Kawelu shares more info about audience-free hula competition

  • The women of Halau Kala‘akeaikawekiu perform during the 2019 group hula ‘auana (modern hula) competition at the 56th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival. (Tribune-Herald file photo)

Only three halau — two from California and a Honolulu juggernaut that competes every five years — have decided not to participate in a 2021 Merrie Monarch Festival that will be held without a live audience, according to Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu.

Kawelu told the Tribune-Herald that in an early October Zoom meeting with the kumu hula who had committed to the 2020 festival — which was to have taken place April 12-18, but was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — the overwhelming majority said they would participate in a 2021 event with only a television audience.


Those who bowed out include the popular kumu hula Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu. His Academy of Hawaiian Arts suffered losses of about $30,000 when the Oakland halau was vandalized and burglarized during riots that erupted the last weekend in May following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman.

The other cancellations are Halau Hula Lani Ola, under the direction of kumu hula Puanani Jung, and Robert Cazimero’s Halau Na Kamalei O Lililehua, the overall winner in 2015.

Cazimero, who is also a legendary Hawaiian entertainer, is known for competing every five years, often claiming the coveted Lokalia Montgomery Perpetual Trophy as overall champions.

“This 2020 festival was going to be (Cazimero’s) 40th anniversary. But when I called him, he said, ‘No, put me down for 2025,’” Kawelu said. “I know when I talked with the mainland kumu, they were so disappointed. Puanani Jung said her students were looking forward to coming to Hilo, but she said she’ll just hope they can come in 2022.”

Festival organizers announced on Saturday they intend to hold hula’s most prestigious competition, but at a later date than the originally planned April 4-10. The timing of the cancellation was just prior to when tickets would’ve gone on sale.

“I feel bad for the halau, because I had to keep them dangling from the beginning of October, when I called and asked them if they really wanted to perform and told them they might not have an audience,” Kawelu said. “And they all said, ‘That’s OK.’ But now, as the time is getting closer, they still have to fund-raise, they have to make reservations, they have to prepare to come.”

Kawelu said she has tentative dates in mind for the rescheduled festival, but didn’t want to announce them until confirming the availability of the facilities with the incoming administration of Mitch Roth, who becomes Hawaii County’s mayor at noon Monday.

According to Kawelu, all participants — dancers, kumu, musicians, judges, TV people — will all be tested for COVID-19 “on our dime.”

“So when you show up at the stadium, you know everybody’s negative,” she said.

Halaus will be limited to 20 dancers on the stage, down from the Merrie Monarch’s standard maximum of 35.

Kawelu said she has a “bubble concept” in mind for the halau in Hilo.

“The halaus would have to be confined to wherever they’re staying, the hotels or the bed and breakfasts, and not go sightseeing and go all over the place, just for safety’s sake,” she said. “Either they, or we, would have to arrange for food, but we would like to help them. And that way, we could have the people who cook for Merrie Monarch and the restaurants make some money by packing (individual meals) and taking it to them at the hotel.”

Typically, Merrie Monarch week is a big economic driver in Hilo, with hotels at full occupancy, rental cars sold out and restaurants filled to capacity, often with people standing in line for a table.

Kawelu said three Hawaii Island halau have committed to the 2021 festival: Hilo’s Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani, under the direction of kumu hula Nahokulani Gaspang; Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu of Kailua-Kona, under the direction of kumu hula Kenneth “Aloha” Victor; and Hula Halau Ke ‘Olu Makani O Mauna Loa of Mountain View, under the direction of kumu hula Meleana Manuel, making their Merrie Monarch competition stage debut.

Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV, a native of Hilo’s Keaukaha neighborhood and co-kumu hula with Lono Padilla of the Honolulu halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua — which produced three of the past four Miss Aloha Hula winners — said he’s “very excited and very concerned at the same time, as everybody is, because of COVID.”

“But we’re very excited that Aunty Luana has decided to go on with 2021 in some capacity. We will support her, whatever decision she makes,” Ka‘upu said. “If that means she has to cancel at the last minute once again, so be it. But one thing this hula community needs, we need hope to move forward. And it’s going to be different, but Aunty Luana’s decision gives us hope.”

“I’m sure that it will be very different,” he continued. “I am glad, however, that they are doing it with the judges there, for the dancers’ sake. It’s really hard to dance and to really pour your heart out to an empty room. And not necessarily just a stadium but an empty room. And to have even one physical audience member is a lot. As for the audience, we’re going to miss the noise and the cheering, perhaps, but we just don’t dance for the people there. We dance for the seen and the unseen. And they dance for their kumu and their halau and their ‘ohana and their kupuna.

“So not having physical people there to cheer them on, I’m sure it will affect us, but it’s not going to deter us from our true purpose, our kuleana.”

Hawaiian music’s A-list musicians usually accompany the dancers, playing live from a stage-side pit.

“I’m going to suggest that we be required to record our musicians,” Ka‘upu said. “That’s one last thing for the kumu hula and halau to worry about as far as risk factor.

“We would still have to pay for musicians and studio time, but I don’t think it would be nearly as much as it would to fly them there, to pay for accommodations. But more importantly, it would cut down the risk of having to travel with so many people.


“While some musicians travel with the halau, other’s don’t. And they ask to have their own accommodations. And I can understand that, but the kumu hula can no longer ensure their safety and that of anybody they come into contact with if they’re not with us.”

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