Last night was full of excellence, as 28 halau mostly from Oahu, but also the Big Island, Maui, Kauai and California competed in the group kahiko competition at the 48th annual Merrie Monarch Festival.
Hula kahiko, or ancient-style hula, brought out plenty of oli to ancestors as well cherished places and virtues of different islands, from the makaloa mats of Niihau woven by the Mikioi wind to the rains of Maui, a metaphor for a special loved one.
As far as hula implements go, there were plenty of numbers featuring the uli uli, but only one using the ipu heke (double-headed goud), puniu (knee drum) and kala’au (sticks).
The men of kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad’s Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, danced with the more rarely used ulili, a spinning gourd rattle that makes a unique whirring sound.
Their mele was about Wahinekeouli of Haena, Kauai, and her passionate feelings for Kila, a handsome man much younger than her.
Wearing ti leaf skirts and maile lei draped over their shoulders, the men demonstrated their proficiency with the ulili (made up of three round gourds on a stick, with a string attached to the middle one to make the end ones spin).
The halau made it look easy, but dancing with the ulili requires coordination and timing. When the ulili are all whirring at the same time, accompanied by the beat of steps, it has an awe-inspiring effect.
The ladies of Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela performed a mele about the beauty of various rains on Maui, a metaphor for the yearning of a loved one, with puniu, or knee drums.
Dressed in pure white, Halau Hula ‘O Hokulani was a vision as dancers told the story of Poli’ahu, goddess of snow, who was also a goddess of ordinary human desires.
There were also a few noteable hula ma’i — hula celebrating the act of procreation.
The ladies of Halau I Ka Wekiu performed "He Ma’i No Kapi’olani," a mele alluding to the sweet fragrances of hala, maile, awapuhi and palapalai.
The men of Halau I Ka Weku performed "Ko Ma’i E Ka Lani E Kalakaua," a procreation chant choreographed by kumu hula Robert Cazimero in 1986, with many amis (hip circles), hand flips, and overall flirtatious moves. It was a crowd favorite.
Kumu hula Keali’i Reichel also chose a ma’i, procreation song, honoring Prince Leliohoku, the younger brother of King David Kalakaua who was well-endowed. The word ‘keu" meaning "excessively so!" ending on a high pitch, is heard throughout the mele.
If the late kumu hula Rae Fonseca was watching Merrie Monarch from up above yesterday evening, he would have been full of pride.
Up first in the competition was Halau Na Pua O Uluhaimalama under the direction of kumu hula Emery Ali’ili’iokalani Aceret, a former student of Fonseca’s.
It was the halau’s first time at Merrie Monarch, and the troupe did not disappoint in its performance of "Ka Huaka’i A Lili’uokalani," a song composed by Aunty Malia Craver.
The halau brought out lauhala mats, and danced with ipu heke (double-headed gourds) with a youthful energy.
Fonseca was a student of the late kumu hula Uncle George Na’ope, whose influences were also evident in the piece.
The men and women of Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani, formerly under Fonseca and now under the direction of his student leader Nahokuokalani Gaspang, put on a strong showing with their dances celebrating Kauai.
The ladies, dressed in ti leaf skirts and green blouses, performed "’Ula Noweo," a mele that celebrates the beauty of various places on Kauai. They danced with purple- and yellow-feathered uli uli, adding elaborate formations into their choreography.
The men performed a mele telling of Queen Kapiolani’s travels from Hanalei to Barking Sands beach of Nohili.
Ke Kai O Kahiki, the halau which swept the men’s divisions last year, also put on a dynamic performance of a mele using kala’au (sticks), one short and one long.
Their mele told of how traveling by canoe between Oahu and Kauai, the landmarks of Oahu look like a white-tipped reef shark.
The kala’au, when crossed with one another and thumped on the floor, beat out rhythms with precision, accompanied by plenty of turns, and ups and downs, ending the night with an exclamation point.