Where Tradition Holds Sway

John Ka‘imikaua's Legacy Lives on through Moloka‘i's Homage to Hula

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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.

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