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Televising hulafest is a big-league production

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Even though it will be business as usual for those involved with the live telecast of this week’s Merrie Monarch Festival, the significance of the 50th year of the prestigious hula event is not lost on two veteran talents.

Telecast executive producer and director Roland Yama­moto and on-camera co-host Kimo Kaho­ano began their history with the Merrie Monarch back in 1981, when Yama­moto was starting out as a camera operator and Kaho­ano was the announcer at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.

“There’s a definite sense that we really work well as a team made up of compatible, creative people,” Yama­moto said.

A telecast crew of about 35 is in Hilo this week. Planning for the event takes place months in advance, “starting in September, after the first meeting with the kumu hula,” Yama­moto said.

Stage and camera platforms were built in early March, and Young Bros. barges were used to ship over the TV control truck, lights, satellite equipment “and other big stuff” from Oahu. Other gear is sent by air, and by the end of the month, everything is set up and ready to go at the festival location at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.

Yamamoto still works to find ways to better cover the hula festival. This year a camera crane was repositioned at the right, front corner, three stationary cameras are aimed at the front of the stage and a robotic camera will be used for wide shots.

Yamamoto said his working relationship with the festival’s co-founder, the late Dottie Thompson, and her daughter and Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu has been admittedly contentious at times.

“I remember 20 years ago begging Aunty Dottie practically on my knees to let us position the cameras the way I saw was best. The same thing with Luana. Often the answer is ‘no,’ so we just move on,” he said.

“Still, I’m amazed how things have fallen into place, like the universe deemed things should happen in this particular way.”

KAHOANO was just starting to make a name for himself on the entertainment scene doing the fundraisers for hula halau and canoe clubs when he went to Hilo two years before the first festival telecast and Thompson was looking for a host.

“When I started announcing, Dottie just said, ‘Here’s the program and the acts,’ and for me, I wanted to add a little something. So in my best voice, I would announce the home island and district, the kumu and the name of the halau. And it was exciting to hear that echo through the stadium, like a thunderous call,” he said.

Kahoano said it’s “amazing” to be back again announcing the Merrie Monarch Festival.

“I’m so happy to have arrived here, at this historic moment. Hula reflects, respects and, at the same time, projects the beauty of the Hawaiian culture. It’s so wonderful to see the mana, that flow of energy, throughout the stadium,” he said.

Yamamoto said the Merrie Monarch has grown to claim a global fan base thanks in part to the live online streaming, and to video sharing on YouTube.

“In building this teamwork, some of our principles were learned by watching the halau dance, that is, to do it with responsibility and aloha for each other. It’s practical and it works,” he said.

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