<Book Review>
American Aloha: Cultural Tourism and the Negotiation of Tradition. Heather A. Diamond. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P, 2008.

Through history, particularly since the passage of the Folklife Preservation Act of 1976, politicians, festival producers, museum curators, tourism boards, and everyday people have struggled to maintain a focus on the folks that are so important to folklife. As many theorists have reminded us in recent performance studies scholarship, these folks, or the producers of folklife performance, often get lost in efforts to produce folklife festivals or sites [1]. In this vein, American Aloha provides a critical, yet significant, look into the production of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Hawai’i program in 1989. The text ambitiously covers the extensive productive elements leading up to the festival both in Hawai’i and Washington DC, the festival itself, and the aftereffects of the production. Diamond seems to have found a way into even the most intimate and secretive aspects of the production of this program, which results in a thorough description of the “poetics and politics of festival making” (4). Drawing on issues of authenticity, visibility, tradition, tourism, and performance, Diamond unfolds a critical ethnography that allows the reader to question the production of space via performances such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The first chapter fleshes out the significance of the study by providing a history of tourism and colonial politics in Hawai’i, as well as a detailed discussion on the impetus for the Hawai’i program. As someone who has never been to Hawai’i but seeks to be relatively aware of the politics and potentials of tourism, I found this chapter to be vital in my understanding of the subject. Diamond defines tourism here as existing primarily within the visual; an interesting choice when one considers the embodied nature of the Folklife Festival in particular and performance in general. Diamond does, however, back up her choice with an extensive history of the colonization of Hawai’i via the commercial tourism industry. She argues that a turn of the century obsession with Hawai’i as an exotic playground supported a hybridized, de-politicized, and aestheticized version of the culture for visual touristic consumption. Additionally, the somewhat problematic role of early ethnographers in Hawai’i who sought to separate culture from politics established a lens through which future understandings of the state would be viewed. Attempts to preserve traditional culture in Hawai’i via in-state political and financial institutions, and national organizations, such as the NEA, further contributed to the contested nature of the production of Hawai’ian culture. Therefore, this struggle over the representational politics of Hawai’ian cultural performances greatly affected how people in Hawai’i viewed the Smithsonian’s interest in producing a festival that attempted to go beyond the common touristic images of Hawai’i.

From this definitional foundation, Diamond sets out to explain the complex nature of the Hawai’i program production. Chapter two outlines the fieldwork phase of the program. In particular, the fieldwork phase revealed definitional conflicts between how locals, Native Hawai’ians, and Smithsonian employees understood ethnicity. Because of the aforementioned colonization of Hawai’i, ethnic boundaries and definitions often overlap. Thus, the fieldwork phase was sensitive and deeply political. The Smithsonian hired fieldworkers to research potential performance areas, prepped these fieldworkers with the program’s mission and definition, and strove to select performers to represent nine specific ethnic groups. Additionally, the Smithsonian attempted to mitigate the affects of colonization on the festival by assigning half of the program to Native Hawai’ians. Diamond points to the continued politics of representation via this kind of program by arguing that the Folklife Festival had the ability to create a new master narrative within its production.

Chapter three continues the discussion of the work behind the festival by delving into the production phase. Leaving no stone unturned, Diamond is thorough in her discussion about the complexity of setting up this program. She covers not only the decisions about how to construct the festival’s narrative via signage, set design, and narrative performance, but also the logistics of transporting the necessary props and performers to Washington DC. In explicating this work, Diamond again frames the festival as a visual display, supporting her observations with theories about the constructed nature of front-stage and back-stage areas per Dean MacCannell. For Diamond, these two performance regions—front and back—demonstrate the issues pertinent to the next chapter, which discusses the festival itself.

Chapter four develops a discussion about the festival as a “site of contestation and negotiation once the performers inhabited the carefully constructed site and narrative of the Hawai’i program” (135). This chapter is where Diamond truly fleshes out her ethnographic method by giving the reader a look into the ways the performers authenticated their experiences by creating a somewhat subversive community, despite the explicit intentions of the program coordinators. It would seem that the festival was not simply a visual display once performers and visitors were thrown into the mix. In particular, the Smithsonian had given the performers the role of educators so as to mediate some of the otherwise problematic politics of visually oriented touristic sites. The program coordinators had also attempted to construct a unified community amongst the performers. In many ways the performers played into this effort as they mingled within this carefully constructed community and even filled in for each other when necessary. The performers found ways to transgress this constructed cohesion, however, via their interaction with audience members, and through other on and off-site interactions. According to Diamond, this negotiation between subversive and cohesive performances allowed the audiences to view a level of authenticity while the performers transgressed official festival narratives.

Chapter five returns the reader to Hawai’i with a discussion about a restaging of the festival in Hawai’i and the aftereffects for the performers and producers of the festival. Diamond specifically explains that the Smithsonian sees the festival as a catalyst, rather than the end-all and be-all of the process. On one hand, the Hawai’i program succeeded in this vision by stimulating a restaging of the festival in Hawai’i. This restaging had to negotiate many new dynamics, as the audience had changed, and therefore, so did the rhetorical strategies. Additionally, many performers won awards for their performances, thereby gaining new careers via their experiences with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. On the other hand, the initial afterglow of the festival for the performers quickly faded when placed back in the local context and in the context of the official video and book staging of the festival. In sum, Diamond returns to her argument about the contested nature of cultural representation within her discussion of life after the Smithsonian program.

Diamond sums up her study by admitting that the festival is a tourist event, which is “calibrated to the tourist gaze” (215). Yet, Diamond retains a careful dichotomy between the commercial tourism industry and the educational tourism of the Smithsonian. While her study provides the reader with a detailed analysis of the folks of folklife festival-making and the work of festival work, the embodied aspects of those folks and that work seem to go the way of the invisible. The contested nature of this production would lend itself to a discussion about the embodied aspects of folklife performance and tourism. If the Hawai’i program was the visually authentic production that Diamond thoroughly proves it was, how might it contribute to the scholarly conversation of tourism as an embodied performance so important in contemporary performance studies scholarship? Indeed, if Hawai’i embodies a “cloudy political history” (8) as Diamond argues, the reader would benefit greatly from a more nuanced discussion of the similarly cloudy political history of tourism as a dynamic embodied performance rather than a singularly visual site. In this way, this study points to the relevance of recent scholarship on the embodied performance of tourism in performance studies, and the ways we can look beyond the visual when teasing out the potentials and problems of festival performance as a site of communication.

     — Cora Leighton


[1] See, e.g., Michael S. Bowman, “Performing Southern History for the Tourist Gaze: Antebellum Home Tour Guide Performances,” in Exceptional Spaces: Essays in Performance & History, edited by Della Pollock (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), pp. 142-158. See also Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998). See also Edward M. Bruner, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

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