Hula festival helps cultivate Hawai'i culture far from home
By Jerome Tabar
What would make several hundred hula dancers endure agricultural inspections, metal-detecting batons, ruthless drivers, chilly weather and exhaustion? The chance to dance just one more time and win a prize for executing a beautiful performance.
Eighteen hula halau convened at the Alameda Fairgrounds in California two weekends ago for the 22nd annual Ia 'Oe E Ka La Hula Festival, which honors King Kalakaua. The theme of this year's festival was "'O ke aloha ka lei papahi," which means "Aloha is the lei of honor." The youngest competitor was 5-year-old Chassen Kano of Halau Hula 'O Hokulani and the oldest was 76-year-old Patsy Mau of Halau Hula 'O Napunaheleonapua.
Mau's performance of the classic song "Papalina Lahilahi" was a kolohe (rascally) crowd pleaser. With a mischievous glint in her eye, she raised her flower-patterned dress to her knees, let it drop and continued the upward motion with her hands up and over her head. Mau's hands told of the softness of her cheeks, with a slight gesture from one cheek to another over a large smile. The solo performances began the competition on a Friday night, and the group performances followed on Saturday and Sunday.
Although many halau went simply for the competition and the chance to move up in the hierarchy of the hula world, many kumu hula acknowledged the importance of spreading Hawaiian culture outside of Hawai'i through such festivals. Gordon Allen Lum, the president of the Kumu Hula Association of Northern California said the purpose of Ia 'Oe E Ka La is to perpetuate Hawaiian culture outside of Hawai'i, and especially in California, where 20,571 native Hawaiians live, according to the U.S. Census.
Many dancers acknowledged the likeness of their journey as cultural ambassadors to that of Queen Kapi'olani in 1887, who traveled to San Francisco on her way to England for Queen Victoria's Jubilee. Just as in 1887, people flocked to them to get a glimpse of Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture.
Gov. Ben Cayetano said the "festival helps to perpetuate our culture by showcasing our language, chant, song, dance, arts and crafts." Kumu hula Rich Pedrina said that it is important to "show who we are but always with humility." Pedrina comes from a long line of kumu hula including Darrell Lupenui, Chinky Mahoe and Kimo Alama Keaulana.
Some of the competitors came to California from as far away as Japan. Shoko Takamori, who teaches hula in Japan, joined an O'ahu halau and traveled with it to compete in Ia 'Oe E Ka La. She shed tears of joy when master of ceremonies Hauoli Akaka announced that her dance won first place in the gracious ladies 'auana category.
Even though the Ia 'Oe E Ka La Hula Festival did not attract as many of the established and accomplished halau as the Merrie Monarch, Hawai'i's premier hula festival, the competition was just as fierce, riddled with drama and graced with stunning performances. A tie for first place in the musicians' category between Halau Hula 'O Napunaheleonapua's musicians, Kilinahe, and Hula Halau O Kamuela 'Elua's musicians led by Hoku Zuttermeister, brought gasps from the audience. Both groups had perfect scores. Before this year's festival, Zuttermeister's group had little competition for first place. In a dramatic turn of events, Dalire's Keolaulani Halau 'Olapa O Laka, which is always successful at the Merrie Monarch festival, did not place in any category at Ia 'Oe E Ka La.
For many younger halau, Ia Oe E Ka La provides a chance to compete and establish a reputation, which may lead to an invitation to the Merrie Monarch festival. For halau in the continental United States, Ia 'Oe E Ka La provides a chance to display their hula without the astronomical expense of sending a whole troupe to Hawai'i.
Halau Keali'i O Nalani of Los Angeles won first place in the wahine kahiko, wahine 'auana, kane kahiko and the kane 'auana categories. The men of Keali'i O Nalani performed a war chant titled "Moloka'i Pakaha." Their story of the famous fighters of Moloka'i came with lots of arm thrusts, tense body swaying, fierce stares and war cries "Ku! Ku! Ku! Ku!"
Halau Hula 'O Napunaheleonapua of Kailua won first place in the Gracious Ladies, kupunawahine group and kupunawahine solo categories. In their hula "Moanike'alaonapuamakahikina," the Gracious Ladies of Pedrina's halau moved in their crimson dresses as if they were floating and not walking across the stage. The palapalai ferns in their ornate hairpieces fluttered as they spun around and put their hands up to signify the sun beaming down from the sky. At the end of their hula, they turned and nodded in unison with pleasant smiles at the awestruck panel of judges and audience.
Halau Hula 'O Hokulani of Waipahu won first place in the keikikane kahiko, keikikane 'auana and keikikane solo categories. Chassen Kano, who dances for Halau Hula 'O Hokulani, received a standing ovation for his kahiko solo performance, "Aia I Waimea." With one arm raised and the other moving left to right in front of him in clean, crisp movements, Kano told of Waimea's beauty. His energetic and quick movements, along with his loud refrain calls, won the heart of the audience, whose roar of applause and cheering echoed off the walls of the festival hall.
One common sight was whole halau standing in large circles holding hands in meditation and prayer. During those private moments the kumu hula gave their students encouragement and steeled their minds for the dances that lay ahead. "This is it, guys. This is your time to shine. Go out there and do your best," Pedrina told his halau, adding, "Don't forget to kahea (name each verse) loud, and smile!"
For more information on past winners of the competition, visit pw1.netcom.com/~halkop/ncalkumu.html.
Jerome Tabar danced hula with kumu hula Rich Pedrina's halau. Articles and photos submitted to The Advertiser may be published or distributed in print, electronic or other forms.