A Moʻolelo Becomes a Musical


What began as Ikaika Mendez’s senior project to complete his degree in music from UH Mānoa grew into an original musical theatre production that played to hundreds of people in three performances at Kamehameha Schools Maui (KSM).

“I could choose between a recital or a project,” said Mendez, who graduates this month. “A recital would mean standing next to a piano and singing a lot of Italian, German and Latin songs. So I asked my advisor if I could do a project that incorporated mele Hawaiʻi instead.”

His advisor was supportive and Mendez initially planned to do a concert. As Mendez was working on the concept for his project, in what can best be described as serendipitous timing, he was contacted by Jay-R Kaʻawa, KSM’s head of Extended Learning and Summer Programs.

“Kumu Jay-R asked me, ʻIkaika, how can we get hana keaka (Hawaiian theatre) on the Maui campus?’ And suddenly it clicked. I asked her if I created a hana keaka for the campus and used it as my senior project, would that work? And she said ‘yes – let’s do it!”

Born and raised in upcountry Maui, Mendez is a 2019 graduate of KSM. Although he currently resides in Honolulu to attend UH Mānoa, he also interns at his alma mater in the Hawaiian Language, Literature and Performance Department under his former Hawaiian Ensemble Kumu Kalei Aarona-Lorenzo, which is how he happened to be on Kaʻawa’s radar.

Once he decided to create a hana keaka production, Mendez needed to figure out what to write about. He landed on a somewhat obscure moʻolelo (story) about ʻAʻapueo, an owl for whom the ahupuaʻa of ʻAʻapueo, where the KSM campus is located, is named.

“When I was a student at KSM we learned the moʻolelo about how ʻAʻapueo’s eggs were broken and how the owls went to war with the kānaka, but our understanding was shallow,” Mendez said. “I thought, oh my gosh, we need to do this moʻolelo, this needs to be the one.”

Fluent in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, Mendez turned to nupepa.org to find the only written account of the moʻolelo. When he did, he was surprised at how short it was. “I thought it was a big legend, but it was only a column and a half in the newspaper.”

Mendez realized he needed help to dive deeper into the meaning and details of the moʻolelo so he turned to two Maui cultural practitioners, Kumu Hula Cody Pueo Pata and KSM Kumu Hokuao Pellegrino, for guidance.

“Before I contacted them I did my own translation and interpretation of the moʻolelo,” Mendez recalled. But he was “blown away” by the ʻike each kumu shared and their own interpretations of the kaona (hidden meaning) of the moʻolelo.

“Kumu Pueo has knowledge learned from a kupuna named Diane Amadeo. He used to sit with her and she taught him this moʻolelo. He is the only one who learned the moʻolelo from an actual manaleo (native speaker) so he had extra manaʻo that was never written in the newspaper,” Mendez said. “And Kumu Hokuao is a mahiʻai, an ʻāina guy, who had all the maps and knew where everything in the moʻolelo happened.”

The creative process of blending together the details of the moʻolelo and the manaʻo gleaned from Pata and Pellegrino was exciting but intense. “I was on a very short timeline. I needed to begin teaching the students in October, but I had only just reached out to them in July. So all of July into August was dedicated to research, nūpepa and maps.”

Once he had the storyline, he needed to turn it into a hana keaka. “I didn’t know how to write a script, so I contacted Kumu Hailiʻōpua Baker,” Mendez said. Baker is the director of UH Mānoa’s Hawaiian Theatre Program, Ka Hālau Hanakeaka. With her help, Mendez transformed the moʻolelo into musical production.

At first, Mendez planned to make it a full musical (like an opera where all lines are delivered in song), but that proved to be a challenge given the timeframe so he decided to create musical pieces linked together with dialogue.

Titled ʻAʻapueo – The Battle of the Owls, his final script included nine original songs.

“The senior project requirement tasked me to showcase what Iʻd learned as a student in the music department. As a Kanaka, although I learned a lot about Western music theory and performance, it actually opened my eyes to Hawaiian music,” Mendez explained. “So I wanted to incorporate Hawaiian instruments and everything from ancient chant to modern Hawaiian music.”

While some of the original music that Mendez composed is true to traditional and modern Hawaiian musical styles, he also incorporated a few other musical genres into the production such as rap, R&B, a contemporary ballad, and a number he describes as “very Disney princess musical theatre.”

In October, with script and music in hand, Mendez began rehearsals for the production with 46 haumāna from KSM’s Ka Pā Hula o ʻAʻapueo and Hawaiian Ensemble and the support of campus kumu. Rehearsals for the musical spanned four months and the production debuted in February at KSM’s Keʻōpūolani Hale auditorium.

Mendez had planned for just one performance, but that day some 800 people came to see the show. The auditorium only seats about 500, so people had to sit outside and watch the show on television screens. With the support of campus leadership, Mendez scheduled two additional shows the following week.

The performance featured Keikialoha Kahokuloa on the piano accompanied by KSM kumu. Kahokuloa, a gifted musician, is a fellow UH Mānoa student who Mendez met after he “happened” to hear him playing his guitar while walking across campus. More serendipity.

By all accounts, ʻAʻapueo – The Battle of the Owls was a success and it more than satisfied Mendez’s graduation requirement. But beyond that, the experience piqued his interest in theatre and in March he applied to UH Mānoa’s Hawaiian Theatre Program to pursue a master’s in fine arts degree.

“This whole journey has taught me to look at moʻolelo differently,” reflected Mendez. “I learned that the kaona of moʻolelo can be different for everyone – and we have the ability to contextualize [moʻolelo] and apply it to our own lives without changing it.”

The Moʻolelo of ʻAʻapueo

(A Synopsis)

ʻAʻapueo was an owl from the Kula region who lived in the ahupuaʻa that now bears her name. She and her husband, Pueokāia, had seven eggs which were at his home in Wailuku towards Pāʻia.

One day, when they were away, a woman happened upon their nest. Thinking they were duck eggs, she gathered them up and returned home. Her husband, Kapoi, realized they were actually owl eggs, but when his wife moved to return them he stopped her saying he wanted to keep the eggs.

Meanwhile, ʻAʻapueo, who was frantically searching for her children, finds her eggs with Kapoi and demands their return. An argument erupts whereupon Kapoi, in a fit of temper, smashes all of the eggs on the rock wall of his house.

Heartbroken, ʻAʻapueo gathered her broken eggs and returned home. Upon learning what has happened, Pueokāia is outraged and he and ʻAʻapueo devise a plan to avenge the death of their babies.

Pueokāia traveled east and ʻAʻapueo traveled west and in one day they gathered all the pueo across ko Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina. The huge contingent of pueo amassed in West Maui, in the valley known today as Manawaipueo, and rested overnight.

The next day, they flew as one to Wailuku. It is said that there were so many owls that their number filled the sky creating a shadow that blocked the sun. A terrible battle raged between the owls and the kānaka of Wailuku and when it ended, only a few humans had survived.