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Merrie memories

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  • O'Brian Eselu's halau Ke Kai O Kahiki performed "A Ka'uku," which depicted a battle between Pele and half-man, half-pig demigod Kamapua'a at the 2010 Merrie Monarch Festival. The kane of Ke Kai O Kahiki swept the awards at the competition, winning the kahiko, auana and overall kane title, and were the group overall winner. (Dennis Oda /

The names of the hula competition winners over the 50 years of Merrie Monarch Festivals can easily be found in the record books, but all who watch, participate or cover the prestigious event have their own standout memories


Many audience members still talk about the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1986, the year that a thunderstorm caused a power outage in the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium just as kumu hula Mapuana de Silva’s Halau Mohala ‘Ilima was about to enter the stage to perform its hula kahiko number.

Wahine halau that year were required to select one of several chants related to Hina, including “Pu‘inokuolu‘a Hina,” or the “Three Wind Storms of Hina.”

The halau decided not to go forward with its performance that evening.

De Silva says she felt it was the right decision. “From the time I made that choice, I’ve never doubted, questioned or had second thoughts about it,” she said.

The next evening, the halau performed its auana number, “Hanohano Wailea,” which de Silva says was an “amazing experience” and their best performance in a decade.

For festival President Luana Kawelu, that power failure was a good reason to get a backup generator for the stadium. Still, she remembers how audience members sang as they waited patiently for the lights to come back on. When that happened several hours later, the rest of the evening’s competition continued without a hitch.

–Nina Wu, Star-Advertiser staff writer


The one Merrie Monarch performance that stands out for kumu hula Stanette Nu’uhiwa is when kumu hula Darrell Lupenui’s Men of Waimapuna performed their kahiko number “Pa‘ani Makahiki Kahiko Ia Moloka‘i,” about the warriors of Molokai.

They were dressed in malo (with no back or front flaps) and sparred with kala‘au (sticks) as part of the choreography. The group swept the kane division.

“It was just one of those numbers that was electrifying,” said Nu‘uhiwa, a former student of Lupenui’s. “From the moment they stepped on stage till they exited, it was just captivating.”

She also admired the dancers of kumu hula Frank Palani Kahala, who she considered Lupenui’s rival. “He was really creative,” she said. “He wrote his own chants, and whenever they brought something to the stage, it was their own.”

Nu’uhiwa herself was named Miss Aloha Hula that year, representing Lupenui’s “Ladies of Ke‘ala ‘o ka Laua‘e,” a memorable year all around.

–Nina Wu, Star-Advertiser staff writer


It was 1993, and the tradition of Merrie Monarch surprises had been long established. But nobody was expecting a topless dancer.

In truth, the Miss Aloha Hula soloist from Na Opio ‘o Ko‘olau wasn’t all that exposed. Her hair and the lei cascade she wore for her hula kahiko selection covered her up pretty well, but a sharp-eyed newspaper photographer, the late Carl Viti, spotted the costume innovation almost immediately and snapped away.

The kumu hula, brothers James and Michael Dela Cruz, had determined this attire would have been appropriate for the chant’s period and location in Waipio Valley. Naturally, it caused an enormous uproar. (However, Viti, a veteran of the Peace Corps throughout the Pacific islands, observed that this was true to the culture, and thought the decision was the coolest thing ever.)

A few years later, kumu Mae Loebenstein, in one of her many memorable touches before she died, got around the objection by outfitting her dancer in a top constructed entirely of ti leaves. Period materials, but modest. She was clever, to the last.

–Vicki Viotti, Star-Advertiser staff writer


I scream along with everyone else any time Chinky Mahoe’s Halau Kawaili‘ula comes on stage; he always has something interesting to offer. It’s tough to choose among their performances, but for lighthearted but beautifully executed male hula, I’d say it’s a tie between the 1996 “Toad Song,” with the men croaking and adopting a toadlike crouch, and the 1994 kane performance in which the dancers, in grass skirts over slacks, portrayed the movements of favorite sports — football, baseball, soccer, paddling — while keeping in perfect hula form. “Chinky’s at it again,” I remember writing then.

–Wanda A. Adams, freelance writer


Some Merrie Monarch moments happen after the whole festival has ended. The organizers were chagrined by at least one like that.

In 1995, a week and a half after Halau Na Mamo ‘o Pu‘uanahulu won the men’s overall honor, a scorekeeping error was discovered, which meant that award should have gone to Halau Hula ‘o Kawaili‘ula.

Fixing that required a get-together for a trophy swap between the top prize winner, Chinky Mahoe, and the new No. 2, Sonny Ching. Ouch.

But apparently the correction was made with “no hard feelings,” Mahoe said at the time. For his part, Ching expressed relief that his students reacted with grace.

“They took it better than I thought they would,” he added. Life does go on.

–Vicki Viotti, Star-Advertiser staff writer


For kumu hula Aloha Dalire, the festival’s first reigning Miss Aloha Hula of 1971 (or Miss Hula, as it was then called), there was no prouder moment than when she took the stage with all three of her daughters — all Miss Aloha Hulas as well — in 2000.

Her youngest daughter, Keola, was performing her farewell dance as the reigning Miss Aloha Hula of 1999. Together they also performed a family song, “E Ku‘u Sweet Lei Poina ‘Ole.”

It was a historic moment, as no other mother and three daughters have taken the solo title at the festival. Eldest daughter Kapua won in 1991, and Kaui in 1992.

–Nina Wu, Star-Advertiser staff writer

2010: A NEW STEP

An unforgettable performance at hula kahiko for me was in 2010, the first year I covered the Merrie Monarch Festival as a reporter.

The late kumu hula O’Brian Eselu’s halau Ke Kai o Kahiki performed “A Ka‘uku,” which depicted a battle between Pele and half-man, half-pig demigod Kamapua‘a in a vigorous, stage-stomping number that showcased a new step, ke nakulu, that involves a jump and quick arm-cross movement mimicking the resounding thunder of Akaka Falls.

It was a high point for Eselu. His halau swept the kane division and won the overall crown.

Eselu later told me he learned the step from his own kumu decades ago and that his halau was the only one to perform it. He was nervous about including it, so he wrote up a fact sheet explaining the step, and the judges accepted it.

I love it that kumu O’Brian took that risk and went with his own intuition that year, as he often did.

–Nina Wu, Star-Advertiser staff writer


Hoolaulea emcee Penny Keli‘i-Vredenberg says she’ll never forget the once-in-a-lifetime performance by Halau o Kekuhi, when dancers were dressed in exquisite, handmade kapa, or bark cloth, at the 2011 Wednesday night Hoike performance.

Maui resident and Merrie Monarch fan Laurie Rohrer remembers it, too, saying, “I literally shed tears at the beauty of the spectacle.”

Dalani Tanahy of Kapa Hawaii worked with Marie McDonald from Hawaii island and others to revive the Native Hawaiian clothing material in what she calls an intertwining of kapa and hula arts. Each piece worn by the dancers that evening was pounded and printed by hand, and specially selected for each dancer.

“It was a great honor and thrill for the 25 kapa makers to sit on the front row and watch their Hawaiian fabric come to life through the skills and dedication of the hula dancers,” she said. “It was really exciting.”

–Nina Wu, Star-Advertiser staff writer

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