In a moving ceremony, all 12 living original crew members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society canoe Hokule‘a were honored Wednesday night at the Merrie Monarch Festival’s free Ho‘ike hula exhibition.
Conch shells filled the air at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium in Hilo, sounding eerily like foghorns, and the near-capacity crowd stood and roared its approval as the names of the surviving crew that made the first modern open-ocean voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back were read by KITV news anchor and emcee Paula Akana.
Akana described the original crew as “the O.G.s” — which she quipped stands for “old guys.”
All received engraved koa paddles from the Merrie Monarch, and two halau performed mele in tribute to the Hokule‘a and its contributions to the perpetuation of Hawaiian language and culture.
“It is our honor to honor 43 years of Hokule‘a,” announced kumu hula Snowbird Bento before her Oahu halau, Ka Pa Hula O Ka Lei Hula kicked off its set of mele honoring the iconic double-hulled voyaging canoe, or wa‘a kaulua.
Bento’s set included included “Na Pe‘a O Hokule‘a” (“The Sails of Hokule‘a”) from the groundbreaking 1977 album “The Musical Saga of Hokule‘a and “Hokule‘a, Star of Gladness,” composed by the late original Hokule‘a crew member Boogie Kalama and popularized by the Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau.
Bento and Ka Pa Hula O Ka Lei Hula were far from alone on stage, as other kumu and Kamehameha Schools alumni joined her, including kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad of Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, whose kane are performing in Friday and Saturday night’s group hula competition.
Trinidad, also a kumu for Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama’s Performing Arts Department, joined in the dance during “Na Pe‘a.”
“The more we can lift up what Hokule’a means to the world, the better it is for me, because she represents the most important dialogue we can have right now as a planet,” Trinidad said. “She represents sustainability, malama honua (earth stewardship) and she’s a leading voice in the world with over 50 countries, 200 landfalls and 200,000 nautical miles around the globe. So the fact that we can sing, dance hula and lift up her efforts, there’s nothing I can imagine doing better than that.”
Hilo’s Halau O Kekuhi opened the night’s hula festivities, as it has every year since 1997. The halau, under the direction of co-kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole Zane and Huihui Kanahele-Mossman also performed a canoe mele using ho‘e, or paddles, as implements.
“I have a greater appreciation for what they do and a greater appreciation for our ancestors who brought us here,” Kanaka‘ole Zane said. “The whole (Hawaiian) language is based on the canoe and from the perspective of the canoe, and that’s what I found out just from researching all of these chants.”
Nainoa Thompson, original crew member, master navigator and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, said afterwards he’s “humbled and totally honored.”
“I’m speaking on behalf of the whole crew,” Thompson said. “I don’t think there’s another time that the whole crew has been together since 1976. That’s a miracle in itself. But to be here in the center of culture, the center of hula, the center of chant — the power of Merrie Monarch and its contributions to the renaissance, of bringing back pride and dignity and identity.
“This is ground zero for culture on the earth.”
Hokule‘a is currently docked at the Grand Naniloa Hotel on Banyan Drive in Hilo.
The celebration was the brainchild of Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu, who was delighted by the evening’s festivities.
“I’m so glad that every one of the remaining crew members that are alive now were here tonight,” Kawelu said. “I’m so happy that they put their all in the honoring of the Hokule’a crew. This is what tonight was all about, honoring them.”
Also performing were kumu hula Robert Cazimero and Halau Na Kamalei O Lililehua, the 2015 overall Merrie Monarch competition winners, whose late set wowed those who stayed after the Hokule‘a celebration, and Halau ‘O Kamuela Iapana, the Japan branch of the powerhouse Oahu halau led by co-kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook, which featured seven large groups of wahine dancers of all ages.
The three nights of hula competition hula kick off tonight as 12 wahine dancers vie to be Miss Aloha Hula, the hula world’s most prestigious title for a solo dancer. On Friday night, the festival will hold its group hula kahiko (ancient hula) competition. Then on Saturday night, the competition comes to a close with group hula ‘auana (modern hula) and the awards ceremony, which will take place in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.