Two Hawaii hālau hula traveled to Paris for the 3rd Festival des Arts d'Hawaiʻi, an opportunity to perform and share traditional Hawaiian culture. -Photo: Courtesy of Carlyn Tani

This past summer, two hālau from Hawai‘i – Hālau Hula o Mānoa and Hālau Mele – traveled to Paris to perform and to present workshops, lectures and art exhibits for the 3rd Festival des Arts d‘Hawai‘i, from late June to early July. The Festival, founded in 2012 by Kilohana Silve, kumu hula of Hālau Hula o M ānoa, aims to bring traditional Hawaiian culture to the iconic City of Lights. The sister h ālau performed in outlying Paris neighborhoods and in a small seaside village in Normandy, creating cultural exchanges that reached more than 2,000 people. For Silve, who was marking the 25th anniversary of H ālau Hula o M ānoa, it was a time to celebrate the roots and branches of her thriving hula family; for H ālau Mele, it was a chance to bring traditional Hawaiian arts to new, untapped communities in France. Here is a snapshot from that journey.

Jennifer Maile Kaku, the alaka‘i of Hālau Hula o Mānoa in Paris, was puzzling over how to explain hula to audiences who knew nothing of Hawai‘i. “I wanted to show hula as a living art form,” she explained. “And because hula gestures are narrative, I thought why not choreograph a dance to a French song to show how the gestures correspond to the words?” Kaku selected “La Vie en Rose,” the iconic song by Edith Piaf written in post-WWII Paris, which Sam ‘Ohu Gon then translated into Hawaiian. The piece was an immediate hit. “Whenever we perform ‘La Vie en Rose’ in France, people totally understand,” said Kilohana Silve. “Hula comes to life for them – and they cry.”

Now, ten years after the idea first took flight, it was time to bring the mele back to its source. On a balmy afternoon, ten members from Hālau Mele and Hālau Hula o M ānoa journeyed to Edith Piaf‘s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery to serenade her with “La Vie en Rose,” in French and Hawaiian. Located amid Paris‘ bustling 20th arrondisement, Pere Lachaise is France‘s largest cemetery.

At the gravesite, musicians Anne-Sophie Coelho Da Silva and Astrid Carre knelt down and pulled out their ‘ukulele. The self-taught artists strummed the introductory chords and, in sweet, delicate harmony, began to sing “La Vie en Rose,” a song that celebrates love‘s first blush. Silve danced at the foot of the grave, surrounded by her haumana and hula sisters from Hawai‘i, Italy and France. As the performance came to a close, the dancers lingered on the hula‘s final gesture: both hands cupped over the heart, with the top hand fluttering like a beating heart – or the wings of a sparrow.

A small gathering of visitors, from young adults to seniors, waited quietly nearby. We gathered our belongings, and they approached the gravesite, snapping photos or leaving small bouquets of flowers. “It was very uplifting to dance “La Vie en Rose” for Edith with our hula sisters from Hawai‘i and France,” Kaku said after the tribute. “The purpose of this Festival is to commemorate our kupuna, and she is one of our kupuna.” This sweet performance at Pere Lachaise, for an audience of one, inscribed an indelible Paris memory.