HILO — Three of the 23 halau competing in the 2019 Merrie Monarch Festival are from Hawaii Island — and all are from diverse areas of the 4,000-square-mile-plus Moku O Keawe.
Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani is based in Hilo, and is competing in the wahine (women’s) and kane (men’s) divisions, and has a contestant for Miss Aloha Hula.
Beamer-Solomon Halau O Po‘ohala is in Waimea. They’re bringing wahine and a Miss Aloha Hula contestant.
And Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu of Kailua-Kona, newcomers to the Merrie Monarch competition — but not to the festival’s stage — has entered wahine in hula’s premier competitive event.
Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu doesn’t have the lengthy tradition of the Beamer-Solomon Halau O Po‘ohala or the Merrie Monarch experience of Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani.
What kumu hula Kenneth Dean Alohapumehanaokala “Aloha” Victor and his wahine charges have, however, is a palpable buzz surrounding their debut on the Merrie Monarch competition stage.
The Kailua-Kona halau has had a great deal of success on the hula competition circuit, and many of his dancers bring that experience, which started with keiki hula competitions, to hula’s premier stage.
“Merrie Monarch is the epitome of a hula dancer’s dream,” Victor said. “For a lot of these girls who have committed so many years to me, it’s time to go to Merrie Monarch. And it’s not about trophies. It’s about being a part of this event that has modeled the epitome of culture and language and the excellence of hula.
“I told the girls, ‘We have plenty of trophies on the wall. And it’s all just a dust collector. But to go and experience the Merrie Monarch, I believe we’ve earned our spot, but for all of you who’ve committed to me, I will commit to their Merrie Monarch experience.”
Victor will have 14 ‘olapa (dancers) for hula kahiko, 12 for hula ‘auana. The youngest is 14, and the oldest is 54.
The 41-year-old kumu hula also is a clothing designer with his own line, Kaulua‘e. His childhood hula education started with Hualani Brandt at St. Benedict’s Church in Honaunau, whose loving disposition “made us love hula.”
After his family moved to Kailua-Kona, Victor became a lu‘au dancer for Keoni Atkinson, who studied under Uncle George Na‘ope. He said Atkinson “taught me how to love a stage and how to use that stage.”
Victor later came into contact with Kekuhi Kanahele, daughter of Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele, and Taupouri Tangaro, Kekuhi Kanahele’s husband, whom Victor described as “probably the most influential people in my life.” Tangaro would later confer Victor with his ‘uniki, hula’s formal graduation.
“They brought a whole other element of hula into my life,” he said. “Everything about them made you want to be around them. They were just magnetic.”
Another influence, Victor said, is Nani Lim Yap, of the legendary Kohala music and hula family, and a Merrie Monarch judge this year.
“When I walked in, it was kind of intimidating, but we became lu‘au show dancers with her,” he said. “That was a whole other element because we were walking into something that had set precedents from years before — her standards and how she’d done so well at competitions, just who she was.”
Victor’s halau dazzled the audience at the 2017 Merrie Monarch’s Wednesday evening Ho‘ike. About 90 dancers — far more than allowed in actual competition — kane and wahine, adults and keiki, took part in a Kona-themed spectacle that was both travelogue and love letter.
According to Victor, his haumana will also honor their home in their initial appearance in the festival’s competition.
“Our kahiko and our ‘auana are both for Kona,” he said. “I told our girls we’re going to represent Kona in our first year in every capacity. Our kahiko, we’re going to do a song for Hualalai mountain and the snow deity of Hualalai, her name is Kahoupokane. And our ‘auana is ‘Kaulana Na Kona’ by Alice Aiu Ku. Kona is the theme, because we want to honor our families, our fans and our supporters who allow us to exist.”
Victor said he and his halau have been “super blessed that things have come our way.”
“This is the Olympics of hula. It’s the best of the best,” he said. “Just to be on that stage that holds so much history is a feat in itself. So we’re excited, we’re nervous. My stomach is in knots, at least. I’m excited for the girls. I’m stoked for the families who are going to get to see their daughters, their wives, their siblings on the Merrie Monarch stage.
“There’s so much going on and so many things that encompass Merrie Monarch. There’s thousands of hours that go into preparation, basically starting with research, all the way to execution, for a seven-minute presentation. And I think that if you’re not in a halau, or if you’re not familiar with how competitions work, you don’t realize all the hours that are put in for that seven-minute presentation.”
HILO, WAIMEA ALSO ON STAGE
Kahikilaulani, under the direction of Nahokuokalani Gaspang, returns after taking a break from the competition last year. They were the kane hula kahiko (ancient hula) runners-up in 2017, and took home festival trophies for placing among the top halau in various categories for five years running prior to the one-year sabbatical.
“We want to represent Hilo well,” said Gaspang, who assumed the reins of the prestigious halau after the death of kumu hula Rae Fonseca in 2010. Fonseca was a student of the late hula master Uncle George Na‘ope, the Merrie Monarch hula festival’s co-founder with the late Aunty Dottie Thompson.
“My expectation for them is to go on stage and portray our lineage — where we come from, from Uncle George and kumu Rae,” said Gaspang of her haumana (students).
She’ll have 16 kane in the line for hula kahiko and 13 for hula ‘auana this year, with ages ranging from 13, the youngest permitted under festival rules, and 52, three years younger than the upper age limit. Kahikilaulani’s men, who have generally been on the younger side, have exhibited the flair and confidence of seasoned performers on the Merrie Monarch stage this decade.
This year, Gaspang said, “I have plenty new boys.”
Gaspang said the kane kahiko’s mele, “‘O Puna Lau Momona,” will honor King Kamehameha and the people of Puna.
“The boys found this mele in this newspaper,” she said. “It talks about the growth of the land through propagation.” She added the men will be wearing malo and using kala‘au, percussion sticks.
“The kala‘au is about 8 feet tall. I have never seen a kala‘au that tall being used on the stage. It’s going to be very, very exciting,” Gaspang explained.
Their hula ‘auana (modern hula), Gaspang said, will “honor Uncle George and kumu Rae.”
The mele will be a medley of “He Aloha No O Honolulu,” which remains popular despite having been written more than a century ago by Lot Kauwe, a Hookena-born educator who died in 1922, and “Ka Uwila Makeneki.”
Gaspang described the former as “one of kumu Rae’s favorite numbers” and the latter as “an old, old number and one of Uncle George’s favorites.” In fact, Na‘ope and Albert Ahuna recorded the song in the 1950s.
“It talks about the magnetic charge of the electric trolley, but literally, it’s a naughty number,” Gaspang said, hinting that the song’s kaona (metaphoric subtext) has more to do with the magnetism of human attraction.
On the wahine side, Gaspang said she’ll have 16 in the line for both kahiko and ‘auana, ranging in age from 13 to 43.
For kahiko, Kahikilaulani’s women will dance to the mele “He Mele No Kihawahine.”
“It talks the mo‘o (lizard) goddess of Maui. It talks about Kihawahine and her family line from the Pi‘ilani line,” Gaspang said. “I did it on Maui when I left Hilo for a couple of years, and I fell in love with this chant. So when I came back home, I wanted to share it with kumu, but kumu passed. But because I’m growing older in age, I thought I’m going to do this number.”
The wahine ‘auana will be “Ku‘u Pualei” by Maui kumu hula Pono Murray.
“It talks about the beauty of the different places in Maui,” Gaspang said. “It also talks about his three kumu hula. I brought him in to rehearse. I’m bringing him in again. Nice gentleman, very knowledgeable. And I’m very happy that he allowed us to do his number.”
“If we win, it’s a feather in our cap,” Gaspang said about the competitive aspect of Merrie Monarch. “And if we don’t, hey, it’s still a feather in our cap, because we practice so hard. And kumu Rae always said, ‘It’s not about competition. It’s about keeping our culture alive.’”
Beamer-Solomon Halau O Po‘ohala of Waimea claims a 160-year history of teaching hula which “goes back to the Kalakaua Dynasty,” Malama Solomon, a former state senator and the halau’s kakau ‘olelo (historian) said.
In fact, Isabella Hale’ala Ka’ili Miller Desha, the great-great grandmother of Solomon and her sister, kumu hula Hulali Solomon Covington, taught hula in secret because it had been suppressed by Christian missionaries — as had Desha’s mother, Kapuailohiawahine Kanuha Miller.
Desha was the mother of Helen Desha Beamer (1882-1952), a celebrated haku mele, or composer of Hawaiian music, coloratura soprano, organist at Hilo’s historic Haili Congregational Church and kumu hula.
The last time Halau O Po‘ohala appeared on the Merrie Monarch competition stage was in 2014. This year, the halau’s kumu hula, Hulali Solomon Covington, will have 18 wahine between the ages of 13 and 26 representing the historic halau.
The mele for their hula kahiko will be “Lei O Ha‘ena,” which Helen Desha Beamer wrote to honor the private Shipman Estate near Keaau village in Puna.
“The Shipmans were friends with my great-grandparents, the ‘old man’ Peter Carl Beamer and Helen Desha. That’s why she wrote that mele for them. That’s why we wanted to do that song,” Solomon Covington said. “Friendship was really important to her. So many of those songs she wrote were for friends, like the Hendersons (“Kimo Hula”) and the Shipmans.”
The halau’s hula ‘hula auana mele is “Na U‘i O Kaua‘i” (“Beauties of Kaua‘i”) with words by Claude Downey and Aunty Ida Malabey Weisbarth and music by Johnny Noble. It was recorded by Aunty Agnes and the Makaha Serenaders and later by the Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau.
“We like to keep our theme with Hawaii and Kauai because of Pele, because she journeyed there. And her lover, Lohiau came from Kauai,” Solomon Covington said. “The mele shares the beauties of all the different areas of the island of Kauai.”
Solomon Covington is the fifth generation of kumu hula for the family halau. Her mother and fourth-generation kumu, Flora “Tita” Leiomalama Desha Beamer Solomon, died Feb. 8 at age 92. Better known simply as “Tita Beamer Solomon,” she was the granddaughter of Helen Desha Beamer and the daughter of Louise Beamer — Helen Desha Beamer’s daughter-in-law, who also was a celebrated hula teacher and the muse of the popular Hawaiian song, “Ku‘u Hoa.”
“My mother’s mana‘o was always that we do our best. Our thought is always for the girls,” Solomon Covington said. “And our mother said, ‘If you do your best, you’ve won already.’ We’ve been practicing really hard. We started preparing them when they 10 and 15 years old. We do a lot of community programs, like helping North Hawaii Hospice, and we do some things at the (North Hawaii Community) Hospital. And we do a lot of Christmas programs. We go to the hospitals and we sing.
“I like to share that with the community.”