As sweet pikake blooms even sweeter, ulu ripens, Pali winds whip up and soft rains tickle the Koolaus, another force of nature is swaying into gear. And that is Na Kamalei O Lililehua, kumu Robert Cazimero’s all-male halau, embarking on its decennial migration to the chief of all hula celebrations, Hilo’s Merrie Monarch Festival (merriemonarch.com).
If you know Na Kamalei, this year’s appearance at Merrie Monarch is a milestone, being as these hula brothers only compete on that hallowed stage every 10 years. They performed there two years ago in celebration of Merrie Monarch’s 50th, but the men of Na Kamalei last competed in 2005 — and they swept top honors.
“You do what you can do for seven minutes, for seven judges,” says Cazimero. “You are putting yourself up in front of them, and it is a toss of the coin every single time.”
During the competition, the men dance twice, once on kahiko (ancient) day and the next day an ‘auana (modern) number. Ask Cazimero the most rewarding aspect of bringing his halau to Merrie Monarch and the most challenging aspect, and he has a simple answer for both: getting there.
“Getting there means everything,” he says, and he seems to be talking not just about the immediate task at hand, but also life’s holistic process. “Getting there incorporates everything from the very beginning, from 40 years ago. Getting there also means the journey to be in Hilo and then to get through the competition.”
This year marks four decades since Cazimero took on six young men as his first hula pupils, a bold move at the time, since hula was not considered particularly manly for a contemporary rock ‘n’ roll era youngster of the ’70s. And an all-male halau? Unheard of. But in breaking with the status quo, he was following the orders and blessings of his own kumu, Maiki ‘Aiu Lake.
Na Kamalei first attended Merrie Monarch in ’76 the year a kane division was added, just a year after the halau was formed. They competed yearly until ’79, when Cazimero decided putting a few years’ space between Merrie Monarch entries would be more practical, considering the cost of air and ground transportation, food and lodging. By 2005, rather than waiting the usual decade, they decided that dancing at Merrie Monarch would be a grand way to celebrate the halau’s 30th. Now they’re back for their big 4-0.
Two of Cazimero’s original students will join the group in Hilo, but with the maximum age entry of 55, they’ll be contributing their support through tasks from driving to cooking, rather than dancing. Roughly 40 students currently comprise the halau, with a total of 19 taking part in the competition each night. The finale is always bittersweet, as the halau’s rare attendance means that another set of elder dancers will retire out of the Merrie Monarch age bracket after the April 5-11 festivities.
Within the past three years, Cazimero reinvigorated the group by accepting several “young men,” age 30 and under, with current students as young as 17.
“When you’ve been teaching as long as I have, and when there are so many new teachers coming up, students will sometimes look to a younger teacher,” says Cazimero. “Then, there’s me and this 40-year institution, which can be kind of intimidating. Our work and my reputation can precede me.”
Being part of Cazimero’s halau means being part of his family:
“Ours is a different halau, in that I haven’t charged for lessons. My kumu told me that to have a gentleman dance hula for you is a privilege, so I thought to myself, ‘I never paid, so they’re not going to pay.’ I have the luxury of it being almost like a shared hobby and therefore it becomes more a family.”
Speaking of family, Cazimero humbly blames his knack for making headlines on having created a male halau, but that’s only part of his prolific appeal. He’s even more recognized for his and younger brother Roland’s award-winning musical duo, Brothers Cazimero (on hiatus this year, with Roland ill). These two, among 12 siblings, have circled the globe together, from California to New York and Europe to Japan, be it for their music or for Na Kamalei. The tight travel and performance schedule that keeps Robert out of state more than half the year contributes to the halau’s rare Merrie Monarch appearances. Cazimero loves the opportunity to travel and has an exciting “first” planned for a bit later this year — a trip to New Zealand.
“There’s a definite energy to Hawaii,” he says. “When I’m feeling low and down, I go outside and put my feet on the ground because I believe in that energy. I want to know the energy of Aotearoa.”