Maui’s annual Celebration of the Arts honors multiple facets of Hawaiian culture this weekend

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Every Celebration of the Arts weekend begins the same way and, for an annual celebration of Hawaiian culture past, present and future, the pono (correct) way.

In the darkness before sunrise, a couple of hundred people gather on the sand at D.T. Fleming Beach Park near the northernmost tip of Maui. They include Hawaiian kumu (teachers), Maui and Neighbor Island residents, vacationers and guests of the neighboring Ritz-Carlton Kapalua Resort, which has hosted Celebration of the Arts for more than two decades.

Together, they step into the waters of Honokahua Bay—many fully submerging in the gentle surf, others just dipping their feet. Celebration of the Arts chairperson Clifford Nae‘ole and, more recently, his younger brother, Iokepa, have led this hi‘uwai, or spiritual cleansing ceremony, for much of the event’s history.

“The hi‘uwai is a great opening for Celebration of the Arts because it gives everyone who attends the opportunity to free themselves of all the burdens upon their shoulders before coming to the event,” says the elder Nae‘ole, also the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua’s longtime cultural advisor. “I call it the Hawaiian confessional box. You enter the ocean and think about things you’ve done and come to terms with yourself.”

After exiting the water and “leaving all your burdens for the ocean to wash away,” says Nae‘ole, “we do a chant to the sun. As the sun rises, you feel this power. You’ve just freed yourself of all this pilikia (trouble) and enter Celebration of the Arts with an open mind, ready to contribute and, if not contribute, ready to listen.”

Celebration of the Arts opening ‘awa ceremony on the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua resort grounds. Photo: Ritz-Carlton Kapalua

Celebration of the Arts—which celebrates its 22nd annual edition this weekend—is all about giving everyone from all walks of life an opportunity to learn about, participate in and contribute to the Hawaiian experience. It is a weekend of immersive workshops on hula, music and food, and hands-on chances to create Hawaiian musical instruments, lei and woodcrafts, led by expert kumu and artisans. It is two days of discussions, films and presentations on pressing concerns to the Hawaiian community. Finally, Celebration of the Arts is remarkably inclusive, completely open to anyone wishing to attend (whether you are a guest of the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua or not) and free of charge. (Free, that is, save for its massive, one-of-a-kind event-ending lū‘au. More on that feast later.)

In addition to this year’s sunrise hi‘uwai (set for 5:45 a.m., this Saturday, May 9), opening chants and protocol (at 10 a.m. in the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua lobby) will open two days of events that will include everything from opportunities to craft jewelry with rare Niihau shell and Hawaiian kumu-led discussions of culture, to Hawaiian tea tasting and hula adornment classes. There’s much more, including screenings of several new culture-focused Hawaii-produced films.

“At Celebration of the Arts, we create common ground with food, dance and music,” says Nae‘ole. “At the same time, we allow a special place for the indigenous culture to come, express itself and speak about Hawaiian issues. True Hawaiian issues that face them every single day.”

A woodcarver works and original design into a miniature surfboard at Celebration of the Arts. Photo: Dawn Sakamoto for Sugar+Shake.

At artisan booths, attendees are invited to craft pā‘ū drums and ‘ohe hano ihu (bamboo nose flutes) and learn the art of Ni‘ihau shell lei-making by kumu from Ni‘ihau. In discussions, lectures and workshops, attendees are encouraged to participate as well as listen. Nae‘ole calls events related to food, dance, art and music “the fun parts” of Celebration, and discussions, presentations and films the “intellectual side.”

“These allow guests to understand where we’re coming from as Hawaiians and invite them to be part of the future,” says Nae‘ole, of the discussions on sometimes controversial issues facing the culture. “We expose these emotions to guests, invite them to become part of the emotion, and maybe contributors helping us with knowledge from where they’re from. Anybody can come. Anybody can share.

“From the ceremonies and protocol and discussions … to the sharing of music, dance and everything else, Celebration of the Arts is spiritual. It’s physical. It’s mental. It’s all encompassing. And, at the same time, it’s a whole lot of fun.”

Roam the lobby, ballrooms and common areas of the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua during Celebration of the Arts weekend and you’ll find more ways to get a real sense of modern Hawaiian culture than you’ll likely have time set aside for. There are keiki and adult hula performances in the hotel lobby almost from sunup to sundown, and live traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music from sunset till midnight. Our advice if you go? Set aside the whole of Saturday (Celebration’s most event-filled day) to attend and, if at all possible, don’t miss the Celebration of the Arts gala lū‘au, starting at 6 p.m., Saturday evening.

Celebration of the Arts opening protocol and chants in Ritz-Carlton Kapalua resort lobby. Photo: Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.

Combining the best of traditional resort lū‘au fare with the kind of unexpected local favorites one typically finds only at a memorable family lū‘au, the menu at this lū‘au is truly unique. Kālua pig, laulau, chicken long rice, ‘ahi poke and poi cover the delicious expected ground. On the less expected side of the menu are pohole fern shoot salad, ‘opihi (saltwater limpets), ‘ōpae (freshwater Hawaiian shrimp), limu (seaweed), raw black crab, squid lū‘au, warm malasadas and more. The procuring of many of the harder-to-find delicacies is a family affair.

Says the born-and-raised-on-Maui Nae‘ole, “My cousins and my family go up to the mountains and gather the shrimp. The seaweed comes from Kaua‘i. The black crab comes from Moloka‘i. The ‘opihi comes from the Big Island or Hāna. All of these traditional Hawaiian ingredients are gathered by Hawaiian people. That’s real. And there’s pride in sharing it.

Lei making class at Celebration of the Arts. Photo: Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.

“For the price that you pay, there is no better lū‘au that night in the state of Hawai‘i, guaranteed.”

(Click here for more information on this year’s Celebration of the Arts luau and show.)

Nae‘ole, who has been involved with Celebration of the Arts since its beginnings in 1992 and has guided its growth from a multicultural event to one solely celebrating Hawaiian culture, is understandably proud of the annual community-welcoming event it has become.

“The hotel, its owners and management have given me their endorsement. The workers here have supported it by working together to make sure the event is successful. Artisans and practitioners have trusted us and come to share and learn from each other,” says Nae‘ole. “It’s a beautiful whirlwind of cooperation.”

As for attendees, Nae‘ole hopes they leave Celebration of the Arts with a deeper understanding of Hawaiian culture.

Weaving demonstration at Celebration of the Arts. Photo: Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.

“I hope they take away an understanding of the accomplishments of our ancestors and an understanding of the predicament that we are in today. But, also, to understand what we want to do tomorrow,” he explains. “I want them to leave asking questions so maybe they can find the answers.

“Most important, I want them to come back and share them with us next time.”

Categories: Maui