A new hālau founded by the students of the late Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho will perform at this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival in his memory. Lum Ho, considered by many to be a hula icon, performed at the very first festival back in 1964.
“I’m happy [his students are performing] because Uncle George Naʻope was one of the founders. He told me that when he first started it, he asked Uncle Johnny to have his hālau be part of the program of the exhibition. He was there for the first and now his hālau will be performing in the 60th. I think it’s so apropos for them to do this honor,” said Aunty Luana Kawelu, president of the Merrie Monarch Festival.
After Lum Ho’s passing in April 2022, his students decided to honor him by choosing a new name for the hālau said Kumu Hula Kasie Kaleohano. The new hālau is named “Hālau Ka Lehua Pua Kamaehu,” after one of their favorite Lum Ho songs.
“His wish was for us to continue. But we both felt, along with Aunty Dee-dee (Oda), and our close circle of hula sisters, that we should open under a new name because the name Ka Ua Kani Lehua should rest with Uncle Johnny,” said Kaleohano.
Their new name is inspired by, but slightly different than, their favorite song. “The kamaʻehu in his song has an ʻokina and refers to the rust-colored lehua blossom. We removed the ʻokina and that then created the idea of the lehua for a new generation. So we’re paying homage to where we came from, and then those who will come after us.”
Lum Ho was a visionary, a man of very few words, and deeply religious. “He was an extremely talented kumu hula, with so many creative songs that he shared with us on stage, and he was well known and loved by hula people around the world,” said Kawelu.
His gentle and quiet ways of teaching empowered his students, say Kaleohano and Kumu Hula Brandi Barrett. He would often allow them to be part of the creative process and present their ideas for movements to accompany the mele. They used to joke that they needed to speak the “Johnny Lum Ho language.”
“We’d do these motions and he’d be like, ‘Okay, try something else.’ And if he liked it, he’d say, ‘That’s what I want.’ You had to speak and understand ʻJohnny Lum Ho,’” said Barrett.
Both Kaleohano and Barrett said they are grateful for his understated approach because it prepared them as teachers. “He allowed us that space within his vision. He knew what he wanted to see, but he allowed us that kind of autonomy to be creative, while he helped us grow that within ourselves,” Kaleohano said.
In a nod to his legacy as a prolific original composer, the hālau will be performing an original mele about his life.
“What really struck a chord with us is how many mele Uncle Johnny composed over his lifetime, but we were not aware of any mele that were composed for him,” said Kaleohano. “So we got together with our inner circle and just kind of talked about the stories he shared or the stories we knew about his lifetime. And one of our hula dads, who is Hiapo Perreira, a professor of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi at UH, took our thoughts and our stories and composed the mele. So that’s what our dancers will be sharing this year. It’s a mele about Uncle Johnny’s life.”
The dancers will be accompanied by Lum Ho’s fellow musicians and long-time collaborators, Bert Naihe, Edward Atkins, Mark Yamanaka, and Kuana Torres Kahele.
One of the hālau’s members (and Barrett’s daughter), Tehani Kaleohoneonālani Barrett, will compete in the Miss Aloha competition. Lum Ho chose the younger Barrett for the role prior to his passing. According to Kaleohano, many of Lum Ho’s former students plan to return to the festival to honor their late kumu in some shape or form.
The time leading up to the festival brings a mix of emotions for the hālau. It is an exciting, bittersweet, and nerve-wracking time, said both Barrett and Kaleohano. Only two of the 26 or 27 dancers, who range in age from 13 to 37 years old, have ever performed at Merrie Monarch. To help the dancers calm their nerves, their teachers remind them to focus on their purpose. “It’s about honoring him, especially this year, and just doing their best,” said Barrett.
Though Lum Ho had an immeasurable impact on the art of hula, his legacy extended beyond it and encompassed an unwavering faith in God and Jesus Christ and a belief in giving back. Commented Kaleohano: “One of the biggest things, I think, of Uncle Johnny’s legacy, besides hula and faith, is if you give blessings, you get blessings.”