HILO — A beautiful Easter Sunday in Hilo marked an auspicious start to the 56th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival.
The festival’s free Ho‘olaule‘a, the kickoff of a full week of Hawaiian dance, music and culture, featured eight halau (schools): Halau O Kekuhi Keiki, under the direction of kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole Zane and ‘ohana; Hula Halau Ke ‘Olu Makani O Mauna Loa, under the direction of kumu hula Meleana Manuel; Halau Na Pua O Uluhaimalama, under the direction of kumu hula Emery Aceret; Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, under the direction of kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho; Halau E Hulali Mai I Ka La, under the direction of kumu hula Chrissy Kama-Henriques; Na Lei Liko O ‘Ola‘a, under the direction of kumu hula Kimo Kekua; Lori Lei’s Hula Studio and Wai‘ohinu Hula Studio, under the direction of kumu hula Lori Lei Shirakawa; and Merahi, a Tahitian dance troupe led by executive director Tiffany Dela Cruz.
Lum Ho, a prodigious creative wellspring, and Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua performed in the noon time slot, as is the custom when the halau appears at Ho‘olaule‘a. And though the performance is an exhibition and features many dancers too young by rule to appear on the Merrie Monarch’s competition stage, Lum Ho and his charges always draw a crowd — an estimated 2,500 at a time when many are just emerging from Easter worship services or enjoying a family meal.
Certainly the overall vibe at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium was laid back compared to the atmosphere that will surround the three nights of hula competition Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the neighboring Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium.
While Lum Ho and his halau band were setting up to perform, the event’s emcee, Darde Gamayo, known as “Tita Nui” on KAPA-FM, announced a silver GM sport-utility vehicle was blocking another car whose driver wanted to leave.
In an only-in-Hilo moment, Gamayo quipped, “If you don’t move your car, I’ll have it towed to my garage, because I can really use it.”
That prompted a response from one of Lum Ho’s band, who retorted Gamayo wants the SUV because she lives in Waipio Valley, which is accessible only by 4-wheel drive, horse, mule or by foot.
Speaking of Lum Ho’s band, it’s chock full of first-rate Hawaiian musicians, starting with the “Three Falsettos” — Hilo’s answer to the “The Three Tenors” of opera fame — Darren Benitez, Kuana Torres Kahele and Mark Yamanaka. Then there’s the Kipapa sisters — three young women from Keaukaha whom Yamanaka said “have very beautiful voices (and) tight, tight harmonies” — plus guitarist-vocalist Bert Naihe, bassist Eddy Atkins, singer-ukuleleist Chris Agpoon, who also serves as halau emcee, and Lum Ho on ukulele and vocals.
In addition, Kehau Tamure, half of the traditional Hawaiian duo Na Palapalai with Torres Kahele, appeared with the halau band for its entire set.
Most of Lum Ho’s dancers were keiki, both keiki kane (boys) and kaikamahine (girls), both from Hawaii Island and Japan — as well as a group of about 100 wahine (women) dancers from Lum Ho’s Japan halau. All put on an excellent show. A highlight was six young girls from Japan who won a keiki hula festival there. They danced to a paniolo (cowboy) themed song, attired in cowboy hats and artificial grass shirts, both yellow. At one point, three girls climbed aboard the other three, who were on all fours, and rode them like ponies.
In another humorous moment, Agpoon mispronounced “tourists” so it sounded something like “torrists.” Quick on the uptake, he ad-libbed, “The tourists. Not the torrists. Not the Torres. The tourists. The ones that used to go to Hilo Hattie’s.” That elicited a good deal of laughter from the audience.
“He’s fun. He brings energy and humor,” Yamanaka said of Agpoon, who became the halau emcee after the passing two years ago of the legendary Kawelo Kong Kee.
The Ho‘olaule‘a music stage, like the stageside pit at the Merrie Monarch hula competition, is pretty much a plug in-and-play operation with minimal, if any, sound checks for the musicians, reminiscent of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
During the halau’s finale, “I Call Him Lord” — a nod to Easter Sunday — there was a noticeable electronic popping in the sound system. But the band played on, the dancers danced on, and the popping — which Agpoon referred to as “just the Merrie Monarch vibe” — cleared up by the end of the song.
”The show goes on,” Yamanaka said. “You’ve got to do your best and pretty much just have fun.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.