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The merrie master

Uncle George Na'ope talks candidly about his love of Japan and his dream of a hula museum

Uncle George Na’ope recently celebrated his birthday with a hula festival. This National Endowment for the Arts award recipient, co-founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival and legendary kumu hula now holds another title: octogenarian.

Since the hula master was born Feb. 25, 1938, some might think he’s 79. No so-Na’ope is actually 80. Like many other native Hawaiians, he considers someone to be one year old at birth, following three months of conception and nine months of development during pregnancy.

During a recent interview, he discussed his birthday, the Kane Hula Festival, and his vision for a hula museum in Hilo.

With a Guatemalan shirt, blue athletic shorts and slippers, Na’ope wears a white hat with a band that epitomizes flamboyance: peacock feathers interwoven with silk tropical foliage. Both wrists bear Hawaiian gold cuffs, and all his ten fingers are bedecked with rings. One, a diagonal row of diamonds set in silver, once belonged to Japanese pop icon Misori Hibari, who was considered the Shirley Temple of Japan.

Na’ope lights a menthol cigarette with a singing parrot lighter he picked up in Japan. He takes a puff and then describes his affinity for Japanese people and their culture. He has visited Japan countless times since the early 1960s to teach hula. When we caught up with him, he had a handful of his Japanese students as house guests. Although they listen to us attentively, Na’ope pointed out that they don’t speak English; nor does he speak Japanese (although his first 78 rpm recording was Japanese music). He teaches his Japanese students Hawaiian.

‘And they can speak it fluently,’ Na’ope says. ‘They respect the culture. The Japanese support the culture and help to perpetuate it.

‘The Japanese are much more rigorous about studying the hula,’ says Na’ope. ‘If the Hawaiians don’t want to learn, I’ll teach the Japanese.’

Na’ope wants his fellow Hawaiians to take as much of an interest in hula as the Japanese do.

‘Were losing our culture…because we’re being Americanized…
all over the world. Japan is now
American.’

‘Were losing our culture…because we’re being Americanized…all over the world. Japan is now American,’ he says. ‘Every country is losing their culture. And Hawai’i is worst of all. I’ve been trying for years to get it back…The only ones who do not have culture are the Americans. I have respect for my government, America. I’m lucky to be American. As an American, I can teach hula.’

Na’ope gestures toward a flag hanging on his wall. ‘We went from a Hawaiian flag to an American flag. I’m American, but my flag is Hawaiian. America did not steal Hawai’i, like everybody thinks. It was haoles that were Americans who became citizens of Hawai’i and married ali’i.’

He also has a different take on World War II.

‘Japan bombed Hawai’i , they say. Japan never bombed Hawai’i. They passed down over Honolulu and went to the bases. Why did they want Hawai’i? They wanted America. That’s history. They never killed one Hawaiian.’

Japanese tell him they ‘respect the Kingdom of Hawai’i,’ he says. ‘Hawai’i and Japan are still brothers and sisters.’

Na’ope was born in Kalihi, on O’ahu. His great-grandmother named him George Lanakilakeikiahiali’i Na’ope, meaning ‘the light that would lead the way.’ She sent him, at age three, to his first hula teacher: the revered Mary Ahi’ena Kekuewa (a.k.a., ‘Mama Fuji’i'), mother of Edith Kanaka’ole.

At age ten, Na’ope studied dance with Joe Ilala’ole. and at 14 he started teaching hula in a gutted barber shop to help raise money for his family. At 16, he was studying with Tom Hiona and working with him at Waikiki’s Niumalu Hotel (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village).

Na’ope then worked two years down the street as a chanter for Ray Kinney and his Royal Hawaiian Orchestra at the fabled Royal Hawaiian Hotel. There, he met Sammy Davis, Jr., Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and other celebrities. Na’ope was most impressed with Crosby and appreciated the fact that the singer popularized Hawaiian music in America.

When recently retired elected official Helene Hale became the Hawai’i Island’s executive officer in 1963, Na’ope became her promoter of activities. Hale sent him to Maui for a whaling festival in Lahaina to get ideas for how to attract tourism here. But the Maui ‘Whaling Spree’ was just a drunken fest, Na’ope recalls.

Upon his return to Hilo, he thought of a Merrie Monarch Festival to honor King Kalakaua, who resurrected hula after a 75-year ban.

‘I never envisioned it would be what it is today…the richest festival…with no support from the government, no support whatsoever,’ Na’ope says. ‘I’m rich in culture but not rich in money.’

Of his 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Honors award, he says, ‘Support from the public is what matters, not government.’

Na’ope has taught in Japan, Guam, Australia, Germany, England and South America. He recently returned from Acapulco, where he and Ray Fonseca taught hula to about 200 at a beachside festival. But he says he is growing weary of travel. He wants to find a centrally located house which has enough space for him to teach hula, so students can walk there.

And he wants to start a hula museum. He envisions four small buildings, each about the size of Hilo’s Mo’oheau Bandstand. One building would be for costumes, another would be for instruments, a third for archives and a fourth would be for exhibits.

‘With stalls for people to sell their Hawaiian goods and play the pahu (drums), to teach drumming and play the ‘ukulele,’ he elaborates. ‘I can do the museum the way I want to do it, not the way haoles do it. You go to the Bishop Museum. It is so quiet. This is to be a hula museum, a happy place, not to come in mourning.’

Na’ope envisions his museum in the old Hawaiian village in Keaukaha and is disappointed to know the limitations of building in a tsunami inundation zone. One possible location is the old Hilo Hotel. The hotel might be appropriate, he says, since the land was once the home of the Merrie Monarch himself and is located directly mauka of Kalakaua Park and the East Hawai’i Cultural Center.

Na’ope is also the founder of the Humu Mo’olelo, a quarterly journal of the hula arts, available at local bookstores.