No ribbons, no trophies, no medals — at the Prince Lot Hula Festival in Moanalua Gardens, Hawaii’s oldest and largest noncompetitive hula event, participants dance, chant and play music for the sheer joy of it.
A total of 630 dancers representing 21 halau (hula schools) will take part in next weekend’s 38th annual festival. Dancers from Oahu, Molokai and Hawaii island will perform kahiko (ancient) and auana (contemporary) hula on one of the few remaining pa hula (traditional hula mounds) in Hawaii.
In ancient times, Kamananui (Moanalua) Valley, where Moanalua Gardens is located, was a center for hula and chanting. This year’s theme is "Moanalua, he Wahi Pana … Moanalua, a Sacred Place."
The festival is presented by the Moanalua Gardens Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is "to preserve and perpetuate the native culture, environment and people of Hawaii through education and stewardship of Kamananui Valley and celebration of the Prince Lot Hula Festival."
Moanalua was a favorite retreat of the event’s namesake, Prince Lot Kapuaiwa, who reigned as Kamehameha V from 1863 to 1872. He often invited halau to entertain guests at his summer home there in the 1860s.
This was done in secret because Protestant missionaries viewed the hula as a lewd, heathen practice and had convinced the alii (royalty), who were converts to Christianity, to ban it. Like Prince Lot, however, many alii privately supported the perpetuation of the hula.
To participate in the Prince Lot Hula Festival, halau must be invited. The selection committee, comprising kumu hula (hula instructors) and members of MGF and the community, considers several factors; among them, halau must be based in Hawaii, they must have a solid foundation in hula traditions and they must be actively engaged in the community and exhibit cultural integrity in their presentations.
"In addition, the committee invites new and promising kumu hula and halau who show excellence in the art of hula," said Alika Jamile, MGF’s president and executive director. "We also invite the winner of the Malia Craver Hula Kahiko Competition, held in Hono-lulu every May. That event is open to middle- and high-school students statewide and encourages young people to embrace the Hawaiian culture and to carry on hula traditions."
According to Jamile, kumu hula consider it an honor to perform at the Prince Lot Hula Festival. "They love it because it is not about judging, but about sharing," he said. "We are grateful that John P. Damon, the owner of Moanalua Gardens, allows us to use such a beautiful setting for the event. Nature is a powerful presence."
Several years ago MGF began inviting participating kumu hula to choreograph select mele (songs) and oli (chants) from the notebooks of Namakahelu Kapahikauaokamehameha, the last chantress of Moanalua and keeper of its history.
Kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine has choreographed the mele "Pele o Moanalua," which chronicles two important events in Moanalua’s history. One describes how Pele came to Oahu during her search for a home and created several craters, including nearby Aliamanu (Salt Lake). The other recalls a visit to Moanalua by Kekuiapoiwa, Kamehameha I’s mother.
Takamine’s Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima is the only halau that has appeared at the Prince Lot Hula Festival every year since its inception. It will perform her interpretation of "Pele o Moanalua" for the first time in public as part of the presentation July 19.
In this way, mele that have been stored in archives for decades are brought to life and shared, which helps the culture to survive.
"Namakahelu taught her niece, Malia Halemano Kau, the sacred oli of Moanalua," Jamile said. "Malia passed on her knowledge to hula luminaries such as ‘Iolani Luahine, Mary Kawena Pukui and Maiki Aiu. We introduced the Malia Kau Award last year to recognize kumu hula who have dedicated their lives to the perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture through hula. This year’s honorees are Joan Lindsey, who has been teaching hula for over 60 years, and Ed Collier, who has been teaching for over 50 years."
While hula is the centerpiece of the festival, there are demonstrations of other traditional arts, including kapa (tapa), lau hala weaving and feather and flower lei. Attendees can also pound poi to eat there or to take home.
"For two days at Moanalua Gardens, you can immerse yourself in the heart of the Hawaiian culture," Jamile said. "As a Hawaiian who was raised in Papakolea, it reminds me of the times my ohana (family) came together to kanikapila (participate in impromptu jam sessions). Our sole purpose was to share, enjoy, learn and be uplifted — and so it is at the Prince Lot Hula Festival."
Visiting Moanalua Gardens and Valley
Moanalua Gardens’ regular hours are daily from 7:30 a.m. to 30 minutes before sunset. Admission is $3 per person ($1 for kamaaina and military). Children 12 and younger are free but must be accompanied by an adult.
In the gardens are a Hitachi tree, two other monkeypod trees and a Bodhi tree, which have been recognized by Honolulu’s Exceptional Tree Program. Launched in 1975, the program protects trees on Oahu that have been deemed valuable for their age, rarity, size, beauty and/or historic or cultural ties.
Among other highlights are Prince Lot’s summer cottage, which was built in the 1850s, and the Chinese Hall, where Samuel Mills Damon, John P. Damon’s great-grandfather, hosted lavish parties in the early 1900s.
To hike the trail in Moanalua Valley (three miles round trip), wear comfortable shoes and outdoor clothing, and bring light rain gear, mosquito repellent, water, lunch and a fully charged cellphone.
Restrooms are at the Moanalua Valley Community Park, 1875 Ala Aolani St., where the hike begins and ends. There are no facilities on the trail.
A 24-page booklet provides information about the historic and natural features seen on the hike. It’s available for $5 at MGF’s office, 1352 Pineapple Place, on Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Add $2 per copy for mail orders.
IF YOU GO …
>> Place: Moanalua Gardens, 2850 Moanalua Road, Honolulu
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.