“Kaona” and Exclusive Vice-Versa Interview with Jamaica Osorio
Learning How to Listen: Sharing “Kaona”
Our interview with Youth Speaks Hawai‘i member Jamaica Osorio, co-author and co-performer of this powerful spoken-word piece. Mahalo nui to Jamaica for taking some time to share her mana‘o on the creation of this poem, translation, and the power of language.
V-V: Where did the inspiration for this poem come from?
JO: Initially the idea came from a bilingual piece that another team had done many years ago. The piece was about conquest and was in English and Spanish. Ittai brought the idea to me, and at the time I was reading Aloha Betrayed and so the idea of Lili‘u came into play, and it all kind of took off from there.
V-V: We really love the layering of different voices in the performance of the poem and how that evokes the idea of layering of images, ideas, and messages in the concept of “kaona.” Could you tell us a little more about the process of building the layers of this poem? Also, how were choices made about when to have people speaking in unison or separately, when to have all four of you and when to have two, when to coordinate mirroring gestures, etc.
JO: The layers came together over time. First it was the English and then I wrote the Hawaiian. It wasn’t until after the poem was completed that I thought up the idea for the two boys to do the chant. Then the poem came to life. The mirroring gestures weren’t coordinated they were spontaneous, which makes the poem that much better . . . the fact that we were both feeling the same thing in two different languages is just so powerful. The rest of it has a lot to do with dynamics, what lines should have more voices for volume’s sake and what should have less. For the most part that process is focused on the performance.
V-V: During the section when you and Ittai speak simultaneously, we noticed that you speak softer than Ittai. Is this to allow the English to come across clearer to meet the needs of the audience? Also, we’re wondering what the significance of speaking at the same time is in this particular instance, when before you both took turns in English and/or in Hawaiian.
JO: Unfortunately our poems have to be accessible to the audience. Because of this, the Hawaiian has to be softer. If the Hawaiian overpowered the English, no one would understand the poem, and it was more important to me that the story is understood rather than people just listening to a beautiful language they do not understand.
V-V: Could you describe your concept of the relationship between Hawaiian and English in this piece? Also, what role does translation play in this poem?
JO: The translation is only there for the poem to be accessible. Unfortunately not enough people speak Hawaiian, and the audience that really needs to be reached is beyond our beautiful islands, so the translation is essential.
V-V: Could you talk in general about the significance of including Hawaiian language in the poem and the choices you made?
JO: It was really important to me to expose the people beyond Hawai‘i to our language and culture. I’m glad we were able to do that with “Kaona.”
V-V: More specific Hawaiian-language questions: Who are you calling upon to grant this ‘ike to you in “E Ho Mai”? Also, since the poem is about passing on traditions, why did you choose to use a relatively newer mele instead of an older one?
JO: We are calling upon our parents and grandparents but also our peers. It is just as much our responsibility to pass on the torch as it is our kupuna. “E Ho Mai” was chosen for a few reasons: 1) it’s something I was familiar with and it came to mind when we were running through the poem, and 2) it’s completely appropriate to the message we are trying to get across. I guess it just seemed foolish not to choose this chant.
V-V: Why did you choose not to translate “he mana ko ka leo”?
JO: “He mana ko ka leo” is translated indirectly. In saying “without language we have nothing,” we are saying that there is a power in our language and in our words that cannot be disregarded.
V-V: Is “Without language, we have nothing” also meant to be a translation of “Ina ‘a‘ohe leo, ‘a‘ohe ola”? If so, why did you choose “leo,” which captures the idea of voice, speaking, and sound a little more, over “‘olelo,” which, although it has some of those meanings as well, is more related to language?
JO: Leo was chosen mostly because of the way it sounded in the phrase. But at the same time it is important to acknowledge that “‘olelo,” as in language, can be silence, it can be in one’s mind or on paper. Leo is voice and only exists if it is being used, so in many ways it is more appropriate when we wanted to say that people need to speak and be heard.
V-V: Congratulations on being featured in the recent HBO: Brave New Voices! What was it like performing this poem for the HBO audience as compared to Hawai‘i audiences?
JO: When we were performing I didn’t think much about HBO except the fact that a large audience would get to learn about Hawai‘i . . . that was a big part of wanting to bring in pieces about home to the competition, but for the most part it was just like any other audience.
V-V: Does this poem have any new or particular relevance to you (as a writer and performer) in connection with this year being the fiftieth anniversary of Hawai‘i’s statehood?
JO: Not really. I think statehood is a joke, to be completely honest, and has absolutely no legal or moral standing. Those of us who know the history know that we do not belong to the United States and so fifty years of a lie doesn’t really affect my relationship with this poem.
Founded in January 2005, Youth Speaks Hawai‘i is dedicated to offering free after-school writing and performance workshops for teens. For more information, visit http://youthspeakshawaii.org