Hula Dancing and Norwegian Black Metal

This is a follow up to my February 19th post about Flamenco Hoy, occasioned by another presentation of the World Music Institute in New York. It just so happened that some of my ideas about it resonated with a documentary about Norwegian Black Metal I watched tonight, so I thought I’d write about them both.


Last Saturday, March 26th, 2001, I went to see “The Sacred Hula: Ka Wa Hula—Hula through Time, Halau o Keikiali’i,” a presentation in two parts of Hawaiian Hula dancing. It took place in Symphony Space on 95th and Broadway, which was originally designed as a movie theater and not as symphony hall. Go fig.

For whatever reason, it wasn’t the same crowd as came to see the Flamenco. There were many Hawaiian shirts on underneath the winter coats, the people in them were generally a bit older, and were the kind of genial, smiling people you see in the World Music section of the music store.1 The vibe was curious and happy, though I had the sense that, more than an aficionado’s fix, they just wanted a pleasant, open-minded atmosphere to reconnect with something that they already knew a bit about.

The spoken introduction of the piece made a few guesses as to why we’d come there; maybe we were familiar with the tradition of Hula, maybe we had seen Elvis in “Blue Hawaii.” Actually I’d seen neither. I’d looked at WMI’s program and the Sacred Hula stood out because I really knew nothing about it; it was a kind of dance associated with Hawaii, obviously, but I’d always thought of it as an easy going accompaniment to easy going music that I associated with tourism, something to listen to as you fell asleep in your hammock. I’m wary of this presentation of Hawaii because it seems a bit false. Hawaii’s history is the least bit depressing, and the presentation of Hawaiians as a uniformly blissful, welcoming people is to ignore a lot of the awful history that happened there, the awful poverty from which many Hawaiians still suffer, and the fact that many Hawaiians are upset about it.2

In any case, the performance was consciously didactic rather than pure art or entertainment. The first half was dedicated to ceremonial, traditional hula, which was and perhaps still is religious in the most explicit manner.3 The dancers entered the theater from the rear and approached the stage slowly; we were informed that preparatory sacrifices had to be made before the Hula could begin; the dancers had to, in a sense, offer themselves in order to dance the Hula.

As for the dance itself, it didn’t seem like an effort to transcend gravity (like ballet), or the rooting of rolling movement in the ground (as it seemed to me at Ronald K. Brown’s evidence). The movements were precise and swooping; the hand gestures were exact, powerful, and expressive of a sophisticated vocabulary; they are not so delicate or baroque as those in Flamenco. The choreography (if that is the right word) seemed to be about movement in unison; the word tribal may have negative, Orientalist connotions, but it seems appropriate here, as the dance is meant to unify the dancers in a group. It reminded me of the saw about Polynesian warrior cultures’ affinity for the team mentality of American football players.4

The chants and dances were lead by Kawika Keikali’i Alfiche the evening’s kumu, (which means source of knowledge or teacher) and he broke them up with bits of information about Hula.5 He sat at the back of the stage with various drums and M.C.’d the evening in a softspoken and charming way. In this he fills his traditional role of the kumu by passing on history orally, though old school kumu apparently punctuated their lessons with yells and hurled ashtrays.

Suprisingly, I found the discussion of the dancers’ outfits to be some of the most revealing (so to speak) parts of the program.6 In traditional Hula each dancer makes his or her own clothing for the dance.7 We saw the very last bit of this process when two women came out and floated large rectangles of bright red cloth on the ground; they scrunched these up like accordions and hung them over a strip of the same red fabric; they then tied the whole affair around their waists. You’d think a big bunch of material would obscure their movements, but the cloth flounced and emphasized the movements just-so.

There was an element of dissonance in all this, however. Essentially we were watching a religious ceremony being performed as a part of a show. They were dancing for you, and not for the gods, which is suggestive enough to warrant at least one thesis.8 There were plenty of other questions for those of us prone to white liberal guilt. Am I commodifying Hawaiian culture? If I am, does that make an authentic revival impossible? Is it somehow sacreligious if a kumu performs a chant in Manhattan for me? Is that a sacrifice that can be made in Manhattan in order to support the authentic Hula that happens in Hawaii? If he’s touring to get funds for his religion, is it because American land grabs took his people’s property away? Am I coming here to ameliorate my guilt?

After the break the program switched to modern Hula, which meant western style songs accompanied by ukelele, guitar, and bass. The outfits became more western (though I doubt if any of the dancers tailored his own suit), the vibe became less intense, and the dancing itself changed dramatically. The basic moves remained the same, but here the men and women were more likely to dance in pairs instead of lines or separate groups. The movements became gentle rather than powerful. This was Hula as entertainment, and felt more familiar and less visceral than what had come before. The informality of the set was such that the kumu invited two New York kumu up to the stage to do a Hula, which they performed admirably and on the spot; there was something peculiar about seeing a woman in black jeans dance a Hula.

Mercifully Brief Connection with a Previous Post

In the Flamenco post I talked about art as a product of a subculture; the blues was the art that helped define and sustain black American culture as Flamenco helped define and sustain Gypsy culture in Spain. It’s inviting to make a comparison with Hula. Are we witnessing the birth of an art form that can survive under domination, as African drumming survived in the Carribean? Or has classical Hula truly been lost if it now sustains a subculture instead of giving structure to a dominant culture?

What this all has to do with Norwegian Black Metal

The question of invading cultures came up again in Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about Norwegian Black Metal (NBM hereafter), a musical genre based in Scandinavia in the early nineties. The film centers around two figures, Gylve Nagell (stage name: Fenriz) and Varg Vikernes (stage name: Count Grishnakh9). Nagell reminded me uncomfortably of the stereotype of the Trenchcoat Mafia from Columbine High School: long, unadorned hair parted down the middle, all black hair and clothes (natch), scraggly beard and a pallid complexion. Vikernes could pass for a charming philosophy graduate student, though when he gets around to expressing his ideas they are, uh questionable, to put it charitably. For all of Vikernes’ concern about outside cultural influence in Norway, both he and Nagell speak articulate, idiomatic English with a hint of an English lilt, and Nagell’s occasional mispronunciations somehow make him more awkward and more likeable (he says “hindsight” with the same vowel sound as “Hindenburg.”)

Vikernes in particular has some points to make about the role of Christianity in Norwegian history: it is not a native religion and early proselytizers had no qualms about destroying Pagan sites and building their churches on what was hallowed ground. Fair enough, though Vikernes took the matter to extreme ends, namely claiming that Judeo-Christian religions have no place in Norway and burning down some of Norway’s oldest churches as a means of bringing attention to his views.1011

Vikernes seems to argue that NBM is read as an effort to reject McDonald’s style globalism and capitalism. The musicians were deliberately trying to make unpleasant music with low production value; they wanted a limited fan base and aimed to alienate everyone else. Nagell just seems to be sad that he’s lost control of something that belonged to him, his close friends, and no one else.

I’ve been reading about the scene for a few years now, and have once or twice tried listening to some of the music. Suffice it to say I just don’t like it, and a big part of me wonders how such a small group of people manage to be so fascinating when their immediate product doesn’t interest me in and of itself. Maybe I’m disconcerted by the fact that Vikernes comes off as charming when when I know he associated himself with fascism and neo-nazism. Maybe it is because they came out of Norway, a culture known for social stability and a high standard of living. Maybe, as the film makers claim, the musicians are interesting for what the role church burning media debacle says about human nature.

Also I’d be remiss if I didn’t pass on an interesting interview with the makers of Until the Light Takes Us, available here. They seem to be quite interested in labelling themselves postmodern, which is fifty -cent word for misunderstanding and media management, but if you’re going to pass yourself off as an intellectual, you may as well be as well informed and thoughtful as they seem to be.

1I understand why the term World Music exists, but do bachata, gamelan, and Tinariwen really belong in the same category?

2It’s not hard to guess why this makes me feel so uncomfortable; most of the big events of modern Hawaiian history—it’s discovery by Cook, the arrival of Protestant missionaries, the usurpation of Queen Liluokalani, the outlawing of the Hawaiian language—happened before I was born, and yet it is a part of America and it happened not too long ago (teaching Hawaiian only became legal in 1970). And so, justified or not, I feel in some sense that I am some how more responsible for quashing the native culture of Hawaii than I am of, say, Papua New Guinea.

3I don’t know if you can recover such a complex religion as Hawaii had before the missionaries came, but it seems right to say that there is a spiritual Hula and an entertainment Hula

4Which stereotype is born out, at least anecdotally, by at least one New York Times article.

5Some of these bits: Kahuna means priest, but has entered English as bigwig or poobah; the drum called a pahu is made from a cross-section of a coconut tree and sharkskin and is used for the holiest of hula dances; it’s estimated that there were one million natives on the islands when Captain Cook came across them in the late 18th century; now there are only eight or nine thousands pure blood Hawaiians left.

6As for famously revealing Hula costumes, the female dancers were more chaste than historically accurate; the revealing clothes were one reason the missionaries were so keen to outlaw Hula. There was some irony in this as making the women put on more clothes took away some of the overt sexuality only to replace it with eroticism.

7I am currently reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—hopefully the topic of a forthcoming post—and can’t resist drawing a connection: how differently satisfying is it to do something when you’ve had a hand in every aspect of it, when you’ve peeled the potatoes and made the stock yourself instead of getting everything from a can?

8My vote: Appeasing the Box Office Gods: Hula’s Fight to Create Cultural Capital

9The name Grishnakh comes from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as does the name of Vikernes one-man band Burzum. Make what you will of a xenophobic fascist naming himself and his band after a foreign author’s work.

10While this certainly got Vikernes lots of notoriety, he was primarily incarcerated for the murder of Øystein Aarseth, another black metal, uh, performer. His description of the murder makes him sound almost comically stupid, and would be a laughable excuse if the whole thing weren’t so unnerving—he claims that he knew Aarseth wanted to torture and murder him, and yet accompanied someone he thought was in league with the victim into the victim’s apartment in the middle of the night; its unnerving because the trial footage shows him smiling after the verdict is read. In all fairness he seems on the verge of tears as the footage begins, and I have a feeling he’d say it was a bitter smile of recognition at the Norwegian justice system’s urgent need to silence someone who challenged the status quo. At present Vikernes seems to be making a bit of cottage industry of telling “the real story” behind all the sensational media hubbub, when to me he seems like someone who thought incendiary (which does, remember mean both “provocative” and “having to do with fire”) vandalism was an effective way to make a point and got fussy when the story got away from him. In point of fact, he is a not a Pagan or a Satanist, but a nihilist—he wants to destroy the existing order, but makes no mention of what should replace it.

11Nagell doesn’t seem to be an outright racist, though (and I am going from memory here) he does sound a little bit superior when he dismisses Frieda Kahlo (“that woman who drew the pictures with one eyebrow,” or something like it) and suggests that art only comes from cultures with a certain degree of creature comfort and its attendant dissatisfaction.

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