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Merrie Monarch Festival kicks off

— For more photos from the Ho’olaule’a, visit

— For more information on the Miss Aloha Hula contest, Ho’ike, a full schedule of events, and much more, visit

A popular Hilo hula halau drew a near-capacity crowd to the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium on Easter.

About 2,500 witnessed a Sunday midday performance by Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua under the direction of kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho. The performance was part of the Merrie Monarch Festival’s Ho‘olaule‘a, the kick-off event for Merrie Monarch week in Hilo.

Lum Ho’s halau is not entered in this year’s hula competition, so there was neither the pressure of the competition nor the constraints of the rules for the kumu or the dancers. Even in the more relaxed atmosphere, Lum Ho and his troupe proved a popular draw.

“It was our ability to let everybody dance in this show. You know, when you dance in a competition, there’s a minimum and maximum (number of dancers allowed on stage),” said Kawelo Kong Kee, the halau’s personable emcee. “But here, we can bring up to 500 dancers in the show and let everybody get the opportunity to dance.”

Everyone from the smallest keiki to the competition-tested kane and wahine dancers wowed the Easter Sunday crowd at the county facility.

Also present was the halau band, featuring falsetto vocalist Mark Yamanaka, whose debut solo album “Lei Pua Kenikeni” won four prestigious Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, including Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year in 2011. His sophomore CD, “Lei Maile,” has garnered a mind-boggling 10 nominations for this year’s coveted statuettes, which are awarded by the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts.

Most of the mele the halau performed to were Lum Ho’s, but they also featured the Rev. Dennis Kamakahi’s “Rain Li‘il‘i,” which Yamanaka recorded on “Lei Pua Kenikeni,” and almost 200 dancers performed to Yamanaka’s original “Maui Under Moonlight” from “Lei Maile.” Yamanaka said it’s the first time Lum Ho feaured his original compositions in a public performance.

“It’s amazing to watch the dancers put their emotion into your song,” Yamanaka said afterwards. “You know, just to have Uncle Johnny consider my song ‘Maui Under Moonlight’ is really special. Because he’s the composer of all songs and for him to put my song into the show is pretty awesome. And the amount of dancers was amazing.”

The halau proved as popular as ever in last year’s 50th anniversary competition but Yamanaka said it will be nice “to sit back and relax this year.”

“There’s still plenty of things to do and we’ll be performing around town here and there,” Yamanaka said. “But as far as competition, I just get to sit back on my own couch and watch it. It’s gonna be pretty exciting.”

On being nominated for 10 Hokus, Yamanaka said: “It’s really a blessing, whatever happens. Just being nominated is huge already and I’m thankful.”

Other performers in the free, all-day event included: Halau O Kekuhi under the direction of kumu hula Kekuhi Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani; Halau Na Pua O Uluhaimalama under the direction of kumu hula Emery Aceret; Hula Halau Ke ‘Olu Makani O Mauna Loa under the direction of kumu hula Meleana Manuel; Na Lei Liko Ola‘a under the direction of kumu hula Kimo Kekua; Toa Here, a Tahitian dancing troupe from Hilo under the direction of Romi Salvador; and Te Waka Huia, a five-time national champion Maori dance troupe from Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The troupe from Auckland will be among the featured performers at Wednesday night’s Ho‘ike at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium, as will Halau O Kekuhi, which has performed at thefree exhibition of hula and Polynesian dance since 1997.

“It’s an honor for us,” said Tapeta Wehi, who directs the five-time Te Matatini Kapa Haka Festival champions with his wife, Annette. “We’re indigenous people from Aotearoa and we are the first to be invited here to perform our culture.”

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