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Merrie Monarch hula kahiko celebrates tradition


Tribune-Herald staff writers

Hula lovers were treated to dazzling displays of tradition, as well as dances stretching boundaries during Friday night’s hula kahiko performances of the 5oth Anniversary Merrie Monarch Festival.

The kane of Na Pua Me Ke Aloha from Carson, Calif., started the evening in rousing fashion with “Kaua Koa,” a chant celebrating the battlefield bravery of King Kamehameha the Great. The dancers wore red malo with black kapa print, moving fiercely and exciting the crowd with foot stomps and spearing gestures.

“Our men are known for their Kamehameha chants, and Kamehameha is what Uncle George (Na‘ope) taught us to do,” said Lilinoe McCormack, co-kumu with Sissy Kaio.

Also embracing a time-honored approach to hula was Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa O Laka of He‘eia, Kane‘ohe, O‘ahu. Kumu hula Aloha Dalire, who has participated as either a dancer or kumu in all but two Merrie Monarchs since the hula competition’s inception in 1971, chose a mele inoa, or name chant honoring the young goddess Keaomelemele.

“I wanted a mele that would bring for me a connection to my family and my mom and hula,” Dalire said. “And this mele was composed by my cousin, Kawaikapuokalani Hewitt. And believe it or not, it really amazed me because in the research that he did, he located a story about how Keaomelemele arrived in Kane‘ohe at He‘eia, and our family was tied to He‘eia. In the old days, it was called Ke‘alohilani.

“… It connected in that we’re celebrating my mom’s 50th year in hula, so it was really touching to me. My three daughters danced; my oldest granddaughter was in there. Girls that had danced with me for 20 years are still in there, so I’m really happy.”

There are four Hawai‘i Island halau in this year’s competition, and all were greeted warmly by the home crowd.

Halau O Ke Anuenue, the halau of the rainbow, performed a mele about La‘ieikawai, the rainbow goddess, who lived in Paliuli, between Puna and Hilo. Kumu hula Glenn Kelena Vasconcellos said the Hilo wahine halau, which last appeared on the Merrie Monarch stage two years ago, performed the same mele 15 years ago.

“We wanted to do it again for the 50th anniversary,” he said. “It’s a nice story.”

Joining the halau this year was Cindy Kealoha, Vasconcellos’ sister, who last danced at Merrie Monarch seven years ago. Kealoha said she didn’t want to miss the golden jubilee.

“I got to be honest, I was a bit nervous,” she said. “But it was enjoyable.”

Hilo’s Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani, founded by the late kumu hula Rae Fonseca, featured both kane and wahine.

The men performed “Na Nalu O Hawai‘i,” an energetic, fast-paced hula in praise of Hawai‘i Island’s various surf spots.

“I was really inspired by my kumu, Rae, and he always wanted to do that number,” said kumu Nahokuokalani Gaspang. “And what a year to do it, the 50th year. And when it talks about surf coming in, it talks about people from all over the islands coming in.”

The wahine performed “He Mele No Kahikilaulani,” the story of Tahitian Princess Kahikilaulani crossing the sea in her white canoe to meet her betrothed, Mawaelualani. The piece has a special meaning, since Kahikilaulani also means “staff of heaven,” and was a name bestowed upon Fonseca by his kumu, Na‘ope.

Returning to the Merrie Monarch after a 14-year hiatus was Halau Hula Na Pua U‘i O Hawai‘i of Kailua-Kona. Kumu hula Etua Lopes has tears in his eyes as he congratulated his wahine after their performance.

“After 14 years of not entering, finally, we get to come back for the 50th anniversary,” he said. “It takes a lot of hard work to do something like this and a lot of people.”

Lopes then explained the time and effort the dancers put into their hula, as well as their attire, fashioned by the wahine themselves. The lei, containing about 120 kukui nuts, were also handmade, and so were the ‘uli‘uli (gourd rattles) used during the performance. The ‘uli‘uli, Lopes said, were made traditionally with coconut and fiber from the hau bush.

“Because that’s tradition,” he said, when asked why those materials were used. Following tradition means simpler, but more difficult methods, Lopes explained.

“There’s so much detail. Today, you live without simplicity,” he said.

The halau’s mele told the story of the first train on the island of O‘ahu, which carried Princess Lili‘uokalani on its maiden trip.

One halau known for its re-definitions of tradition, Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua of Hilo, returned after a two-year break and wowed the audience.

The mele, an original by kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho, told the story of a trip halau members took to Kaua‘i in 2010 to make salt. It started with a narration by Kawelo Kong Kee, whose booming voice demanded the audience’s attention.

“I think they did well just as they were taught,” Lum Ho said.

Asked why they’re a crowd favorite, he said: “I guess because we’re different.”

Another performance which blurred traditional lines was that of Academy of Hawaiian Arts of Oakland, Calif. Kumu hula Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu strode into Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium sporting sunglasses and a garment of black and yellow kapa fashioned by California artist Ke‘aka Stitt, and was cheered like a rock star.

Ho‘omalu and halau performed Aunty Edith’s “A Ka‘uku,” a chant honoring her birthplace and illustrating the love-hate relationship between volcano goddess Madame Pele and Kamapua‘a, the pig god. His kane played pala‘au, percussive sticks, as they danced as Ho‘omalu delivered a syncopated chant punctuated by pahu, the drum sound augmented by ni au — the midrib of a coconut frond.

“I think it has a nice sound and I used it on my drum and it had a snare effect, that rustling in the bushes kind of thing,” Ho‘omalu said. “I put it on my pahu and I played it like that, and it gave me that extra element to my sound.”

When it was pointed out that his interpretation of the mele was quite unlike Kanaka‘ole’s, Ho‘omalu replied: “That’s true.”

“I used to do it like everyone else, just like Aunty Edith,” he said. “At the start, that was the way to do it. It was very nice, very classical, very wahine, very womanly. All I did was take it and make it the other side of the story, a little bit more masculine.

“But tradition is hula. And that’s what I do.”

The performance was met with thunderous cheers and applause.

“If the people love it, that’s all that matters,” Ho‘omalu said.

Both the men and women of Halau I Ka Wekiu, last year’s kane kahiko and overall winners, paid tribute to the Merrie Monarch, King David Kalakaua. The wahine danced to “‘Auhea Wale ‘Oe E Ka Manu,” a mele inoa or name chant set in O‘ahu’s Nu‘uanu Valley, while the kane capped the evening’s festivities with “He Inoa No Ka Mo‘i,” celebrating Kalakaua’s 1881 world tour, when he became the first monarch of any country to circumnavigate the earth.

If he were here today, Kalakaua, with his love of hula and flair for history, would no doubt revel in the golden jubilee of his namesake event.

“It’s at a point that all of us never really realized how big Merrie Monarch would become, what an impact our hula, our culture would have, not only here at home, but afar,” said Dalire. “It’s fabulous to see the interest in our culture. And I want people to continue teaching our culture in its proper concept, because that’s gonna be really important. We don’t want our traditional ways to change. That’s all we have left.”

The festival concludes tonight with hula ‘auana, or modern hula, and results of the competition.

Email John Burnett at and Tom Callis at


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