“It’s been quite a week.”
That observation by Napua Greig, kumu hula of Maui’s Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka and popular Hawaii recording artist, might be the understatement of the year. It certainly was the understatement of the 55th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival, which concluded early Sunday morning at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium in Hilo.
Greig and her wahine (women) halau dominated the festival’s hula competition, hailed as the “Super Bowl of Hula.” At the awards ceremony, Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka took the overall top spot and received the Lokalia Montgomery Perpetual Trophy. The Maui troupe also won first place in the wahine ‘auana (modern hula) and wahine overall categories and placed second in the wahine kahiko (ancient hula) division.
“I’m on a hula high,” Greig said in response to her win.
For Greig, the competition ended the way it began.
On Thursday night, the first night of competition, one of Grieg’s haumana (students), 21-year-old Shalia Kapuau‘ionalani Kikuyo Kamakaokalani won Miss Aloha Hula, hula’s most coveted title for a solo dancer.
Earlier in the day, Greig learned her most recent album, “Makawalu,” garnered nine Na Hoku Hanohano Awards nominations in eight categories. That ties her for the most nominations in the upcoming 2018 Hoku awards with Keauhou, last year’s big winners for their debut album. The traditional Hawaiian trio’s sophomore effort, “I Ke Ko A Ke Ao,” also copped nine nominations in eight categories.
Sharing, of course, is the norm in Hawaiian culture and music. Greig and Keauhou’s Zachary Lum celebrated their nominations by harmonizing on “Ka‘iulani” with fellow multiple Hoku winner Mark Yamanaka while Kamakaokalani’s danced her solo ‘auana.
Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka’s overall win was by a two-point margin over Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, 1,200 to 1,198. The runners up, a Honolulu halau under the direction of Kaleo Trinidad who won the 2014 overall title, swept all the kane (men’s) categories — kahiko, ‘auana and kane overall, to place second.
Trinidad’s halau honored Hokule‘a and its three-year Malama Honua voyage, which circled the globe with a message of worldwide sustainability, in both its kahiko and ‘auana.
“We were ready for anything,” Trinidad said. “Several of my kumu were watching at home, and the message that they gave me was, ‘It doesn’t matter if you won or not.’ What we came to do was to honor Hokule‘a in a way that spoke to the excellence of our people. And so it doesn’t matter if we won or lost.”
Trinidad’s message came with Hokule‘a docked in Hilo Bay, and three nights after the festival honored the original 1976 crew of Hokule‘a in its Ho‘ike, a free exhibition of hula and Pacific Rim dance that takes place Wednesday evening during Merrie Monarch week.
In third place overall with 1,188 points was Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala. Kumu hula Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin received her ‘uniki — hula’s official graduation — from the revered late Hilo kumu Rae Fonseca. While the Kauai halau didn’t win any category, a second place finish in ‘auana and third place in kahiko made the group the wahine overall runners-up to Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka.
Preventing a clean sweep of the wahine categories was Hi‘iakainamakalehua under the direction of co-kumu hula Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV and Lono Padilla, which repeated its 2017 victory in the group wahine kahiko category.
“I’m shocked and I’m nervous but I’m so, so happy to be here,” Ka‘upu, a Keaukaha native said immediately after he and Padilla, a Mauian, received the award. Ka‘upu added their students “put their hearts on the stage.”
Hula is a traditional art and its lineage is important. Three of the four halau have lineage in common.
Greig, Ka‘upu and Padilla all received their ‘uniki from Padilla’s mother, Maui kumu Hokulani Holt-Padilla. In addition, Greig and Ka‘upu both danced for Hilo kumu Johnny Lum Ho. And Ka‘upu, like Jardin, also danced for Fonseca. “I’m so happy for my hula sisters,” Ka‘upu said of Greig and Jardin.
Three Hawaii Island halau, all with wahine dancers, competed. Two are from Hilo, Lum Ho’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua and kumu hula Iwalani Kalima’s Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani E. The third, Halau Manaola under the direction of kumu hula Nani Lim Yap, is from Kohala. None placed in the group competition. All entered contestants in Miss Aloha Hula, with Asialynn Genoa Kalihilihi‘ulaonalehua‘ohopoe Yap of Halau Manaola and Lim Yap’s daughter, placing fourth.
In somewhat of a surprise, last year’s overall winners, Ka La ‘Onohi Mai O Ha‘eha‘e, an Oahu halau under the direction of husband-and-wife co-kumus Tracie and Keawe Lopes, did not place in any category in the wahine group competition. Their Miss Aloha Hula candidate, Ecstasy Jetta Laverne Kamakalikolehua Ligon, did finish as first runner-up and also won the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Hawaiian Language Award.
Gov. David Ige, who attended Saturday’s hula ‘auana competition, mentioned the “vision” of the late Merrie Monarch Festival President Dorothy “Aunty Dot” Thompson, who started the hula competition in 1971 with the help of the late kumu hula Uncle George Na‘ope, which energized the Merrie Monarch Festival, which had previously been in danger due to lack of interest.
Ige also praised current president Luana Kawelu, Thompson’s daughter, for “sticking to the original mission of the Merrie Monarch, which is the most successful event Hilo has.”
“I was walking around town with all the craft fairs and you could see lots of people doing all kinds of things, so you definitely know it has a huge economic impact,” he said.
The governor concluded by borrowing a quote from King David Kalakaua, the “Merrie Monarch” himself.
“‘Hula is the language of the heart’ — and you can see it at this event,” Ige said. “There is nothing that can match the magnificence of this event.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.