I'll be writing about Hilo on the Big Island for the next couple of posts, having just returned today from the weeklong 44th Annual Merrie Monarch ("MM") Hula Festival. I never like to leave Hilo but the feeling of longing is always more intense after experiencing a solid week of the best hula imaginable. Hula starts with the opening ceremonies on Easter Sunday and continues with daily performances at the hotels on Banyan Drive. For the first time, 'Imiloa, Hilo's new, world class astronomy center, hosted daily educational talks that are related to some aspect of the hula traditions. These talks are an educational addition to the MM offerings.
Wednesday night is the free Ho'ike/Exhibition night, the highlight of which is always the hometown favorite and host halau, Halau o Kekuhi, whose two kumu hula are the daughters of Edith Kanaka'ole. The stadium where the main performances are held are named after Auntie Edith.
Thursday marks the individual women's competition for Miss Aloha Hula. There are women's and men's halau kahiko (ancient) performances on Friday. Saturday, are the women's and men's halau 'auana (modern) performances culminating with an awards ceremony.
I'm going to work backwards and tell you stories of my last week starting with this morning. I always make one last stop at Kuhio Grill before the airport for a breakfast of eggs, corned beef hash and red velvet cake. Yes, they are the only restaurant that I know of, in the whole State, that will bring a dessert tray to your table upon request for breakfast. Also notable are their one pound laulau, fried rice with anything )my personal favorite is with loco moco) and peanut butter mochi.
As often happens I ran into someone I knew at KG's. This morning I was overjoyed to see my Auntie JoJo whom I'd seen at the beginning of my trip and with whom I'd spent overnight in Volcano. She was taking her brother, Koma, and sister-in-law, Barb, to the airport. They showed me some of their finds from the many craft fairs held all week around Hilo: two lauhala hats with colorful hat bands for their mo'opuna and a large quilted bag with an ipu print. All of our laughter was interspersed with a showing of photos including commentary of their two granddaughters. So typical of JoJo's family that Koma tried to press on me omiyage of Taro Chips which I had to sadly refuse indicating with a gesture to my head that I was full to the brim with omiyage.
While I was returning my rental car I noticed a very popular singer and musician, Hoku Zuttermeister (who just came out with his first CD) at the next counter. I went to thank him for the beautiful music he played to accompany the dancers. I recognized Ale'a, Ho'okena, some of the members of Na Palapalai, Lopaka Kanahele, Hoku Zuttermeister and both of the Brothers Caz, among many other exceptional musicians performing for the different halau's 'auana entries. They never announce the musicians who play for the halau because for MM, the emphasis is completely on the hula.
Once in flight I heard alot of laughter farther up the aisle and there was a cluster of flight attendants acting very much like ordinary fans around a MM musician, Lopaka Kanahele, the great-grandson of Edith Kanaka'ole. You have to understand that twentysomething Lopaka, cute as he is, has attained rock star status in Hawaii for his singing and his hula. The flight attendants were all atwitter, smiling, giggling and really spending waaay more time with Lopaka than the passengers.
Finally, one flight attendant got on the PA system and announced "We never do this, but since we are ending the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Lopaka Kanahele has agreed to sing for us". Lots of cheering from the locals and lots of cameras suddenly popping up from the seats to catch a photo or video. Lopaka slips a flower behind his ear and he, a capella, sings a song from the CD that won a Hoku award. Major full-body chicken skin.
At the end of his song people are yelling "Hana Hou" but I also wanted Hoku Z. to sing so I was chanting his name. Hoku is too ha'aha'a or humble and pretends he doesn't hear his name being called out. He had his camera out too, snapping away, even though he was sitting with and talking to Lopaka moments before.
So, that's my very sweet aloha from Hilo and the Merrie Monarch. I think God sent me that experience to ease the homesickness for Hilo.
CDs by Hoku Zuttermeister (his " 'Aina Kupuna" debut is #1 at Borders Ward Centre) and Lopaka Kanahele are available at amazon.com and locally at music stores.