Wordcatcher Tales from the Merrie Monarch

Each year the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Hawai‘i, showcases the best of the best in Hawaiian hula, which nowadays includes performances by hālau from overseas, where some of the top hālau have branches. I haven’t watched it that regularly, but it is easier now that KITV in Honolulu offers a special Merrie Monarch website with stories, slideshows, and streaming video.

Hawaiian hula has a lot of distinctive terms and cultural practices that are usually not translated into English. Kaua‘i’s Ka ‘Imi Na‘auao O Hawai‘i Nei has a helpful webpage that explains the principal roles and responsibilities within a hālau. And Hula Traditions has a useful page naming and explaining dozens of different types of hula. Thanks to KITV’s helpful video captioning, I also picked up a few new words this year.

Each Merrie Monarch Hula Kahiko has three formal segments (like a concerto), introduced by an oli (‘chant’), which can be intoned by either the ‘olapa (dancers) or the ho‘opa‘a (‘memorizer’, chanter, drummer, maestro). In the individual Miss Aloha Hula competition, however, the dancer is judged on both her oli and her hula, so she must perform both. The center of each hula is the mele, the processional/lead-in movement is called the ka‘i, and the recessional/exit movement is called the ho‘i. The spectators are not generally expected to remain silent between the movements, and they often break into cheers as the mele gets underway.

I like the traditional Hula Kahiko (‘ancient’) much more than the modern Hula ‘Auana (‘wandering, straying’), and only watched the Kahiko performances this year. One of my favorites among the Wahine Kahiko was Kumu Kapua Dalire-Moe’s Hālau Ka Liko Pua O Kalaniākea‘s “Kaulilua I Ke Anu Wai‘ale‘ale,” a hula pahu (to drum beat) that was performed at the coronation of King David Kalākaua, the Merrie Monarch himself. I liked the subdued costumes, stately movements, and excellent synchrony. Very suitable for a coronation.

But I was also utterly entranced by Kumu Rae K. Fonseca’s Hālau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani (Hilo hometown favorites), whose Kane Kahiko and Wahine Kahiko performances both took wonderfully vigorous advantage of the percussive effects of the wooden stage itself.

The first authentic hula I can remember seeing was in the early 1970s at Hawai‘i Loa College, where a seemingly frail ‘Iolani Luahine performed a vigorous Kane Kahiko, even slapping her chest and biceps. In fact, she was instrumental in preserving and passing on many of the key elements of men’s hula.

UPDATE: Well, the judges really went for the hula ma‘i, which traditionally celebrated the chiefly genitals at the birth of a new heir. Hula ma‘i are performed later in the evening and are full of suggestive movements and rich double-entendres. Language proficiency has become ever more important in evaluating Hawaiian hula compositions and performances. The hula ma‘i performed by the women of Kumu Sonny Ching’s Hālau Nā Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu was indeed very finely executed, and the performance by longtime veteran Kumu O’Brian Eselu’s Ke Kai O Kahiki was by far the most athletically demanding and the most lascivious men’s hula I have ever seen. In fact, the men and women of Ke Kai O Kahiki were the overall winners, while those of Hālau Nā Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu took second place.

Ke Kai O Kahiki means ‘The Sea of Tahiti’ and would have been *Te Tai O Tahiti before *t shifted to /k/ in what later evolved into Standard Hawaiian. But the title of the suggestive mele in the hula ma‘i performed by the men of Ke Kai O Kahiki was Tū ‘Oe, which preserves the earlier *t. (If tū corresponds to kū ‘stand tall’, perhaps the title might be translated as “Get it up, you!”)

Now, there’s another suggestive mele full of both double-entendres and instances of /t/ in place of /k/ (but /k/ as well). Tewetewe ‘back and forth’ is ostensibly about the little red-tail goby fish (‘o‘opu hi‘ukole). I wonder if the use of the old-fashioned /t/ in both mele is just coincidental.

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Filed under Hawai'i, language, music, Polynesia

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