For The Love Of Hula
Unlike Merrie Monarch, the Prince Lot Hula Festival is not about competition. But this could be its last year at endangered Moanalua Gardens
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You can see them from the freeway: the stately monkeypod trees of Moanalua Gardens that tie the present to the past — a past rich in tradition and the perfect setting for the 28th annual Prince Lot Hula Festival this Saturday, July 16, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Presented by the Moanalua Gardens Foundation (MGF), this year’s Prince Lot Hula Festival will showcase 13 distinguished hula halau, including Merrie Monarch and Hawaii Secondary Schools Hula Kahiko Competition winners.
This year’s festival is particularly significant in that the fate of the popular Moanalua Gardens has been in limbo since November 2004, with the passing of the last remaining grandchild of Samuel Mills Damon. Her death triggered the end of the storied Damon Estate and the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of estate assets, including the beautiful gardens and century- old monkeypod trees.
Samuel Mills Damon received the garden and the entire ahupua‘a of Moanalua in 1884 as a gift from Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Damon had specified in his will that the park be set aside for the public’s use at the Damon Estate’s expense. The estate has spent about $600,000 a year to operate and maintain the gardens.
Nine months after Damon’s last grandchild, Joan Damon Haig, passed, the future of Moanalua Gardens is still in question.
The young ladies of Halau Hula Olana ‘Ai perform
a kahiko on the hula mound at last year’s Prince
Lot Hula Festival
“We’re now undergoing some serious negotiations with the estate and we’re continuing that,” says MGF president Alika Jamile. “I don’t think we’ll lose the festival, but we may lose the right to partake of the festival in the gardens itself.”
What Jamile says MGF would like is to form a partnership with the new owner of the property.
“We’re hoping that MGF may be able to secure some future success in doing that,” he says. “Whether that means we become a part-owner or whether we would become a participant with a larger organization, we would hopefully still provide them with the festival.”
The Prince Lot Hula Festival is named for Prince Lot, who became King Kamehameha V and ruled from 1863 to 1872, and whose summer cottage remains on the gardens’ grounds. Prince Lot is the king credited with reviving the hula in the district of Moanalua.
Prince Lot was noted for his energy, perseverance and strength of will in promoting the resurgence and preservation of Hawaiian culture in the face of Western pressure and criticism.
“Moanalua Gardens Foundation was started in 1970 to research and document the significant cultural and natural sites of Kamananui Valley in Moanalua in an effort to prevent the H-3 freeway from going through the valley,” explains MGF executive director Marilyn Schoenke. “The Prince Lot Hula Festival was then established in 1978 as a way to thank the community for its support of the foundation’s goals.”
Since its inception, the festival has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts for excellence, and received the “Keep it Hawaii” Kahili Award from the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau in 1990 and 1999.
The historic festival has become a cultural fixture, attracting up to 8,000 visitors every year, who come not only to watch the hula performances but also to enjoy the various Hawaiian art demonstrations such as lauhala weaving, feather lei making and native Hawaiian games. New this year is a language exhibition.
In addition, at the nearby school grounds, arts and crafts vendors sell their wares, and tasty foods, including local plate lunches and shave ice, are available.
While the Prince Lot Hula Festival is known worldwide, locals make up the majority of Prince Lot festival patrons, bringing their whole families — straw mats and beach chairs in hand — to sit under the trees and enjoy an entire day devoted to the perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture.
“I think the No. 1 thing about the festival is the setting,” says Vicky Holt Takamine, kumu hula of Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima, who has been with the festival since day one and also oversees the committee that selects and invites the various halau to the event each year. “Hula, to me, was not meant to be in a stadium or an auditorium. To enjoy hula on the hula pa (hula mound) at Prince Lot at Moanalua Gardens is probably the ultimate setting for hula. All of the elements we are talking about are right there: the trees, the sky, the wonderful weather … We’re put back into the realm of hula and what hula celebrates — the beauty of nature.”
Takamine’s halau will perform again this year, in addition to the halau of kumu hula like Leimomi Maldonado, Leimomi Ho, Hokulani DeRego, Mapuana de Silva, Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang. The halau of kumu hula Coline Aiu, Kamaka‘eu Williams, Leina‘ala Kalama Heine, Rich Padrina, Lehua Hulihee and Doreen Doo are also in the lineup. Each hula halau will have 20 minutes to perform. The emcees are Nalani Olds, singer and entertainer, and Wendell Silva, former executive director of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts.
“We actually have more halau wanting to perform than we have open slots,” says Takamine. “We started a rotating system so everybody is on the list and we rotate people on and off so we can accommodate more kumu hula.”
Takamine adds that they try to invite Neighbor Island halau as well, though they don’t have the funds to fly the halau to Oahu so the halau must raise the money on their own.
The first year of the Prince Lot Festival, only Leeward area halau were invited to participate. Today, halau from DeRego’s of Mililani to Hewett’s of Kaneohe participate.
One of the things that keeps halau interested in the festival is not only the generous time slot they’re offered to showcase their dancers, from keiki to kupuna, but also the opportunity to share their style and see what other halau are doing in a non-competitive setting.
“My halau hasn’t competed in about 20 years,” says Takamine. “We did Merrie Monarch up until 1985 and then I’ve been judging the last eight years. The Prince Lot Hula Festival for me has always been about family. We all come out, potluck and celebrate another year of halau. I get to bring everybody in the halau. I don’t have to choose the best dancers like you do in competition, but, of course, we still do our best.
“It’s a non-competitive spirit that’s there. It’s the spirit of aloha and sharing. You get there and you see old friends, you see other hula practitioners, kupuna, keiki, visitors, locals … it’s a real mix of everything that Hawaii has to offer.”
Schoenke notes that Prince Lot started the hula again in Moanalua just to share what the different halau knew with each other. That has remained the spirit of the festival.
“It wasn’t to compete against one another,” says Schoenke. “It was just to share what they learned throughout the year.”
The festival’s recurring theme celebrates this sentiment. Based on a traditional ‘oli that talks about hula people engaged in their cultural practices, the theme “Laukanaka Ka Hula” or “A Multitude of People Gather” speaks to people from all over who appreciate and love all aspects of hula.
Festival organizers have worked hard to maintain the integrity of the festival over the last three decades.
“The only things that have really changed over the years are how the festival has gotten bigger and the fact that now there’s hula auana (modern hula),” says Takamine. “For the first few years of the festival, it was only hula kahiko (ancient hula).”
Takamine explains during the mid-’70s and early ’80s, there was a strong emphasis on hula kahiko because so much of it was being lost. “During the Hawaiian renaissance, it was so important for that to be revived,” she says. “But today there’s an interest in both and we want to make sure there’s a nice balance of what’s being offered.”
Even for halau who dance hula auana at the festival, however, they are still required to keep with tradition and must bring their own musicians. No recorded music is allowed.
“We try to maintain a standard of excellence for hula,” says Takamine. “We really want to maintain and showcase the best of the hula.”
Takamine’s students are among the halau who make all their costumes and lei themselves.
“I think the hula presentations themselves have gotten better and better over the years,” says Takamine. “The excellence in the art form has really kicked it up several notches due to competitions elsewhere and the skill and expertise of the dancers.”
Being a spectator at the festival three years in a row is what convinced Jamile he really wanted to be a part of the MGF board.
Kumu hula Ed Collier of
“I was amazed at how many people attended the festival every year. I was very touched by it,” he says. “It’s the quality of the festival and the kumu hula and their respective groups.”
One thing Takamine would like to see return to the festival are the kumu themselves, joined in dance.
“One of my favorite moments from the Prince Lot festival was when Robert Cazimero and I got up to do a mele ma‘i together,” she says. “We used to ask all the kumu hula to do a dance together and we’ve gotten away from that. Maybe we’ll have to start thinking about that again because you rarely get to see them all dance.”
“What Moanalua Gardens Foundation does is to educate the community about the native culture and the environment of Hawaii,” adds Schoenke. “We want the community to be aware, then they will take better care of the land because the resources are not infinite.”
The land, the culture, and all that hula represents — the Prince Lot Festival embodies the special spirit of Hawaii, a spirit generations have fought to preserve.
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