A Tale of Two Kumu
Photos by Jack Wolford
An elderly stranger on the sidewalk smiles broadly and points me to Daniel Webster Elementary School, the modest home of Makuakane’s great hula experiment. Inside, I am embraced by students of Makuakane’s halau, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, and then by the master himself, who sighs incredulously that the halau is readying for its twenty-fifth anniversary performance in a venue expected to sell out its 6,000 seats. From the easygoing pace of rehearsal, I’d never have guessed such a high-stakes spectacle was near. Makuakane perches on the auditorium stage, laughing and strumming an ‘ukulele. Students have piled their shoes neatly at the door just like in Hawai‘i, but they sport hooded sweatshirts to fend off the notorious SF chill.
Makuakane leans his head languidly to the side and demos the sultry gaze he wants the women dancers to assume in the number “Fever”; he’s set the old Peggy Lee torch song to hula. In the next number, a traditional Hawaiian mele about Mount Ka‘ala, his vibrato chant creates a mood of majesty. “May I ask you not to dance in isolation?” he implores the group at one point, though the dancers look to be impeccably in unison, all the more amazing since they are a motley group of ethnicities, ages and body types, not to mention professions. A banker, an acupuncturist, a fireman, a publishing assistant: We gather after at Makuakane’s apartment and, over Chinese takeout, talk about the halau that gave them all a chance to perform at Lincoln Center.
Two days later I am on my way to visit Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu, another icon of hula in the Bay Area. He is on the other side of the bay, in the working-class suburb of Hayward, where he directs classes and a performance troupe at the Academy of Hawaiian Arts. Like Makuakane, Ho‘omalu is Native Hawaiian, originally from O‘ahu but now ensconced in the East Bay. He does his adopted hometown proud at Hilo’s annual Merrie Monarch Festival where, with his dark glasses and bad-boy image, he proves that a California halau can more than hold its own.
In Hayward, over plates of beef stew, Ho‘omalu shrugs off his Merrie Monarch reputation, saying, “The judges like spank me.” Then it’s on to an evening rehearsal, where students again line up to greet me. Ho‘omalu directs one to give me a skirt and sweatshirt so I can join the warm-up; it has an intensity I will feel for days after. Ho‘omalu chainsmokes as he sets up his microphone next to his pahu drum; when he begins, the reverberation of his chant soars in the studio’s rafters, producing a sound akin to a didgeridoo. The chant drives male and female dancers, each of whom performs with fierce athleticism. In various numbers the dancers wield spears and paddles with steadfast precision—or so it again seems to my apparently untutored eye. “Don’t give me that,” Ho‘omalu chides them for a mistake. But they are unflappable. “This is not poppies and puppies,” one of the kane (male) dancers says with a hearty laugh. The students are full of praise for Kumu Mark’s lessons. “Work, family, hula … It’s a great life,” says one dancer.
Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu
Check, for example, the first-ever Bollywood-style hula, done by Makuakane. It was born from the moment his halau was rehearsing in Golden Gate Park, and through the bushes came the Krishna dancers, ching ching ching with their temple bells, clad in colorful robes—one of those spontaneous multicultural encounters that so define San Francisco. Then there’s the “iron horse” within earshot of Ho‘omalu’s home on the other side of the tracks—make that the elevated BART tracks—which provided the inspiration for his award-winning hulas about the old plantation railroads. You could say that the kumu have a keen eye for hula-izing their surroundings.
Makuakane and Ho‘omalu agree that nurturing hula’s popularity beyond the reefs of Hawai‘i has cast them as renegades in the eyes of purists. Renegades or not, both have roots in the Hawaiian Renaissance, the reawakening of indigenous identity that swept through the Islands in the 1970s. Makuakane’s kumu was the venerated Robert Cazimero, who, in contrast to decades of Hollywood images of girls in swaying skirts, helped reinvigorate the kane, or men’s, hula. Ho‘omalu had the luck to be attending ‘Aiea High School during the Renaissance years. The school was a recruiting ground for kumu Daryl Lupenui and other founders of the Men of Waimapuna, the “bombastic school of hula,” whose kumu weighed in excess of 400 pounds each.
Though the two men are as distinct from each other as the 49ers and the Raiders, Makuakane and Ho‘omalu profess sincere admiration for one another. After visiting the uber-fit Hayward halau, Makuakane revamped his own halau’s exercise and fitness regimens and encouraged better nutrition. Ho‘omalu gives shakas to Makuakane for his well-planned dramatizations. They agree on the key quality needed by a kumu: creativity.
Both have established nonprofit hula schools, which have seen steady increases in enrollment: For Hawaiians, dancing hula offers a way back home; for non-Hawaiians, it is a chance to dive into a world of indisputable authenticity. Both Makuakane and Ho‘omalu are deeply grounded in hula lineages that stretch back generations. Those lineages might espouse divergent styles and concepts, but each kumu is quick to repeat the Hawaiian proverb that doubles as a creed: “All knowledge does not reside with one school.”
Members of Mark Keali'i
Ho'omalu's halau practice
At the moment, that’s right in front of me on the soft white carpet. This is where he invented his trademark style, hula mua, or forward hula, setting hula to pop songs. “It started with me messing around to Terence Trent D’Arby’s ‘Sign Your Name Across My Heart,’” he recalls. Makuakane felt that D’Arby’s tune conveyed King Kamehameha’s love for Queen Ka‘ahumanu just as effectively as any traditional Hawaiian chant, so why not go for it?
The rest is hula mua history. Makuakane’s interpretation of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was awarded the highly coveted 2009 Izzie Award for best company performance, beating the San Francisco Ballet and other renowned professional troupes for the honor. Even Makuakane sounds stunned about the prize. I ask what was special about the number. Maybe the slow pacing, or perhaps the classic romance of the lyrics, he replies. He mimes the line from the song, “The moon and the stars were the gifts you gave,” and his voice trails off as he moves gracefully.
“So here’s the good thing about hula mua,” he explains. “You are singing a familiar song, and people are immediately engaged, as opposed to seeing only beautiful faces and dresses and hearing great music but having no understanding.” He sees no reason why spectators shouldn’t participate in his shows, and he loves to banter with audience members during performances: “I say let me tell you a little history, and we’ll laugh and talk together.”
Such casualness is in contrast to some of Makuakane’s most famous productions, including the 1998 premiere of The Natives Are Restless. That production included “Salva Mea,” which critics hailed as a masterpiece on a par with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. The piece decries the suppression of Hawaiian culture by Christian missionaries; in one particularly graphic scene, a priest, played by Makuakane, grabs a female hula dancer by the hair and throws her to the ground, an obvious metaphor for Western assault on native values. The normally easygoing Makuakane says anger drove him to create the piece after he read nineteenth-century missionary journals brimming with contempt for native traditions, especially hula. “I started feeling how many of us Hawaiians are under the muzzle of Christianity and have veered away from our true kanaka maoli past, where spirituality was inseparable from how we lived,” says Makuakane, adding from the lore of hula, “Pele destroys and Hi‘iaka heals, and that’s the cycle of life Hawaiians thought about.”
Makaukane was a young dancer in the Robert Cazimero show at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel when he took leave of Hawai‘i’s burgeoning hula scene and headed to San Francisco State University. He missed hula and vowed to return to Hawai‘i, but fate intervened. He fell in love with a partner and with a city that “embraces diversity, doesn’t just tolerate it.”
In San Francisco Makuakane started his own halau, filled with beautiful Hawaiian women. Performances began piquing interest not only in Hawaiian circles, but in grant-giving organizations. Makuakane laughs that when he received his first award for $10,000, it seemed like so much money that he was of a mind to run away to New Orleans to stage a performance. But moderation kicked in, and he began “climbing the grants ladder,” which led to the start of regular showcases. Even as he innovates, he has an abiding love for classic hula. “These are our heirlooms. I cherish them,” he says. “I pull them out so audiences will understand that this is our foundation.”
There are endless variations on the story told to me by Ryan, a UC Berkeley graduate student whose Samoan grandparents had once dabbled in Hawaiian entertainment. One night at a San Francisco arts festival, he heard the pumping bass of house music. Makuakane’s kane, outfitted in street clothes and raffia skirts, were onstage performing hula moves with break-dance attitude. “My jaw just dropped,” recalls Ryan. “My friend said, ‘You can do that.’ And so I signed up for class.”
Makuakane revels in the eclectic look of his halau. He encourages non-Hawaiians to use his beloved Hawaiian dance as a route to their own roots. Halau member Jason, who has Japanese and Caucasian ancestry, says Makuakane designs altars backstage at performances, where dancers bring mementos of their respective ethnic traditions. “He reminds us that the collective actions of all who came before us brought us together in this moment,” Jason says.
Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu
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.