A Merrie Band of 50
When kumu hula, singer and musician Robert Cazimero was asked to participate in the 50th annual Merrie Monarch Festival in April, he was a little hesitant–he generally competes only every 10 years, and swept the awards in 1995–until he heard they wanted his halau for hoike night.
The hoike, one of Merrie Monarch’s most treasured moments, is held on Wednesday of Merrie Monarch week and never televised. The event is a gift to Hilo from Halau O Kekuhi for putting up with the traffic and madness that the annual festival brings to the small town.
“I didn’t want to go back into competition, but when [executive director Luana Kawelu] said it was for the exhibition, I got chicken skin,” Cazimero told me in his mellifluous voice before a rehearsal at the halau’s Makiki penthouse condo.
“When our name [Halau Na Kamalei o Lililehua] was announced [in 1995], no one was more surprised than me,” he said.
Cazimero decided to extend the invitation to all of his former students–anyone that could come. “We have a nice corps of younger ones, and it will be good to give them the experience,” he said, “and for the older ones to relive [it].” It makes 50 men for the 50th anniversary.
This includes Kumu Hula Manu Boyd (Ke ‘Aalii Ku Makani), Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane (Na Lei Hulu i ka Wekiu from San Francisco), Kumu Hula Karl Veto Baker and Kumu Hula Michael Casupang (Halau i ka Wekiu), Kumu Hula Moses Crabbe (Halauolaokalani) and six-foot-tall Jonah Stewart–a 13-year old middle school student. When Stewart and other youthful, new members recently joined the halau, they brought the average age down by 20 years, said Cazimero, who’s 63 himself and has been dancing since his teens.
They’ll dance for 30 minutes and do six numbers, none of which they have performed before.
Cazimero says his kumu, the late Auntie Maiki Aiu Lake, will be with them in Hilo in spirit. His style, he said, is inextricably woven in with hers. “I used to go to her grave and talk to her, but then I realized I didn’t need to: She is always with me.”
Cazimero’s training dates back to a time when every hula school had a specific style: the way they held and moved their feet, the way they moved their hands and certain moves that were theirs alone.
“You could tell in the old days who had been a dancer’s teacher just by looking at them,” he said. Now, Cazimero thinks hula has become more generic.
He said Auntie Maiki’s was rather stylized, softer than the boisterous ai haa of Halau O Kekuhi, for example. “We didn’t come at you like gangbusters. It didn’t impinge on your space, but if you had it in you to accept it, we would enter in,” he said.
Auntie Maiki was inclusive and “didn’t care if you were Hawaiian. She didn’t care if you were making the most mistakes. She didn’t care what you looked like,” he said. “If you trust the hula, you’re going to be beautiful.”
To get to Hilo, the halau has to raise about $500 per student; after the hoike, they won’t stay for the competition, choosing to go holo holo around the Big Island instead.
Whole Foods has offered them an entire day to “occupy” the store by chanting, singing and selling merchandise such as “The Men of Hula,” by Cazimero. Five percent of the store’s proceeds that day will go to the halau’s Merrie Monarch trip.
Those who plan to fill out a ticket request form (found on [merriemonarch.com]) to see the competition live, take note: Cazimero says that watching the choreography play out through overhead camera shots and close-ups make TV a better bet. “I always say, if you want to go once for the experience, do it. But it’s actually better on TV.”