Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, April 8, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin

"Everybody comes to me to be calm and cool and collected,"
George Naope says. "It's my job to be nice to everyone."

Merrie Master

George Naope brought
the festival to life

By Cynthia Oi


The idea came to George Naope under pressure. The Hawaii County government had sent him to Maui to check out that island's whaling spree in hopes that the Big Island could host a similar event. But the spree, Naope says, "was really just a drunken brawl," not something that would boost the county's economy or its profile on the tourist map.

So when county officials asked him what kind of event he'd propose, he was at a loss and blurted "the first thing off the top of my head."

Merrie Monarch "I said, 'Oh yeah, we going to honor King Kalakaua -- call it the Merrie Monarch Festival.' "

That was in 1963 and those words were the genesis of the festival that today lures many to the sleepy town of Hilo, that has evolved into a showcase for hula, and that pumps big money into the economy of East Hawaii.

Today, Uncle George doesn't put in day-to-day work on the event, but every year, at the end of the three nights of hula competition, he is on stage, resplendent in attire, to help present awards to the winning halau.

The festival now thrives under the direction of Dorothy Thompson. Since 1969, from the end of one Merrie Monarch to the start of the next, Auntie Dottie has planned, scheduled and corralled halau, judges and spectators to keep the festival rolling along.

What Uncle George and Auntie Dottie do, separately and together, is maintain and increase the presence of hula.

Auntie Dottie, who worked for the county for 33 years and who managed Aloha Week events on the Big Island for dozens, does it through the festival.

Uncle George does it by teaching hula, as he has the past 54 years, to "thousands" of students.

"I'm doing my part," he says as he sits in a white plastic lanai chair in his hula studio in Kona.

The studio is actually the garage of his home in a modest neighborhood off the gaudy, tourist-packed Alii Drive.

On a recent balmy day, six students dance across the golden yellow linoleum while Uncle George, in pink palaka shirt, pink shorts and a pink hat with a pink feather hat band, strums a stainless-steel ukulele.

He teaches five days a week, charging only $3 for the lessons, payment taken in American dollars and other currency.

"Bananas and papayas and ulu and potatoes -- that's the kind of money I get paid in. Mangoes in mango season. Wana season, they bring me wana," he says with a hoarse chuckle. "No matter. I can always eat."


At 71 years of age, Uncle George remains handsome. His black hair is streaked with white, his lean brown face brightened by large, expressive eyes. His natty dress counters the flamboyance of his jewelry: four rings on his left hand, three on his right, a 2-inch-wide gold bracelet on his right wrist, a silver watch on the left.

He speaks candidly about Hawaiian issues, his view of himself and the festival. His concession to discretion is to cup his hand on the side of his mouth when he's talking about a sensitive matter.

About sovereignty for Native Hawaiians, he says:

"People ask me, 'Uncle, how come you always say you American first, Hawaiian second?' I say because I am an American and as an American, people going to have to listen to me.

"We are so lucky to be Americans. America has done a lot for us. It wasn't America that did us wrong, it was some Americans.

"I'm not a Hawaiian activist. I am a realist."

About himself and his role in the festival, he says:

"I no do so much now. But I'm the peacemaker. Everybody comes to me to be calm and cool and collected. They say, 'How come everybody kiss you, Uncle.' It's my job to be nice to everyone."

He has studied hula since he was about 3 years old, he says. Among his teachers was the revered Iolani Luahine. He has taught hula for 54 years.

"People say, 'Uncle, you so great.' Shee. Every morning when I wake up, I go to the lua, and look at the mirror and I go 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest of them all?' And you know that s.o.b. never answer yet. So that means I not great. And if it did answer, I wouldn't be here. I would die of a heart attack!"

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Lokalia Kahele won the Miss Aloha Hula title in 1998,
performing "Pua Ana Ka Makani," a mele honoring
Kaahumanu. This year's Miss Aloha competition
airs on KITV at 6 p.m. tonight.

About the festival and some changes he'd like to see, he says:

"I think we should have a category for new chants.

"You know, Johnny Lum Ho is one of the finest and most creative kumu hula. He writes his own chants, but the rules say can only do (material) up to Kalakaua's time.

"Johnny Lum Ho writes about now, but it's not kahiko if he wrote it last week or last month. It must be of the old, that's what kahiko means.

"But maybe we should have another contest with all these teachers writing new chants."

Uncle George exhorts kumu hula to create new material with their observations of the present.

"We shouldn't be writing about what happened 100 years ago. We weren't there. But we should write about today so that the children and grandchildren can see what the life was like before their time."


While he's talking, his students are getting restless. One has already left, saying she has an appointment. So he picks up the ukulele and his strumming brings them back to the formation.

He begins singing, his reedy voice still strong enough to be heard from the street.

After two stanzas, he stops and tells them to come back, not next week but the week after, when the Merrie Monarch Festival is over.

He teases them, saying they would never be able to dance in the competition.

One of the students, Neen Highley, who says she's "only 82," has been learning from Uncle George for more than 20 years. Another is Kiyoko Murata, 27, from Tokyo. She won a hula competition in Japan and won a government scholarship to learn hula from Uncle George. She lives with him and his family to learn Hawaiian ways.

"But now she learn too much English, too," Uncle George says, "so now she know when I talking stink about her."

Kiyoko laughs and swats him on his arm.

"Uncle gives me hard time," she says, "but I am happy, learning kahiko."

Uncle George says he's taught hula all over the world to people of all nationalities.

"So people say 'How come you teach all these Germans and the Japanese?' I say, 'I teach whoever wants to learn. Why don't you come?' They say, 'Oh, I no more time.' I say, 'I see you down at the bar every day, you have time for that.' "

One student teases him back. "And what are you doing there?"

"At the bar?" Uncle George responds. "Eh, I'm the president there."

"Do you have a gavel," the student asks.

"I don't need a gavel," Uncle George roars. "I have this," he says and waves his ukulele.



KITV4 will broadcast the hula competition live. This is the 20th year the station has aired the contest in some form. From 1980-83, the station showed taped highlights; live coverage began in 1984.

Bullet Hosts are Paula Akana and Kimo Kahoano, with color and interviews by KCCN radio's Keaumiki Akui.
Bullet Broadcasts begin at 6 p.m. today-Saturday.



Bullet Today: Miss Aloha Hula
Bullet Friday: hula kahiko
Bullet Saturday: hula 'auana and awards ceremony


Merrie Monarch Festival
hula contestants

Halau participate in the hula competition of the Merrie Monarch Festival by invitation. If a halau declines to compete one year, another on the waiting list is chosen, but the first halau reserves the right to return the next year. Miss Aloha Hula contestants are chosen by halau competing in the group contest. This year's competitors:


Bullet Leinani Kahikilaulani DeRego,Halau Hula 'O Hokulani, Mililani
Bullet Keolalaulani Dalire,Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka, Heeia/Kaneohe
Bullet Caroline Kawaemakaleha Julian,Halau Ka Waikahe Lani Malie, Kailua
Bullet Cyd La'ie Anahiwa Gasper,Halau Ka Ua Kilihune, Kaneohe
Bullet Meleoka'uka'ulele Hiraiwa,Halau Keali'i O Nalani, Los Angeles
Bullet JaimeLyn Kahanakekukuiokalani Pele, Moana's Hula Halau, Kaunakakai
Bullet Misty Mahealani Aina,Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani, Hilo
Bullet Dawn Napua'ala Abrams,Halau Mohala 'Ilima, Ka'ohao/Kailua
Bullet Kelly Lee Kaheanani Wehrsig,  Halau 'O Ke Anuenue, Hilo
Bullet Lisa Lei Makaonaona Wuest,  Halau Kealakapawa, Honolulu


Bullet Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani,Ray Fonseca, Hilo
Bullet Ku Kanaka Kaua O Kona, Jay Jay Akiona, Kailua/Kona
Bullet Halau Na Kamalei,Robert Cazimero, Honolulu
Bullet Lehua Dance Company 'O Wai'anae,Kaulana Kasparovitch, Waianae
Bullet Halau Ka Ua Kilihune,  Al Barcarse, Kaneohe
Bullet Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu,William "Sonny" Ching, Honolulu
Bullet The Men of Halau Kahulaliwai,Blaine Kia, Kailua, Oahu
Bullet Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula,  Chinky Mahoe, Kailua, Oahu
Bullet Halau Ke Kia'i A O Hula,Kapi'olani Ha'o
Bullet Na Punua O Kaua'i,Wallis and Shana Punua
Bullet Na Mele Hula 'Ohana,  Mark Ho'omalu, Oakland


Bullet Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani,Ray Fonseca, Hilo
Bullet Halau Hula Na Pua U'i O Hawai'i,Etua Lopes, Keauhou/Kona
Bullet Halau 'O Ke Anuenue,Glenn Vasconcellos, Hilo
Bullet Halau Hula Olana,Howard and Olana Ai, Aiea
Bullet Puka'ikapuaokalani Hula Halau,Ellen Castillo, Waimanalo
Bullet Halau Kealakapawa,Michael Ka'ilipunohu Canopin, Honolulu
Bullet Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu,William "Sonny" Ching, Honolulu
Bullet Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka,Aloha Dalire, Heeia/Kaneohe
Bullet Halau Mohala 'Ilima,Mapuana de Silva, Ka'ohao/Kailua, Oahu
Bullet Hula Halau 'O Kamuela,Paleka Leinaala Mattos, Kunewa Mook, Kalihi/Waimanalo
Bullet Halau Hula 'O Hokulani,Hokulani DeRego, Honolulu
Bullet Ka Pa Nani O Lilinoe,Lilinoe Lindsey, Aiea
Bullet Na Hula 'O Kaohikukapulani,Kapu Kinimaka-Alquiza, Hanapepe
Bullet Moana's Hula Halau,Moana Dudoit and Raquel Dudoit, Kaunakakai
Bullet Halau Keali'i O Nalani,  Keali'i Ceballos, Los Angeles
Bullet Na Mele Hula 'Ohana,  Mark Ho'omalu, Oakland
Bullet Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula,Chinky Mahoe, Kailua, Oahu

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