Cultural renewal


POSTED: Sunday, April 26, 2009

“Aunty Nona” would be delighted.

That’s the assessment of Hawaiian preservationist Maile Loo, who praised a renewed focus on deep-rooted tradition at this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, which gave highest honors last week to two halau that performed mele ma‘i, or procreation chants, in the kahiko, or ancient, portion of the annual contest.

“The kahiko night ... overall was more focused on real old traditions, so the ma‘i fit right in, because they are ultra traditional,” said Loo, a kumu hula who is the founder and executive director of the Hula Preservation Society.

She also is the hanai daughter of cultural icon Winona “Aunty Nona” Beamer, who died a year ago at age 84, after a lifetime of perpetuating all things native Hawaiian.

“We really are led by our kupuna ... and for those of us who are trying to live the culture in this day and age ... to reach deep into our history I think was so meaningful,” said Loo, who believes Beamer “would have been very happy” to see so many recognizable hula performed for such a wide audience, including worldwide on the Internet.

As part of her work at the Kaneohe-based nonprofit, Loo records interviews with revered kumu hula to preserve their knowledge for future generations. “The recurring theme over the many hours with the kupuna we work with is that they don’t recognize a lot of the hula they see being done today,” said Loo, which makes last week’s proud display of “general knowledge” hula all the more significant in a competitive arena.

Since Hawaiian history is handed down through hula, it is essential that deep cultural traditions are preserved, despite financial pressure to modernize hula for the widest possible market, several kumu said.

“Having these chants that we in the hula world sort of all know displayed for an international audience really keeps the culture grounded,” she said.

As for the less common hulas performed, Loo was especially pleased to see the hula ‘ōhelo performed by Ke Kai O Kahiki, the festival’s overall winner and also the winner in kane kahiko, led by kumu hula O’Brian Eselu. Although the dance surprised some people in the audience, kupuna recognized it.

“The kupuna, they knew, they had seen it before,” said Eselu, expressing gratitude that he was able to resurrect the style.

In the week since the festival ended, Eselu has had many inquiries about the hula, Tū ‘Oe,  a procreation chant honoring Kaualiliko‘i of Maui.

He learned a version of the ancient dance in 1985. A dream this year inspired him to deepen his knowledge and showcase the male version at Merrie Monarch.

Many people are curious about learning the athletic, energetic style, but kupuna have advised Eselu that it is meant for elite, mature hula dancers. “This isn’t something you teach to little kids,” he said.

Several days after the competition, Sonny Ching, kumu hula of Hālau Nā Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu, which won first place for wahine overall and for wahine kahiko, reflected on this year’s emphasis on traditional hula, particularly mele ma‘i, which appeared four times in the kahiko portion of the competition.

His wahine performed “He Ma‘i No Kalani Ha‘u Ha‘u E,” a procreation chant for Kaho‘anokū, the child of Kamehameha I and Peleuli.

“Usually you’re lucky if you get one ma‘i a year, and this year there were three in a row at the end,” plus one earlier in the lineup, noted Ching. “It’s not like we planned it ahead of time. We weren’t consciously making a statement, but ... basically it’s our kupuna, or our ancestors, guiding us. We may not have realized it, but our kupuna realized it, and guided us.

“So there is a message in it in that sense, yes, that we must continue ... to perpetuate all things Hawaiian, including the people themselves.”