Hilo, Big Island, winners at Merrie Monarch

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An Oahu halau took the overall title Saturday night at the 53rd Annual Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition, but the real winners were Hilo and Hawaii Island.


An Oahu halau took the overall title Saturday night at the 53rd Annual Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition, but the real winners were Hilo and Hawaii Island.

Halau Na Mamo o Pu‘uanahulu of Kapahulu, a Honoulu neighborhood at the base of Diamond Head, are the overall champions. The halau, led by of na kumu hula William “Sonny” Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera scored 1214 points, which also gave them the kane overall title. It was the fifth straight year a kane group has won the festival’s overall title.

Their 618 points in kane ‘auana (men’s modern hula) was the highest score in any group competition category. They also came in third in kane kahiko (men’s ancient hula) with 596 points.

“It was a great birthday present for me,” said Ching, who celebrated his birthday Friday. “It’s always a wonderful byproduct of the journey to hear your name being called. They worked so hard. As long as they do everything that you ask, and this year, we really thought our students did, when they left the stage, it doesn’t matter what happens.”

Added Igarta-De Vera, “It was a good journey for all of us, our students, ourselves. We’re so pleased with the performances, what can we say.”

The winning ‘auana mele was “Aia I Ni‘ihau Ku‘u Pawehe,” a mele about moena pawehe, a patterned mat made on Ni‘ihau, which is symbolic of the “Forbidden Island” and evokes thoughts of spending time together with a loved one. Hilo singer-songwriter Kuana Torres Kahele, who recorded the song, sang for the halau’s performance, which received an enthusiastic response from the audience at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.

The wahine of Halau Na Mamo o Pu‘uanahulu also did well, placing fourth in hula kahiko and fifth in hula ‘auana.

In addition, all three Big Island halau who competed were called onstage during the awards ceremony.

Hilo kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau o Ka Ua Kani Lehua came in second overall and won the wahine overall title with 1202 points, as well as the wahine kahiko and wahine ‘auana titles.

Their kahiko was “Honukea: Ka Honu Nui O Moloka‘i,” the story of a white turtle revered by the the people of Pelekunu Valley, who would pound eel to feed the turtle. The choreography featured both the pounding of the eel and the movement of the turtle.

Lum Ho’s halau name is a nod to the rain that makes Hilo so green, and during their kahiko performance, rain started to fall, prompting Maelia Loebenstein Carter, a kumu hula providing color on KFVE’s television broadcast to comment, “Only Johnny.”

Their ‘auana, “Ka Hana Mahiko,” was the story of the day in the life of a sugar plantation worker, complete with whistles, which signaled time to rise, lunch and pau hana. The wahine used pu‘ili, split bamboo sticks, to mimic the cutting of sugar cane with a machete, and also employed the implement in a variation of tinikling, the popular Filipino bamboo dance.

Lum Ho said the win “feels good.” He said he couldn’t watch while chanting and playing music, “but from what I heard from the crowd when they were dancing, I thought they did all right.”

Kasie Kaleohano, an instructor in Lum Ho’s halau, said she thought the women “did an amazing job.”

“They worked really hard,” she said. “For more than half of them, it was their first Merrie Monarch, so we’re just proud of them, their performance and how they told Uncle Johnny’s stories.”

Also scoring 1202 points was Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani under the direction of kumu hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang. The Hilo halau, founded by the late kumu hula Rae Fonseca, won the kane kahiko title and was runner-up in both kane ‘auana and kane overall. They came in third overall, as Lum Ho’s halau edged them in a tie-breaker, 1679 points to 1671.

“I’m still speechless right now. I’m very happy for both of us,” Gaspang said. Her halau’s winning kahiko was a hula noho (seated hula) using ‘uli‘uli (gourd rattles) to mimic sounds heard in Waipi‘o Valley. Their ka‘i (entrance) and ho‘i (exit) featured walks up and down the stage ramp squatting, with knees bent.

“I know they did excellent,” Gaspang said. “They worked very hard and they deserve it. My two alaka‘i, No‘eau (Kalima) and Mahi‘ai (Moniz), they really worked hard on the boys mele, costumes, everything. They’re my greatest assets.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was Kohala’s Halau Manaola, kumu hula Nani Lim Yap’s new halau, which came in second in wahine kahiko with 586 points and third in wahine overall with 1181 points.

Her halau’s kahiko was also inspired by the ancient traditions of Waipi‘o and her wahine also used ‘uli‘uli in their dance.

Lim Yap, formerly co-kumu of Halau Na Lei O Kaholoku with sister Leialoha Lim Amina, dominated the wahine group competition in the mid-2000s, winning the wahine overall titles in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and the wahine kahiko titles in 2004 and 2005.

She said her new halau’s accomplishments were unexpected.

“I’m very excited. It’s a blessing for the first time,” Lim Yap said. “We just came to participate, to get our name out there. It’s new. We’ve won in the past, but this is so different.”


See separate story for complete Merrie Monarch Festival hula results.

Email John Burnett at

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