Perhaps director Murnau suspects just something of the breathtaking flair of the nature-loving South Seas inhabitants, so vividly depicted by Paul Gaugin in his paintings, when he enters this island world for his last film "Taboo", seeking to recapture the exotic magic that had already vanished almost completely by the start of the 20th century. There’s something forlorn about his attempt – along with Robert Flaherty, the documentary film maker he so admired – to reanimate hula dances with bare-breasted girls in raffia skirts for a Hollywood film. The idea of telling the tragic love of an initiated girl, forbidden by 'taboo' to seek any man, in an almost documentary way may be attributable to Flaherty’s influence, and in conflict with Murnau’s personal style. Murnau dies before the film is completed.
Once they’re occupied by foreign interlopers, the South Seas archipelagos lose their innocence, the paradise is cultivated, only a few rudimentary elements are left of the wonderful ways of life which have developed in close coexistence with nature over the centuries, and now become 'civilised' within a few years. So Mariko Takahashi and Stefan Winter travel from Munich via Tokyo to Honolulu with no great expectation of being able to experience the world of Paul Gaugin’s pictures, even musically. Their travel kit includes no diary, no sketch-pad, no photo or video cameras, but recording equipment and a microphone, in the hope of being able to bring back a personal acoustic travelogue (cinema for closed eyes) from this Pacific island world. Before setting out from Munich, concrete recording schedules are drafted, but these are only implemented in a fragmentary way. The unusual life rhythms on O'ahu demand abandonment of the prefabricated scheme: the flow of things has a different, calm, powerful, very slowly moving dynamic. Even now, as in days gone by, this wonderful world of volcanic origin and fertile climate in the midst of the Pacific Ocean influences the coexistence of mankind and nature. Dance in the wind beneath the light of a rainbow, sway like a tree, flow like a stream that brings life! The contents of the old chants and hulas still have significance today, even though it’s almost impossible to find a Hawaiian who doesn’t have Japanese, Irish, Mexican or Italian ancestors. New elements have arisen – so people tell – ever since Makawe and his sons came from Tahiti in the 11th and 12th centuries to settle down in Hawai'i, and from the 17th and 18th centuries, further newcomers from Europe mix in with the original South Seas inhabitants: the Halau temple, erected for Laka, the goddess of the hula, is demolished, the Christian religion makes an entrance, and Pele, the volcano goddess who destroys so as to create new, fertile land, is banned. But now, beneath Diamond Head, on the beach at Waikiki, one hears hew hulas, and Hawaiian Sons. Slack key guitars and the world-famous steel guitars, ukuleles, which originally came from Portugal, double basses, falsetto melodies with a remarkable erotic effect, and polyphonic songs mingle with the rhythms of waves, and the birdsong emerging from enormous great trees, beneath which one experiences the breathtaking Pacific sunset over a cocktail.
Clouds, rain and sun alternate hourly, thunder rolls from near and far, and sometimes there are two or three rainbows in the sky. On the veranda of a white wooden house, on a deep green cliff above Honolulu, a slack key guitar plays a hula, other musicians come along, sing and play their songs about love, their land, and their princess Miriam Likelike who in days past, like the Grimm brothers, wrote down what has been handed on from generation to generation. From the unbroken connection to their own tradition there come new songs: the Hawaiians don’t stare at the ashes of their past, the fire still burns, but they have a new awareness. In the new millennium, they have all turned their attention to their language, their culture and their nature, whether they are making a living from the Japanese tourists or the American army bases. The eyes of the children of the Hawai'i Youth Opera Chorus Angeli Ensemble are gleaming as they sing about their Hawai'i: they are learning new songs and also ancient chants which seemed to have been lost, and they move their bodies, arms and hands, in unison with the text, with eyes following fingertips.
In a simple house on a hill on the west coast, far removed from the bustle of Honolulu, young women meet to dance the hula; one of them is about to get married.
They say they no longer believe in Laka, and are baptised in Christ; but the immense sensuality of the hula has captured them. They dance and sing, and almost like in a fairy tale, whales emerge from the sea, calling and spouting columns of water into the sky. The dogs bark nervously. The old rites speak of the power of nature, of waterfalls, lava and love. With hand-made drums and bare feet they strike, dance and stamp their rhythms, and on the beach below the surf rolls up time after time onto the shore.
A ukulele plays Ku'u Ipo I Ka He'e Pu'e One, written by the princess for a heart-broken girl who can’t marry her great love. The ideas go back to Murnau’s script for "Taboo", and Paul Gaugin’s pictures re-emerge. Magic lives on.
This acoustic travel diary was recorded on the island of O'ahu, from the 12th to 18th April 2006.
- Stefan Winter (Translation: Richard Toop)