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Moonlight casts a cool glow over the ocean as a night surfer prepares to paddle out a Publics
Vol. 11, No. 1
February/March 2008

  >>   Night Shift
  >>   Ancient Pathways
  >>   Trees of Life

Kahekili on Tour 

story by Paul Wood
photo by Marsha Aguon


The last great ruling chief of Maui, Kahekili, was an avid cliff-leaper and a ferocious warrior who had the entire right side of his body tattooed pitch black to turn himself into an earthly manifestation of the lightning god Kane-hekili. Time and again, his troops humiliated the invading forces of Big Island chief Kalani‘opu‘u, and after every bloody victory he ordered his men to lay down their weapons and return to their taro patches. When he died—of natural causes at age 87, in the year 1793—he was the ruler, directly or indirectly, of every island except Hawai‘i. So who’s ever heard of this magnificent leader?

Well, actually, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts, a few thousand residents of New York City now know a lot about him. They attended a September “hula drama” performance called Kahekili, created and staged by Hokulani Holt and her Halau Pa‘u O Hi‘iaka with assistance from two other Maui kumu hula, Keali‘i Reichel and Pali Ahue. The NEA picked this work for its American Masters series, thereby ranking the Maui halau with the pre-eminent dance companies of Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor. NEA funding (along with help from the Maui Visitors Bureau) allowed the halau to do something it otherwise could never afford—tour.

It was a first taste of Manhattan for most, and the taxis were all on strike. Picture eighteen hula artists from Maui traveling to the concert site by subway, “curlers in hair and everything,” giggles kumu Hokulani. The whole experience was “absolutely fabulous,” she says. New Yorkers were not only kind and helpful but also “excited to see this kind of dance, kahiko in this style, for the first time.” The cast came home and gave a triumphal performance in Maui’s Castle Theater, and now it continues to tour: University of California Chico (Feb. 19), UC Santa Cruz (Feb. 23), Scottsdale Center for the Arts (Feb. 28), and then O‘ahu (Leeward Community College, March 15) and Hawai‘i island (Kahilu Theater Foundation, April 19). Hokulani is still working up a Kaua‘i date. “It is important to us that people have the opportunity to get to know Kahekili,” she says, “to experience the cultural practices of those days, the emotions and the glory of the life of old.” HH