Issue 9.5: October/November 2006

The Iconoclast

story by Liza Simon
photos by Linda Ching

 

It’s Saturday night and O’Brian Eselu takes his seat at a picnic table on the grounds of the Paradise Cove Lu‘au, where he is the director of a popular Polynesian show. Tourists stream past the big man, unaware that he holds a special place not only in this seaside entertainment venue but also in the larger, rarified realm of hula. Tonight he presides over cast members he has trained to evoke hip-shaking fun, but earlier in the day, less than a mile down the beach at the training grounds for his halau, visitors would have encountered a very different O’Brian and a very different spectacle. At the halau, O’Brian’s dancers are students, not paid performers, and when he slaps the pahu (drum) and begins to chant in his voluminous voice, he is up to the serious business of transmitting Hawaiian culture. In fact, his dancers might say that O’Brian doesn’t so much transmit as he unleashes, driving them to dance with a passion and vigor that has netted the troupe more than a dozen awards and garnered O’Brian a reputation as an enthusiastic innovator—certainly a world away from lu‘au fare.

Or is it?

“There have always been two sides to the hula,” he shrugs. There is hula meant to be shared with others, he explains, even strangers. This type—hula noa—was used by King Kamehameha to regale James Cook. Then there is hula kapu, says O’Brian: “This is what is studied and passed from teacher to student. Sometimes there are rituals; it is very private.” According to popular belief, hula noa is the mother of cellophane-skirt hula, while hula kapu is … well … real. But O’Brian doesn’t see it that way.

“There are problems when you start thinking about a perfect hula instead of seeing that hula is here to connect us,” he says, mentioning he was recently a guest teacher for a halau in Indiana. Indiana? Yes, Indiana, says O’Brian—where he met students who had found a sense of community inside the dance. “I felt no division, just pure acceptance and so much na‘au for the arts,” he adds, using an untranslatable Hawaiian word he seems to favor—a word that means a combination of soul, heart, stomach and our inner capacity to feel connected to life.

The defining passion of O’Brian’s career has been his urge to use hula to unite people. He originally came to hula as an outsider. First, he was a Samoan entering Hawaiian culture’s most profoundly expressive domain. Then there is the matter of his size. O’Brian may have lost 100 pounds in the last six months, but he is still a big man. He hastens to point out, however, that hula is unique for not stigmatizing dancers for their girth. “In hula, big people can move,” he says with a hint of a wink.


 

 

Of late, O’Brian’s also achieved some celebrity beyond the halau ’hood with his recording career, wrapping his rich, warm voice around pop tunes mixed in with Hawaiian language songs, including haunting Hawaiian oli (chants) he has penned. There is no question: He has changed the view of what it means to be a kumu. Out on the Leeward side, his stomping grounds, he’s beloved: Odds are if you live here, O’Brian has been a kumu to your auntie, your neighbor, maybe even you.

But suggest to O’Brian that his creativity has influenced hula, and he’ll shake his head in polite denial and say it’s more the other way around: It’s hula that accepts all bodies and moves all spirits. Hula’s magnanimity, he says, molded his life.

Glancing around at what is now a packed lu‘au, O’Brian proudly remarks: “When I was in high school, this is what I wanted—to be a show director! Everything I want has come to me, but I had to go through hula first.”

By his own accounts, he was not kumu material. But did he ever love the exuberant dances of his Samoan culture. In Halawa public housing, where he grew up, he says: “My mom would play ‘ukulele all night and my dad would sing. My brothers went into sports, but for me the music really stuck.” O’Brian learned the highly aerobic sasa and the boisterous pa‘iumauma, better known as the Samoan slap dance. Compared to hula, these numbers were more freeform and open to improvisation, says O’Brian, but he’s quick to add that the two dance forms share a lot of the same attention to imagery, the same MO of celebrating everyday life, as hula.

O’Brian’s dance talent netted him time with Vai Fa‘amaligi, the show director at the Polynesian Cultural Center in La‘ie. At his high school, ‘Aiea, word of O’Brian’s talent reached another student, Darrell Lupenui, the son of noted Hawaiian kumu Muriel Lupenui. O’Brian slap-danced his way through an audition for Darrell, agreeing to teach Darrell the Samoan stuff if Darrell would give him hula lessons. O’Brian still sounds enthralled when he talks of his first Hawaiian mentor, a man who had a reputation for taking choreographic risks as big as his body. “Darrell was 800 pounds and a true genius,” says O’Brian. Even when he created new moves—always a controversial occurrence in a tradition-bound art form—Darrell was celebrated for his ability to capture the essence of hula.

The early 1970s was an exciting time to be dancing hula. There were plenty of lu‘au shows in Waikiki, where Darrell and another big-bodied classmate, Thaddius Wilson, formed a comic hula duo known as the li‘ili‘i twins—a wry name since the Hawaiian word means “tiny.” O’Brian often filled in for Darrell and the big buddies from ‘Aiea were constantly called on to do hula. “It was just one big extension of my Samoan living room,” he says. “If you can picture it, we’d do some silly things. I’d make Thaddius fall on his ‘okole (behind), and he would do the same to me,” he says, adding that this, too, was cultural: “In Samoan culture, people love to joke. Without laughter, life is boring.”


 

 
Hula Kapu: Less than a mile down the
beach from the Paradise Cove Lu‘au

Anthony Dutro, Nepo Leutu and Sabre
McArthur rehearse Kahi Keia ‘O Ni‘ihau

in preparation for the annual King
Kamehameha Hula Competition.

The ’70s was also the era of the Hawaiian Renaissance, when Hawai‘i’s traditional culture—eclipsed for decades by the West—was re-emerging in bold new ways. Darrell’s mother wisely recognized that the time was right for the ‘Aiea boys to pour the raw physicality and ribald spirit of their comic act into the serious business of a men’s halau. The boys embraced her suggestion that they create a halau, and in 1978, Darrell became the director and kumu of the newly formed Men of Waimapuna and O’Brian served as chanter and kokua (apprentice kumu). Young and eager, they trained relentlessly, so that when the troupe debuted that year at the Merrie Monarch Festival—the premier stage for hula competition—the audience was stunned by the dancers’ robust athleticism. Emcee for the evening Jackie “Skylark” Rossetti recalls that jaws dropped and judges cried. “The men’s hula was reborn that night. It was always about something much more exciting than the delicacy of women’s hula. This was the warrior spirit reborn on stage,” she says.

Based on their award-winning performance, the Men of Waimapuna became known as originators of “bombastic hula.” It’s a term that some insist goes back to a Hilo newspaper article that hailed the group for their nervy departure from hula orthodoxy. O’Brian recalls that he and his buddies were somewhat surprised by all the fuss. They were dancing from the heart and having fun, he says—the only way they knew how to dance. However their style was labeled, it caused enough of a stir to get their well-established comic act a billing at the Paradise Cove Lu‘au.

Then came a disagreement between O’Brian and Darrell that prompted the old friends to go their separate ways. Did they part over a specific hula? The protocol of the dance? The style? O’Brian is reluctant to say anything except that the resulting pilikia (trouble) was enough to make him contemplate the unthinkable—abandoning hula altogether. The split highlighted O’Brian’s outsider status, for unlike Darrell, he had not undergone extensive formal training and ceremonial initiation into kumu life. Suddenly he found himself caught in a perennial hula debate: Should teachers have a blood tie to the culture? Or can their teaching come from the heart?

A group of dancers who had been dismissed by Darrell believed the latter. They sought out O’Brian and his colleague Thaddius Wilson and pleaded with them to start another halau in time for Merrie Monarch competition. The idea was seconded by Thaddius’ relatives, including a matriarchy of powerful hula women such as Thaddius’ grandmother Keoho Oda.

“I don’t know what Thaddius’ grandmother saw in me, but she believed there was something—only it had to be brought out. So she would meet almost every day with Thaddius and me,” O’Brian recalls. “One sunny day, she plunked down the Bible and said, ‘This is how you will do it! Seek divine inspiration for everything you do in hula.’”

She designated O’Brian the chanter and Thaddius the choreographer, thus defining a partnership that would last for the next quarter of a century with their halau, Na Wai ‘Eha ‘O Puna, The Four Waters of Puna.

O’Brian buckled down in the archives of the Bishop Museum, studying ancient Hawaiian chant. He found he had a zeal for the scholarly work; more worrisome were the rumors circulating about the newly burgeoning competitiveness of hula. One story going around told of a kumu who would sit in the Merrie Monarch stands, eyeing rival dancers with ill intentions and bragging that he could cause them to stumble. O’Brian sought the advice of Pat Namaka Bacon, the
daughter of Hawaiian language scholar Mary Kawena Pukui. “She said hula cannot exist in a world of fear and anger,” he recalls. “She said always teach with kindness and charity.”


 

 

Shortly before departing for the festival venue in Hilo, O’Brian got a boost from Thaddius’ Aunty Verna. “She introduced me as her mo‘opuna. It means grandchild,” says the kumu. It meant that even without a genetic tie, he had become part of a hula family.

In the end, the audience let loose a heartfelt acceptance when Na Wai ‘Eha ‘O Puna made its 1979 debut. The underdogs took first place, lobbing the first volley in what became an on-going rivalry with the Men of Waimapuna. “We challenged each other, but in a good way,” says O’Brian, explaining that he and Darrell mended their personal rift but engaged in one-upmanship that prompted each to raise the bar on competitive excellence.

Darrell died of obesity-related causes in 1987. O’Brian and Thaddius pledged to carry on his legacy of a hula bold enough to elude labels. They also managed to find a place where they could continue to create their exuberant art. O’Brian says this was made possible by an heir of the Campbell Estate who had so loved hula that she set aside a portion of land adjacent to the Paradise Cove lu‘au grounds for Na Wai ‘Eha ‘O Puna. He and Thaddius switched hats weekly, rehearsing the halau and directing the show. Combining their talents, they won fourteen Merrie Monarch awards and kept the lu‘au tables packed nightly with 900 guests. “Hula brings people together. Just look at how popular it is,” O’Brian says, eyeing tonight’s multitude. “Think of the possibilities. My hope is that it can be used to promote peace and understanding.”

Since O’Brian was given so much by hula, it’s no surprise that he believes it can be the key to success for so many others. His students say his teaching is rigorous and intense, but comes from a kumu who truly cares not only about the hula but also about making his students into better people.

“O’Brian taught me lessons of life—nothing I can neatly summarize,” says Tracie Farias Lopes, who under O’Brian’s direction won the Miss Aloha Hula title for a noho hula, a dance performed in a kneeling position. O’Brian worked with her to help her understand that with feet rooted under her, the rest of the body had to carry the story of the chant. With her artfully attenuated backbends and searing facial expressions, Tracie won the contest. “He won’t come out and tell you that you are doing something right or wrong, “ she says, “because he wants to make sure you are doing hula for yourself and not just to please someone else.”


 

 

O’Brian continues to cross intuitive bridges as he choreographs and composes, leading to some stunning successes. On the recording front: He’s now released two solo CDs and won two Na Hoku awards for his music. He does a mix of R&B covers and his own Hawaiian originals and is increasingly celebrated for his rich voice and natural showmanship. On the hula front: Three years ago, O’Brian and Thaddius decided to reconvene halau members from that banner Merrie Monarch win in 1979. Thaddius passed away shortly before the performance in 2004, but it won top honors and the halau toted home another trophy. As protocol required, O’Brian changed the halau name after Thaddius passed away. The new name, Ke Kai ‘O Kahiki, refers to the ancestral lands described in the chants of the Polynesian voyagers who first settled Hawai‘i. “But the larger meaning,” O’Brian says, “is that the ocean touches all the islands and so it is a pathway that unites us all.” The phrase, he adds, underlines the unity of his Samoan background and his adopted Hawaiian roots.

When we speak one day right after his halau practice, O’Brian tells me he was just teaching a dance called Kahi Keia ‘O Ni‘ihau. “The dance is supposed to be just like the island of Ni‘ihau,” he says, “compact, but powerful. Each line is short but packed with meaning. So I begin by teaching the unique aspects of Ni‘ihau life: the turtles, the fish in the waters, the tiny shells that the Ni‘ihau people have the patience to pick, the way the chant itself was passed down and brought by fishermen to Kaua‘i and then to O‘ahu. My whole na‘au is coming forth to make them understand feeling, gesture, imagery as one. I tell them, you know that you have done a dance correctly when people remember it. And I want to prove this, so finally I bring in a newspaper photo of a young boy doing a hula. You can tell he exactly patterned everything about the dance after our halau’s performance in a PBS special. He had it all correct—the costume, the hand gesture. And he got it all from seeing this one dance. Now that’s making an impression!” HH