HILO — Women dancers asserted themselves in a big way at the 56th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival Hula Competition, which wrapped up Saturday night at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium in Hilo.
The three winners in the wahine overall category, which combines the scores of Friday night’s hula kahiko (ancient hula) and Saturday night’s hula ‘auana (modern hula) performances, were also the top three overall halau.
Taking home top overall honors and the coveted Lokalia Montgomery Perpetual Trophy was Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela, under the direction of na kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook. The Oahu halau won the wahine kahiko (women’s ancient hula) division and was runner-up in wahine ‘auana (women’s modern hula), by a point, to Maui’s Halau Kekuaokala‘au‘ala‘iliahi, under the direction of na kumu hula Haunani and ‘Iliahi Parades, which took third-place in both overall and wahine overall.
The winning kahiko mele was “‘O Lono E,” a chant that likely predates the arrival of Captain James Cook in Hawaii and talks of Lono reigning over the season of storms and tidal activity between the autumn and spring equinoxes.
Finishing second in the wahine kahiko, wahine overall, and overall categories was another Oahu powerhouse, Halau Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu, under the direction of na kumu hula William Kahakuleilehua Haunu‘u “Sonny” Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera.
After his halau was announced the winner, Kamana‘o said he was “so relieved that everything is over.”
“I’m so happy for my halau. They worked so hard and they did everything that I could ask for,” Kamana‘o said.
Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela has amassed an impressive collection of Merrie Monarch hula hardware in the wahine division for the past two-plus decades, starting with wahine ‘auana and overall titles in 1996 and a clean sweep of wahine kahiko, ‘auana and overall titles in 1999. They took the wahine ‘auana and overall titles in 2000, another trifecta of wahine awards in 2001, 2002 and 2003, wahine ‘auana in 2004 and 2005, a clean sweep in 2007 and 2008, wahine ‘auana in 2009 and 2011, wahine ‘auana in 2014 and wahine kahiko and overall in 2015.
Despite the track record of success, Kamana‘o said he had no inkling his halau might be named the overall winners.
“We just showed up and did our best to do our thing,” he said.
Another Oahu halau accustomed to hearing its name called come awards time, Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, under the direction of kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad, took the kane (men’s) division kahiko and kane overall titles.
The halau’s winning kahiko, “Ka Ua I Hamakua,” is a mele ma‘i (genital chant) about the rain from Hamakua chiefs imbuing “the chiefly lineage of Keali‘ikui-Kamehameha-Kunuiakea with mana (power) to perpetuate his royal bloodline,” according to the program’s written blurb.
Trinidad’s halau swept all three kane categories in 2018, won the hula kahiko in 2015 and was the overall champion in 2014, also taking the kane ‘auana and overall titles.
Runners-up in the kane division was Kawaili‘ula, an Oahu halau under the direction of kumu hula Chinky Mahoe that took the overall title in 2013 with a sweep of all kane categories. His charges came in second in kane kahiko and fourth in kane ‘auana to claim a couple more trophies for the highly-decorated halau.
Hilo pride was on display as Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani, under the direction of kumu hula Nahoku Gaspang, won the kane ‘auana title to place third overall among the men. In recent years, the judges have scored the halau’s kane among the best. They took second in kane kahiko in 2017, capping a five-year run of taking hula hardware among the various kane categories before a one-year Merrie Monarch sabbatical in 2018.
Gaspang assumed the reins of the halau after the death of kumu hula Rae Fonseca in 2010. Fonseca was a disciple of hula legend Uncle George Na‘ope, who with the late Merrie Monarch President Aunty Dot Thompson, started the hula competition in 1971. As it turned out, hula — an art form resuscitated by the King David Kalakaua after bans by missionaries brought it to the brink of extinction — revived the fortunes of the previously struggling festival and became a cornerstone in the renaissance of Hawaiian language and culture.
Kahikilaulani’s winning ‘auana was a medley of the ever-popular “He Aloha No O Honolulu,” a favorite of Fonseca’s and “Ka Uwila Makeneki,” a song recorded by Na‘ope and Albert Ahuna in the 1950s, but which is seldom heard today. Gaspang described the latter as “a naughty number,” with lyrics employing an electric trolley as a metaphor for the magnetism of human sexual attraction.
“The ‘auana was in honor of Uncle George and Kumu Rae. I wish Uncle George and Kumu Rae was here,” Gaspang said. She added it felt “wonderful” to bring the kane ‘auana title, the halau’s first win since Fonseca’s passing, to Hilo.
“The boys have worked so hard and I just thank them from the bottom of my heart,” she said. The halau, which also brought wahine and a Miss Aloha Hula candidate.
Kahikilaulani was one of three halau representing Hawaii Island. Beamer-Solomon Halau O Po‘ohala of Waimea, under the direction of kumu hula Hulali Solomon Covington, brought wahine, reprising a 2014 appearance, as well as a Miss Aloha Hula contestant. And Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu of Kailua-Kona, under the direction of kumu hula Kenneth “Aloha” Victor, made its Merrie Monarch debut, to the excitement of the stadium crowd.
In Thursday night’s Miss Aloha Hula competition, the remarkable run of Oahu’s Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua continued, as 23-year-old Taizha Keakealani Hughes-Kaluhiokalani won the title. That’s the third Miss Aloha Hula the halau, under the direction of na kumu hula Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV and Lono Padilla, has produced in the last four years.
Ka‘upu, who hails from Hilo’s Keaukaha neighborhood and danced for Fonseca and for Hilo kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho, described Hughes-Kaluhiokalani’s performance as a moment “when a dancer does what you want, what you envision and what you hope for.”
Hi‘iakainamakalehua, which brought both kane and wahine, also placed third in wahine ‘auana.
The 57th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival is scheduled for April 12-18, 2017.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.