On a balmy Hayward morning, the sun is shining, and the birds are singing in Ho‘omalu’s backyard. In back of his garage, where the kumu occasionally records music, he gives me a quick tour of his garden, small but lush with rows of cabbage and sweet potatoes. Chickens cross our path. “Any pests?” I ask. “Only my kids, who like eat the tomatoes fresh off the vine,” he retorts. When I observe that he is well into his first pack of cigarettes of the morning, he tells me he “quit quitting” tobacco. “Now I don’t frustrate myself,” he adds.
Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu
That a chain-smoking kumu hula is famous for his compelling vocal style is one of the many paradoxes likely to be dismissed as quirks of genius by Ho‘omalu’s followers and fans. He is the composer of dozens of Hawaiian songs and chants and has recorded two CDs, including the awardwinning Po‘okela Chants. His voice also netted him at least fifteen minutes of fame when the Disney producers of Lilo & Stitch picked him to record the movie’s theme.
Many students say Ho‘omalu’s voice—inflected with bluesy melodic hooks and snappy syncopated phrasing—has a Pied Piper effect. They swear it is Ho‘omalu’s voice that provides the hypnotic force that offsets their kumu’s demand for physical endurance and militaristic vigor.
“You are going to get banged by the sound when I pound the floor. But how many ‘love you, love you’ songs can you do before the brain melts?” Ho‘omalu asks. Even though he claims that Merrie Monarch judges have penalized him and his halau for taking liberties with tradition, he revels in the chance to return year after year and prove them wrong. “If someone is better than me, then all I can say is, ‘I like challenge you on the floor,’” he exclaims. In fact, he has said this to Makuakane—though it turns out to be born of admiration. “He inspires me, so I gotta challenge him out of respect to move forward,” he says of his counterpart.
Ho‘omalu turns out to be a stickler for research. On any question of authenticity, he consults the works of “Auntie Mary,” Mary Kawena Pukui. From a shelf in the garage, he pulls out a weathered copy of Buke Mele Lahui, a collection of songs authored by nineteenth-century ali‘i (royalty). Like Makuakane, Ho‘omalu has a passion for conveying the poetry of hula. “You know, our kupuna never tell you anything straight up,” he says. “They tell you stories. They tell their own, and they try to find their own strengths and conclusions. That’s poetry.”
Ho‘omalu will never forget his first meeting with his kumu, Thaddeus Wilson, co-founder of the Men of Waimapuna halau. “I walk in his house, and I see this big mass of meat in a lavalava. He gives me this big bear hug, and I think, ‘He’s going to be my friend for life.’” Ho‘omalu was in the habit of cruising with Wilson and others, riding in a car around O‘ahu from sundown to sunrise. “We stop at favorite beaches, sing, play music, dance plenty; drive some more; stop and order big, big buckets of chicken. These looked like the happiest people I ever see in my life. I said to myself, ‘I can’t wait to grow up and be one thousand pounds and just like them!’” A moment of silence prevails. “Well, I’m not one thousand pounds,” says the terminally lanky Ho‘omalu. “And maybe I not happy either.” Then comes the self-deprecating laugh.
Ho‘omalu first came to San Francisco in 1980 to help teach hula to the halau of a woman named Tiare, a quirky figure in Northern California’s small but tightknit Polynesian dance community. Lost and freezing in the big, fog-shrouded city, Ho‘omalu clung to Tiare, who scolded him, saying Hawai‘i boys always take too long to grow up. She literally abandoned him in Chinatown one day, forcing him to find his way through the urban streets on his own. Tiare liked to compete, but her priority was the dances of Polynesia, the dependable crowd-pleasers.
In 1983 he gathered with other Hawaiian expats, rehearsed “old hulas” in a San Francisco park and scored an invitation to Merrie Monarch to compete as representatives of Northern California. But he looked to grow even beyond this venture, hearkening to the advice of his old kumu Lupenui. “He used to say, ‘Do your best and do your own.’ I started writing songs out of desperation. Anybody who steps out of the gate still only knows as much as his kumu. So not until you exhaust everything your kumu knows and you hit the wall, then the magic will kick in.”
Ho‘omalu established a halau for men and women while holding a day job in operations at San Francisco Airport, where he used downtime to study hula history amid a crew of “plenty Hawaiian boys” who liked what he was doing.
Hayward has given him a place to reflect on the foundations of hula in a way he never did in Hawai‘i. “Back there, you’re surrounded by Hawai‘i. All you need to know is you are Hawaiian, and you no need any more than that. Here you have to study and be mentally stimulated,” he says. He wants his dancers to share his hunger for hula, which is part of the reason he considers it his kumu’s duty to “run them hard.” He impresses on his students a warrior ethic, and they revel in the opportunity to follow him into battle. Thinking back to that moment of adrenaline when the halau is about to mount the Merrie Monarch stage, member Justin tells me, “We just give each other the look, like we are about to do a run, and we say, ‘Let’s get it. This is Oakland aloha!’”
In Ho‘omalu’s style, wahine dance as strongly as men, with their legs broadly positioned and their center of gravity low to the ground. As challenging as the style is, the women swear by it. “We take it hard when we are not up to his standards,” says longtime Academy dancer Josette. “We work so cohesively.”
Fire and drive have been essential to Ho‘omalu’s success in making the work of the Academy of Hawaiian Arts stand out from dozens of newer halau that now dot the West Coast. Ho‘omalu’s new show, Waikiki, which is under rehearsal the week of my visit, deploys his dynamic style in a suite of dances that illustrates the history of Hawai‘i’s most iconic locale. Part one portrays the area’s indigenous history prior to colonization; part two depicts a golden age of white-shoe entertainers à la the 1950s. Ho‘omalu says he threw “a little funkiness” into the last scene, where a modern-day maid in a plain hotel uniform brings her pail and mop on stage and breaks into a breathtakingly elegant hula. This is meant to imply a reality Ho‘omalu sees: There are fewer stages for hula in contemporary Hawai‘i. He feels this means a wealth of Hawaiian talent goes untapped—and will be lost forever.
While Ho‘omalu insists he doesn’t “do politics,” he leaves no doubt that the intent of Waikiki is to offer audiences a perspective he feels is missing from mainstream depictions of Hawaiian culture. He is not hopeful that his work will change anything. “You can’t save the world with hula,” he says … but then he adds that hula is still a joy because it is the one way he can be Hawaiian anywhere in the world.
Makuakane’s halau Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu will present its twenty-fifth anniversary performance at Hawaii Theatre on Feb. 4 and 5, 2011.