Last month, for the very first time, Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel presented her hālau, Ke ʻOlu Makani o Mauna Loa, at the Merrie Monarch Festival. She graciously agreed to have Ka Wai Ola follow her and her haumāna on this journey more than a year ago. This is the final article of a three-part series.
When she left Hawaiʻi Island for college in Oregon in 1978, Meleana Manuel packed a few things to remind her of home while she was away, including a new album by the Brothers Cazimero.
She often played the album in her dorm room, and one song, in particular, enchanted her with its sweet, dulcet melody and haunting lyrics. She couldn’t recall having heard it on the radio back home and she wondered why. The song, Sky Flower, became a favorite and one she held close to her heart like a treasure.
Several years later, after returning home from college, Manuel was surprised to learn that Sky Flower had actually been written by a classmate from Kamehameha Schools, John Enos, who was a dancer with Robert Cazimero’s hālau, The Gentlemen of Nā Kamalei.
Throughout Manuel’s career as a professional dancer and later as a kumu hula herself, the song stayed with her, still a favorite, although it never received the airplay she thought it deserved. And although she loved the song, she never tried to choreograph it for her own hālau.
In June 2018, Manuel traveled with her husband, Kawika, to Oʻahu to attend her 40th class reunion. The evening after the alumni talent competition, the classmates gathered to kanikapila; there was music, singing, and impromptu hula.
And then they started to sing Sky Flower.
“I hadn’t heard the song in such a long time,” recalled Manuel. “I remember seeing John, unfazed, leaning against the wall listening. And I kept looking at him and wondering how it felt to have somebody else sing your song right in front of you.”
When the chorus began, to Manuel’s surprise and delight the entire room began to sing along. “I hadn’t been to enough class reunions to know that this happens all the time. I thought ‘oh my God, everyone knows this song?’ And I was so moved I started to cry.”
That evening a seed was planted. “I thought to myself that if I were ever invited to present my hālau at Merrie Monarch, if we were ever so fortunate to grace that stage, this was the song I would want to present,” said Manuel.
It must have been providence because a year later Manuel was invited to present her hālau at Merrie Monarch.
With the encouragement of a mutual friend, Manuel reached out to Enos to ask his permission to present Sky Flower as their group auana at the Merrie Monarch Festival. “He was just silent,” Manuel remembered, “and I thought, ‘it’s a no.’ And then after 10 seconds or so, he said ‘oh sister, I would be so honored.’”
Enos shared that he wrote Sky Flower when they were sophomores in high school. He was at Merrie Monarch with his hālau and there he saw a dancer that took his breath away. She was a senior at Kamehameha, and he had seen her in school, but at that moment, on the Merrie Monarch stage, she was the epitome of unreachable beauty and grace and he was so moved that he wrote a song about her.
“He saw this beautiful girl, a couple of years older than him, and in his eyes, she was ‘out of his league,’” said Manuel. “So the idea of her being a sky flower was that she was as lofty as something in the sky that was right there, but just out of reach.”
Enos not only gave Manuel his blessing to perform Sky Flower at Merrie Monarch, he also agreed to perform the song with her at the festival. Manuel asked fellow classmates and musicians Hōkū Keolanui and Jeff Martin to accompany them as well, along with another friend and Kamehameha graduate, Eric Lee.
After the 2020 Merrie Monarch Festival was canceled due to the pandemic, the 2021 festival was modified; all music for the auana portion of the competition had to be pre-recorded. So in May, they gathered at Keolanui’s home on Oʻahu to rehearse and then recorded Sky Flower at the Waiwai Collective in Honolulu.
“This is our first time at Merrie Monarch, it’s the first time that Sky Flower will be presented on that stage, and it’s the first time that John will sing the lead to the song he wrote more than 40 years ago,” said Manuel, her voice heavy with emotion. “So many firsts.”
The addition of a female vocalist (Manuel) in their recording adds a new element, making it quite different from Cazimero’s 1978 recording. “The song poses an unanswered question: would you return my love? And in our recording, she responds to his question with the same question – making the point that while she acknowledges him, she remains unreachable,” Manuel explained.
“John never told this girl that the song was for her because he doesn’t want to know her answer. It doesn’t matter. It’s a memory he cherishes from that time. It is eternal. We all have our own sky flower. And so this story never ends.”
When Manuel allowed herself to dream about presenting Sky Flower at Merrie Monarch, she also gave thought to what she would present as a kahiko number. “You have to think in doubles, you know? Because you cannot do one without the other.”
Back in 2012, Manuel had been asked by the Merrie Monarch Festival planning committee to represent Kalākaua’s consort, Queen Kapiʻolani, on the festival’s royal court.
To prepare herself for the honor of representing an aliʻi of such high rank, Manuel began to read everything she could about the queen, who, like Manuel, was from the Hilo area. “I wanted to know more about her so I started doing research,” she said. “I wanted to know what she was like – her mannerisms, where she traveled and why, the things she favored, how she held her elegance.”
As she researched in preparation to represent Kapiʻolani, Manuel became aware of a collection of seven lei chants related to the queen. Years later she returned to her research to learn more about these chants, one of which she choreographed for her hālau to perform at a hula festival in California.
So when she began to dream about someday presenting her hālau at Merrie Monarch, her thoughts strayed back to Kapiʻolani’s collection of lei chants. “I knew that if I was invited, I wanted to do something to honor Kapiʻolani,” said Manuel.
This time, she felt pulled to the first of the seven chants, Aia i Haili Ko Lei Nani, written for the queen by her younger sister, Princess Virginia Kapoʻoloku Poʻomaikelani.
The fact that the chant speaks of Haili, which is in Hilo, was an instant connection for Manuel. But as she read through the rest of the chant, she saw that four lines down it referenced the icy Puʻulena, the famous wind that sweeps down from Mauna Loa; the wind that inspired the name of her hālau.
Intrigued, Manuel read further. The chant described the profusion of beautiful crimson lehua, which Manuel believes refers not just to the abundant flowers, but to the people of Hilo. It also describes the forest of Pāʻieʻie near Panaʻewa, and the sight of smoke rising from Kīlauea crater. “This is where I come from,” she said. “It’s what I see every day when I travel between Hilo and my home in Volcano.”
At the very end of the chant, a question is posed: “ʻO wai hoʻi ka ʻike iā Maunakea? ʻAʻohe ona lua e like ai. Who has seen Maunakea? There is no other to compare with it.” That final connection brought it all together for Manuel.
“This was in 2018-2019 when all eyes were focused on the struggle of the kiaʻi to protect Maunakea,” Manuel recalled. “In that time and place we saw the power of our people to rise up and demand change. There, in the midst of that emotionally charged time, it seemed appropriate to pose that question – who has really seen the beauty of Maunakea? And are you just seeing it with your eyes? Or with your heart?”
Added Manuel, “Together, all the elements [in the chant] felt right. It’s what a hālau from Kīlauea should be sharing. I am from this place, and most of the women in our hālau are from this area too. I chose that mele because it speaks to us. And now, with everything going on, we can speak to our lāhui and the rest of the world, through our dance and our presentation.”
After so many years of dreaming and preparing, Manuel finally presented her hālau at Merrie Monarch on June 25 and 26, albeit a bit differently than she imagined, with no audience present and no live broadcast.
Instead, Manuel, along with the other kumu who presented their respective hālau at the 2021 Merrie Monarch Festival, is waiting to learn the outcome of the competition, which will be broadcast on K5 (KFVE), July 1-3, at which time the winners will be announced.
Manuel and her hālau will gather to watch all three nights of the broadcast together. Having finally achieved her dream of presenting her hālau on the prestigious Merrie Monarch Festival stage, Manuel is tranquil, even relaxed, about the outcome.
“Every hālau is there to perpetuate and share their own hula lineage,” reflected Manuel. “Of course you want to do your very best and to grow as a hālau, but more so, we are trying to inspire the next generation and honor our kūpuna, our lineage, our ʻohana.
“I always tell my ladies that whether you are dancing for an audience of one or 1,000 it doesn’t matter. Because your kūpuna are watching and this is for them.”