As kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad thumps his pahu drum, the men of Ka Leo o Laka i ka Hikina o ka La move with masculine grace to the beat. Their unified voices, powerful and strong, resonate through a school gym in Kaneohe, a look of fierceness and resolve on their faces as they rehearse for next month’s 52nd Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.
The Honolulu halau, last year’s overall winner, is returning with more than 25 dancers and a soloist for the Miss Aloha Hula contest. It’s the halau’s 11th time competing at the Merrie Monarch, considered the Olympics of hula.
While Trinidad, 39, could have sat out this year, as halau often do because of the intense preparation required to compete, he chose to bring his group back one more time before taking a few years’ break. Following tradition, the previous year’s winners will perform last.
“I believe in that competition so much, what it stands for,” he said. “We knew that as overall winners it would be important for us to return at least one more time so we would be there for the finale of the performances on the kahiko and auana nights.”
The Merrie Monarch Festival kicks off April 5 with a ho’olaule’a. The hula competition begins April 9 with Miss Aloha Hula, followed by group kahiko (ancient-style hula) April 10 and group auana (contemporary) and announcement of winners April 11 at the Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.
Trinidad’s halau has been rehearsing since January, with preparations that include making the designs on their costumes and making all their hula implements. He requires his dancers to do all of this as part of their journey to Hilo.
Twenty-eight groups — 10 kane and 18 wahine from throughout the isles, including Molokai — are participating this year.
Performing in the final spot is “a position of honor,” Trinidad said. And yet, there’s the pressure of going on late in the evening after the other halau have provided stirring performances.
The bar is set higher every year, and a slate of strong contenders will be among this year’s kane groups. Among them: kumu hula Robert Cazimero’s Halau Na Kamalei o Lililehua, which is returning after a 10-year hiatus. The last time the halau competed was in 2005, when it took the overall title.
Kumu hula Chinky Mahoe’s Kawaili’ula, overall winner in 2013, also will be competing, as will Halau Na Mamo o Pu’uanahulu under kumu hula Sonny Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera. Another entry: past overall winner Ke Kai Kahiki, led by kumu La’akea Perry, who is carrying on the legacy of the late O’Brian Eselu.
Always a crowd-pleaser with a surprise up his sleeve, kumu hula Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu will have kane and wahine entries from his Academy of Hawaiian Arts in Oakland, Calif.
For Trinidad, who was taught by Randie Fong, Wayne Keahi Chang and Holoua Stender, the tradition of male hula is alive and well. There’s a waiting list for his kane hula class at Kamehameha Schools, where he teaches.
“Male hula is really interesting because Ithink everybody’s so used to seeing females dance, and so when men come on the stage, they feel a different kind of power,”Trinidad said. “They feel a raw strength, whereas the feminine hula is so graceful. What’s interesting this year is that we’re trying to combine the raw power with the grace.”
For kahiko, Trinidad’s men are performing a pahu hula in honor of Keopuolani, the sacred, high-ranking, Maui-born wife of Kamehameha. The composition, by Fong, celebrates her birth and lineage.
As part of their preparation, the halau members took a trip to Maui to visit the heiau where Keopuolani was born. While there, a sunrise that covered the mountain peak of Puu Kukui in red inspired part of the design on their malo.
For auana the halau celebrates Manoa with a John Almeida composition, “Beauty Hula,” which speaks of the gentle, misty Tuahine rain and “miulan,” or champaca blossom. Half the dancers will be using kalaau (wooden rhythm sticks) while the other half will be using ipu (gourds), creating a duet between the two implements.
Last year Trinidad’s halau performed a kahiko celebrating Niihau, while their top-placing auana told of the Hokule’a’s 1992 sail from Hawaii to Raiatea while paying tribute to the double-hulled canoe’s worldwide voyage, now underway.
He and a few members of the halau had the honor of greeting the Hokule’a with hula and chant when it reached New Zealand in November.
This year’s Merrie Monarch numbers will be traditional, according to Trinidad, who says he cherishes all he’s been taught. He adds his own creative imprint through what he calls “the framing” — the choreography of the kai (entrance) and hoi (exit)and the staging of the number.
The halau’s Miss Aloha Hula contestant is Tifeni Gene Ann Kanoe Elvenia. What’s unusual is that Elvenia, 23, is also being trained by kumu Kimo Alama Keaulana. She has been a student of both.
Trinidad says he considers Keaulana a loea (hula master) and is honored to be collaborating with him.
“I would never have been able to teach the hulas that she’ll be dancing,” he said. “So what she’ll be doing is very special.”
Preparing for the group competition requires much thought and care in every detail, Trinidad said, from the selection of songs to costume design, as well as every word and motion.
The beauty, he said, is when it all comes together, when a hula passed down from generation to generation is transported through time and brought to life onstage.
“It becomes extremely spiritual,” he said. “That’s the thing about hula. It’s physical, it’s mental and spiritual all at the same time. That’s another reason why it’s so powerful.”