Heartbeat of tradition; 53rd annual Merrie Monarch Festival kicks off today

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“Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore, the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people,” King David Kalakaua once said.

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“Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore, the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people,” King David Kalakaua once said.

During his reign, from 1874 until his death in 1891, the Merrie Monarch revived traditional Hawaiian dance and other cultural customs and practices previously banned in the name of Christian values. So, he would no doubt be pleased the Merrie Monarch Festival and its hula competition makes Hilo the epicenter of the hula world and Hawaii’s focal point for the week starting Easter Sunday each year.

As always, Merrie Monarch week kicks off today with Ho‘olaule‘a, a free, all-day celebration of hula and Polynesian dance starting at 9 a.m. at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. For the past two years, Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua of Hilo has drawn a large crowd to the event. This year, however, Lum Ho and his charges will return to the Merrie Monarch competition stage.

Several Big Island hula halau will perform at Ho‘olaule‘a, as will Te Kapa Haka O Te Whanau A Apanui, a champion haka group from Aotearoa (New Zealand).

They’ll also perform in Wednesday night’s free Ho‘ike at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.

Continuing a tradition started in 1997, Nalani Kanaka‘ole’s Halau O Kekuhi will be Ho‘ike’s featured attraction.

The event is free, and a line forms early in the morning for admission to the popular exhibition program featuring dances from around the Pacific Basin. Also performing are Hawaiian Cultural Center Taiwan and its Hula Halau O Lehua Taiwan, and Nonosina, a Polynesian dance troupe from Anaheim, Calif.

In addition to hula enthusiasts, Merrie Monarch week is anticipated by hotels, rental car agencies, airlines, restaurants and other businesses, all of which experience an annual bonanza.

It’s also that “other” time of the year for crafters and those who love craft fairs. The Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair is the “official” event, reigning supreme at the Civic.

But numerous unofficial craft fairs also have sprung up throughout Hilo, hoping to lure souvenir-hunters’ dollars their way.

The three-night hula competition is the Merrie Monarch’s undisputed crown jewel, often referred to as the “Super Bowl” of hula.

Twenty-five halau are competing this year, with 20 entered in the wahine group competition and nine in the men’s competition.

There are always compelling stories and sentimental favorites, and this year’s 53rd annual edition is no different.

One Hawaiian cultural icon who will be missed this year is teacher and healer Aunty Agnes “Aggie” Kalaniho‘okaha Cope, who died Nov. 16 at 91. She helped found the Waianae Comprehensive Health Center, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, named a “Living Treasure” by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission, and honored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a kumu hula and Native Hawaiian traditional healer.

Another is legendary kumu hula Leina‘ala Kalama Heine, who died Sept. 9 at 75. Her Halau Na Pualei O Likolehua, founded in 1976, made an almost immediate splash at Merrie Monarch, winning the wahine hula kahiko (ancient hula) and wahine overall titles in 1977, and the wahine hula ‘auana (modern hula) and wahine overall titles in 1978. Their most recent win was the wahine ‘auana title in 2006.

Kalama Heine’s most recent appearance at Merrie Monarch was in 2013, when she appeared in the Wednesday night Ho‘ike, a special show for the festival’s 50th anniversary.

“She called me a couple of years ago and wanted to make sure she came back in 2016 because it was her 40th anniversary. She said it means a lot that I come in 2016,” Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu said. “So in October, the daughter, Niuli‘i, who took over the halau, called and told me they were not coming. I told her I would respect whatever decision they made, but I would leave a slot open for them. I told her, ‘If you want to come and honor your mom, because that was her wish, I would leave it open.’

“She called later and told me they were coming.” Na Pualei will dance in the wahine group competition.

Maui’s Pukalani Hula Hale, under the direction of kumu hula Hi‘ilei Maxwell-Juan, will return to Merrie Monarch since the 2006 death of beloved kumu hula Nina Maxwell, Maxwell-Juan’s mother and the wife of noted Hawaiian activist and cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. Maxwell-Juan will bring wahine.

Another notable return is Nani Lim Yap, kumu hula of Halau Manaola of Kohala. Lim Yap was co-kumu, with sister Leialoha Lim Amina, of Na Lei O Kaholoku. That halau captured the wahine overall titles in 2005 and 2006.

The sisters have gone their separate ways, with Lim Amina continuing with the original halau. Lim Yap will bring the wahine of her new halau, named for her son, a prominent fashion designer, for the first time.

One question looming over this year’s competition is: Will the overall winning halau be wahine for the first time in five years? It’s a fair question with neither last year’s overall winner — Na Kamalei O Lililehua, under the direction of kumu hula Robert Uluwehi Cazimero — nor 2014’s overall winner — Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, under the direction of kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad — entered this year.

The last time a wahine halau took the overall title is in 2011, when Halau O Ke‘alaokamaile, a Maui halau under the direction of kumu hula Keali‘i Reichel, also took the wahine kahiko and wahine overall titles. They will not be in the competition this year.

The only other wahine halau to win the overall competition title in the past decade is Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela, an Oahu halau under the direction of na kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook that took the overall crown in 2008. Always strong, they won the wahine overall title and took first place in hula kahiko and fourth place in hula ‘auana last year.

Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap, representing Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela, also won last year’s Miss Aloha Hula title, although the prestigious solo hula award doesn’t count in the group competition.

Even without Cazimero’s and Trinidad’s halau, the kane field is loaded, as usual.

One contender is Hilo’s Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani. Under the direction of kumu hula Nahoku Gaspang, the halau founded by the late kumu Rae Fonseca tied Trinidad’s halau for second place in overall and kane overall last year. The halau’s hula kahiko will be a mele “honoring the people of Waipio,” Gaspang said, and its hula ‘auana is the Mary Kawena Puku‘i and Maddy Lam cha-lang-a-lang classic, “Ku‘u Sweetie.”

“I always tell my kids whatever we do, it’s not about winning,” Gaspang said. “It’s about keeping the culture alive. If you win, it’s a feather in your cap, but we just have to work harder again.”

Other kane halau in the mix include Kawaili‘ula, under the direction of Chinky Mahoe, which won the overall title in 2013; Halau Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu, under the direction of Sonny Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera; Ke Kai O Kahiki, under the direction of La‘akea Perry; and Maui’s Halau Kekuaokala‘au‘ala‘iliahi, under the direction of ‘Iliahi and Haunani Paredes.

All performances will be judged by an entirely new panel this year. The seven stage-side arbiters are: Keith Awai, Ainsley Halemanu, Lahela Ka‘aihue, Etua Lopes, Pi‘ilani Lua and Holoua Stender.

Casting a shadow over Merrie Monarch proceedings this year is ohia wilt. There is an informal, voluntary kapu on ohia lehua, one of hula’s prime adornments. The fungal disease has claimed an estimated 34,000 acres of ohia forest on Hawaii Island, and the state Department of Agriculture banned the off-island export of most ohia products, but there is no formal ban on entering ohia forests to harvest the flowers and buds.

“If they use it, I cannot score them down for it,” Lopes said. “Because this is the real thing. This is the Merrie Monarch. This is not just another hula contest. Tradition here is so important. I aloha the kumu who say, ‘We’re going to use all palapalai,’ which is just as good. Because you have to use something from the kuahu (hula altar) for your adornments, especially in the kahiko.”

“For me, we have to be very conscious about it,” Gaspang added. “We don’t want to spread any kind of disease with the lehua. Because it was stated, and Merrie Monarch agreed that we weren’t going to use it, they’ve given us some leeway on what we can use for our adornment. And it’s OK for me, because in the hula, you try to find different sources of what you can wear for the adornment.

“It’s sad that we cannot use the lehua. In the end, we might not have lehua and palapalai. And future generations might not know what it’s like to wear liko lehua or palapalai if we don’t malama what we have right now.

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Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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