- Aloha America: Hula circuits through the U.S. empire by Adria Imada
When Americans hear the word “hula,” we usually think of tourist shows featuring comely young women in cellophane skirts and bras made of coconut shells. In academia, our instinct is usually to reject these images as simulacra, as the fraudulent products of commercialized culture and tourism industries. In her book, Aloha America: Hula circuits through the U.S. empire, Adria Imada does not completely dispel this image of the exotic yet Americanized “hula girl” as inauthentic; instead, she illustrates how the living tradition of hula has taken on many guises as Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli, have negotiated their personal and cultural identities in the context of American hegemony. Plastic flowers and cellophane skirts were just two ways that cosmopolitan Hawaiians made conscious choices that allowed them to confront and subvert American “soft primitive” fantasies of Hawai‘i. Imada finds illuminating case studies of particular dancers and musicians whose stories evoke a unique frisson between the personal and the political. These stories intertwine with the history of the colonization, commodification, and militarization of Hawai‘i itself during the long twentieth century. She has brought together little-known oral histories and archival materials, with individual insights and anecdotes that give the reader a sense of both the broad scope and personal intimacy of the subject.
One of the overarching themes of the book is intimacy, both real and “imagined.” The author argues that hula dancing, initially at international expositions, and later in American nightclubs, military bases and USO shows, created the illusion of intimacy between Hawai‘i and the United States so that, “imagined as feminine, passive, and full of sensual good will, Hawai‘i came to be understood and treated as manageable” (68). Mainlanders interpreted this openness and accessibility as a natural facet of the complex Hawaiian concept of aloha, but Imada shows that the appropriation of aloha by haole (non-Hawaiian) businessmen, tourists and, most violently, the military, masked the very real expansion of U.S. imperial interests into Hawaiian land and culture. Yet, while Hawaiian autonomy was being overthrown by American incursion, Kanaka Maoli were themselves expanding the reach of their culture onto the mainland, through music and dance. In the process, these members of the “hula diaspora” created intimate cross-societal bonds and cultivated relationships that supported their own cultural and economic interests.
The first three chapters examine hula as a symbol of Kanaka Maoli resistance during the overthrow of the indigenous Hawaiian government and subsequent annexation by the U.S. during the 1890s and 1900s. These chapters also trace the lives of some of the early “culture brokers,” like bandleader and politician Johnny Wilson and his wife, the pioneering hula dancer Kini Kapahukulaokamāmalu (aka Kini Kapahu, or Jennie Wilson), who mediated the relationship between Hawai‘i and the U.S., and it is stories like theirs that give the book its great richness of ethnographic and biographic detail. The fourth and fifth chapters move to the 1930s and 40s, during which the increased military importance of Hawai‘i led to calls for statehood, while suspicions about the loyalties of Hawai‘i’s multiracial population led many politicians to keep Hawai‘i out of the union. Through it all, Hawaiian musicians and dancers acted as mediators, embodying the fantasy of accessibility that “began a process of marking Hawai‘i as an eroticized and feminized space, a space disposed to political, military, and tourist penetration” (6), yet at the same time these performers engaged in strategic “practices and desires that are not easily categorized as anticolonial but nevertheless contain latent critiques of imperial influence” (64).
Imada skillfully uses interviews, some archival, some her own, with former professional hula dancers that show the very real relationships that networks of Hawaiian musicians and dancers created amongst themselves while working and travelling in the often racially hostile environs of the United States. She takes much of her anecdotal “behind the curtain” materials from “‘native informants’ whose knowledge underwrote twentieth century ethnography and ethnomusicology of Hawai‘i...