and best.
That’s right. And we’re going there to learn about media, but social messaging advocacy, creating those kinds of plans, how do young people do that. How are you really smart about that, but at the same time, how do you remain around it in your lineage. How do you tell that? So that’s what it means to be a 21st century Native Hawaiian. We are rebuilding our story as a nation every day. And we’ve had to go through a lot of growing. I mean, come on, we were decimated; we were decimated when Cook landed and everything that happened. We’ve gone through a history of two hundred years of battling for our survival of ensuring that our stories were kept alive in remote places somewhere. We’ve battled hard, and we’re coming out of it now and we’re making clear strides forward, and we’re educating a whole new generation of Native Hawaiian leaders whose olelo was strong, whose moolelo is deeply rooted, and who love this land … and can have civic discourse, not only among Hawaiians, but everyone, who are learning how to speak in that way. So I think we’re ready. I’m glad I came home.
Dr. Maenette Ah Nee-Benham says that the experience of learning and teaching moves her spirit, and connects her to the kupuna on whose shoulders she stands, and the generations of people yet to come. Mahalo piha, Maenette Ah-Nee-Benham, for sharing your long story short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.
And, I went through that phase, where I thought I was the smartest whip in town. And I said some things that I know were very hurtful. And the intentionality of my words were hurtful, and that’s not a good thing. And my grandmother would constantly tell me, you know, once you put something out there, once you write it down, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. So what you want to make sure you do is that you say things that people can embrace, that can make them happy and healthy. Period. No wagging her finger at me or anything. Just matter of factly.
Original air date: Tues., Apr. 29, 2008
Award-Winning Singer, Songwriter and Kumu Hula
Robert Cazimero, award-winning singer, songwriter and kumu hula, joins Leslie Wilcox for a good-fun, talk story session in which the two share laughter, tears and touching stories of living and loving – including stories about The Brothers Cazimero (Robert and his brother Roland) who’ve led a resurgence of Hawaiian music, language, dance and culture since the 1970s.
In part two of a two-part, good-fun, talk story session. Robert shares stories about his hula halau, the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.
Aloha no and mahalo for joining me for another conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Robert Cazimero is familiar to us in Hawaii as half of the Brothers Cazimero, the award-winning and highly successful musical duo. He’s well-known. But how well do you know him? When he speaks publicly, it’s almost always about an upcoming May Day concert, new recording, new DVD, a planned performance. Or he’s having a fundraiser for his all- male hula halau, Na Kamalei. Coming up next – we ask Robert to talk about the person, not public events. Part One of a delightful, two-part conversation with Robert Cazimero.
The Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, were leaders in the 1970s resurgence of Hawaiian music and culture. More than 30 years later, they continue to record and they perform locally, on the Mainland, abroad. Robert is also kumu hula of the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.
I know you as a singer, a performer and a kumu hula; but where did all this start?
Well, I don’t know how far back you want to go, but I’ll start with being born.
Now, our parents, Roland and my parents were music people; they were entertainers. So we fell into that immediately because we were surrounded by it.
Did they perform in Waikiki?
Actually, not so much in Waikiki, although they did do that. Mostly for the military clubs and for private parties. And they played standards; the old mainland standards. So we learned to play that kind of music as well as Hawaiian music.
What’s an example of a mainland standard?
Well you know like, Our Love Is Here To Stay, for example, and Please Release Me, and stuff like that. So we do that, besides Kane‘ohe and Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And so it started there. And we thought everybody else did the same thing in all the houses that surrounded us there in Kalihi, until you know, we found out different. And then we went to high school, and we got more involved with that. In high school I met my kumu hula, Maiki Aiu Lake. And as she left the class that she had come to speak with, which was the class we were in, she told me; she says, You know, someday you’re gonna want to teach hula, and you know, You’ll want to take hula, she said; and I’m going to be that teacher. And I was like –
Did she know anything about you?
Well, I had just played the piano for her to sing the song that she had come to talk about. And so she – but no, she just told me that. And at the time, it didn’t really register, the depth of what she had said. So I said, Okay; and then went to lunch. You know, sort of like today, actually.
And then years later, I found myself at her door, of her school. So I went to the university, I took voice lessons when I was there. I would fight with my teacher every day. His name was Jerry Gordon, a really nice guy. I kept saying to him, There are a lot of people who sing your style, but not enough people who sing my style. So I’ll do what you want in class, and then I won’t do what you want –
What’s your style?
I think it’s more – at the time, I thought it was more laid back, island, floaty. You know, and what he wanted was something that was a bit more pronounced, more exact, full of history of a far-away land. I mean, Italy; when you’re from Kalihi, you don’t think so much about Italy. You know, so …
So it wasn’t just how you sang, but what he wanted you to sing about.
Yes. What he wanted me to sing about, and how it was presented. You know, because when I sang Hawaiian music, it was much more laid back and I would not say apologetic. But I mean, it was a step back. When I was taking voice lessons from him, it was definitely, you were out there. You know. So I was there with him for a few years, and then I left school because well, our careers started to take off with the Sunday Manoa, first, and then –
Well, now, what happened to the 60s and rock and roll? Were you part of that?
Of course. Yeah; yeah. Loved the rock and roll years. Yeah; I was definitely there. We thought that The Platters were cool. And Roland was a real big fan of Jimmy Hendrix; real big. And we got all into that. You know, I didn’t – we didn’t get so much into the drugs of it, as much as we did the music.
We really liked the music. And the fact that, you know, we’re the original Flower People, so we were like out there.
[chuckle] People talk freely about how you were instrumental in that Hawaiian renaissance; the music and language, and everything that came with it.
M-hm. You know, people do speak freely about the fact that we were there at the start of the renaissance, and leading the way. We had no idea. We had no idea we were leading the way for anybody, or to anything. We were just there, having a good time. We were just so happy to have people standing in line out there at Chuck’s Cellar in Waikiki, not to come for steaks, but to listen to us play music. You know, so we really had no time to think about this whole idea of the renaissance, until maybe like two or three years after we had already been in it, and someone brought it up and said, What was it like? And we were like, Oh well. You know, it was very interesting, and it was fun, and –
Well, when you would go out for gigs, did you and Roland think about, you know, your marketing plan, and who your audience was and how to tailor your music? Anything like that?
No. We were just as wild on stage as we were, you know, at home. We were doing what we were doing. Roland and I used to go to work in caftans and get on stage and change, and then on the breaks, we’d wear these caftans, walking around the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
They’d never seen anything like that before.
Well, no. I would wake up in the morning, and cut my bedspread, and throw it on, and go to school at the university. ‘Cause it was the ‘60s, and you were supposed to wear your bedspread to school, or something like that. So yeah. It was never really planned out or strategically, or any kind of game plan, or –
But it was just who you were. You were doing what you were.
Yeah. And we were still kinda deciding what we were, and what we were doing. You know. And lots of experimentation in so many different facets. Lots of experimentation. So –
Did you do all kinds of music, or did you do just Hawaiian?
Well, at the time, with the Sunday Manoa, we kinda like felt like we should stay in this niche of Hawaiian music, you know. But the influences of like big things that were happening on the mainland became a part of what was entwined with the Hawaiian music. Yeah. So …
So Chuck’s Cellar was your Sunday Manoa time.
Was – yeah – was the very beginning, when we became known. Yeah. And I was 19 years old at the time.
Did you get all big-headed?
No, because we were change – you know, if you thought – there we go again. Just to make sure you knew you weren’t that important, we would change in the parking lot. There was no dressing room, you know, and you still got $15 for the whole gig. You know, so yeah. There was no way you could get big head. As the career got to be better and better, some people would say, You know, you folks are getting to be so Waikiki, so mainland. You know, you’re forgetting where you’re coming from. Well, let me just say, there is no way you can ever, ever forget that you’re from Kalihi, I don’t care what you try to do in your life, you know. And after a while, it gets to the point where it’s a time that is so beautiful, and so worth being a part of, that you never, ever want to forget. You know, I’m proud that I’m a Kalihi guy.
What part of Kalihi were you raised in?
We would say Waena. So it’d be like Kam IV Road, where you know, we were there before they built that monstrosity, the Kuhio Park Terrace. So in the old days, from the roof of our house, or the back porch actually, you could see the fireworks at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. You can’t anymore.
And you always lived in the same place as you were growing up?
M-hm. And I finally moved out, gee many, many years later. ‘Cause our mom had Alzheimer’s for something like 15 years. And I had come home one day, and she had washed all my silk clothes in Clorox. And I knew that it was time to go.
So I left, and I never looked back. [chuckle] Roland still has the house.
Both of the Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, are masters of their craft and consummate performers. But you’d never mistake one for the other. Different lifestyles, different approaches; but as artists and businessmen, the same respect for each other.
I really learned how to talk, to be comfortable in front of a crowd through Loyal Garner – watching her perform. Really too, the Society of Seven, as far as flow is concerned, in a show. And our friend Gramps, who was very influential, and my kumu, Maiki; watching them. Of course, now, there are the other influences, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Kenny Rankin, who I would listen to for hours. I’d play his records, and I would listen to his style, and try to mimic it. And if he was gonna hold it for these many measures, I was gonna hold it for that many measures, and one more. You know.
And you always thought you would go into music professionally?
No; because getting back to this brother and sister thing. The brother above me, Rodney, was the one who we considered the voice in the family. So it was very difficult, after he went into the service, for me to start singing, and then to have to sing in front of him. So that was something we all had to learn about; how to handle things like that.
Just the whole respect thing; that he was the older one. And still is. And I still think that of all of us, he has the most beautiful voice.
And how much does he sing now?
Well, he’s working on a new CD, my brother Rodney is. So I’m very excited for it.
Well, Roland seems like chaos.
[chuckle] He’s uh –
He’s out there.
That’s a good way of putting it. You know, he’s really reeled himself in, within the last maybe ten years. But you’re right; he was out there to the max, and over the top, being Roland Cazimero. I mean, he was wild and wooly and the women were everywhere and the liquor and the drugs and the food; and that’s making me sound like I was a prude.
[chuckle] And he would probably be late, and you would be on time? Is that how it worked?
Oh, yeah. Oh, big fights about that; I tell you. And it was really some difficult times there. But he – yeah; he had a tendency to come to work when he was ready to come to work. Yeah.
How about musically; I sense there wasn’t –
There was not any kind of schism about that?
You know, the thing about Roland was that he would come with stuff, because of his life, where it was. It would be so far off of what I thought was Hawaiian but I liked it. You know. And so he would do stuff, and I was like, Okay, let’s put that in and tape. Mind you, another thing about that too is, we had been with the Sunday Manoa, and Peter Moon was the leader at the time. And Peter and Roland got along really well. Because as much as I was grounded in the Hawaiian thing, those two boys were out in the world, and they liked other music and would bring it to the table. After we left Peter, then I had to listen a little bit more to Roland, because he would be the orchestra. I was just gonna be the voice; he was gonna be the orchestra. And it worked out quite nicely, actually.
Sure has; and still going strong.
Still going strong. And you know what? I can say now that it’s much more fun than it’s ever been. I’ve learned to relax a lot ‘cause you know, I was the one on pins and needles, thinking that I had to like choke his neck to shut up so that I could do a show. And now it’s just to the point where like it really – it sounds like such a cliché, but it’s all really good when it’s me and Roland. ‘Cause we’re just having a really good time, and it’s terrific.
Let’s talk about Roland and you for a while.
I mean, you’ve had this long career with him.
Yes; very long. It’s a marriage, you know.
Long, and spectacular. And he’s your brother. I mean, did you folks grow up fighting with each other? Like –
All the time.
Like most siblings do?
Yeah; yeah. We fought all the time. But we got to a point – and I think – you know, we really started playing music professionally with our parents in the – well, I started in the latter part of the 60s, or middle 60s. Roland was already playing when he was eight years old. So when we went on our own, and by the time we got to like 1973 or 74, we had pretty much made up our minds that as much as this was show business, we were gonna concentrate more on the business part of it, than the show. I mean, the show would come along, so we knew that pretty much no matter what happened – believe me, dear, a lot has happened that we would stick it out. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t had full-out fights on stage, at the Waikiki Shell on May Day. I mean, not throwing blows, ‘cause people could see that; but I mean throwing words back and forth, and yeah. So it’s been a challenge, but it’s been great all the way.
Well, you two seem like such different personalities. I’m actually surprised that you are such an enduring and endearing duo.
I think because we embrace two different worlds that we bring everybody in from those different worlds and meld them into the Brothers Cazimero.
Well, how do the dynamics of the two of you work?
Well, okay; here it goes. We come from a family of twelve kids; eight boys and four girls. And it was understood thing as we were growing up that if our parents were there, the oldest child always was the one who we would listen to. I’m older than Roland by just one year. So …
Were you the oldest? No, right?
No, no, no; I’m number ten of the twelve, so there are nine above me. And so I would just tell them and they’d have to listen.
But you could only boss two other kids.
Yeah. Because if I said something, and my older brother or older sister said something over me I would say nothing after that –
But you could boss Roland.
I could boss Roland, and I could boss my sister, ‘cause she’s the twin to Roland. So although, I wouldn’t call it – Roland would call it bossing. [chuckle] But I wouldn’t.
You’re there in your nice aloha shirt and long pants, and he’s in green tights and a sweatshirt sometimes, crossing his legs on the stage.
It’s just – it’s so funny, and so beautiful.
He does wear some of those clothes. And I have to take credit for some of it, ‘cause I did buy him a few of those things to get him into it at first. And as I grew out of them he just more and more into them. And it causes a lot of trouble for me in other places, I’ll tell you.
But he knows who he is, and you know who he is, and you understand each other.
Yeah. So there’s no problem there. You know. And we’ll make fun of it, too. He’ll make fun of it; and it’s fine. I like him so much more now, and that’s why we get along so much better.
One year difference.
Yes; only one year. But I always felt like I was tons years different than he was. Difference, as far as age.
Did you always feel like you had to keep the duo together, because he was not disciplined?
You know, I don’t know that I felt that way, ‘cause I knew – we had already decided on the business part, so I knew that late or not or whatever indecision, we were still going to be together. But it didn’t mean it didn’t give me heartburn or heartbreak or whatever. Because I was on pins and needles.
How much does he surprise you on stage with his comments?
Oh, I never really know what my brother’s gonna say; I never do. And sometimes I will say something that will trigger, and I know that it’s triggering something in my mind, and I think to myself, You stupid, stupid –
Don’t make eye contact, right?
I shouldn’t have said that; and sure enough, he picks it up, and he goes, and I tell you, I can’t say anything, because the people are laughing so much, and it’s really so good, and I’m so pissed off.
But it’s so funny.
Yeah. One time, we were on stage at the Shell; it was Roland, myself, and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole. I was between the two of them. And they started on this thing together, and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. All I know is that the audience was dying outside, and I just said one thing, Leslie; I said just one thing, and I don’t remember what it was. Well I was smashed down like a bug, and I was like, Okay, I’m so staying out of this one.
Because Roland and Israel together they were amazing. They had a lot of fun, and a lot of history. So –
And that’s part of the fun of entertaining; the interactions, and you feed off each other, right?
And you become better than –
Especially when they’re –
– the sum of the parts.
– really good, talented people. You know. When you don’t have to say anything or explain anything. So it’s like you and I talking right now. You know, I’ll just say, Okay, you take it, and then you say, You take it, then we’ll both talk together, or finish each other’s sentences. Happens all the time. That’s why I said Roland and I have a relationship that is like, you know, we’ve been married longer than our parents were I think. You know how in Hawaii we tend to call people “Uncle” or “Auntie” as a sign of respect? Here’s a tip, Don’t do that to Robert. You’re about to find out why. And Robert also explains the feeling he’s had for some time, the one that drives him to sing every song like it’s the last time.
You know, in terms of experience and achievement, although I don’t know about in terms of age, you’re a kupuna. Are you treated as such?
Um some people try.
But you don’t let them? [chuckle]
No; I don’t.
What do you –
Another thing I –
– tell them? [chuckle]
I just – actually, you know what? I I’m very lucky that way. No one sees me as really being a kupuna. But –
And that’s a good thing for you.
And that’s a –
That’s a –
– really good thing.
You know, that is a mark of respect, too.
Yeah; yeah. I just I do have a rule, though, and it’s, Don’t call me Uncle. Which is my email address, don’t call me uncle.
Unless we’re actually related; and if we are related, you gotta mention some names in the family line that I have to recognize. Otherwise, just call me Robert. You know. And I’ve gone through the gamut of people calling me Bobby from when I was a kid; Bobby and Bob, and god, I hate that.
Neva Rego calls you Roberto.
Oh, well; yeah.
You don’t correct her. The voice coach you go to.
Oh, no; she can call me Roberto for the rest of my life. That’s fine. But the Bobby one makes me a little queasy. But then you know which part of my life they’re from. You know. And –
Do you tell people, Call me Robert? I mean, just –
Yes; I do.
– straight out?
Yeah. Hi, Uncle. No; just call me Robert. And you know, you know for Hawaiians, that’s a hard thing, because part of the respect is that you call each other Uncle and Auntie. But I just tell them, like, Don’t –
That’s because –
Don’t put any kind –
– you don’t see yourself as Uncle?
It’s because, you know, when you’re in the entertainment business, there is no such thing as age. Once you get out of high school, we’re all the same age. That’s what I say. So, don’t call me Uncle. And don’t call me Auntie, either.
[chuckle] What’s your middle name?
My middle name is Uluwehionapuaikawekiuokalani.
Which means the verdant – the abundance of flowers at the summit of the sky. And my mother was pregnant, and she didn’t know she was, and my aunt, my Auntie Mary Sing who lives in Kalaupapa – that’s a whole ‘nother story – she called my mom and said, You know you’re gonna, you’re pregnant. And my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, You’re pregnant; and my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, Just listen to me; you’re pregnant, here’s the name of the child. So she gave my mother my name.
And she’s calling from the Hansen’s Disease settlement at Kalaupapa.
Yes; she is. So my mother said, Okay. But because of the flowers in the name, o napua, she thought that I was gonna be a girl. Well, anyway; so but I got the name, anyway. And so yeah; sure enough, she was pregnant. She didn’t know it, but she found out from my aunt. And I’ve had that name ever since.
Do you think you live up to the name?
Oh, I hope so; I hope so. Because the funny thing is, as I graduated kids from my school to their own schools, they’ve taken parts of the name.
And they have it in their school. My niece is my namesake, and she has the same name. And then one of my dancers asked if he could name his son after me. And I said, Yeah; except take out the o napua, take the flowers part out. So this boy, Uluwehiikawekiokalani, is one of the newest members in halau now. He’s dancing in the school. That’s the kinda stuff just blows my mind. I’m just so glad I’m seeing it all happen. You know. It’s really cool.
Sometimes you look back at your life, and you go, Wow, if only this hadn’t happened, where would I be.
Was there any one of those moments for you?
Yeah. Would have been my seventh grade; if I didn’t go to Kamehameha, that would have been very different. I think that – because if not, I would have gone to Farrington. And for all I know, I could have ended up being a drag queen.
Just scary, you know. For me. Another thing is that you know, I constantly worry about my voice, and in December I have a tendency to catch colds, in December. So I try and be really careful about that. And one year, it got really bad, and I lost my voice. And we were doing three concerts with the Honolulu Symphony. And I did a concert every night, without a voice. I talked my way through the whole thing. And thank God that the people were receptive. Because it was one of the best concerts, ever. So, and then I have to tell you about one other time. Roland and I were performing at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco, near the business district. And we were doing the show; it was Christmastime, and the whole electricity, within like about eight, ten blocks, went out. And the management said, You know, we need to cancel the show. And the people said, No, don’t cancel the show. So they brought out this flashlight, a real big one, like this. And they stood at the back of the room, and they put the flashlight on, and we played the show. And we did like –what would you call that? Like well, unplugged concert. It was one of the most beautiful shows in my life; it was just great. So you know, glad we did something that at first we weren’t gonna do.
What do you see as the future of your singing career?
You know, it’s kind of difficult for me to think of a future, as far as I’m concerned. Because I just made – well, I’m telling everybody I’m 62, but I’m not. It’s just that they say to me, Wow, you look really good for 62.
So that by the time I get there they can say, Well. But I don’t see me being here that long, on this Earth, for this life. So what I really want to project is the fact that we just keep playing and doing the best in what we do. And if we can produce an album or a CD every year until the time of my demise, then I’ll be totally happy.
Okay; now, you’ve just shaken me up. You see yourself as having an untimely or early death?
Well, I thought – from when I was a kid, I always thought that I’d be dead by 21. I think it’s in a past life thing of mine. And the other thing was that if I stayed away from home longer than two months, that I would never return home. So that’s why my trips have always been short, and coming back in time. And then the longest one was maybe a little over two months, when Roland and I went with Maiki to Europe. But I always felt that after 21, all these years are real gifts for me. You know.
Do you think you, you live more fully every day, because have this –
– thought that you might not have a lot of time?
Absolutely. You know, when Roland and I were – I don’t know that I’ve ever said this on, you know, for television or anything. But when Roland and I were playing with Peter Moon – this was before 1975; we were working at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and we would get bomb threats in the room. And we would just be playing, and all of a sudden, all the lights would come on. And they would – we’d have to have everybody taken out, and we’d go out, and the cops would come in, or the bomb squad or whatever they were, and they would check the whole room, and then they would say, Okay, it’s okay. Now, this would happen sometimes three times a week. So but I’ll tell you; if you were in the audience after that bomb scare had been nilled, you found yourself at one of the most amazing, amazing shows. Because we sang like it was the last time. So ever since then, I try – I do that now. That whenever I do sing or perform, I do it like it’s my last time. Just in case; just in case.
You know, I really enjoy getting to know people on this program – especially people I did already know, like Robert. He’s got much more to share, including what it takes to get into his respected Halau Na Kamalei, why he expelled his much-loved brother Roland from the halau, and his favorite music lyrics. Please join me and Robert Cazimero for Part Two of a two-part LSS next week on PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
I gotta ask you one more thing.
The local thing with the [clucks tongue].
Can you tell me about that?
[chuckle] We were at the Ala Moana Hotel; in those days, we were upstairs at the Summit, which is now called Aaron’s, I think. And I was singing a song, and there was a man in the audience who was looking at me weird, and then he would say he was just looking at me, and so I said I said, What? He says, You’re singing the wrong words. And I was like, Okay. Then he said, If you want, I’ll teach it to you here by the elevator. So we just sat there, and he taught me the words. The next time I sing it, I’m downstairs at the – we called it the Cave at the time.
The Kama‘aina Room. And there was a woman in the audience, but this time she added that. She’s going, like [clucks tongue]. And I was pissed off. So I said, What? And was like, You’re singing the wrong words. I said, No, I’m not. I learned this from a guy who lives in Keaukaha. And she said, My mother wrote the song.
So I sat with her, and I learned it.
Robert Cazimero: Part 2
Aloha no. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mahalo for joining me for another LS S – another island program produced and broadcast by locally-owned, non-profit PBS Hawaii. When singer Robert Cazimero stopped by to talk with me, one on one, he wasn’t alone. He mentioned that his ancestors, all those who went before, were right behind him. And part of the reason he is driven to meet high standards is the heavy obligation he feels to make them proud. Coming up next – Part Two of a two-part conversation with musical artist Robert Cazimero.
Robert Cazimero is more than a successful singer and recording artist. He’s also a most-respected kumu hula – teacher of Hawaiian dance. His all-male hula school is called Halau Na Kamalei. The halau is the subject of a documentary being shown on PBS channels nationwide that explores expectations and stereotypes, following the halau as it prepares for competition. Produced and directed by Lisette Marie Flanary, N : M H shows us Robert Cazimero’s exacting and sometimes harsh teaching style and it reflects his deep devotion to his kumu, the late Maiki Aiu Lake.
I had a hard time with that, ‘cause they wanted me to tell stories about my kumu. And you know, outside of the family, we don’t tell stories, because it’s just so personal. You know. I didn’t want to tell stories. And then I said to Lisette, If this will help to show my respect for my teacher, then I’ll do it. Not realizing that it was really gonna show a lot more, and that it was okay. And that what I found out about my students is that they love me like how I love my teacher. [Whispers] Sorry.
How easy was it for you to control people’s lives? I mean, you know, kumu hula – That’s a really – – by definition is a –
– good question.
– control freak, right?
You know, it –
I’m not saying it very graciously, but –
No, no, no; it’s true, though. Yeah. And you have – there is such a power in being a kumu hula, you know, that is willingly given to you when the students come in. Because it’s what I did with mine. You know. If she told me to jump off a building, I would have asked, Which one, and how much higher do you want me to go? ‘Cause you just love them, you know. But I didn’t really know how to become a kumu. It’s like being a parent. You really don’t know how to be a mother or father until you have kids, and they teach you how to be that way. It was the same thing with being a teacher. When I started, my kids were like 15, 16 years old, and I was like 23, 24. And the only way I knew how to do it was to scare the well, to scare the –
And you used those –
– out of them.
– words too, right?
You would swear?
You’d call them names?
Yeah; I did. And they would say to me, You know, I don’t even let my parents talk to me this way. I was like, I’m not your parent; I’m your kumu. So you just better get over it, or there’s the door. And luckily, they stayed. Or luckily, they didn’t beat me up. And by definition, you have to keep order and discipline.
How did you decide how hard core you were gonna be as a disciplinarian, as somebody who punishes, or has control over –
I just played by –
– second chances, third chances?
Yeah. I played that by ear. I set really – you know, some really heavy duty rules on them. And if they broke it, then you know, there was no second chance.
What’s an example of a heavy duty rule?
Well, you know, I did not like drugs. I was never a drug person. I, well, sans liquor. Sometimes.
But yeah. So it’s like, you know, if I knew that you were coming to a performance, and if you were stoned then you’re out, from the performance and the halau, too. You had to be a certain look, you know. No one could – I still say it, although I’m much more lenient now. No student could dance if they were bigger than me. And back then I was almost 300 pounds when I first started. You know. So they all had to make sure that I the clothes, they looked good. Otherwise – ‘cause you know, people don’t really want to see guys dance in clothes; you gotta wear those malo things, and the lawalawas. And I never could wear
them, because well, ‘cause you know. But they had to. You know, ‘cause it was the look, and I wanted to make sure that people knew who we were.
Well, at that time, you had the only male halau.
Is it still the only male halau?
You know, I think it is. Because most people have both women and men dancing for them. But it was really Maiki’s dream that I teach only men. And I’ll tell you; like I said, I would have done anything she asked. So I had no problem saying, Okay; I’ll do it. The thing that you need to know about, if you’re gonna – Leslie, you’re ever gonna teach men? You want to –
– be a kumu hula. You’ll be not making any money. And –
As opposed to teaching women; you would make money?
Women, you can make money. People buy houses by teaching women. Teaching men, you will not make money.
They’re not gonna pay you to teach them how to dance hula. They’re – and there go – it goes back my kumu again, who said, If a man dances for you, then it is a privilege that you should have them. So I you know, when I was in halau, I was constantly on scholarship. And so that’s the way I’ve run my halau ever since; that it’s all scholarship.
You teach for free?
Yeah; yeah. And then when we need money, then we have a fundraiser. Or, if it needs supplementation, I have my career. And I swear, my kumu knew that too. ‘Cause I’m like her. She needs six of these things done, her daughter says, You can’t have the money; she’ll grab her money and do it herself. And I do the same thing. You know, it’s like, Well, no one tells me no when it comes to the halau. But if I want something, and they’re like, You know, we don’t have that much money we’re getting it. Yeah; we’re gonna just do it.
As successful as the halau has been, I’ve heard you say in the past that it’s not easy to get men to dance.
Yes; yeah. It gets harder and harder as the years go along. Although, a new revelation has come along for us; and that is that now, the sons of my students are dancing for me. And you know, I’ve graduated students as teachers. Four of them are teaching, even as we speak.
And that’s a legacy.
– really is. But as far as, for me, a real legacy and a continuation, so that I can actually see it myself; having the kids of my dancers with me. It makes me want to live longer. It really does. And it makes me want to be a better teacher, too.
How does someone get into your halau? Can any guy get into your halau?
Well, no. [chuckle] No, you can’t. You have to be invited.
And all of your dancers are part-Hawaiian?
No. No; and I don’t think that’s really important, either. And that comes from my kumu. You know. Because it’s more about the heart, I think, and the fact that once you become a member of my halau, then you are Hawaiian to me, because now you’re not just a member of the halau, but a member of the family.
Yeah. And so all my family, all my brothers and sisters, and my nieces and nephews; they all know these guys. And they all know my family. So several years ago, we had a, a family reunion in Kohala, and they said, You know, we’re all going. And I was like, No, you’re not. They was like, Oh, yeah; we are. ‘Cause sister Jean and sister Gerry told us, and cousin Momi, that we’re family. So they all came. We all went to Kohala together and –
What’s more important; heart or dancing ability?
Oh, right now, today, at this very moment with you and me; heart.
But tomorrow, dancing ability?
Tomorrow, if we have a show to do and it’s time to get on the stage; dancing ability. But for right now, heart. But it doesn’t mean I’ll get rid of you. You know. Where before, I would get rid of people much faster. Today, I’m much more lenient.
Among your students in your halau, you’ve admitted your brother.
Yes. Roland came to halau for a while; I think it was a little over a year. And I kicked him out of halau because he was given an assignment and he didn’t finish it.
What was the assignment?
He had to learn two chants. And we laugh about it today, because had he learned, especially one of them, we’d be – we do it all the time in our lives, you know; all the time now. But I give my brother a lot of credit. You know, we’re born as brothers in this lifetime, and then he goes and puts himself, again, in my life by being a student. That’s a difficult thing to do.
Well, you could give him a second chance.
Well, the second chance is that he’s no longer a student, but he is a kokua. So my brother is there all the time. And I think in being the kokua now, it’s better than being a student. ‘Cause you still get the lessons, but you don’t get too much of the same pressure that happened. And what’s happened is, I’ve learned from that lesson too, and because of him, I’ve learned to be able to give chances to others. Where before, I would have [SNAPS FINGERS] got rid of ‘em, like how I did him. You know.
And the other thing is, you can’t talk back to me.
You can’t talk back to me.
He would have to stop talking back to you.
You can’t talk back – no. And Roland would like – you know, you can’t talk to me. Not in front of my students; you can’t talk back to me. That’s just the way it is.
But he can as a kokua?
So he worked it out.
Yeah; he did. And I’m really glad he’s the kokua. And yeah. I love him; he’s a good guy. I’ve never said that before on camera, either. That took a bit.
[chuckle] He’s gonna want copies.
I think so too. He’ll be sending out to the family.
In birth order, Robert and Roland are number 10 and number 11 in a family of 12 children from Kalihi. The two men are family for life and highly successful musical partners for more than 30 years now. Appreciating family and health became more important than ever to Robert in 1990. That’s when he found out he has diabetes.
You were 300 pounds at one point?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was a long time ago, but still, it was a part of my life. I look at those pictures, and I go, Who is this monstrous person?
Had you always been heavy as a kid?
Yeah; yeah, I always was. And then in 1990, my doctor said to me; he says, You know, you gotta watch out, ‘cause you’re a diabetic now. And I was like, Oh; okay. So he said, You have to really think about this, and you know, you have to cut down, and you have to do this, and you have to exercise, and stuff. And I was like, Oh, jeez; what a bummer. And I started walking in 1990, and it’s been my companion for that long now, and it’s kept me down so that I’m now – I fluctuate between 197 to 204 pounds. And it helps with everything; you know, the heart, the blood, the breathing; stuff like that.
That’s right; breathing. I mean, you have to have good breath control, or you’ll lose your occupation.
And that’s why, you know, I never liked cigarettes. My father was real adamant about us smoking. You know. So I never liked that, ‘cause I thought, Okay; I’m gonna tell you another story.
When Peter, Roland and I were recording our second album called Guava Jam, no; sorry, Guava Jam was first, Crack Seed was second. I had just finished singing a song called The Queen’s Jubilee, from a family songbook of the Iaukea’s. And I was sitting in the studio, and Peter and Roland and the engineer were in that small room that they are over there, and Peter said, Okay, we’re gonna play this back to you. I was like, All right. So there were two big speakers here, and they started playing the song, and I’m singing along with it. Well, there was a mirror on the floor on the side over here, and I just happened to glance over it. And I was looking at myself in the mirror, and I thought, I found it very difficult to believe that the person I was looking at in the mirror was the owner of this voice that was coming through. Because I didn’t feel that person matched the beauty of the voice.
And that, for me, was – what’s that word; epiphany.
It was an epiphany for me, and I kind of realized that this voice was something special; and that’s when I decided that I’d better take care of it. So all these years, you know, losing the weight and keeping it down and exercising and watching what you eat …
And continuing to take voice lessons.
And continuing to take voice lessons with my dear kumu leo, Neva Rego, who I love to pieces. Both Roland and I went to Neva at a time where our voices were beginning to fade a bit. We weren’t aware of it. Well, maybe we were, and that’s why we went. But she added so much to what we needed to remember and do. And still does, you know. I don’t go as often as I used to, but she has spies. And they’ll come, and they’ll see us, and they’ll call her. And then she’ll call me and she’ll go, Roberto …
Can you come see Auntie Neva?
And it’s all about getting the best of your voice at any time in your life.
Yeah, and to keep it going. You know. My doctor, Kalani Brady, who is also a student of Neva’s – you know, we’re all kinda like intertwined. So there’s Neva and me, and there’s Kalani, and there’s Roland, and all of us, and stuff like this, and they always say to me, you know, This is something special; you have to take care of it; we’re gonna help you the best we can. So it’s an obligation too, you know.
You mentioned the beauty of your voice, which is so true. How do you look at that? Do you see that as a gift you take care of, or do you think uh, of something you created, or …
No; I think it was a gift. I really do. And I find that as I get older now, and as much as I love to sing, I think singing makes me beautiful. I also think that it’s one of the most honest and scariest things that I do in my life. Because when I’m on stage, or I’m at home, or at a cousin’s party, and if I’m singing, it is the most honest I could possibly be. I am as wide open as a book; and you can read all the chapters, ‘cause nothing [chuckle] nothing’s been blocked, or censored. It’s just honestly, blatantly there.
Well, funny you should say that. Because I was reviewing what’s been written about you over the years, but, you know, I didn’t really see a lot about who you are. Just what you do. Is that because you keep it close?
Yeah. You know, it’s not that I do that conscientiously; it’s just, I’ve always felt when we were talking to anybody, being interviewed, you know, that has a game plan. We’re talking about the CD, we’re talking about this May Day concert, we’re talking about entering Merrie Monarch and why we’re doing it. And so I did that. You know. Someday, someone will. And maybe it’ll happen; I’m not real sure.
I mean, well, you could do it now.
[chuckle] I would just like to know what drives you, what moves you, what …
I think, first of all, my family. And my kupuna, the ancestors, and the fact that I feel that the – my heaviest obligation is to make them proud. To not make them embarrassed. Because – and I’ve said this before, and I love this image. That even as I’m here speaking to you, there are thousands of people behind me right now. Some I know, and some I don’t.
From generations back? From generations before, from countries that I don’t even know about; they’re just here. And you don’t want them rolling your eyes.
Their eyes. [chuckle]
Yeah; uh-huh. Or this thing; [clucks tongue]. You know how local people do that [clucks tongue] thing. And that would just kill me. But they’re all here, and I feel an obligation towards them, and you, and our people and this land. And then I think if I’m gonna do that, then I have to have an obligation to my health. Even as last night, I’m at a restaurant eating stuff that maybe I shouldn’t have, you know. I didn’t have the dessert, but okay, I had the pasta. And then when it comes to the hula, I have an obligation to my teacher and to my students. And I just want to be good for them. I want to really be good for them. And if it means that my personal life – my personal life does not suffer from anything; it suffers from me, if I want it to suffer. Okay. But my personal is really the family. And it’s a real broad use of the word family, because it encompasses the ones that I’m related to by blood, and those that I’m related to by heart. And it just keeps getting bigger. Sometimes I feel like I have no control over this; and at the same time, maybe I’m not supposed to. So I live my life now in a – I love to say this; a perpetual state of gratitude. I wake up every morning, and I just say thank you to everybody, and everything. You know, we’re from Kohala, on the Big Island.
North Kohala. My mom is from Hawi, and my dad’s from Niulii. And my mother used to say, When you go to Hawaii Island, she says, you must say hello to everyone – the people, the rocks, the ocean, the trees; because they’re related to all of us. You know. It’s how I feel with uh, with everybody that we meet now, you know. That there is a purpose, and nothing is by accident; that I’m there to learn the lessons that are happening. And that I’m really, really grateful.
It’s been such a long haul for Hawaiians, who still populate our prisons and are represented on the poverty lists and many haven’t had access to Hawaiian homelands. I mean, how do you see the Hawaiian condition today?
Oh, I think it’s appalling. At the same time, though, I’m one of the lucky ones, you know, who Hawaiians will look at me and say well, sometimes they’ll say, you know, You sold out. I don’t – I’m not so sure how I did that; I was just working. But the other they say is, you know, I want to be like you. And I’m thinking, Oh, I don’t know whether you want to do that eit You know. But if I can help in any way I can and I think of Don Ho. ‘Cause he said to me one night when we were at you know, he used to go to McCully Chop Suey all the time.
M-hm; at 3:00 a.m. [chuckle]
Yeah, yeah; there you are. Okay; order all that food.
And Don said to me; he says, You know, when people ask for money, I give them money, our people. He said, Are you gonna do the same thing? I said, I don’t know that I can give them money, but I’m gonna give them what I can. You know. And if it’s the voice, or if it’s just being there then I’ll do it.
Do you what you can with what you have.
Yeah. Yeah. God, I can’t believe I said some of that stuff.
I forgot Don Ho used to go to McCully Chop Suey in the middle of the night. No, but it’s true; you’ve got to decide you know, how far you’re willing to go, and how much you’re willing to give.
Yeah. And you cannot just talk it; if you said something already, you know, people remember. They can go back now – especially with the internet; they can go back and see what I said 20 years ago. [chuckle]
Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. He was trying to get you to do the same thing he was doing.
Yeah. Yeah. And you know, Don was one of our greatest supporters.
Wow. He didn’t feel a competitive deal?
No. He just liked what we did. And his mother liked us. So you know, it’s a Hawaiian thing. You know.
You’re a local girl; you understand that.
You know, I used to always say I don’t know that I would go to war for the United States of America. I don’t know that I would kill someone for the United States of America. But if they’re threatening Hawaii I would stand out front. And years ago, we had this – there was a kue. there was a march of all Hawaiians. It started at the Aloha Tower, and it came up to the Palace. Several – Ala, myself. Mapuana, maybe Vicky; we were there at the front, and our job – Manu. We were to chant all these people as we came in, continuously; it was to be hours and hours of our chanting these people in. And just before they were gonna open the gate, someone had told us that there might be something happening. That would include, you know, guns and stuff like this. And Roland had told Ala; If anything happens, you grab my brother, and you folks go in here. And you can talk the talk but if you can’t walk the walk, then what’s the purpose of it? I said, You know, if anything is gonna happen, then it’s meant to happen, and I’m putting it out there right now. So if anything happens, I ain’t going; I’m staying right here. I think it’s how you – when you believe in something, whether it’s our world, or peace or just another person, we have to do what is best for ourselves, and hope that it’s best for everyone too.
You know, you mentioned that lyrics really speak to you in song. What are the most beautiful lyrics that you sing, and in what language are they?
Well, there’s – if I had to pick an English song it would be two. One would be David Gates from Bread – he wrote a song called If. And my favorite line in that song is, And when my life and when my love for life is running dry, you come and pour yourself on me. When I sing that line, it’s like, to me, the heavens open up, and I am just drenched with all this love from the people who know me. The other one is from Carousel, I think. If I loved you, da-da longing to tell you, but afraid and shy I let my golden chances pass me by. And I’ve let many a golden chance pass me by. But there’s no regret. You can’t have regrets; I refuse to have regrets.
What about in Hawaiian?
In Hawaiian, too many; too many. You know, for me, the most simplest things have the deepest meanings. So oh, gee; god, what’s the – there are so many. I can’t even think of – okay, there’s a song what was written by Lei Collins, and it’s called – they call it Kealoha. And it goes, [sings]. In the third verse, it says [sings]. That I become very relaxed and I am comfortable when the scent of my lover is present. I love that line. Because no one knows that scent, except you, you know. And whether they’re there with you or not, physically, that scent that you remember can put them right in front of you. And I think that’s powerful; that’s – you know. And then another one is from Pua Ahihi, written by Kawena, and it says [sings] No, no, no, no. There’s this one verse, and it talks about there’s a flower, okay, so it’s you know Lanihuli? Lanihuli is that mountain there at the Pali; when you’re standing at the Pali lookout, it’s the one on the left hand side. And what it says is that you’re – this person that you love is like a lehua flower up there, but it is pretty much unreachable. And the reason that person is unreachable is because you put that person there. That that’s how much your love is extended to the fact that you would take this person that you love, and put them so high out of reach that it’s worth the love. That’s what it means to me.
Beautiful lyrics, lovely sentiments. Speaking of sentiments, I’d like to thank our viewers who’ve sent kind thoughts and encouraging words as PBS Hawaii works to deliver quality, local programming that inspires, informs and entertains. Mahalo to you and to Robert Cazimero for sharing your time and joining me for this L S S . I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
You know, we’ve lost some just treasures of Hawaiian music, and just recently too.
And of course, you know that you’ve earned a place in that vaulted place; I mean, you’re already there, where you’re a treasure. Do you ever think about how people will receive news sometime long from now, I hope, when you pass away? I think that’s why I work so hard when we do an album to make sure that it’s the best that it can be. Because really, it’s that music that’s immortal. It’s not this; it’s that music. So I try hard, and I wonder how they’ll receive it. You know, I wonder.