Merrie Monarch 2010: Looking back
Eselu full of gratitude in victory
Dennis Oda / firstname.lastname@example.org
Ke Kai O Kahiki kumu hula O’Brien Eselu, right, accepted three awards, including overall winner, on behalf of his halau at the Merrie Monarch festival last weekend.
By Nina Wu
HILO, Hawaii » Kumu hula O‘Brian Eselu has proven once again that a small group of hula dancers can be just as powerful as halau three or four times its size.
Eselu’s six-member halau, Waianae’s Ke Kai O Kahiki, won not only its second overall title at the 47th annual Merrie Monarch Festival last weekend, but also best kane overall as well as awards for best kane kahiko and kane ‘auana.
Originally from Samoa, Eselu returned to the Merrie Monarch festival two years ago after a hiatus due to health problems and surprised everyone by taking the overall title last year. The 54-year old entered his first Merrie Monarch competition 31 years ago with his late partner, Thaddius Wilson; the halau was known then as Na Wai ‘Eha O Puna.
Always humble, Eselu said he was full of gratitude when he learned his halau had won on Saturday.
“I just want to thank the Merrie Monarch Festival, Auntie Dottie and Uncle George,” he said. “Thirty-one years ago they were so kind to me, and so encouraging. I’m here to celebrate them and their legacy.”
Eselu said he was surprised at the wins because he introduced a new step in his kahiko number, “A Ka‘uku,” which is only used by his halau. It’s a step that involves jumping in the air, clapping, then coming back down with a waterfall movement. Eselu learned it from his own kumu decades ago.
It was a bold move and risk, one which the Merrie Monarch judges might not have approved of. Still, Eselu — also the director of a Polynesian show at Paradise Cove Luau and a Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning musician — is known for taking risks.
KUMU HULA Keali‘i Reichel, in his second year entering the Merrie Monarch Festival, took the wahine kahiko, wahine ‘auana and wahine overall titles with Halau Ke‘alaokamaile of Wailuku, Maui.
“Shocked,” is how Reichel, better known as an award-winning musician, said he felt after judges announced his halau as the overall winners.
“For us, we just do what we do and we hope at the end of the performance that we did the best we could do, no matter what the outcome,” said Reichel.
Halau Ke‘alaokamaile performed “He Mele Inoa No Pekipeki Pusiela Keli‘i‘aukai,” comparing the travels of Kekeli, a 19th century ship, to a sought-after lover navigating through the seas of passions. Dressed in blue tops and ti leaf skirts, the hula was graceful, poetic, and flirtatious.
For ‘auana, the halau performed “Ke Aloha,” a song composed by Aunty Lei Collins which bids a lover to “come hither to my bossom.” The ladies, dressed in crushed velvet, purple dresses, formed a closely woven cluster as they danced the song about enduring love. It had Reichel’s signature of graceful fluidity.
“I’m humble because we shared the same stage with many great dancers that came before us,” said Liliana Koa, an alakai who has danced with Reichel for 28 years. “There are just so many emotions, and we just feel blessed that we got to come and represent Maui, to get on the same stage as so many great dancers.”
Koa’s daughter, Oralani, took fourth place in MIss Aloha Hula and won the Hawaiian language award this year.
BOTH REICHEL, a relative newcomer, and Eselu, are surprise wins for the festival in its 47th year.
Eselu still struggles with health issues, and had difficulty getting up the ramp to the stage on Saturday to collect his trophy, but said he’s already decided to return next year. He credited the members of his halau with convincing him to return to the Big Island for the 2010 competition.
“My students expressed to me that they just wanted to dance,” he said. “They want to dance until they can’t dance any more.”
For ‘auana, Eselu’s halau performed “E Koa‘e E,” a very special song which he learned more than 30 years ago. It’s about the Kao‘e, a white tropic bird that nests upon sheer cliffs, fishing from the sea.
In preparation for the dance, Ke Kai O Kahiki member Makepa Jacop said his halau went to a hill in Hilo to get the actual imagery in their head.
“The ‘auana was fun,” he said. “We just practice personality and emotion, and express that.
“If we were successful, people watching on TV should feel it, too.”
Jacop’s hula brothers include La‘akea Perry (also an alakai), Sonny Leiutu, Ali‘i Moku, Kalei Ai and Fue Maneafaiga.
THOUGH EVERY halau brought its own unique mele, costume and choreography to the stage, some stood out more than others — particularly kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho’s wahine kahiko rendition of “Kalaupapa.”
Ho, who returned to the festival after a seven-year hiatus, was a crowd pleaser, but did not place in the competition.
Merrie Monarch heavyweight Hula Halau O Kamuela of Waiamanalo and Kalihi, under the direction of kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kaman‘o and Kunewa Mook, also scored high, taking second in wahine kahiko and wahine overall. Halau member Mahealani Mika Hirao-Solem also took home the Miss Aloha Hula title last Thursday.
Halau Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu of Kapahulu, under kumu hula William “Sonny” Ching, took third in wahine kahiko, second in kane ‘auana and third in kane overall.
Dancing at Merrie Monarch was bittersweet for the men and women of the late kumu hula Rae Fonseca’s Halaua Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani. The dancers gave it their all on the stage, showing the judges and audience all that kumu had taught them. The men gave a strong performance of “Ka ‘Oni A Ka Moku,” comparing a steamship to a secret love affair, placing fourth in kane auana.
“It feels overwhelming and yet I feel proud — I hope he (kumu) feels the same way,” said Awapuhi Duldulao, an alakai in the halau, who smiled during her ‘auana on stage, but broke down in tears afterwards in the dressing room. “I just feel happy that we got to do this with each other.”
Duldulao, along with Hokulani Gaspang and Roxanne Kamelamela, took over chanting duties for the kahiko numbers.
The night was topped off with all the kumu hula on stage, and audience members in the aisles and seats, dancing Uncle George Naope’s favorite composition, “Ka Nani A‘o Ka‘u,” as a tribute to the co-founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival.