Honoring the originals

Even though it’s not a part of the Merrie Monarch’s hula competition, Hoike, the free Wednesday night exhibition of hula and music, always packs the Edith Kanakaole Multi-Purpose Stadium.

There are no tickets for the event, which starts at 5:50 p.m. with the entrance of the Merrie Monarch Royal Court, and admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. Folks line up early in the morning to get the best seats in the house.

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This is the first Merrie Monarch Festival since the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s double-hulled canoe Hokulea returned home from its three-year, 42,000-mile Malama Honua open-ocean global journey, and festival president Luana Kawelu promises Hoike will be “extra special this year.”

“Last year when the Hokulea came in on Oahu, when they had so many thousands of people on shore watching it come in, I was at my daughter Kathy’s house watching. And I was so touched and so proud of what they accomplished, I told Kathy, ‘I’m going to honor them next year.’”

Kawelu invited the 12 living crew members of the 25 who made the original voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. At Kawelu’s request, Oahu halau Ka Pa Hula O Ka Lei Lehua, under the direction of kumu hula Snowbird Bento, will do a 45-minute set of music and hula to honor the legendary canoe and the modern-day voyagers who sailed using traditional Polynesian navigation without instruments.

“I’ve always dreamed of doing the exhibition but I never thought the opportunity would present itself now,” said Bento, who will bring kane and wahine. “I thought we’d have 20, 25 of us and we’re now at a performing group of about 50.”

One of the mele her halau will perform is “Na Pe‘a O Hokulea (The Sails of Hokulea),” a Kelii Taua composition from the 1977 album “The Musical Saga of Hokulea.”

“My uncle is Kalani Whitford, who played on that album,” Bento said. “So I was lucky enough to be there as a little kid at about age 3 when they played for the launching of Hokulea at Magic Island for the ’78 sailing where we lost Uncle Eddie Aikau. I thought, ‘Na Pe‘a,’ it’s a classic. It’s something we’ve learned from my connections at Kamehameha Schools, being part of student groups that were chosen to travel around the Pacific. And through that experience, my haumana are getting to experience Hokulea, as well as having their own connections to Hokulea.”

Another is “Kamalei a Paoa,” written by Randie Kamuela Fong upon the 1994 retirement of Myron “Pinky” Thompson (1924-2001), a Bishop Estate trustee overseeing Kamehameha Schools. Thompson also served as president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society for two decades and was the father of master navigator Nainoa Thompson, who’s now PVS president.

The mele is one Bento danced on the Merrie Monarch stage in 2002 with Ka Pa Hula O Kamehameha and kumu hula Holoua Stender.

“We’d just lost Uncle Pinky that December and we danced in April at Merrie Monarch and we placed with the wahine,” she said. “I’m trying to get as many of the people in my generation who are integral with sailing, whether they’re Makali‘i crew, or Kanehunamoku (Voyaging Academy) or other of the wa‘a (canoes) and the audience to take a journey with us through the music.

“There are certain people I also wanted to honor because they’re my connections to Hokule‘a. We’re going to do one kahiko number that will honor Kamohoali‘i as one of our greatest navigators and the navigator of Pele’s canoe. And then, we’ll go into a few songs that will take us around different stops in the Pacific for Hokule‘a. There’s one section where we’ll do Maori songs that will honor (Maori navigator and canoe builder) Uncle Hector Busby and (the canoe) Te Aurere and the people of Waitangi, where they welcomed Hokule‘a and the Hawaiian people as the sixth tribe of Tai Tokerau.”

Bringing a hometown flavor to Ho‘ike is Hilo’s Halau O Kekuhi, under the direction of co-kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole Zane and Huihui Kanahele-Mossman. The halau has peformed in every Merrie Monarch Ho‘ike since 1997, and also will honor Hokule‘a.

“All of the mele we do has a wa‘a theme, whether it was for migration, fishing, accounting for genealogical rank, voyaging quests or seasonal star alignments,” Kanaka‘ole Zane said.

Also performing will be the kane Halau Na Kamalei O Lililehua under the direction of kumu hula Robert Cazimero. Na Kamalei won Merrie Monarch overall and kane overall titles in 2015 and turned in a memorable set on Ho‘ike night of the festival’s golden anniversary in 2013.

“I’m just going to say we’re doing some of my favorite things,” said Cazimero, who’s also been a Hawaiian music star for almost five decades. “It’s going to be both kahiko and ‘auana, and I just want it to be a representation of Hawaii. We’ll start off with kahiko and we’ll be focusing on things that have been written by guys in the halau themselves.”

The “guys in the halau” he referred to are Kaipo Leopoldino and Kyle Atabay, the latter a kumu hula whom Cazimero describes as “more than an alaka‘i, more like a co-teacher.” Cazimero, who turned 69 last month and shows no signs of slowing down, plans to enter his halau in the competition again in 2020. He said this year’s Ho‘ike will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts — for the halau and for Atabay.

“We’re coming back to the competition so I can present him in more of a formal kind of way,” he said.

Cazimero’s brother, Roland, one-half of the Brothers Cazimero, died last July, but Cazimero promises “an A-plus group of musicians” — including Horace Dudoit and Glen Smith from the band Hookena, Moon Kauakahi of Makaha Sons fame and Keao Costa, formerly of Na Palapalai.

Although Cazimero’s Merrie Monarch history is defined more by the competition, he provided one of the great Ho‘ike moments in 2013. Sitting alone at the piano, Cazimero sang a medley of “Pua Lililehua,” “Ia ‘Oe E Ka La” and “Waika.” During “Waika,” he rose and left the piano, strode up the ramp to the stage and sang the final part of the song a cappella with his dancers providing four-part harmony.

“I wanted to be closer to them. I felt far away from them and I didn’t like it,” Cazimero said. “There’s a point where I looked at them and it looked as though I was pointing toward the ceiling of the auditorium, but I was actually pointing outside that window back there. When I’m singing, I love to sing for people that I can’t see. And I always think of them as being in that faraway, distant light, kind of like ghosts. That’s what I was telling them to do, sing out there to everybody. Include everybody and everyone. And that’s what we’re going to do when we perform on that Ho‘ike night, as well.”

Also dancing will be Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela Iapana, the Japan branch of the Oahu halau led by na kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o, Kunewa Mook and Ako Kubota, which won the 2017 Ikaho Festival, which happens every four years in Japan. That victory earned the coveted Ho‘ike appearance.

Emceeing the event will be KITV news anchor Paula Akana, former co-host of the Merrie Monarch statewide telecast, who has extensively covered and sailed aboard Hokule‘a.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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Ho‘ike at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium

5:50 p.m. Entrance of Royal Court

6 p.m. National Anthem/”Hawai‘i Pono‘i” — Mamo Vaimagalo Renee Esera

6:10 p.m. Pule – Kahu Kaunaloa Boshard

6:15 p.m. Honoring Hokule‘a and her original crew

6:35 p.m. Halau O Kekuhi — Nalani Kanaka‘ole Zane

6:55 p.m. Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela Iapana – Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o, Kunewa Mook and Ako Kubota

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7:35 p.m. Ka Pa Hula O Ka Lei Lehua – Snowbird Puananiopaoakalani Bento

8:15 p.m. Halau Na Kamalei O Lililehua, Robert Uluwehionapuaikawekiuokalani Cazimero