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Q&A: Kumu hula Robert Cazimero’s distinction is his halau’s style

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Robert Cazimero looked at dancers of his Halau Na Kamalei and cheered after they swept the kane awards and the overall title at the 42nd Annual Merrie Monarch Festival in 2005. The halau competed at the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1976, the first year men were allowed to participate, and won the overall men's award. (Dennis Oda / doda@staradvertiser.com)
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A close-up of Robert Cazimero. (Dennis Oda / doda@staradvertiser.com)
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Robert Cazimero's Halau Na Kamalei o Lililehua performed in the kahiko portion of the Merrie Monarch Festival in 2005, when they won the overall title. (Dennis Oda / doda@staradvertiser.com)

Robert Cazimero, 64, is best known as a singer and musician, and one-half of the Brothers Cazimero. But he is also one of the most respected kumu hula in Hawaii, having learned to dance at a young age from the late hula master Maiki Aiu Lake, who enlisted him to become a teacher for male dancers.

In 1975, Cazimero founded his all-male Halau Na Kamalei o Lililehua at a time when most men didn’t dance hula due to the fear of being perceived as effeminate.

Starting with six students from Kamehameha Schools, his halau went on to compete at the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1976, the first year kane (men) were allowed to participate, and won the overall men’s award. The halau also swept the kane divisions and the overall title in 2005, the last time it competed at the festival.

The halau continues to live by Aunty Maiki’s motto: “Hula is the art of Hawaiian dance expressing all that we see, hear, feel, taste, touch and smell; hula is life.”

Cazimero has taught about 200 students across two generations, with several who went on to start their own halau.

Among them are Manu Boyd of Ke ‘A‘ali‘i Ku Makani, Patrick Makuakane of Na Lei Hulu i ka Wekiu from San Francisco, Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang of Halau i ka Wekiu, and Moses Crabbe of Halauolaokalani.

This year Cazimero is bringing 50 students — past and present — to perform at the festival’s Hoike hula exhibition Wednesday. He continues to teach students ranging in age from 13 to 63, sharing his knowledge and using his distinguished leo, or voice, to keep hula alive.

He recently sat down with the Star-Advertiser to talk about hula.

Question: Is it still difficult today to find men willing to dance hula?

Answer: I think there will always be a stigma that if you’re going to dance hula, you’ve gotta be gay. I think it still keeps people away. … However, the young people today, they’re really pretty cool because most of them don’t care. If they want to do something, they’re going to do it.

It reminds me of the spirit from the ’70s and that (Hawaiian) renaissance period, when, really, everybody was much more gung-ho. It has aspects of what was before, and this new way of thinking today which is, ‘If I like it, I’m going to do it.’ …

We are a seasoned halau. Most of our guys are older. So I would say back in 2004, when one of the youngest boys came at the time who was 16 years old, I had to ask him, “Is this going to be OK with you, dancing with these older guys?” He was like, “Oh yeah, no problem.”

I love the fact that now, at the age that I am, and for as long as I’ve been doing it, I’m considered a master, which kind of makes me smile a bit because I don’t think of myself as a master. But it is fun having young blood in the halau and knowing it just may carry on a few more years than I thought it was going to.

Q: How has Merrie Monarch played a role in your life as a kumu hula? Do you remember what it was like when you first went in 1976?

A: I think Merrie Monarch from the very beginning, it was a proving ground. I’m sure if I would look at that performance of 1976 today, I’d be mortified. It was a different time. In all honesty, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And so, I just didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m happy it ended up the way it did and that it’s continued so far. …

Merrie Monarch can be one of the best places to learn your craft, to learn your lessons, to learn how to present, to learn how to speak, to learn how to be humble. There’s nothing like winning, but the most important lesson taught to us at Merrie Monarch was losing. At the time, as painful as it was, in retrospect today, how wonderful to have that lesson given to you.

Q: Merrie Monarch 1976 compared to 2005: Was it completely different?

A: You had to learn to play by the new rules. As much as I wanted to fight against it, I had to play the game first before we could finally do what we wanted to do, which was just to dance — because it seemed like people were more concerned about position and technique and wow ’em and get off the stage instead of why are you there and, more importantly, where is the spirit? Where is the love?

Q: Do you think with more focus on technique, you lose something along the way?

A: If you want to enter in someone’s game, you’ve gotta play by their rules, but then, if you’re lucky, there will be an opportunity to use those rules so you can still do what it is you want to do, and we were able to do that. I don’t know which was more nervewracking, 1976 or 2005. Really hard to say. It still makes me very, very nervous to think of it. Not even butterflies in the stomach, maybe dragons.

Q: Do you still remember what it felt like to be the overall winner?

A: I didn’t believe it. We didn’t go to win, startting off. I felt that I was supporting my other graduates and the style that we do. About two months before competition, suddenly we were going to win this thing. But to actually have that prize given to you was a shock to me. I remember putting my head down and putting my cap lower because I thought, what is going on here? At first it was the kahiko, and then we won the auana and then the overall men’s. As I was leaving the stage, I heard somebody say, “You may as well just stay there.” …

What I do remember is looking back and looking at my guys and being more happy for them than I could ever be happy for me. It was amazing. It was really amazing.

Q: You went, in part, for your dancers, to celebrate your 30th anniversary. Usually you go every 10 years.

A: I did it for everybody. I did it for my dancers. I did it for me. I did it to honor my teacher. I did it to honor our style. I did it for our graduates. When you put yourself in front of seven people who are going to tell you whether you’re good or not, you can’t do that with a year and a half of experience behind you. The more history you have, perhaps it’s easier to accept what seven people are going to say. It’s overwhelming and exhausting.

Q: Do you still feel that Auntie Maiki guides you in everything that you do today?

A: Yeah, I do. I talk to her all the time. But more importantly, because I can’t always hear what she’s saying, I think I rely a lot on the trust that she had in choosing us. … She definitely saw something I didn’t see, and one of my favorite phrases to this day is, “I would never want to do anything to embarrass my kumu.”

Q: At the time you started, you were cutting-edge.

A: I was more than cutting-edge. I was terrible. They did this article one time on the rebels of hula, and I was one of them. … When I look at it now, I just have to smile. It was very avant-garde, very out of the box. It was very new. What’s happened since then up to now, with all the young people that have come along at Merrie Monarch, or just in Hawaii in general, or even more so on the mainland … I feel so validated today because of all the stuff many other people have done. What they thought was really out of the box for me — today, suddenly I’ve gone from being a rebel to a somewhat traditionalist.

Q: In Benton Sen’s book, “Men of Hula,” you say you consider yourself a contemporary kumu. Explain.

A: Well I have to also say that’s how I felt before. What I thought of myself then was, I was going to use everything that was here, right now, to make my hula live. So I wanted to write songs about these cranes in the sky, building new buildings. I wanted to do stuff like that.

But when Aunty Maiki died, it changed my whole perspective immediately, and the traditional became more important because now she wasn’t there physically. It meant that I needed to haul myself in and realize that it wasn’t about me anymore. It really was about her and what she’s taught us. I remember the first day of hula after she died, I was like, “OK, here we go.”

Q: Do you feel like you’ve accomplished what you set out to do when you founded the halau? Do you feel like you proved that men can dance hula?

A: It’s still a work in progress. I don’t know whether “proved” is the right word. I would say I think it’s a lot more accepted that men are in hula and that men want to dance. And if I’ve succeeded a little bit, then I’m really happy about that.

Q: This year’s Merrie Monarch Hoike is a celebration of that. Can we get a hint of what we’ll see?

A: I’m hoping we will dazzle people with a style that is notably Na Kamalei. … In this time where, looking at some schools, you can’t really tell who they are or where they’re from, there’s still certain ones who hold on to being who they are and how they started. Their style stays somewhat true, and we would be one of those; and I think more than what we’re doing, as much as I’m excited about the dances about the shark and the pohuehue (beach morning glory), I am excited that we are going out there and doing the style that we have done for 37 years. That’s damn exciting!

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