We’ve all seen this two-fingered gesture, the international hand sign of the surfing fraternity, skaters, watermen and women, recognized universally as ‘hang-loose’, good times and all things Hawaiiana or ‘cool related’. In truth, it’s omnipresent, Pacific-wide and beyond. But what of its origins?
The father of the shaka sign is Hamana Kalili, who had lost his three middle fingers on one of his hands when working at the Kahuku Sugar Mill on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. Plantation owners decided to give Hamana a new job in security. His assignment was to watch the trains as local kids would ‘jump on the train’ as it slowed entering or leaving Kahuku. He would yell or wave at them to get off the train. The kids soon adopted his ‘wave’, what we now call the ‘shaka’ as an ‘all clear’ or ‘go for it’ sign.
Hamana was also a choir leader in the local Church and would lead the congregation in singing hymns in the town of Laie on the North Shore of Oahu at the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints. He would wave his hands around during impassioned services, and the locals began using his wave, mimicking the two-finger wave.
Shaka is not a Hawaiian (Polynesian) word. David ‘Lippy’ Espinda, a used car pitchman from Oahu (Hawaii), ended his TV commercials in the 1960s with the gesture and an enthusiastic ‘Shaka, Brah!’ In 1976, the shaka sign became an essential element of Frank Fasi’s third campaign for mayor of Honolulu, Hawaii. He won that race and used the shaka for three successful mayoral bids, serving six terms, helping to cement its use in the islands.
Local surfers quickly adopted the sign to signify ‘hang loose’, a favourite greeting among the surfing community. Just as these stories live on, so does the shaka sign, and it has since morphed into many things; beverages, surf shops, clothing, surfboard wax, all for want of a lack of imagination. It shares the mantel with that other overused word in the Hawaiian Islands, ‘Aloha’, which is an airline, a rental car company, a cleaning company and any other thing or service in Hawaii you can imagine, over-used to the point of becoming meaning less, not more.
But let’s get real in this mele of attribution; we must recognize Shaka kaSenzangakhona (c. July 1787 – 22 September 1828), also known as ‘Shaka Zulu’, founder of the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 to 1828; the most influential monarchs of the Zulu, responsible for re-organizing the military into a formidable force via a series of wide-reaching and significant reforms; a living embodiment of ‘shaka’; and one of the most feared warriors in Africa.
And let’s not forget, it’s also one of the most advanced windsurfing freestyle moves, and despite being an older trick, it continues to be an essential move in competitions and one of the biggest crowd pleasers, which makes it a great activity to learn to impress your mates down at your local beach.
Ultimately, it’s a hand sign surpassing the ‘thumbs-up’, an iconoclastic symbolism almost as complex as the emotional prism encapsulated within ‘Aloha’, the embodiment of a life force. As a warning, use it wisely in the islands, where it forms part of jingoistic, tribal communication between ‘da bruddah’s’ of which you’re probably not a part of, but wanna-be. Drop a shaka on da wrong bruddah, and don’t be surprised if they look at you as a ‘try-hard’ off-islander, looking to blend in with a simple gesture you picked up in some faraway land.