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Racing Through Time on a Hula Train
Michael Pili Pang & Halau Hula Ka No’eau Hula Academy

Monday night at EKK was a rare experience for the audience as Michael Pili Pang had us jump on a high-speed train that raced through the centuries experiencing the evolution of hula from its primordial beginnings from the mythical days of Madame Pele and her lusty encounters with the gorgeous mortal Lohi’au on the Keahualaka hula platform on the slopes of Ke’e Beach in Ha’ena to the present day hula as we know it.

His first visit to EKK was in February 2020, right before the pandemic shut-down. So memorable was his presentation that he and his Academy of “smart” hula dancers were invited back to EKK.

A student of iconic kumu hula Maiki Aiu Lake, Mae Kamamalu Klein and legendary chanter Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele, Michael is a master storyteller who brought the fascinating hula tradition to life as he chanted, narrated, and translated the lyrics of the mele so that even the novice could understand the meaning of the hula movements. The entire evening was a fascinating visual and auditory storyboard that was artistic, emotional, exciting and informative. He took us on a time-and-space travel through the genealogy of traditional hula ku’i.

Many styles of chants associated with the early kahiko style of hula were employed to convey the stories. Michael Pili Pang set the stage with the chants that are basic to the hula protocol practiced by all hula halau. He began the program with Ua Ao – Oli , a welcome chant.

Oli Kahea is a “password” for the hula dancer to enter the room. Entering from the back of the room, three dancers dressed in bright orange garments ceremoniously walked through the audience carrying parts of their hula garment – their skirts and their lei — as they chanted the Kunihi Ka Mauna.

Oli Komo is the answer from the keeper of the hula school; E Hea I ke Kanaka was the chant that received the dancers to the stage.

Much of the inspiration for the hula comes from Laka, the goddess of hula.
The chanter then offered a chant to Laka, Noho Ana ‘O Laka – Oli Kanaenae.

A fascinating procedure by dancers who spent years of training to master the steps of adorning themselves in their hula garment from skirt to lei for their wrists, ankles, neck and head, each step accompanied by the following chants for dressing — Oli Pa’uOli Kupe’e and Oli Lei. Right before our eyes was the transformation of the dancers into their hula attire; it was really a treat to witness. For these dancers, this was their first performance since their graduation last summer.

In hula there is a hierarchy as the dancers train and advance from one stage to another higher level: first as a haumana, people that come to our halau, to ‘olapa, a dancer, to ho’opa’a, a title reserved for a student who has earned the status of chanter, and eventually to a kumu hula, a teacher. In tonight’s performance, we were able to witness all these different levels of the hula dancer. It was obvious that each stage took a great deal of time, practice and commitment to attain.

Passed down over six generations, hula has to live, grow and change over the years as its environment changes. In the ancient kahiko chants, the text or words was the main thing in the hula; it was not about entertainment but a description of their life and part of ritual ceremonies.

Hula Pahu is the oldest collection of dances spanning over six generations.
Accompanied by the powerful chanting of the kumu hula and ho’opa’a, Kawehionalani, they first laid the foundation for the hula after which they begin their hula performance.

Kaulilua I Ke Anu Wai’ale’ale is a chant about the largest mountain on this island; many of the attributes described as the foundation by which a hula dancer lives are in this chant.

Lokelia Montgomery changed some of the movements of the hula, A Ko’olau Au, to make it more fast-paced and dramatic as it describes the Ko’olau Mountains.

In the chant ‘Au’a ‘Ia, a prophesy by Keaulumoku says that one day a chief will come in and change everything; he will conquer these islands; this was later realized when Kamehameha brought the islands together under one rule. He also talks about the civil war.

The audience sat transfixed as Pili Pang shared the story of the origin of hula which started on Kaua’i at the Keahualaka hula heiau on the slopes of Ke’e Beach in Ha’ena with the Godly encounters between Madame Pele in her spirit form, her “human” boy toy Lohi’au, and Pele’s younger sister, the Goddess Hi’iaka. This performance was a fascinating revelation of the encounters between Gods and mortals as they acted out their emotions of love, passion, jealousy, anger and revenge.

The chanting by Kawehionalani was superb, the dancers were top notch and Michael’s narration, often humorous and at times irreverent, guided us through the passionate interactions of the principal players in the hula drama. MPP used today’s every-day language to convey the thoughts and actions of Pele and Hi’iaka; it made it easier for the audience to understand their desires, intentions and actions.

Ka Poli Laua’e – Hula Papa Hehi is about Pele’s first sighting of Lohi’au.
Using kala’au sticks and foot pedals that rock back and forth, Ka Poli Laua’e – Hula Papa Hehi is difficult so few halau practice this particular hula.

After traveling all over the Pacific, Pele follows the sound of drums and came to Kaua’i to rest. When Pele stays in one place to rest, her spirit leaves the body and she travels everywhere. Pele gained access to Ke’e beach where she first set eyes on the beautiful Lohi’au. Ka Poli Laua’e danced by the three dancers to Kawehionalani’s powerful chanting told this story of the love affair between the Goddess Pele and the mortal Lohi’au.

Being in spirit form, she could not touch Lohi’au, so she went back to Hawai’i Island to get her younger sister Hi’iaka to return to Kaua’i to fetch the handsome Lohi’au. Pele warns Hi’iaka, “don’t touch him; he’s mine. I will have him for the first three nights and then you can have him after that.” Hi’iaka agrees.

Hi’iaka is stunned by his beauty but remembers that Pele had cautioned her not to touch him until after she had spent the first three nights with Lohi’au. After that, he was hers. Hi’iaka had agreed to the arrangement provided Pele looked after her lehua forest on the east side of the volcano and be sure no lava destroyed her forest because her friend Hopoe was there.

Having left Hawai’i Island as a youth, Hi’iaka was now a young woman experiencing womanly desires for this beautiful man that she has brought back to life. As she prepares for her journey to cross the Ka‘ie’ie Channel between Kaua’i and O’ahu, she experiences ho’ailona, the symbolism or thought in the form of a dream that her friend Hopoe is trying to escape from the lava flow by climbing the trees, together with the sound of gravel-like chattering gossip which convinces her that older sister Pele has not kept her promise to protect Hi’iaka’s lehua grove. Embarking on the two-person voyage in the canoe to the chant No Luna I Ka Hale Kai, Michael asked the audience to imagine “what’s going to happen?” with Hi’iaka and Lohi’au alone in the canoe.

Hi’iaka finally arrives on Hawai’i Island with Lohi’au and encounters her sister Pele with “You let go of my lehua trees, so I am going to hug your husband and give him a big kiss!” The ensuing battle between Pele and Hi’iaka was so fierce, raging from the crescent of the volcano down to the plains of Puna; Aia La ‘O Pele chant describes how the heavens lit up with fires that went higher and higher and could even be seen from the island of Maui. Aia La ‘O Pele is about the creation of land by Pele. Michael encouraged everyone to go and see the lava flow while it’s happening; it’s amazing to see land created in your lifetime.

With the advent of the missionaries in the 1820’s and the practices imposed by them onto the Hawaiians, many changes came about.

‘Auana translates to “wandering away” perhaps from working on tasks which did not sit well with the plantation owners and the missionaries, so in 1850, a law was passed saying that outside of the two ports in Lahaina and O’ahu there was to be no “congregating” – Hawaiians were not to gather in large groups or else be fined $200; the music by the Hawaiians changed as the 2-line chants led to melodic patterns and learning to sing hymns so they could go to heaven. And no, there was to be no hula as they practiced it. It was no longer proper for dancers to stand and dance, so the Hawaiians introduced the hula noho or sit-down hula.

Ho’opa’a Kawehionalani Goto began her hula noho (sit down hula) entitled Kalalau with her Hula ‘Ulili, a musical implement like a Hawaiian yoyo made with two gourds. She pulled the string that caused the round gourds on each end to spin in unison with her chant which describes the Kalalau valley.

In 1893, Hawai’i was taken over by the Americans. Earlier, every Hawaiian could read and write and enjoyed free education and free health care. Kamehameha III made sure that everyone was educated and literate.

But at the turn of the century, they were forbidden to speak Hawaiian in public. They had to learn the 13 letters of the alphabet. Hula changed. Music changed. The Hawaiian people changed.

Hula was for the Hawaiians their theatre, their archives, and everything about everyday lives. Their new topics of dance were the whaling ships, social dancing, people and Hawaiian royalty rather than Gods and Goddesses. The Hawaiians began to sew together their dances into Hula Ku’i, which mean to sew together the stories. Hawaiians began to piece things together; all of the changes were embraced by the people; movements such as the up-and-down movement, the side-to-side movement called kaholo and the front-to-back movement called kawele; hula began to tell the stories of people and places.

Ka Iwalani is a fascinating dance that had a very catchy chant-like lyrics —
Un te te te un te te te un te te te un — since the audience was mostly Hawaiians, they understood the text. Michael shared a funny story that when the halau last performed this hula, he went to the bathroom and heard a little boy using the bathroom chanting the catchy phrase; it’s one of those phrases that can run through your head all day once you start repeating it.

Hula dancers dressed in white smock-like blouses with bold gray-and-blue horizontal striped skirts, fuzzy white kupe’e around their wrists and anklets, and colorful scarlet-and-orange lei po’o for that bright spot of color that really made the whole costume sparkle.

Ku’u Mai Balota is about the “Ballot” and voting process for the first election for King between Lunalilo and Kalakaua in which not everyone was allowed to vote. Michael did the chanting in a guttural style while his three dancers did a brisk side-kicking hula with a lot of hip action and simple hand motions. The election for King was won by Lunalilo but he was in office for just one year. Upon his death, another election took place and Kalakaua became King. His wife Kapi’olani traveled around the Islands to visit her subjects. When she came to visit Kaua’i, she visited Ni’ihau.

Many songs are written about or for the royalty. The mele titled Ka ‘Ulu Ali’i Ni’ihau E hula for Queen Kapi’olani, daughter of King Kaumuali’i of Kaua’i, tells about her visit to Ni’ihau, the secret pao’o water from the fresh-water spring which bubbled out of the hidden clefts in the reef, the sideward-growing sugar cane buried in the sand dunes, and the sacred ‘ulu or breadfruit tree which is planted in a reef hole thirty feet below the ground so the fruit was easily picked at ground level.

Starting with the first dancer, joined by the second dancer continuing the story, the third dancer added her hula moves; then all three dancers continued the story about the Queen’s visit to Ni’ihau.

When Captain Cook arrived in the 1700’s, there were approximately 60,000 to 80,000 Hawaiians; by 1893 there were less than 40,000 native Hawaiians. Procreation became very important as the decimation of the Hawaiian population was a serious problem. Thus the hula ma’i about the urgency of procreation became a very important subject. The suggestive sounds and gestures were very clear in conveying the message of the “Birds and the Bees” to the audience. The halau dancers ended the first half of the program with the powerful Hula Ma’i (procreation chant), Punana Ka Manu, which Michael stated would insure that EKK enjoys continued procreation into the future.

Before the intermission, Michael strummed the Kamoa ‘ukulele to show how it sounded.

The second half started with the weekly CD Giveaway with happy winners — Jackie & Larry Fitzsimmons of Grand Rapids, Michigan; Kim McKillip from Princeville; Wendy Feldmeyer form Canada; Jordan Loudan from Princeville; Kathy & Janice Kovala from Winona, Minnesota; Philip and Dorothy Bradbury from Koloa.

Dona Cunningham and Mizu Sumida, the ‘ukulele volunteer team, drew a name and the happy winner was Lisa Morgan from Prince George, BC. Finally! The Canadians are back.

Paul Kim on ‘ukulele and Henry Barrett Jr. on guitar started off hula in modern times with a medley of songs. A big part of the story is told by the familiar hula costumes associated with the different hula eras as we remember them.

If the powerful hula kahiko kept everyone captive during the first half, the light and colorful second half of hula ‘auana was both entertaining and instructive as Michael narrated in English the lyrics of the Hawaiian mele; understanding the fluid moves of the hula choreography became so clear. It was simply wonderful!

King Kalakaua was the only world ruler who circumnavigated the globe. As he traveled, he saw that all countries had national dances and Hawai’i had none, so he got rid of the law of 1850 that forbade the dancing of hula and reinstated hula as the national dance for Hawai’i, leaving the legacy of the Merrie Monarch hula festival.

Hula ‘Auana (hula in the modern times) – the word ‘auana means to wander and so it went with the hula from traditional forms of hula kahiko (stay-in-one-place) to the modern day standard forms of dance as we have come to know them. The stories of the life and times of the people of Hawai’i are captured in hula and chants, but it is not a static thing that sits on the shelf. Rather, it evolves with the life and times of the people who create the music and the dance. Introduction of guitars and ‘ukulele to the islands impacted the music of Hawai’i.

An interesting point is that in the early days the members of the Royal Hawaiian Band were multi-instrumental artists, many of them able to play 6 – 7 instruments. The band members today are allowed to play only one instrument although many of them in their own lives are able to play more than one instrument. Therefore, the Royal Hawaiian Band members of today are unable to play the songs that used to be played by the early Band.

Maile Lei was written in 1963 by Maddy Lam for the Goodyear Tire Company Convention at the Waikiki Shell. However, it was the same day that John F. Kennedy was shot so the Convention did not happen; this beautiful song became a tribute to JFK. The four dancers were elegant in their white satin long-train holoku with maile leis and strands of plumeria cascading down to their knees and plumeria crowns worn as lei po’o. They were visions of beauty and elegance as they danced Maile Lei in the modern ‘auana style.

One of the best-loved hula love songs, Pua Lililehua, was written by Kahauanu Lake and Mary Kawena Pukui. Lake was not yet married to Maiki Aiu, but she choreographed the hula to the lyrics by Lake. Pili Pang translated the Hawaiian words into English so we could easily follow the graceful choreography of the four gorgeous hula dancers of this iconic love song. The facial expressions of the dancers as they flirted with their eyebrows, their subtle glances, along with the suggestive hand and hip motions made for an arresting hula love song that many prospective “victims” found too much to resist.

In 1983, after the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani and the Hawaiian Kingdom by businessmen, Kaulana Na Pua was composed as a protest song; many people decided that they wanted to pledge allegiance to the Queen instead of those responsible for the overthrow. After many decades of dormancy, this song was revived as its importance in representing the sentiment of the people was recognized. Choreography for this song was given to Michael’s kumu hula. A Kaua’i hula dancer named Haunani Aiu-Parpal, dressed in a long-sleeved, high-neck mu’umu’u reminiscent of early Hawai’i with maile li’ili’i cascading down to her knees, projected the sentiment of the song with serene elegance.

Hawaiians began to look at nature and people as the subjects for their hula. Out of this period came the now very popular hula song about Captain Makee who was wondering why his ship was all the way over in Kapa’a, Kaua’i when he was in O’ahu. Michael, with a rascal smile and moves that clearly tell the kaona-laden story, danced a seaworthy hula about Captain Makee’s oceanic misadventure.

In the 1900’s, Hawai’i wanted to promote tourism at the Pan Pacific Festival in San Francisco; newspapers wrote about the movement in New York for non-Hawaiian speaking musicians who played Hawaiian music; this movement was called the “Tin Pan Alley”. Hapa-haole music was first introduced by a group of New York City folks in 1910. When they saw how popular Hawaiian music was at the Pan Pacific Festivals in San Francisco featuring pineapple, sugar cane and hula dancers, these enterprising songwriters who had never been to Hawai’i started selling music sheets with hapa-haole songs and became instant millionaires. Using sheet music became the most popular and lucrative item in modern times. Hawaiians caught on quickly and started writing their own hapa-haole songs; these songs defined a distinct period in Hawaiian music and showed off the sweet charm and expression of a happy lighthearted period in Hawai’i.

In 1927, a graduate of Punahou School named R. Alex Anderson took hula images of Hawai’i and put them together into Haole Hula, a song for the Don Blanding Show at the Princess Theater in Honolulu. Dressed in red & white sarongs so popular during that Hollywood-inspired period, the hula dancers showed off the difference in the hula style that was so popular during that period and still a hula favorite today.

In 1927 a big thing happened in Waikiki…the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. From their vantage point in their hula studio adjoining the RHH, the teenage male hula dancers had a clear view of the round pink domes of the hotel. When their teacher Maiki Aiu told them that they should be able to move their Royal Hawaii Hotel round pink domes better than that, they caught on right away. “As we slip and slide on the smooth soft velvet beds” that the hotel used to have for the guests found its way into the lyrics of the song Royal Hawaiian Hotel, written by Mary Pula’a Robins.

The war years brought a lot of change to the islands, especially the influx of military to Hawai’i. During the golden era of the sixties, a common practice was that military personnel had “golden meal tickets” which allowed them to frequent all the showrooms full of jazz music; hula dancers had a chance to jump from one showroom to another for a very lucrative career.

Dancers dressed in swishy shiny long turquoise cellophane skirts and skimpy tops accented with splashes of white gardenia blossoms on their hair, bodice, wrists and waistbands, brought back instant nostalgia for those colorful days of hula entertainment. It sure is hard to take your eyes off these flirty dancers with their shruggy shoulders and dimpled smiles. The crowd got boisterous with applause.

Big changes came about during the post-war years. Hawai’i was a big stop for Vietnam vets. Descriptive hula is typical of songs like Misty Rains and Lehua; the hand motions speak of trade winds, dew-covered mountains, rainbows, breezes, the sun and the clouds and guardian angels. The melody is dreamy and romantic, the kind of song associated with the haunting sounds of the steel guitar. Haunani, one of the hula dancers in one of the longest Las Vegas hula show who now lives on Kaua’i, came out dressed in a fashionable black-and-white mu’umu’u adorned with many strands of plumeria and maile leis.

Many of the kumu hula had been trained with little or no knowledge of the Hawaiian language due to the missionary-imposed taboo on the speaking of Hawaiian in public and in educational situations. During the 1970’s a new movement began; the Hawaiian Renaissance changed the culture and along with it the way in which hula was taught … men could dance hula; voyaging became important; ideas of hula start to change; hula competitions began to change. Hula masters began to change and not be so secretive and started to share about their hula culture. If you were lucky, you could sit and eat with the kupunas. Hula started to become a worldwide phenomenon, embraced by serious dancers in many countries.

Musical interlude was offered by Paul and Henry who sang about Ku’u Ipo (My Sweetheart), a song that was written as a 45th anniversary gift. Of course, Mauli’ola Cook and Sabra Kauka got up to share their hula as Michael translated the movements into understandable English. For the novice to hula, it sure helps to have someone translate what those graceful motions mean. The audience goes wild to see their resident hula dancers get up on stage.

In 1937, a beautifully written hula song titled Mi Nei was copywrited by Charles E. King. Mi means “me” and nei means “over here”. The words are so descriptive of the allure of this beautiful and charming hula dancer who knows how to flirt to get the attention of her love-struck admirer. It’s a perfect hula for the dancer who wants to embrace and offer her feminine essence. Four gorgeous dancers in soft pink and blue short-trained holoku and plumeria lei filled the stage with their beauty.

In 1954, Maiki Aiu Lake sent a group of hula dancers to Kaua’i since she could not make it. The Kaua’i group sent her a box of maile li’ili’i and mokihana berries as a thank you. Because she could not write Hawaiian, she got her Uncle Claude Malani to help her write Aloha Kaua’i. The words speak of their appreciation for the fragrant gift of leis; this was her thank you song to the people of Kaua’i — a beautiful hula mele that is so much embraced by Kaua’i dancers who were moved to join these hula dancers on the stage. They shared their hula with the appreciative and captivated audience.

The enlightened audience members all joined hands to celebrate this evening of hula with their favorite Hawai’i Aloha. As always, the singing was emotional, moving and showed the audience appreciation for this gift of music and hula.

*** Photos courtesy of Mike Teruya ***

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Funding for E Kanikapila Kakou 2022 Hawaiian Music Program is made possible by Hawai’i Tourism Authority, with support from Kauai Visitors Bureau, Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau, National Endowment for the Arts, the Kaua’i Beach Resort, Kamoa ‘Ukulele, Kauai Festivals and the Garden Island Arts Council supporters.