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Talking Story is Alive and Well

November 11, 2010
Norm Bezane

Those who truly talk story the best, thanks to oral traditions, are the people whose ancestors have been here for centuries.

Out of the nearly 100 columns this writer has penned about Maui’s interesting people, a few tales from four-time Grammy Award-winner George Kahumoku Jr. and activist Charlie Maxwell stand out.

Depicting a clash of cultures, the multi-faceted “Uncle” George Kahumoku—musician, Lahainlauna teacher and taro farmer—described an early gig at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa shortly after migrating here from Hawai‘i Island.

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Charlie Maxwell, who was told as a boy he didn’t seem to have much of a future, became a prominent activist fighting for Hawaiian rights.

Living at the hotel, but tiring of its food, George and his friends one day decided to revert to Hawaiian ways, grabbing nets to go fishing at nearby Pu‘u Keka‘a, or Black Rock, at Kā‘anapali. Bringing along handfuls of frozen peas often used by visitors to attract fish, they cast their nets and pulled in a mother lode of uhu, manini, kale, aholehole and u‘u.

Figuring they should refrain from cleaning the catch poolside at the Westin, they returned to their room, filled up the bathtub with fish, and cleaned them, flushing the entrails down a single toilet until it clogged up.

The fish would have to be dried, they determined. They strung up ropes, lining them with fish and turned on the air conditioning. The smell of drying fish wafted through the entire floor—the fisherman not realizing that air conditioning ducts circulated the odor from one room to another.

Then, it was time to cook. They gathered dried kiawe wood stacked outside the Villa restaurant and retrieved some rocks from around the pool’s waterfall and grouped them in a circle on the fourth floor lānai balcony. They repurposed a wire shelf from the unit’s refrigerator, laying it over the rocks to serve as a grill. Then they fired it up and cooked a huge kala fish on the makeshift grill. While they awaited the feast, they strolled down the beach before enjoying their Hawaiian supper.

The fire engine sirens are not often heard along Kā‘anapali Parkway, but they were that day. Yellow-clad firemen lofted a long ladder to douse the smoky flames among the rocks, blasting a big hole in the lanai’s sliding glass door with a powerful stream.

Just another day in paradise.

A second fondly remembered George story, told like many of his tales between slack key guitar selections on-stage, relates to his son’s debut as a performer with his talented father. In 1990, the Mauna Kea hotel where George was playing insisted he add a partner.

George chose his son, Keoki, who is now an accomplished musician, to make his stage debut. But back then, hands shaking and playing poorly, Keoki barely made it through the first set, according to George.

Supplementing his poor playing was his even worse singing.

During a break, George asked for Keoki’s ‘ukulele, grabbed a wire cutter and snipped the strings. From a distance, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t playing, George recounted. The stringless ‘ukulele accompaniment went on for six months.

“Uncle” Charlie Maxwell, now a prolific writer, remembers when he was so unsophisticated during his early school days, he didn’t even know what a light bulb was.

Hearing the old rhyme “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water,” Maxwell said that with his poor English, he didn’t know what a pail or hill was, let alone the word “fetch.” A teacher told him at eighth-grade graduation, “If I was you, I’d marry a smart girl.”

Fortunately, he did just that at age 18, marrying a former cheerleader who became the lead dancer for legendary Kumu Hula Emma Sharpe.

Charlotte Ann “Nina” Maxwell used to type all his reports for her new husband, a police officer. When Maxwell’s boss discovered he couldn’t type, he ordered him to learn or face dismissal.

Nina, who was married to Charlie for nearly 50 years before she passed away a few years ago, came to the rescue. His “smart girl” taught him to type at 100 words a minute.

The boy who didn’t seem to have much of a future wound up in Washington, D.C., as an activist lobbying for Hawaiian rights. He was invited to the White House because of his outspoken ways.

Maxwell has helped to fight for the return of Kaho‘olawe to the Hawaiian people, pressed Colin Cameron to move his Ritz Carlton hotel site in order to preserve iwi (bones), headed the Hawaiian Advisory Commission of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and has run the Maui/Lāna‘i Burial Council for many years.

Talk story has a long tradition. Lucky for us, it is still alive and thriving.



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