Garrett Hongo's "Holiday in Honolulu"

In his third collection, Coral Road, Garrett Hongo explores the overlapping of historical necessity, personal narrative, and the formation of culture in telling the tale of his Japanese ancestors and their adopted Hawaiian homeland, often finding pathos and beauty in the overlapping itself. Here he celebrates the hybrid vigor of Hawaiian music as he contemplates a rare sighting of Billie Holiday on his home turf.

Holiday in Honolulu

Billie in a yellow bikini and without the gardenia in her hair,
But instead a dark hibiscus, plump as her curls.
Next to her, Armstrong in Bermudas and a flat English driver’s cap,
The famous grin spreading wide as the beach behind them.
And Trummy Young, that marooned trombonist from Gibson’s Bar,
Dressed in a hotel robe and swim trunks, flanks her other side.

She looks shy, perhaps off the drugs or only lightly dosed,
Not quite sad, as the sun makes a light gleam off their skins.
I’d never thought of them here, American jazz greats,
         cavorting on the beach,
The big pink hotel looming just off Armstrong’s right shoulder,
Celebrities among the tourists, bringing their brand of music
To mix in among the ‘ukulele, steel guitars, and falsetto tenors
                                                                          of the hotels.
But Pahinui must have, his singing a short breath
         behind the beat sometimes,
Playing that slappy catch-up, tailgating to the rhythm
Like Satchmo, who showed Holiday how to do the same,
All hip to the bluesy, hesitation style—a kind of tease.

And didn’t Gabby sound like Charlie Christian sometimes,
Strumming that guitar to a hula measure,
A half-beat off the One and swinging the pace
So the music had that feel of a five o’clock jump?

I don’t know for sure, but musicologists tell me
Hawai’i was forever a crossroads, seaborne chants
From Polynesia circulating up via Tahitian canoe
And bouncing back from Rapa Nui,
Where only the moai survive now.
And then the missionary hymns crept in,
The falsetto yodel of Argentine vaqueros.
After that, Mississippi and Louisiana delta blues,
Swamp songs from the steamships through the Panama Canal,
Their deckhands exchanging licks with the local guitar-pickers,
Bottlenecks sliding like spit on Hotel Street.
Pretty soon, a paniolo puts the dull edge of his knife
On the open-tuned strings of a Dobro, and we get the lap-steel
And hapa-haole songs of mixed Hawaiian and English,
Chang-a-lang from the Portuguese, kachi-kachi
And son montuno from Puerto Rican cane and pineapple workers.

What’s "original" anyway? Indigenous and essentially anything?

I’ll take Holiday in Honolulu, plucking a red hibiscus
From a green hotel bush as she saunters from the lobby
Across the breezy lanai with the tiki torches aflame and smoking,
The scent of ginger flowers from ‘awapuhi hotel soap on her skin,
Cocking her head to one side and pulling back the lush hair,
Placing the stem and pea-green corolla back behind an unjeweled ear,
Giving Armstrong and Trummy Young that bluesy wink of hers
As she adjusts the small bell of the bloom so it opens
Like a pliant, red trumpet in the sweetened airs of Waikiki.

Excerpt from CORAL ROAD © 2011 by Garrett Hongo. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Listen to Garrett read “Holiday in Honolulu.”

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