By JOHN BURNETT and TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writers
The 50th Anniversary Merrie Monarch Festival was a historic celebration, and the winning halau and kumu have all played significant roles in the history of hula’s premier event.
Kawaili‘ula, under the direction of kumu hula Chinky Mahoe, won the overall title by three points Saturday night over Mapuana de Silva’s Halau Mohala ‘Ilima. Mahoe’s halau from Kailua, O‘ahu, also took the kane overall title and kane ‘auana (men’s modern hula) and kane kahiko (men’s ancient hula) categories.
“Well that was kind of our goal, especially for the kahiko,” Mahoe said afterwards. “It was a gift given to us last year in a vision to, before the Merrie Monarch, to come back and do that presentation.”
Mahoe’s men’s kahiko on Friday night was “‘O Kilauea Noho Lulu,” which tells of Pele being awakened and lured from her home in Kilauea by the sound of Lohiau’s drumming and the two becoming lovers.
Kawaili‘ula’s ‘auana featured “Green Rose Hula.” Mahoe said that he selected the iconic Johnny Almeida melody to honor his first kumu, the late Merrie Monarch co-founder Uncle George Na‘ope.
Halau Mohala ‘Ilima of Ka‘ohao, O‘ahu, took the wahine overall and wahine kahiko titles, and finished third in the wahine ‘auana category. Their kahiko was “Aia i Waimanalo ko Nu‘a Hula,” the first part of a three-part mele inoa, or name chant for Queen Kapi‘olani. Their ‘auana was “Ninipo Ho‘onipo,” which was written by Queen Lili‘uokalani in Hilo in 1876.
“That was a perfect set,” kumu hula Mapuana de Silva told her women after their ‘auana, her face glowing with pride. She said that she chose Liliu‘okalani’s music to “celebrate the senses of love, its sounds, touches and tastes, and to bring the ha‘ena (glowing breath of life) here.”
Aloha Dalire’s Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa O Laka, of He‘eia, Kane‘ohe, O‘ahu, won the wahine ‘auana title by just two points over Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela under the direction of Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook. Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela, of Kalihi and Waimanalo, O‘ahu, also took runner-up honors in the wahine kahiko category.
Dalire selected the mele “‘Ilima Beauty” to honor her mother and mentor, the late kumu hula Mary Keolalaulani McCabe Wong, who cherished the ‘ilima.
“The flower is so special, yet so fragile,” Dalire said.
Dalire occupies a special place in Merrie Monarch history, as she was the festival’s first Miss Hula in 1971, and has participated in all but two of the Merrie Monarch’s hula competions as either a dancer or a kumu. All three of her daughters have also become Miss Aloha Hula, as the solo wahine title is now called.
Last year’s overall winners in both kane and wahine divisions, Halau I Ka Wekiu, didn’t go home empty handed. The halau from Pauoa, O‘ahu, was the kane overall runner-up and also placed second in the kane ‘auana division, dancing to John Pi‘ilani Watkins “Mahalo E Hilo Hanakahi.”
“I’m happy the crowd reacted to the song,” said Karl Veto Baker, who shares kumu hula duties with Michael Casupang. “We wanted to be able to thank Hilo for having us all these years and we hope they can have us for another 50 years.”
Four Hawai‘i Island halau, three from Hilo, competed. Only one, however, took home any of the ceremonial ipu (percussion gourd) or pahu (drum) trophies. Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani placed third in kane overall and kane ‘auana, fourth in kane kahiko, and fifth in wahine ‘auana. Their wahine ‘auana featured a medley of songs by Charles E. King — known as the “Father of Hawaiian Composers” — featuring an upbeat cha-lang-a-lang piano, while the dancers provided their own rhythmic accompaniment with pu‘ili (split bamboo sticks).
“This year is the 50th anniversary, so I wanted it to sound like fireworks,” said kumu hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang.
The halau brought a bit of honky tonk to the stage with its kane ‘auana performance about a night on the town in Waimea. Dressed in cowboy hats, red shirts and black pants, the men displayed some paniolo swagger with a few line-dance inspired moves, while the band peppered its mele with shouts of “Whee-ha!”
“I love Waimea,” Gaspang said, adding that the composer, Thelma Sproat Bugbee, was from the Hawai‘i Island town. “What better way to honor her.”
Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua kumu Johnny Lum Ho, who has more ceremonial hula hardware than any mantle can hold, didn’t add any prize percussion to his trophy case this year, despite an original wahine kahiko, “Huaka‘i Hele I Puna,” which drew raves from the crowd.
“It feels like we did what we were supposed to do,” Lum Ho said after his performance.
Asked if he’d rather please the audience or the judges, he replied: “The audience.”
“Theyre the ones that pay to come and see us, and if they don’t want to see us, we wouldn’t be here,” the Hilo-based kumu said. “I wouldn’t want to dance just for the judges.”
Also scoring with the audience but not the judges was Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu, of Academy of Hawaiian Arts in Oakland, Calif. The iconoclastic kumu took “He Aloha No Na Pua,” a mele inoa (name chant) about King Kalakaua that was a compulsory mele kahiko for the kane division in the 1980 Merrie Monarch, and set it to original music, a sort of laid-back, bluesy cha-lang-a-lang.
“It was the first time since Waimapuna (Darrell Lupenui) and Na Wai ‘Eha (Thaddius Wilson and O’Brien Eselu) competes against each other after the split. Darrell’s version is fast (chants) and Na Wai ‘Eha’s is a slower eight-count (chants). I put it together musically and it works.”
Hula, especially kahiko, is an art steeped in tradition, but Ho‘omalu said dancers have other thoughts in mind.
“Ask a dancer what they think about on the floor. They don’t think about tradition,” he said. “They think about the kahea (chant) on the floor. They think about the dance. They leave the tradition at home.”
There was a scary moment for Hilo’s Halau O Ke Anuenue when dancer Cindy Kealoha, sister of kumu hula Glenn Kelena Vasconcellos, collapsed just outside Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium after the halau’s ‘auana performance. County paramedics attended to her as her halau sisters stood by, expressions of concern etched on their faces. While it was touch-and-go for a few moments, Kealoha eventually rose to her feet.
“She’s a bit overheated, but she’s going to be all right,” Vasconcellos said.
Among the dignitaries stageside was Princess Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawanakoa. One of the heirs of the former James Campbell Estate, she donated $2,000 to each participating kumu hula, and $25,000 to the Merrie Monarch Festival and its president, Luana Kawelu, the daughter of Aunty Dottie Thompson, whose idea it was to make a hula competition the festival’s centerpiece.
“My heart is overwhelmed with happiness to come to Hilo and be treated with such kindness,” the princess said in a statement read over the public address in Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium by announcer Kimo Kahoano.
For Kawelu, the donation was the cherry on top of an “emotional week.” She said that the 50th anniversary was all she’d hoped for “and more.”
“First of all, Mom and Uncle George were watching. I wish they were here with me,” she said. “It was nice to see and honor the old timers. That, for me, was a big part of the show and it was very emotional. It all went well. There are so many people who played a part in making this a success.”
Also in attendance for the festival’s final night was Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who said the 50th Anniversary Merrie Monarch “put the dreams of Uncle George Na‘ope, Aunty Dottie Thompson, Helene Hale and all the people who put this together magnificently on display here this evening.”
“I don’t think anybody really saw the possibilities in the sense of the incredible symbol that it has become,” he said. “I think they knew it would be enjoyed by folks. But that it would become so iconic and international in its impact of the aloha spirit communicated through dance, chants and song, I don’t think anyone could have foreseen that it would reach the heights that it has.”