Where Tradition Holds Sway
John Ka‘imikaua's Legacy Lives on through Moloka‘i's Homage to Hula
Photography by Dewitt Jones | Phil Spalding
One sunny Saturday last May, a crowd of hundreds fell silent as a big man in a bright yellow shirt intoned a Hawaiian chant across Moloka‘i’s Papohaku Park. The boom of his pahu (drum) set in motion red-clad dancers on a stage beneath a canopy of kiawe trees, strong and graceful men and women whose swift, flowing movements told stories of battling chiefs, of great storms, of the birth of Moloka‘i.
These dancers, heir to a proud tradition of hula, also were participants in an event that, all too soon, would itself become a legacy. Less than a month after this scene took place at the 2006 Moloka‘i Ka Hula Piko, founder John Ka‘imikaua was gone. A mellow mountain of a man, Ka‘imikaua died at age 47, cutting short the teaching of Hawaiian culture that was his life’s work.
“The halau [hula school] is carrying on,” dedicating this year’s gathering to her husband, says Ka‘imikaua’s wife, Ka‘oi. Her husband’s Halau Hula O Kukunaokala, with members on Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, will continue under her direction. Ka‘oi Ka‘imikaua is spearheading plans for the May 2007 event and working to find the funds to keep John Ka‘imikaua’s legacy alive, even as she copes with the grief of his loss.
Ka‘imikaua began Moloka‘i Ka Hula Piko in 1991, giving it a name with layers of meaning to represent Moloka‘i’s legendary claim to being the source of hula. Among the many translations of piko is “navel,” and in this use it implies the center or source of nourishment. The festival would celebrate the traditions of ancient Moloka‘i dance, passed along to Ka‘imikaua when he was just a teenager by an elderly woman called Kawahinekapuheleikapokane (Sacred Woman Traveling on the Night of Kane).
As part of the annual event, Ka‘imikaua presented lectures that included the story of what he learned from the old lady, 92 years old when the 14-year-old first met her. Like Kawahinekapuheleikapokane, he was originally from Moloka‘i. The old woman and the boy who would become her student were living on O‘ahu when they met, but the 156 chants she would teach him were pure Moloka‘i.
Those chants, and the dances that accompanied them, had been kapu (taboo)—hidden knowledge never exposed to the general public—and in olden times to break the kapu would have meant death, Ka‘imikaua told his audience at a Friday evening lecture that preceded Saturday’s all-day outdoor hula festival at Papohaku Park last year.
But his teacher assured him that his generation would fulfill the prophecy of a Moloka‘i chant from 1819, when Hawai‘i’s royal leaders ordered the destruction of the temples of the ancient Hawaiian religion and overturned the kapu system of rules that controlled Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian people would be brought low to the earth, the prophecy warned, losing everything. But in time, there would be a resurgence of the culture. This is that time, Ka‘imikaua said. And Kawahinekapuhe- leikapokane told him that he and those who came after him would not have to live the kapu.
“All the knowledge I give you will be free of kapu,” she told him. “It will be taken at my time of death. There is no kapu, but there is a great kuleana.”
Only after his teacher’s death when he was 16 years old did Ka‘imikaua understand that kuleana, or responsibility. In 1977, at age 19, he opened his own halau. “The night I opened it, I understood,” Ka‘imikaua said. “That first practice, I realized the kuleana: to educate and enlighten all people about our ancestral past.”
Ka‘imikaua did that in many ways. He was a storyteller, able to mesmerize an audience with stories of Hawaiian culture and history, like those he told on daytime excursions to significant Moloka‘i places during the annual Ka Hula Piko. He was an instructor and kupuna (elder)-in-residence at Hawai‘i Pacific University at the time of his death. He was a composer whose 1977 album, From Deep Within, featured 15 of his songs.
Always he held to the traditions he learned from his teacher, who traced her hula genealogy back a thousand years. Ka‘imikaua believed that Moloka‘i was the birthplace of the hula, where legend says the family who brought hula to Hawai‘i formed a school to teach it to the ancients. And the dances he taught were those of the ancients, each with the gestures preserved as he learned them, and each with a story he would tell to explain the movement of the dance.
A hula “recorded a moment in time” Ka‘imikaua said. “The hula is like an ancient video,” and by repeating its sound and movement, “you’re pushing the past into the future.” The traditions he taught were of Moloka‘i, drawn from the same spiritual understanding as those of other islands, but “the way they expressed it was different. The thing that influenced the people was the environment, so people living in each ahupua‘a [land division] evolved their own traditions.”
In 2006, the theme for Ka Hula Piko was based on an ancient description of the style of dance that comes from Moloka‘i. “Dance with the spark of fire, dance with the fluidity of water. In life the two cannot combine,” Ka‘imikaua said, “but in the dance the essence of spark and fluidity is seen in the spirit of the
dancers.” So the Moloka‘i style of dance has a distinctive style, swift moving but with an even fluidity, he said; “It’s not choppy.”
Those who attended Ka‘imikaua’s lectures saw that style demonstrated by the vigorous dancers of his halau, and at the day-long event at Papohaku Park on Moloka‘i’s west end, they also saw other hula styles from across the state and as far away as Japan.
Surely one of Hawai‘i’s great parks, Papohaku is a spread of level green ground under the shade of tall kiawe trees. Behind coastal dunes at one edge of the park stretches a long white beach. Beautiful but hazardous, Papohaku is dangerous to swimmers due to strong current and to walkers because of a devastating shore break. The locals who flock to Ka Hula Piko on the third Saturday of May generally stick to the shady park area.
The atmosphere is that of a big family party, one of those wonderful Hawaiian days where kids run free in the sun, elders doze in the shade, and music fills the air. Around the edge of the park, local vendors offer crafts and food, and friends greet each other as they line up for laulau and kulolo, taro burgers, fried fish and shave ice.
Performances on the stage at one end of the park are Moloka‘i style, not regulated by the clock but by the principle, “stay ’til you’re tired. Then ask the next ones to come up.” The
performers range from professionals like Lono, who is a Moloka‘i taro farmer when he’s not working as a singer, to a group of ‘ukulele-strumming kupuna who also do a weekly Friday night gig at Hotel Moloka‘i. No one minds when a small boy plants himself on one corner of the stage. This is not a formal competition like Hilo’s famous Merrie Monarch Festival, but a relaxed day of sharing and stories.
By day’s end last year, some 1,500 people in attendance had seen hula in its many modern permutations, from tiny dancers in their stage debut to pretty young women in shiny cellophane skirts swaying to “Sophisticated Hula,” to a graceful ‘auwana hula by a May Day queen in a blue velvet holoku, and a Japanese halau with a hot ‘ukulele player doing “Wahine ‘Ili Kea,” a Moloka‘i song.
When the crowd gathers for Ka Hula Piko this May, those who have been part of Moloka‘i’s biggest event will remember the man who began it all, whose chant could silence a crowd, whose pahu moved his dancers with force and precision, and whose stories explained the symbolism and the ideas their gestures expressed. Though their kumu (teacher) is gone, John Ka‘imikaua’s dancers will be there again this year, their movements sharp and quick, as he taught them, but flowing and graceful, not choppy: Moloka‘i style.