‘This is a journey’; Kumu hula Nani Lim Yap returns to Merrie Monarch with new Halau Manaola

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A familiar name and face is back this year at the Merrie Monarch Festival — but with a different halau.

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A familiar name and face is back this year at the Merrie Monarch Festival — but with a different halau.

Kumu hula Nani Lim Yap, of Kohala’s venerated Lim family, will bring her Halau Manaola to the world’s premier hula competition. That’s a major change from her familiar appearances as co-kumu, with sister Leialoha Lim Amina, of Halau Na Lei O Kaholoku.

Lim Amina and Lim Yap dominated the wahine group competition in the mid-2000s, winning the wahine overall titles in 2004, 2005 and 2006, and the wahine hula kahiko (ancient hula) titles in 2004 and 2005.

The Merrie Monarch invited Halau Na Lei O Holoku, who appeared in last year’s Prince Lot Hula Festival on Oahu, to compete in this year’s Merrie Monarch, but that wasn’t to be.

“It was very difficult for me because we’d already been invited by Aunty Luana (Kawelu, the festival’s president) to participate in the Merrie Monarch. I was very excited to share that with her, but she’d already made plans to move in another direction.”

Lim Yap said when the sisters went their separate ways, Lim Amina took the Na Lei O Holoku name “because it was given to her by Aunty Pilahi Paki.”

Lim Yap named her new halau Halau Manaola for her son, Carrington Manaola Yap, a successful young fashion designer who uses his experiences as a hula practitioner as a touchstone for his creations.

She said the name Halau Manaola has added significance because the name “Manaola” — which translates roughly to “life force” — was bestowed upon her son by her aunt, Joan Sniffen Lindsey, a longtime kumu hula who was a judge at last year’s Merrie Monarch Festival.

Lim Yap’s halau will have 18 wahine dancing in the line, five from the previous halau. Some are as young as 13, the most youthful the Merrie Monarch allows, and the oldest 42, well below Merrie Monarch’s upper age limit of 55. Most, Lim Yap said, are inexperienced ‘olapa (dancers).

“We started with three months of basics,” she said. “Of that group, maybe only two have competed with other halau at the Merrie Monarch. We have two from our halau from before and two that have joined us from other halau that have joined us. Everyone else is brand new. Some of them only started in September.”

Lim Yap said her halau’s hula kahiko (ancient hula) is a story “from the Waipi‘o hula tradition.”

“It looks at all the topography of Waipi‘o and, basically, there are many legends attached to this mele alone,” she said. “One is the story of Maka‘ukiu, a shark-god who used to pose (in human form) in the ocean. Another is Ha‘inakolo. She’s the one who ate the ‘ulei berries and became a little crazy. But this is so much deeper than her just eating the berries. We need to know why she ate the berries. There’s so much attached to these stories that told us this is important, a special energy to this story.

“We’re led by the kupuna to tell these stories because they have to be known. There’s a special connection to the mele, to the place. It was very exciting because there is so much research in the halau, and we always try to find narratives that you don’t see on the Merrie Monarch stage. And these are much older mele that come from our hula traditions.”

The halau’s hula ‘auana, or modern hula, is the Lena Machado classic love song, “Ho‘onanea,” with a kaona, or metaphoric subtext, which describes drinking deeply from the waters of passion and soaring like a bird.

“Because we haven’t been there for nine years, we decided to go in with traditional, classic Hawaiian mele,” Lim Yap said, adding she chose “Ho‘onanea,” a song Machado recorded twice, in 1935 and 1962, because her aunt had danced with Machado.

“I went to Aunty Joanie and she said, ‘You know, Aunty Pi‘o (Pi‘olani Motta, Machado’s hanai daughter, who co-wrote the biography “Lena Machado: Songbird of Hawai‘i”) is still alive. You should go and talk to her,’” Lim Yap said. “I could not be there at that time, but my husband went there for me, and he took a video of her dancing it, of her telling all the stories about Aunty Lena. And that’s how we noted it in the (judges’) fact sheet. We didn’t just get it from the book. We went to get information directly from her and took video of her telling stories of Aunty Lena. And the little things she would tell us about what Aunty Lena would share with her what this story is all about, I think it just fuels our presentation. And it’s a beautiful song, as well.”

Lim Yap’s family has won more Na Hoku Hanohano awards than any mantelpiece can hold, so the music, as well as the hula, is a family affair, with her; her sister, Lorna Lim; her brother, Sonny Lim; her husband, Ed Yap; and Kevin Kealoha playing the music for the ‘auana.

The kumu said the progress her young halau is making is “truly amazing.”

“The wonderful thing is, they’re so new and so excited that they’re really growing at an astounding rate and making really great progress,” Lim Yap said. “When it comes to presentations like this, the style must come through. That’s the key thing that we stress is that we still have the same style we always had, and the presentation always remains the same. It’s tough on the girls, but they’re getting it.

“Hopefully, out of this, they learn that this is a journey, not only for them, but for me as well. Because it’s always about growth when you’re starting with something so new. And I just hope that this journey, in the end, is something that, if there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, is just to tell the story of our kupuna as it was given to us.”

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“This time, for me, it’s really about the continuum of what I’ve taught for all these years,” she concluded. “Yes, there are some changes. Yes, I’m starting again from scratch. Yes, I’ve risen to the occasion. And I think this is a time of getting our name out there and recognizing who we are as hula people. I didn’t think that was important to me, but now, for the continuation of the halau for my children and the hula students, I think that’s important.”

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

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