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Play it as it Leis

An example of this truth has been demonstrated for 38 years by Auntie Kealoha Kalama. Uncasing her ukulele in the cavernous Hawaiian Hall of the Bishop Museum, Kalama sings for whatever tourists have ventured this far off the beaten track. Together with dancer Val Malei Crabbe, she demonstrates the songs of old Hawaii and the hula kahiko (ancient hula) on a platform set before a reconstructed bark-walled house. Her warbling soprano carries through the rafters of the Victorian-era museum, where war clubs are displayed alongside a dinner service once owned by a Hawaiian princess. Kalama introduces Crabbe by saying, "The skirt she wears is ti. That's not like the tea you drink." She adds: "It's a real island skirt. And everything else on her is also real." Ba-dum-bump.

With her lacquered coiffure and varnished patter, Kalama might seem like some marooned showbiz relic. In fact, she is a revered kumu hula, or hula master. Just as important, she is a performer who embodies an idea of Hawaii, the phantasmal "Isle of Content" described in a 1920's tourist brochure I came across. Much has changed in Oahu over the past 80 years, yet much of the essential past remains eerily intact. For six decades the Kodak Hula Show dancers have been spelling out ALOHA in giant letters in Kapiolani Park. Hardly anyone takes note of this nutty tradition, which nearly ended when Kodak dropped its funding last year. The show is not merely weird and delightful and free, but probably the only place where you can experience, alongside the hula dancers, the gorgeous voices of the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club, whose median age is approximately 75.

These women are the real item. When they sing about aloha it's not the bowdlerized tourist concept. It's a word whose philosophical context is rooted in communitarian needs. As near as you will come to a literal translation of the word aloha is "the joyful sharing of breath." And, while the history of post-contact Hawaii provides all the proof anyone would need of the many ways aloha has been betrayed, outsiders are not solely to blame. Plenty of Hawaiians have thrown themselves into selling out aloha, banalizing the concept until it is as drained of meaning as a shop clerk's "Have a nice day."

Yet the odd thing is that aloha persists, as a reflex twined through all sorts of daily interactions. You'll find aloha among the members of the super-genial staff at Cindy's Lei & Flower Shoppe, one of the first places I stop when I get into town. There I choose from among strands of fragrant pikake or tuberose or ginger, or else the tiny native blossoms that go into the making of "cigar leis."

You'll find aloha on Waikiki Beach, where outriggers still run tourists across the waves as they did in Duke Kahanamoku's day, and surfing lessons are still available, even if they cost a bit more than they did eight decades ago when one session was $1.50 (plus 50 cents for the board) and the instructor might have been one of Kahanamoku's brothers. You'll find a variant of it at Kincaid's, a sixties-style seaside restaurant where the ambient music runs to Rosemary Clooney and the hot pupu platter ($16.95 for crab, egg rolls, teriyaki tenderloin) is the culinary version of an archaeological discovery. You'll also encounter a form of aloha at the much-admired Halekulani hotel in Waikiki, where an old-time trio, the Islanders, play slack key guitar and sing twenties tunes beneath a century-old kiawe tree.

The Halekulani is my own preferred spot for watching the Waikiki sunsets, a wonderful cornball ritual no one should become so jaded as to disdain. As cumulus clouds redden over Diamond Head, tourist catamarans sail up to the Halekulani seawall, pull their rudders, and shrug onto the beach. A waitress arrives with a tray of Chi Chis—pineapple, coconut, and vodka, an orchid in each. Lines of breakers lace the darkening surface of the ocean, and the sun sets pink over a tableful of happy blue-haired ladies.

THE FACTS

Royal Hawaiian 2259 Kalakaua Ave.; 800/782-9488 or 808/923-7311, fax 808/981-7840; doubles from $345.
Halekulani 2199 Kalia Rd.; 800/323-7500 or 808/923-2311, fax 808/926-8004; doubles from $325.
International Marketplace 2330 Kalakaua Ave.; 808/971-2080. Pick up five T-shirts for $20.
Cindy's Lei & Flower Shoppe 1034 Maunakea St.; 808/536-6538. Leis start at $2 but can go for as much as $45.
Bishop Museum 1525 Bernice St.; 808/847-3511. Auntie Kealoha Kalama sings twice a day, usually at 11 and 2.
Kodak Hula Show 2805 Monsarrat Ave.; 808/527-5418; shows Tuesday—Thursday 10 a.m.
Kincaid's 1050 Ala Moana Blvd.; 808/591-2005; dinner for two $80.

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