Na Mele Hula 'Ohana's entourage of more than 80 Northern California residents revels in transplanted Aiea native Mark Ho'omalu Jr.'s unique styles of chant and hula. They worked and sacrificed since hearing in November that their bid to compete in the weekend's Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition had been approved.
Ho'omalu's reputation preceded the event. Kumu hula Mae Loebenstein had urged those she knew to be on time for the start of the competition in order to witness his remarkable style. She said she's waiting for him to come out with a chant recording. Kumu hula Leimomi Ho had awaited his arrival with equal anticipation.
"I'm still excited ... I want to go out there and dance. That's what we want to do is get on the floor and show off," Ho'omalu had said Friday morning, anxious before his halau's debut. Although the halau took home no prizes, it nevertheless made its mark in the eyes of spectators.
Ho'omalu opened that night's competition with his undulating-hum chant style. It had elements of Marine cadences, jazzy syncopation and deep-chested charisma. His hula kahiko (ancient) style was similarly unique, with a drill-team aspect of quick, straight-limbed movements. The "one 'uli'uli" style had both the ale and male dancer constantly passing a single feathered gourd from one hand to the other, as if presenting arms.
"The judges have told me for the past five years: Your dances should be pleasant and stately, and I never have a chance to explain to them my reasons why I'm like that. But I tell my kids it doesn't matter what they say. When we dance our style, we're expressive of: I'm not happy about losing all our lands, and I'm not happy about losing my queen. When I come out and dance, I keep that in mind.
"I don't come out looking pleasant, I come out looking serious, to let them know I mean business. And if I was back in that time too, I would look just the same."
"It's almost hard to hear his chanting because it's so mesmerizing. His voice, his style, everything, it just gives you the urge to wanna learn more," said his dancer, Audrey Makamae Fangonilo of San Jose -- by way of Waipahu.
The Hilo audience enthusiastically greeted the 'ai kupa'a (firm style) hula of the Oakland troupe.
"It's about fulfilling, not just the dancer's dream, but the kumu's dream," Fangonilo said. "That's real important to all of us."
Tina Lagapa-Talbott of Salinas said, "We're not looking for any type of trophy. We're looking for the togetherness of our group, to be able to stand on the Merrie Monarch stage, to show everybody what our kumu is all about. That's our victory. If we can accomplish as a group and let the people know that we, too, as Hawaiians living in California, feel the way they do, then we feel we've accomplished something."
The receptive Hilo audience was "reassuring," said 20-year-old Anthony Ah Koi of Hayward, Calif. "It made me feel so much better. It made me feel less defensive and more able to say, 'OK, this is what I've learned, let me show you.' It just erased a lot of doubts for me about what Hawaiian-style (hula) competition is."
Lagapa-Talbott travels 200 miles -- a three-hour round-trip drive -- for twice-weekly hula practices. Before competition, she and Fangonilo carpool and stay weekends in Oakland for additional practices. Husbands and children stay behind. To complete their costumes, dancers must get up at 4 a.m. and hide along the freeways to pick flowers. They use corn husks to weave haku lei.
Part-Hawaiian Lagapa-Talbott said, "I have 48 first cousins, and when you live Hawaii, most of the time people don't take advantage of what they have here. When you're away, you just appreciate it so much more. And that's why I think I travel the distance I do, because I have to go that distance to get there."
In Hilo, Na Mele members stayed in the community hall at Malia Puka O Kalani Catholic Church on Keaukaha Hawaiian homestead. One area resembled a bedless military barracks; everyone slept in sleeping bags. They took turns using two showers, quickly running out of hot water.
Speaking of water, a confluence of protegees of the late Darrell Lupenui appeared at Merrie Monarch in this 10th year since the Waimapuna halau kumu died. The former students of Lupenui included kumu hula O'Brien Eselu, Thaddius Wilson, John Ka'imikaua, Chinky Mahoe and Ho'omalu, whose hula lineage also includes John Pi'ilani Watkins and Tiare Clifford.
"For me it's an honor. I've been waiting a long time to dance with them," Ho'omalu said about Lupenui's alumni. "I never felt a part of the kumu hula and I've always looked at them with the highest respect and I always will. But I've never come and competed with them at the Merrie Monarch and I felt that in order to be a part of them, I'd have to join them on the floor.
"It's not a challenge, it's just to be a part of the whole ... (We) have a little touch of Darrell, all of us, and I'm glad to see that."
"And for me, she's the last of the mo'i (royalty), she's the last of the queens ... I got to chant for her, so I got to be a court chanter for once in my whole lifetime."
Hula competition results
Lokalia Montgomery perpetual trophy and $1,000 scholarship award: Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa'ahila, kumu hula Mae Loebenstein, Honolulu, 1,163 points
Kane (men's): 1. Halau Hula O Kawaili'ula, kumu hula Chinky Mahoe, Kailua, Oahu, 1,147 points; 2. Na Wai 'Eha O Puna, na kumu hula O'Brien Eselu and Thaddius Wilson, Waianae, 1,119; 3. Halau Hula O Kahikilaulani, kumu hula Ray Fonseca, Hilo, 1,110.
Wahine (women's): 1. Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa'ahila, 1,163; 2. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa O Laka, kumu hula Aloha Dalire, Kaneohe, 1,157; 3. Halau Na Lei O Kaholoku, na kumu hula Nani Lim Yap and Leialoha Amina, Kohala, 1,150.
Kane: 1. Na Wai 'Eha O Puna, 568; 2. Halau Hula O Kawaili'ula, 567; 3. Halau Hula O Kahikilaulani, 558; 4. Halau Hula O Kukunaokala, kumu hula John Ka'imikaua, Makakilo, 529.
Hula Kahiko (traditional)
Wahine: 1. Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa'ahila, 576; 2. Halau Hula O Kamuela, na kumu hula Paleka Leina'ala Mattos and Kunewa Mook, Kalihi/Waimanalo, 567; 3. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa O Laka, 566; 4. Halau Na Lei O Kaholoku, 565; 5. Halau Mohala 'Ilima, kumu hula Mapuana de Silva, Ka'ohao/Kailua, Oahu, 560.
Kane: 1. Halau Hula O Kawaili'ula, 580; 2. Halau Hula O Kamuela, 562; 3. Halau Hula O Kahikilaulani, 552; 4. Na Wai 'Eha O Puna, 551.
Hula auana (modern)
Wahine: 1. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa O Laka, 591; 2. Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa'ahila, 587; 3. Halau Na Lei O Kaholoku, 585; 4. Halau Hula O Kamuela, 579; 5. Halau Mohala 'Ilima, 575.
Kehaulani Enos, Halau Mohala 'Ilima.
Miss Aloha Hula
The 35th Merrie Monarch Festival is scheduled for April 15 to 17, 1998. For tickets, write on or after Jan. 1, 1998, to: Merrie Monarch Festival, 93 Banyan Drive, Hilo, Hawaii 96720.
It's not too early to plan