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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, March 31, 2005

Get a handle on hula

 •  TV coverage, features, of hula competition

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

The Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition is the most-watched locally produced TV event, and tickets to the actual competition in Hilo are highly sought after. Most Islanders see at least a portion of the three-night extravaganza, which begins at 6 p.m. today with the Miss Aloha Hula competition.

Natasha Mahealani Akau of Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu performed in last year's hula competition.

Advertiser library photo • April 15, 2004

But if you've not taken hula, and if you don't speak Hawaiian, it can be a little hard to get beyond the surface. Granted, the adornments are beautiful and the motions stirring or alluring, whether or not you understand the story or the dance. But a little more layering can add to the experience.

Here's a bit of help.


They say to keep your eyes on the hands, but those with ma'a (understanding of) hula, watch the whole body. In general, watch for:


In kahiko (traditional style), women hold hands open, men closed; motions are often stronger, more rigid and abrupt. In women's 'auana (modern style), hands are gently curved, motions flow.


"Kuhi no ka lima, hele no ka maka," goes the saying: "Where the hands move, let the eyes follow." Gaze may also follow the invisible subject of the song as it's conjured by the motions of the hands.


Face should be expressive without over-dramatizing.


In general, the upper body is still. Changes in elevation are carried out by the knees or feet, rarely by shrugging or hunching, never by bouncing or bobbing.


The standard hula position is feet flat, knees bent. The weight is canted over one foot, leaving the other free to initiate the next motion. It is this rhythmic weight transfer from flat foot to flat foot that creates the hula ka'o (the side-to-side sway of the hips).

More to look for: In group hula, scan for uniformity of movement. In chanted hula, uniformity of speaking is prized.


Hula Halau 'O Kamuela danced to "Ka Hinano O Puna" at last year's Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition in Hilo. In group hula, uniformity of movement is key.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

If you've lived in Hawai'i for a while and are sensitive to language, you've probably noticed certain phrases recur during hula performances and in both 'oli (chants) and mele (songs) and wondered what they meant.

Here are a few to know:

Pa!: If you attend rehearsal, you may hear the kumu tersely order "Pa!" a command to begin dancing. Among its many meanings, pa also indicates an enclosure (in which the dance takes place) and a beat or rhythm of the dance.

E makaukau? (ay ma-kow-kow): The kumu hula calls this question — "Ready?" Or the kumu might say "E ho'omakaukau!" a command to get ready. The dancers' answer in a drawn-out, " 'Ae!" ("Yes!). In kahiko (traditional) performance, the question signals the opening of the chant, and the dancers answer with a line that identifies the subject of the chant.

He inoa no Hi'iaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele (hay e-know-ah no he-ee-ah-ka ee ka polee o peh-lay): "A name song for Hi'iaka in the bosom of Pele." You'll hear this often at Merrie Monarch because many songs concern the sister of Pele and her deeds on behalf of the fire goddess. Hi'iaka is so named because she is said to have been incubated as an egg held close in Pele's armpit, and because of the closeness of the two.

Ha'ina (ha-ee-na): Hundreds of mele, both older and modern, end with a phrase beginning with the word "ha'ina,, which means a saying, declaration or statement but has come to indicate a song's final two verses, which restate the song's subject or purpose. "Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana." "Tell the story in the refrain." There are at least a half-dozen forms of ha'ina lines, variously translated as "tell the refrain," "the tale is told," "this is the end of my song."

'Auhea wale 'oe (ow hay-ah vah-lay oh-ay): This common phrase opens many songs. It means, variously, "Where are you?" or "There are you ..." "Where could you be?" and even "Oh, do pay heed." It often signals a mele aloha, or love song.

By the way, if you hear a song that you'd like to learn more about, the largest archive of Hawaiian music lyrics, with translation, is www.huapala.org, which also has a helpful guide to hula terms, implements and so on.

Sources: "Na Mele 'Welo," translated by Mary Kawena Pukui (UH Press, 1995); "He Mele Aloha," by Wilcox, et al. ('Oli'oli, 2003); "Hawaiian Music and Musicians," by George S. Kanahele (UH Press, 1979)


2005 Color: Royal blue

2005 Lei: Palapalai, pukiawe, a'ali'i

Coming back: Robert Cazimero's Halau Na Kamalei for their once-a-decade appearance

New this year: Na kumu hula Snowbird Bento, Rich Pedrina and Hulali Solomon Covington

Where's Johnny Lum Ho?: Judging again

Odd facts: Two halau will employ the same song but in different divisions. And Halau Mohala 'Ilima is doing "Alekoki" in both traditional and modern styles.


These are some rhythm-makers you may see:

Ka'eke'eke: Bamboo pipes tapped on ground

'Ili'ili: River stones used like castanets

Ipu heke: Double gourd, standard rhythm keeper

Ipu heke 'ole: Single, hand-held gourd

Kala'au: Tapping sticks of varying lengths

Kupe'e niho 'ilio: Dog's-tooth anklet, leg rattle

Pahu: Standing drum of coconut wood, sharkskin head

Pu'ili: Split-end bamboo tapping stick

Puniu: Small-head drum tied to leg, struck with ka, braided dried ti leaf

'Uli'uli: Gourd rattle with or without feather trim

Source: "The Art of Hula," Allan Seiden (Island Heritage, 1999)

• • •


Live TV broadcast: 6 p.m. today-Saturday, KITV; streaming video, thehawaiichannel.com

Tonight: Miss Aloha Hula competition; TV coverage includes short profiles of dancers

Tomorrow: Kahiko competition: TV features focus on lei-making, gathering customs, rights, other issues

Saturday: 'Auana competition: TV features focus on Merrie Monarch volunteers

Information: www.merriemonarchfestival.org