Do you throw the shaka? If so, do you mean it? The first question is easy, yes or no. The second question is maybe a little harder. In this Age of Perpetual Satire, we would need a full statistical analysis with a hot side of boolean function in order to estimate the percentage of ironically-thrown shakas. “A shit-ton” is the best I can do this afternoon. The shaka, of course, long ago slipped the surly bonds of surf culture and lit out for the mainstream, but I did not realize how far it had penetrated until doing research last week while preparing the long-overdue EOS “shaka” page.
This headline on a British-based website called The Tab made me smile: “What the Hell is the ‘Shaka’ Pose and Why is Every Guy in Every Club Doing It?” (Subhead: “When Will It Stop?”) Not only did the article provide a cultural vector-marker for the shaka, it offered a glimpse into today’s club scene, which is apparently as ridiculous and wonderful as it was back when I used to toss on the old spats and mohair and drive the flivver to the Savoy for a night of Grasshoppers, gaspers, Lindy Hopping, and tomato squeezing. “A lot of trends have taken off for guys [this year], including crossbody bags, ripped jeans and male rompers,” the Tab tells us. “This time, though, it’s something they’re doing with their hands while posing for photos. In clubs across the United Kingdom, just as certain as there is someone drinking a VK through a straw, there will be a guy and his crew doing the ‘shaka’ sign on the dancefloor. To make the shaka pose more versatile, they will do it by the hip, next to their chest or in the air. This is determined by what level of embarrassment they’re aiming for.” A small sampling of clubgoers all said more or less the same thing: they began to shaka as a joke, but then the hand, so to speak, turned. “Starting doing the gesture as a piss-take” one said, “and now cannot stop.”
Chas Smith makes the same point in his 2014 book Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell. “I used to throw ironic shakas all the time. But it got into my blood and now I throw real shakas, everywhere. To Starbucks baristas in New York City and Parisian taxi drivers.”
In other words, the shaka is that rare cultural artifact that grows more sincere, not less, with use.
“Hold on, Matt,” you are thinking. “Your haole is showing. The shaka is always sincere for Hawaiians.” These days, yes, that may be true. But the shaka was invented after an Oahu sugarmill worker named Hamana Kalili lost the middle three fingers on his right hand in a cane press accident and was bumped over to the mill’s train station, where his job was to chase away joy-riding local kids who apparently added to their delinquent fun by waving back at Hamana with a mocking gesture consisting of—you guessed it—a fist flanked by an extended pinkie and thumb.
The shaka sign, in other words, was born in adolescent cruelty. Which is irony boiled down and mixed with first-bloom hormones and meanness.
And yet we get to a place of joy, as Hamana himself reclaimed the gesture and put a smile on it, even during his later years as a church leader when he dropped shakas like communion wafers during the singing of hymns. Next time you’re on the North Shore, swing by the Polynesian Cultural Center, and right out front you’ll see a huge bronze statue of Hamana throwing a high shaka—but also holding a fishing spear in his other hand, almost like he’s gonna geeve you one poke if you start up again with the irony.
I meant to do a bit here on “Cowabunga,” too, but we’re out of space so you’ll just have to go to the Cowabunga page.
Hang loose and Happy Easter, everyone, and if you throw a shaka while getting the vaccine use the hand opposite of the arm where the shot is going in, it’ll hurt less. Trust me.
Thanks for reading, and see you next week.
[Photos: WSL, Jeff Divine]