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Award-winning Hawaiian artist Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole brings ‘universality of hula’ to Anchorage

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole (Photo by Ku'ehu Mauga)

To many in Western culture, hula is seen as performance art — but to Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, it’s a way of life.

Kanaka’ole practices hula to connect with Hawaiian ancestors and land.

“The universality of hula is what matters,” said Kanaka’ole. “If anything, it’s about ecology. It’s the interaction and the communion and the evolution of your environment — or your place-based knowledge and yourself.”

Kanaka’ole is a Native Hawaiian singer and dancer from Hilo who will be at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts this weekend. Kanaka’ole combines contemporary Hawaiian music with cultural education of hula, which is present in 130 countries around the world.

Kanaka’ole is a powerhouse vocalist, moving from contralto to her “Disney princess” voice -- as Kanaka’ole puts it. Kanaka’ole has been part of eight international tours and has won five Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, the highest music awards in the state.

As a transgender person (mahu wahine), Kanaka’ole has faced prejudice. But “hula and music have sort of allowed and insulated me from the typical ridicule that American culture might bring toward gender,” said Kanaka’ole.

Kanaka’ole says no matter where the performance is, every event begins with the same song, “Mele Ha’i Kupuna,” which means “to speak the name of your ancestors.” The song was written by Kanaka’ole as a teenager and bears the names of Kanaka’ole’s great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, two matriarchs of the family.

Growing up, Kanaka’ole learned the ritual practices of hula. Women in Kanaka’ole’s culture were typically asked to stay home, where they could teach their children about Hawaiian culture.

“I happen to come from a few generations of women because, at the time, only women were maintaining it while men were asked to leave the home and leave their traditional lifestyles to assimilate into the working American culture,” said Kanaka’ole.

During the Second Hawaiian Renaissance in the ‘60s and ‘70s, even though she had only completed sixth grade, Kanaka’ole’s great-grandmother began the Hawaiian studies program at the University of Hawaii Hilo.

Since then, just about every member of Kanaka’ole’s family has received a master’s degree.

“Education is always the remedy for ignorance and misinformation,” said Kanaka’ole.

Kanaka’ole says that schooling has contributed to being successful as a performer.

“The music, the performance — that’s all secondary. The primary is the content and making sure that what’s coming out of my mouth, through music or chant or lecture, changes the minds of those that it impacts,” Kanaka’ole said.

Kanaka’ole’s goal is that every audience member leaves a little bit more informed about Hawaii and themselves.

“(I hope) that the stories — the personal and historical references that come from the stories that these songs have and that these songs are — inform you a little bit about the ecology of Hawaii and its people,” Kanaka’ole said.

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25

Where: Discovery Theatre in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: $40-$56 at centertix.com

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