When Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala emerged from the jetway at Līhuʻe Airport the afternoon of April 24, they were greeted with smiles, cheers and applause from passengers waiting at the gate to board their flight. More than a hundred other well-wishers, including Kauaʻi Mayor Derek Kawakami, engulfed them at the baggage claim area, eager to embrace them and drape them with lei.
There was good reason for the excitement.
Returning from Hilo, the Kalāheo-based hālau, under the direction of Kumu Hula Leināʻala Pavao Jardin, had achieved what no other hālau from Kauaʻi had done before: They won First Place Overall at the Merrie Monarch Festival, the most prestigious and longest-running hula competition in the world. In addition, they placed first in the Wāhine Kahiko, Wāhine ʻAuana and Wāhine Overall categories of the event, which observed its 59th anniversary this year.
“There were lots and lots of happy tears at the airport,” Jardin said. “Kauaʻi has been through devastating floods and hurricanes, and every time our people have come together and rebuilt their homes, businesses and lives. We are strong, we are resilient. Kauaʻi is special, and it felt good to bring the Merrie Monarch recognitions home to them. I am honored and humbled that the passion-filled work of my haumāna was acknowledged.”
This was the 10th year that Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala participated in the festival and Jardin had always wanted to feature mele about Kalāheo, but she had not been successful finding any.
Then one day she was online, skimming through issues of Ka Nūpepa Kūʻokoʻa, a Hawaiian language newspaper that was published in Honolulu from 1861 to 1927. In the Dec. 7, 1917, edition she came across an oli entitled Hoʻoheno no ka Poli Lauaʻe (A Tribute for the Heart of Lauaʻe) written by Wahinekeouli Pa (1862-1951), a revered Kauaʻi kumu hula, chanter and haku mele.
The oli takes listeners on a huakaʻi to places on Kauaʻi that were dear to Pa, beginning with Kukuiolono in Kalāheo where beautiful flower gardens once flourished. It also describes noted sites in west Kauaʻi where Pa would frequently visit ʻohana, ending in Hāʻena, which is famous for its abundant lauaʻe o Makana.
“As I learned more about the mele, I thought, ʻIt’s perfect for our kahiko segment,’” Jardin recalled. “Our hālau would be celebrating 10 years of participation in Merrie Monarch – why not transport the audience to our home, to Kauaʻi?”
Jardin was able to meet several members of Pa’s family. “My promise to them was to bring their tutu’s story to life,” she said. “This year, I took 14 ladies to Hilo. In the seven minutes they danced to Hoʻoheno no ka Poli Lauaʻe, I felt everyone in the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium was with them, seeing, smelling, touching, enjoying the beauty of Kauaʻi.”
So it was with the hālau’s ʻauana presentation, Kauaʻi Lana i ke Kai (Kauaʻi Afloat in the Sea), composed by Kumu Hula Robert Uluwehi Cazimero.
Last December, he and multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano award winner Kuana Torres Kahele headlined a benefit concert on Kauaʻi to help Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala pay for Merrie Monarch expenses. During that visit, Cazimero shared Kauaʻi Lana i ke Kai with Jardin, who immediately fell in love with it. She asked her close friend if he would allow her hālau to share it as their ʻauana presentation.
Kauaʻi Lana i ke Kai expresses Cazimero’s adoration for Kauaʻi as he visits the moku of Haleleʻa and its landmarks of Hanalei, Limahuli, Makana and Hāʻena. Vivid imagery awakens the senses: pounding winter surf, majestic Makana Peak, rain pelting the wetlands, winds carrying the fragrance of maile lau liʻiliʻi and the breathtaking panorama revealed from the bluff above fertile Hanalei Valley.
“We were so blessed to have Kumu Robert and Kuana on the stage with our ladies to provide vocals and music; they helped them paint those incredible pictures of Kauaʻi,” Jardin said. “It was a great celebration of our island, and we’re so grateful everyone appreciated it.”
In her opinion, hula is not a performance; it is a responsibility that balances technical skill with knowledge, understanding and the ability to connect with a mele, live it and deliver its message as its composer intended.
“That is my manaʻo,” Jardin said. “I always tell my haumāna that we are storytellers. For Merrie Monarch, I look for dancers who can remove themselves from the competitive space and take on the kuleana of being the voice, so to speak, of the haku mele. Hula tells the stories of our ancestors, and future generations will be telling the stories we are creating today. To keep the Hawaiian culture alive, we must perpetuate that — continue to share the stories.”