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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 30, 2003

Hula's insightful voice

This is the first of several stories leading up to the annual Merrie Monarch Festival April 20-26.

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Manu Boyd works with hula student Jodi Boneza on her chanting before the start of a nalau rehearsal.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Boyd keeps watch over his halau as the dancers move through basic hula movements at the start of a rehearsal.
This is Manu Boyd at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival: on camera explaining the hidden meaning of a song or the style of a chant, rushing to the microphone to join the other members of Ho'okena to play for a Miss Aloha Hula contestant, scurrying around backstage with his director in his earpiece — "We need an interview, who ya got? Who ya got? Who ya got?" And after all that, hitting the beer and pupu with his pals and rising to do it all again.

"I don't sleep much during Merrie Monarch," says Boyd, the color commentator for KITV's coverage of the hula festival since 1998. "I take vacation from work, and it's go-go-go the whole week. I come back and I need a vacation from the vacation."

Since he joined hosts Paula Akana and Kimo Kahoano on camera, Boyd has been the go-to guy for solid information and intelligent commentary, as well as delightful side trips into the Hawaiian language and those "Oh, Auntie, you look so nice tonight" interviews.

Ironically, none of the few hundred people who are actually lucky enough to score tickets to the Merrie Monarch ever hears a word Boyd says on air, nor do they hear from Akana. The sole voice of the festival inside Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium is that of announcer Kahoano.

The rush of Merrie Monarch week is not that much of a departure for Boyd. This is him the rest of the year: director of public information for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, jumping into a tank top and shorts for an after-work meeting of his Halau o ke 'A'ali'i Ku Makani, spending a reflective hour writing a song or rearranging a familiar composition, chanting the opening to a Hawaiian ceremony, performing on a friend's recording or setting up a gig for his group Ho'okena, as well as holding almost constant open house for friends and family at his home in Kane'ohe.

"It's a busy life," he says.

But when you want something done, ask a busy person. John Wray, KITV production manager and director of the Merrie Mon-

arch telecast, floated Boyd's name to the other members of the triumvirate that controls the festival: producer David Kalama and director "Auntie" Dottie Thompson.

Wray had been impressed with Boyd's grace and presence as Akana's co-host for coverage of the Kamehameha Song Contest one year.

"He spoke so eloquently, and he really had something to say.

I thought he'd be an excellent choice — and he has been," Wray said.

Everyone agreed that Boyd brought a unique portfolio to the task. He is trained in music ('ukulele and piano, among other instruments), choral singing, chant, hula, writing and arranging, Hawaiian protocol and Hawaiian language. He has wide name recognition. He is well-known to kumu hula as a longtime student of Robert Cazimero's Halau Na Kamalei and as a musician who performs frequently for hula dancers. He has faithfully attended the Merrie Monarch Festival since Na Kamalei competed there in 1979. He's handsome, comfortable in front of an audience and possessed of just the right degree of ho'omalimali (a Hawaiian concept that combines the ability to flatter and charm with glibness and an ability to persuade).

There was just one drawback: Boyd had almost no broadcast experience. And he never had watched Merrie Monarch on TV because he was usually there. But broadcast technique can be taught.

"That first year," Boyd recalled, "I didn't know what I was doing."

But he didn't sweat it much then, and he doesn't now. His work at the festival is completely unscripted, and he's not in on any of the planning.

"I just show up, get my shirt, my lei and my microphone, and I go," he said.

His job is to discuss hula and chant terms and techniques, information for which he needs no script; to interview kumu hula and other noted personalities; and sometimes to react to a performance, explaining to viewers what they've just seen.

One thing he doesn't do — or isn't supposed to — is critique. Not only would it be a quick ticket to a beef in the parking lot, but Wray and Kalama's firm policy is to steer clear of anything negative in Merrie Monarch coverage, even to the point of directing the camera away from dancers' errors.

"There is always something good about a performance, something that's worth pointing out," said Boyd, who agrees with the policy but can't keep himself from letting a little opinion color his words or expression sometimes. He acknowledges with a kolohe (rascally) grin that one reason many people like to watch the Merrie Monarch on TV is to say what they wish among friends and not find out the hard way that they're sitting next to a dancer's auntie.

With family roots on the Big Island (his name, Manu, is based on the maiden name of his great-grandmother from the island), Boyd enjoys the chance to return each year, cherishing the slower pace that reminds him of his Hawaiian-style upbringing.

He remembers homes in Kapahulu and 'Aina Haina, calabashes on display, pikake in the yard from Princess Ka'iulani's home at Ainahau, lauhala mats instead of carpet on the floor. He can still see his Hawaiian grandmother, who had a large role in raising the Boyd children, sitting down with her butter knife and a fresh roll of hala, reweaving the mats the boys had unraveled with rough play.

His father, the late James A. "Kimo" Boyd Jr., had a wide circle of friends and was active in Hawaiian civic affairs. There were parties and — always — music. "My first transistor radio went directly to 1420 KCCN. That was like in fourth grade," said Boyd, 40.

In fifth grade, he attended the Kamehameha Schools summer Explorations program, his first formal exposure to culture. In seventh grade, he enrolled at Kamehameha, a more structured and altogether much larger world than he was used to. He took piano in intermediate school and noodled around on the 'ukulele under the tutelage of an auntie.

Though he tried out, he never got into the prestigious Concert Glee Club at Kamehameha, a loss he still regrets. But he did develop an appreciation of Hawaiian choral music through the Kamehameha Song Contest. As a junior, he enrolled in a class called Hawaiian Chant and Dance. "Imagine, a Hawaiian-language class with an English name — but that was the way it was then," he said.

From there, it was a short hop in 1978 to joining Halau Na Kamalei. But it was a long, hard road to finding his place there. He and his young kumu hula, Robert Cazi-mero, butted heads. "I could very easily have quit; he could very easily have thrown me out," he said.

The untimely death of Kimo Boyd in 1976 had made his son determined to stick it out. He couldn't face another disruption, another loss. "Eventually," he said, "the halau became like family." Eventually, too, Cazimero mellowed; Boyd became a little less po'opa'a (stubborn).

Today, Boyd says, "I thank my lucky stars for my kumu. Most of the things I do today are because of his influence. I still have awkward moments with him; I'm not sure how to act sometimes, but the love is definitely always there."

Over the years, Boyd's skills grew, nurtured in Hawaiian-language and composition classes at the University of Hawai'i. He has since composed music for the Brothers Cazimero, winning a Na Hoku Hanohano award with one of his songs; sings with the Hawaiian choral group Ho'okena, which he helped start; was formally elevated to kumu hula by Cazimero in 1995 and formed a halau two years later.

Now he's contemplating Merrie Monarch in some future year. "I think it would be good for me, good for the halau, an interesting growth experience," he said. Boyd's work as a kumu is characterized by a strong focus on language and music; his group sometimes performs modern-style hula as they sing — which is relatively rare — and is divided like a choir into four-part harmony.

Of course, to get to Merrie Monarch, Boyd would have to give up the commentary gig. But he's philosophical about that. Another kolohe smile passes across his face: "I'd be just as happy going to Hilo and getting my hotel room and having a party with all my friends and watching Merrie Monarch on TV. To me, that would be the best of both worlds."

• • •

Merrie Monarch Hula Competition

Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium, Hilo

6 p.m. April 24—26; Miss Aloha Hula, April 24; Group Hula Kahiko, April 25; Group Hula 'Auana, April 26

Airing live nightly on KITV-4; streaming video from 6 p.m. on www.thehawaiichannel.com

Merrie Monarch Hula Competition tickets are routinely sold out months in advance. To enter the ticket lottery for next year, write Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, Hawaii Naniloa Resort, 93 Banyan Drive, Hilo, HI 96720; send a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Phone (808) 935-9168 (it can be difficult to get through; the small staff is very busy).