Preparation for Mele Mei:
The Antihero's Journey Reimagined
Story and photos by Gary Singh
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
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."
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 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.
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
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."
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, a gathering
room for the royal family, who enjoyed composing, playing, and listening
to music and song.
A ceremonial level used to lay the original cornerstone
of Iolani Palace
King Kalakaua in full Masonic
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
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.
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.
Island, Hawaii; The
Garden Island of Kauai; Hana
Highway, Hawaii; Kaunakakai,
Shore Oahu; Exploring
Maui's Upcountry; Lahaina,