I didn’t see the falls when I came in, it was too dark and the sky was too low. There was a heavy mist in the air and there was no ambient light. I slid the little bathroom window shut, thinking that the white noise was some kind of air conditioner or generator, and it muffled the sound slightly. The little coqui frogs cheeped, the static noise of the falls droned in the background, and when the frogs went to bed, so did I.
In the middle of the night, I got up and opened the door on the lanai, and there it was, a roaring waterfall, a plunge of white water surrounded by banana trees and coconut palms, a black and starry sky overhead. I knew the falls were near, but not that they were right there.
My head has been full of sound all week. So much sound. Each day has been a catalog of sound. In the cottage where I spent my nights in Pahala, the slightest breeze would rattle the loose windows. The floors and doors creaked and moaned. Roosters ignored the clocks and greeted the sun, the moon, and random times of night. The refrigerator complained and the plumbing leaked; dripping water from the kitchen tap confused me and often, I thought it was raining, so steady was the noise of water finding its way into the drain.
At the big plantation house where I had meals and classes, there’s a grand piano in the main hallway. Often, a Hawaiian teenager would be sitting on the bench picking out the riffs to pop songs; over and over I heard something that sounded just like Hall and Oates’ Man Eater. And sometimes, it would be a sweet jazz standard, I remember hearing Stardust, Hoagie Carmichael, from the keyboard, and then the words to that tune coming from someone, I don’t remember who, as they walked towards the kitchen.
One morning, I woke up and heard the plink of ukulele strings from the porch next door, no particular melody, just some floating random notes all tied together by the smell of marijuana. The neighbor was smoking a joint and playing the ukulele on a creaking porch first thing in the morning. I thought, “Oh, this happens here, that seems about right,” and I waited for the coffee pot to make that bubbling noise it makes when the coffee is done.
I tried to learn to sing this week. There was a prayer song at meals and a chant on the lawn every morning and a song, in choir, all in Hawaiian. I learned my part for choir, but I never absorbed the words for the prayer or the chant, only pieces of those things. Hawaiian is all vowels and intonations and feels strange in my mouth.
I took a lesson in Hawaiian language and three classes in singing harmony, and every day I butchered my part in choir, getting lost and hearing that I was lost, and listening, hard, to the voices around me to try to find the path to the note where I was supposed to be. It hurt my ears to be in the wrong place, and it was frustrating because I so badly wanted the feel the right notes vibrating from my solar plexus.
There was a construction crew putting up new telephone poles throughout Pahala town while I was there. The big diesel engines clattered, a muffled jackhammer broke asphalt, and the backup signals — beep beep beep — just added more punctuation to all that sound around me. Once, three big Hawaii telecom trucks came right past the open building where the ukulele lessons took place right across the lawn, idling their big motors while we picked out our scales.
I live a very quiet life at home. There are no kids squealing on my lawn. Our TV is off most of the time, and rarely, only very rarely is it on during the day. I listen to some radio, sometimes, when I work, and sometimes, I noodle with my ukulele. Like the kids in Pahala, I play the same song over and over and over again for a week or so, until I get it right – well, right enough, anyway. There’s little traffic in our neighborhood, just a few cars bookending the day. I like it this way; I enjoy the relative silence mixed with a little bird song.
My week in Pahala has been a wild mix of sound. There have been big sing-along sessions every night, 20 ukuleles and a few guitars. The teenagers gather in the room off the kitchen to jam, and I sat with them one night while they completely tore it up accompanied by a placid and bemused faced boy who made scratchy bass sounds come from a cello. The kitchen is full of chatter while kids wash dishes, there’s the low buzz of gossip and conversation. Up the lawn a guy plays his uke solo, his notes drift towards the house like leaves. The kids chop chords out of their instruments with a sharp reggae strum, while in the other room the adults show off for themselves and I hear “Look what I can do!” in my head as another part of the soundtrack for this place.
So much sound. The white noise of the falls works perfectly as the background for this morning, a break from the long days of music and noise and song and missed notes and overheard conversation. It’s not the silence of my daily life at home, but it helps me rewind and unravel the layers of sound from the last week.
The birds start to sing and the wind shakes the palm leaves. Another mix begins.