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Gary: Honolulu
In Preparation for Mele Mei:
The Antihero's Journey Reimagined

Story and photos by Gary Singh

Joseph Campbell's gravesite in Honolulu
Joseph Campbell's gravesite in Honolulu

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
– Joseph Campbell


fter receiving a call to adventure, a beckoning forth to the city of Honolulu, the antihero becomes aware of a brand new terrain, a new world. A variety of Hawaiian sounds percolate in that city, not just slack key guitar and whiskers, as one local musician says. We're talking jazz and reggae, soulful songwriters, entertainers and instrument makers. Some of it comes in the form of teenage girls covering Def Leppard in a Chinatown art gallery, but all the music is native, to be heard, experienced and celebrated. This the antihero cannot refuse, so he crosses the threshold, flies over the Pacific, and slithers around the streets of Honolulu to experience an advance sonic taster for Mele Mei, which translates as, "May, Hawaiian Music Month."

ukeleles being made at the KoAloha ukulele factory
Ukuleles in process at KoAloha

To explain: When the month of May unfolds in Honolulu, all separations between sound, food and spirit tend to collapse. At the end of that month, the city even stages its own equivalent of the Grammy Awards, Na Hoku Hanohano, which caps off 30 days of music, events, performances and workshops. The Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts came up with the idea for Mele Mei two years ago.

This year, the antihero arrives a few months earlier, solely to test the waters. It shall be a rebirth of sorts, a shattering of all preconceived judgments as to what Hawaiian music really means. Into the belly of the whale he goes.


During the initiation into this new world of Hawaiian music, the antihero experiences what Joseph Campbell refers to as the Road of Trials, a series of challenges, threats and tests of his very livelihood. In this case, Waikiki overflows with embarrassing tourists who spend thousands of dollars dragging their bored families across the ocean just to wait in line for 45 minutes to eat at The Cheesecake Factory. They appear everywhere, in all shapes and stages of sunburn.

Thankfully, this type of behavior does not deter the antihero one bit. He has other more transformative ordeals to entertain.

Reaching the KoAloha ukulele factory, for instance, requires quite a tumultuous path, one of potholes, rusty chain-link fences, gravel and mud. Just off the Kalihi Canal, as it flows from the Koolau Mountains to the Honolulu Harbor, past a series of upholstery warehouses, appliance wholesalers and beautifully seedy karaoke bars, KoAloha is a veritable diamond in the rough. They make 20 ukuleles a day from local Acacia Koa wood, only available in Hawaii.

parking sign at the KoAloha ukelele factory
Parking for ukuleles only

Inside, the antihero discovers industrial belt sanders, a kiln, a milling machine, a thousand scraps of wood and more ukulele parts than he has ever seen in one place. There's even a homemade contraption that automatically carves out grooves for the frets.

machine for making ukelele fretboards, KoAloha ukelele factory
Homemade machine to carve the fretboards

Alvin "Pops" Okami originated the business 18 years ago, converting his former plastics factory into a ukulele manufacturing plant. An authentic family business, it still thrives today and makes high-end custom instruments for musicians all over the world.

finished ukeleles at KoAloha
Finished ukes

In a lead-in to what Joseph Campbell might call the Ultimate Boon stage of the antihero's initiation, where he realizes the purpose of his quest, the wonderful folks at KoAloha decide to present the antihero with a custom ukulele, engraved with his own name on it. The goal materializes, with the antihero discovering his path in this journey: learning how to play the ukulele. He has found the earthly paradise, as described by Campbell:

"Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lies in them, but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord."

working on a KoAloha ukelele
Griz hard at work on a KoAloha ukulele

Later in the journey, the antihero discovers another paradise, Iolani Palace, the former home of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's final monarchs, nearly a century ago. There he learns that Henry Berger, a Prussian bandmaster, originally came to Hawaii and taught the royal family how to play music. The Royal Hawaiian Band, to this day, still carries on the traditions of Henry Berger. Some of his sheet music is even on display in one of the rooms.

the Gold, or Music Room at Iolani Palace
The Gold, or Music Room at Iolani Palace, a gathering room for the royal family, who enjoyed composing, playing, and listening to music and song.

ceremonial level used to lay the original cornerstone of Iolani Palace
A ceremonial level used to lay the original cornerstone of Iolani Palace

King Kalakaua in full Masonic regalia
King Kalakaua in full Masonic regalia

An interesting side note: since King Kalakaua was a 33rd-degree Freemason, he made sure the cornerstone of the palace was laid according to full Masonic rites when he built the place.

As the antihero shows up during the Mele Mei advance visit, some of the original Masonic tools used to lay that cornerstone on December 31, 1879, are on display. More will be revealed on another visit, he assumes.

From here, the unheard music of eternal concord continues. At Loading Zone Arts, a gallery and performance space upstairs above a beautifully seedy stretch of Hotel Street, the antihero watches Emke, Honolulu's rock band of mostly teenage Japanese girls, do a rocking version of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me." Somewhere buried in this experience, a few different stages of Campbell's Initiation phase manifest themselves, although the antihero is not quite sure if it's the Meeting With the Goddess or the Woman as Temptress.

Sunway performs at Altitude@37
Sunway performs at Altitude@37

Ryan Kamakakehau Fernandez
performs at Altitude@37

As the journey winds down, the antihero witnesses curvaceous hula dancers at Halekulani, where Charlie Chan once hung out, plus a few sultry divas atop the Hilton Waikiki Prince Kuhio. Impromptu ukulele jams transpire nearly every night. The music never seems to end.

All in all, the Ultimate Boon, as Joseph Campbell writes, emerges forth in the form of experience. The antihero no longer feels "anti." He feels like a regular hero instead, transformed, and one with a more-than-adequate sampling of Hawaiian music. Again, it's not all slack key guitar and whiskers.


To the mainland, the hero comes back, Campbell's mythological Crossing of the Return Threshold. Prize ukulele in hand, he returns with privileged knowledge of Hawaiian music. He will not take flight. He will not forget the folks at home. He will integrate the experience into his very existence, he will learn how to play the ukulele and he shall distribute harmonious Hawaiian wisdom throughout his microcosm.

sunset in Honolulu
The Hero's knowledge bridges divides between Oahu and the mainland

As a result, a huge ocean no longer separates the hero from Honolulu. He feels forever connected to the sounds of Hawaii. The industrial belt sanders at KoAloha, the curvaceous hula dancers, the Masonic history, Japanese girls playing Def Leppard and the gravesite of Joseph Campbell are now permanent components of the hero's psychological makeup, bridging any possible divide between the mainland and Oahu. The two worlds are one and the same.

Related Articles:
Big Island, Hawaii; The Garden Island of Kaua’i; Hana Highway, Hawaii; Kaunakakai, Molokai; North Shore Oahu; Exploring Kauai; Driving Maui's Upcountry; Lahaina, Maui

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Let Gary know what you think about his traveling adventure.

* * * * *

Your tea adventures are especially interesting because I've always associated tea with British etiquette or a bevy of women wearing dainty victorian costumes and sipping tea with their little pinky sticking out. To see Tea from a man's perspective brings new light in a man's psyche. I've been among the many silent admirers of your writings for a long time here at Traveling Boy. Thanks for your very interesting perspectives about your travels. Keep it up! --- Rodger, B. of Whittier, CA, USA

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