Gregory Walker is a renown composer, violinist, and creative spirit. He was the imaginative force behind last year’s JAMBALAYA at the Boulder J, and this Sunday he will be bringing us “Tiki Beat Taboo-Not Your Grandmother’s Luau.” I interviewed Gregory, known to most of the Boulder area as a classical musician, while he was packing up for a rock & roll gig.
SS: Gregory, Tiki Beat Taboo sounds like it will be so much fun! This is a big production, with dance, costumes, multi media… Obviously you have channeled much creativity and time into this. What inspired this wonderful mischief?
GW: Well, the family had a Hawaiian vacation this past July, and I was thinking that there is so very much that one can get out of a new experience with new perspectives. If I could channel that into a project, some good things might happen! So I did a little research before heading out on our trip, so I would know the kind of things I was interested in pursuing, and a lot of them had to do with Polynesian tribal history. While there were some aspects of Hawaiian culture that didn’t necessarily resonate with me, if one were to look for an over arching theme, it is of what it is to be an immigrant. Or-on the other end of the spectrum- what it is to be someone who is a native, and how fluid and ephemeral that concept is. That’s something that plays out in Hawaiian history more clearly than any place I can imagine. The beauty of Hawaii is that there are no original inhabitants, and I think that it’s a metaphor for a lot of places in the world where people like to be possessive of where they are and what they have.
SS: I always thought that native Hawaiian people were indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands. Did they come from somewhere else?
GW: Well they had to come from somewhere else! These are volcanic islands that are growing and forming even as you go there as a tourist. There was no singular point in history when we are actually sure that natives were established along with the rest of the indigenous wildlife. There is a mythical tribe of little people that they believe are the oldest known inhabitants, but if you meet someone that identifies as a true blood Hawaiian nowadays, they are likely from a tribe of people from other nearby islands who would have arrived anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand years ago. They themselves are ones who came and discovered the beauty of that part of the world in a way that’s not so different from the Europeans who went out and discovered other parts of the world. Where we live is an exotic gift and one can try to claim ownership of such a place, but is it truly ours? In the Tiki Beat Taboo, this idea of what it is that people, tribes and races take for granted is definitely something that is examined through a theatrical lense. Particularly the so called taboos—the ancient rituals and beliefs that add a majestic, primitive splendor to them, but also involve segregation and human sacrifices. Things that the natives themselves weren’t willing to examine for thousands of years, until there was this cataclysmic sequence of events that was spear-headed by the Tiki Queen Ka’ahumanu, who looms large in this production.
SS: Was there truly an historic Queen Ka’ahumanu or a cult of K? On Sunday night, will be we seeing genuine representations of Polynesian and Hawaiian art and culture, of this all a wild Americanized fantasy?
GW: Yes these figures really existed. I definitely riff on the whole concept but even biographically and historically it’s a very fascinating scenario. This queen has an incredible story behind her. In her lifetime she basically manipulated and positioned herself with great political acumen, and brought down the native cults including the feathered god of Coo. She believed that that people could be brought together to overcome the dominant beliefs that were separating men and women, and were especially limiting to women and their options. She had to do this by manipulating some men in her life, including her stepson the new boy King Leo Leho or Ialani, who was the King after Ka’ahumanu’s husband died. That was her opening to set these wheels in motion.
So that’s the philosophical and the dramatic part that goes on in the production and when it comes to the music—it’s inspired by the freshness and the sense of wonder in Hawaiian music. In the 50’s and 60’s there was a style of music that became very popular, inspired by the new state of Hawaii. And this style of music known as exotica would basically compress all the different ethnic cultures that white middle class America had been aware of into one kind of fascinating alien landscape. So in this music you have of middle eastern, african and polynesian elements; jungle elements and desert elements. It was kind of like a rage and especially if you were a jazz musician you had to release an exotica album in the early 60’s. If you listen to the stuff of that period, it’s just so colorful and the orchestration is wild. I can’t really do the all the styles justice, but what I came up with was definitely an homage to what was going on in that time. And largely just the sense of wonder and an adventure from the safety of one’s armchair that people were exploring at that time. As to the question of authenticity, I like to question what we mean by that. People ask, what’s authentic, what’s original? My grand message is that “authentic” doesn’t truly exist; that’s a fantasy. Anybody who claims that is taking a very narrow view of history. But that said, because we’re featuring genuine Polynesian performers, the Colama Dancers, so there’ll be a little bit of authentic history mixed in as well.
SS: Gregory, you are well known to local audiences as the longtime Concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, and you are currently a music professor at DU. Yet your creative ventures, including last year’s amazing JAMBALAYA concert at the Boulder JCC show you not to be terribly restricted to what might be the norms of the Classical or Academic worlds. Have you caught flack for this behavior from your more straight laced colleagues?
GW: On a regular basis (laughter). You know it goes with the territory that one will catch flack for venturing outside of the box, and at various isolated points in my career I’ve been part of some real exciting controversy! There are some styles where people are expecting something that’s edgy. But then there’s no element of surprise and you lose the thrill of having people genuinely worked up for better or for worse. Other times you’ll have people who are aggressively contradicting what you’ve done and then you’ll have other people who will rush to your defense in a more passionate way then they would have otherwise.
SS: Makes it more juicy, eh?
GW: Yeah, there’s a little bit more adrenaline that way. Never a dull moment!
SS: Well I’m really excited. This sounds like a one of a kind – definitely something we’ve never had here before. So kudos to you for putting it together and to the folks at the JCC for being receptive to your ideas.
GW: Well that’s exactly right. Without the support of Kathryn Bernheimer, you and Jodi Zicklin, this could easily have just been me spouting off wild ideas and everybody listens to and says it can never be! But with a great venue and with support and sometimes just a matter of faith on the part of you guys and the collaborators, we get to play this out. And that’s something I’ll always be grateful for.
SW: Yes well thank you Gregory. I can’t wait until Sunday night…hope folks come out for it!
GW: Thanks Sheldon.
Tiki Beat Taboo- Not your Grandmother’s Luau
Sunday, November 5 | 7 pm | Levin Hall at the Boulder JCC
$25 in advance | $30 at the door | $20 per ticket with purchase of four or more concerts | $10 for college students | Children under 18 are Free Register Here!