A legacy lives on: Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani ‘E returns for first time since 2006

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If hula had a Mount Rushmore, George Na‘ope’s likeness would almost certainly be memorialized in stone.


If hula had a Mount Rushmore, George Na‘ope’s likeness would almost certainly be memorialized in stone.

Na‘ope, co-founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival, died at age 81 in 2009, but his hula lineage lives on. And when kumu hula Iwalani Kalima decided to bring her Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani ‘E to this year’s Merrie Monarch hula competition, the news created excitement — in part because her Hilo halau last appeared on hula’s biggest stage in 2006. Of at least equal importance is Kalima’s status as a student of Na‘ope, revered as one of hula’s greatest masters.

Kalima said her hula brother, Punahele Andrade, planted the idea she should enter the halau “to keep Uncle George’s legacy alive and perpetuate his hula, his style.”

“I am very proud to be a student of Uncle George’s and very proud that I have this opportunity to showcase his style. He always said, ‘Hula is aloha and hula is Hawaii.’ And this is what I would like to share,” Kalima said.

Kalima’s experiences on the Merrie Monarch stage are relatively few in number, but the history has taken on an almost mythic aura.

“I never actually was able to dance in the Merrie Monarch in a group. I was entered as a Miss Hula (now Miss Aloha Hula) in 1979. Uncle said, ‘Get out there and do it,’” she recalled, laughing. “I didn’t place, but it was a wonderful experience and I learned to feel more confident.”

Certainly, Na‘ope had confidence in Kalima. In 1982, she received her ‘uniki, hula’s graduation, from Na‘ope — and that same year, she again took the Merrie Monarch stage, this time as a kumu.

“It was actually Uncle’s students, but because Uncle was (the festival’s) co-founder, in ’82, he asked me to take them and I took them as Kona Gardens School of Hawaiian Arts,” she said.

Kalima founded Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani ‘E in 1986. Since then, the wahine halau has become a fixture at community and cultural events, at noncompetition hula festivals as well as Merrie Monarch week events around Hilo town. Its only appearance on the competition stage in the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium, however, was in 2006.

“I really enjoy hula and I want people to understand that hula is not just about who’s the best,” she said. “There are many, many halaus that don’t have the opportunity to come and still hold the traditions of hula.”

Kalima will have 14 haumana, or students, dancing, she said, ranging in age from 13 — the youngest allowed under festival rules — to 42.

“I actually only have one girl who has experience in the Merrie Monarch. She entered in 2006 with me. Otherwise, these are all new girls; they have never been on the Merrie Monarch stage,” she said.

Kalima said her halau’s hula kahiko, or ancient hula, is “A Hamakua Au,” from Nathaniel B. Emerson’s 1909 book “Unwritten Literature of Hawaii.”

“We have not been able to find out who the composer was, but we do know it was from an earlier time, maybe from Kalakaua’s era because it came from Emerson’s book … and because it has a ha‘ina (and so the story is told). Most of the dances that have ha‘ina in them are not prior to Kamehameha,” she said.

Kalima described the chant as a mele ho‘o‘ipo‘ipo (love song) and said the kaona (metaphoric subtext) is Hamakua as a woman with a man gazing upon her, infatuated. She said the dance features an implement called ka‘eke‘eke (bamboo pipes).

“My uncle was a very good ka‘eke‘eke maker and I got all his instruments when he passed, and my dad would dance with the ka‘eke‘eke,” Kalima said. “Uncle George taught me a dance using the ka‘eke‘eke. I wanted to do this dance because it reminded me of my family and of Uncle George. It’s an unusual instrument and you don’t often see it used. This is why I wanted to use it, to show people that these dances are still alive and will be kept alive.”

Kalima chose the song “Kamalani O Keaukaha” as her halau’s hula ‘auana, or modern hula. The song was recorded and popularized by Lena Machado in the first half of the 20th century. It’s commonly accepted “Hawaii’s Songbird” penned the tune, as well. But that might not be the case, according to Kalima.

“It is attributed to Lena Machado, but as I did my research, I found out it was gifted to her,” she explained. “This became one of her favorite places when she came to Hilo, and all of the people of Keaukaha were very hospitable and loved when she came to Keaukaha. So a gentleman by the name of Kalei Aiona gifted her with it, I found out from the people of Keaukaha.”

Kalima’s sister, Lehua Kalima, will sing, accompanied by Shawn Pimental on guitar and Aaron Sala on piano.

The song has special significance to Iwalani Kalima.

“When I graduated and became a kumu hula in 1982, Uncle George said I had to learn this hula and it became like a signature hula. Everywhere we went, he would have me dance this hula,” she said. “And because I was born and raised in Keaukaha and am still living here in Keaukaha, I have very special ties with this area. And I really wanted to honor Uncle George because of him also being from Keaukaha. He was born in Kalihi, but he came to live here with his grandmother and was raised here.”

Kalima said she’s grateful to Aunty Luana Kawelu, the festival’s president, for inviting her halau to perform, and reiterated that winning a trophy isn’t what she deems important.


“If they have accomplished what I have taught them, then that’s success to me,” Kalima concluded.

Email John Burnett at

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