Respectable (The) Kumu Hula

Miyuki Seto; unuhi ‘ia na Janyce Imoto


Hula Le‘a, Winter 2005
© Koji Hirai / Hula Le‘a, 2005
Māpuana de Silva at her home in Ka‘ōhao, Kailua.

Miyuki Seto is a writer and photographer for the sumptuously produced Japanese language magazine Hula Le‘a. This aptly subtitled "Stylish Hula & Hawaii Magazine" features comprehensive event reports and photo essays of all the major hula competitions and festivals -- from the MM to Prince Lot to the World Invitational -- as well as lengthy and stunningly photographed interviews of a veritable who’s-who of kumu hula ranging from the Kanaka‘ole sisters to Noenoe Zuttermeister Lewis to Rich Pedrina.

We who read no Japanese are reduced to looking at pictures and guessing at content, and we have often wondered, in particular, about the quality of the Hula Le‘a interviews:  are they deep or shallow?  critical or gaga?  incisive or clichéd?  Miyuki’s interview of Māpuana de Silva appeared in the winter 2005 issue of the magazine.  Miyuki and her editor Koji Hirai have agreed to our publication of Janyce Imoto’s English translation of that 10-page article.  Janyce is a 20-year student of Mōhala ‘Ilima; her translation, she says, is meant to capture the charm of Miyuki’s voice and phrasing.  We leave the larger questions of "deep or shallow" to you, e nā mea heluhelu aloha nui ‘ia (our dear readers), but we would be remiss if we neglected to convey the respectable kumu’s own response to the article: "It’s probably too flattering, but it also captures memories and beliefs that are very important to me.  You know, in spite of the language barrier, Miyuki was more thorough and accurate than many English writers who’ve interviewed me over the last 25 years.  I hope this gives some of our local journalists -- the 10-minute phone interview kind -- a real kick in the pants." 

 "There are as many hula styles as there are kumu hula." These are the words of Uncle George Nā‘ope, and they mean "as people’s faces differ, so does each kumu hula have a distinct hula style." Within the world of Hawaiian hula, I feel that Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima has a style with its own very unique qualities.
To this day, whether in Merrie Monarch or Queen Lili‘uokalani competition, Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima’s performances have always been distinguished by their refined quality.  The performances are never flashy and certainly not gaudily costumed.  In fact, even the ‘auana is performed without makeup (I learned later that they use absolutely nothing!) -- and my do they dance with an air of intelligence and tidiness.  Their smiling faces contribute to a soft appearance and their voices echo with poetic quality during the kahiko performances.  If I may be allowed to give my personal opinion, I would consider them to be the Shirayuri Gakuen or the Gakushuin of hula.*  I do not mean to say that these are simply girls from well-to-do families.  My impression is that they are girls raised properly in manner; they are confident and upright with a refined quality.  If I were a parent with a daughter, I’m sure I would want my daughter to enter this hālau; I’d know that she would gain the qualities needed in becoming upright and intelligent.  Such is the impression given by this hālau. 

The kumu hula is Māpuana de Silva.  As in the saying "The child is the reflection of the parent," so is the haumana is the reflection of the kumu.  It is clear that this kumu hula passes on her neat appearance and intelligence to her students.  When chanting on stage, Aunty Māpuana is always smiling, and she gives off an air of dignity.  Kindness, sternness, intelligence, and enthusiasm are all wrapped in that smile as she stands comfortably before us.  Such is the impression given by this kumu hula.

Editor-in-chief Hirai once said at a publication meeting, "In the present hula world, Māpuana de Silva may be the most straight-laced kumu hula there is."  Yes, I agree.  When she submits a description of a mele for competition, pages of information are submitted.  Also, because of the sincerity of her commitment to hula, I have often heard comments that her hula does not serve as entertainment, as sometimes happens with other hālau.  In the hula world, it is known with certainty that Māpuana is truly an educator. 

The location is Kailua, known for its beautiful, scenic, white sand beaches.  The home of Māpuana de Silva is just minutes from the famous beach known as Lanikai.  In her large garden there are ‘ōhi‘a lehua trees, ti plants, and a large variety of other native Hawaiian plants.  Aunty Māpuana was waiting in the large room on the first floor that once served as a practice studio for the hālau.  We had lost our way and arrived a little after the promised time, but nevertheless, she greeted us warmly.

"Welcome, welcome!  I was waiting for you!  Come in, come in!  I’m changing for the picture-taking so please wait a little.  Oh, and the restroom is this way.  Would you like something to drink?"

Seeing her bright smile gave me the impression that she had been looking forward to the photo shoot and all images of that stern educator vanished from my mind.  She said, "We could take several shots and later you can decide which is best," as she pointed out the four different dresses she had chosen to wear.  She had prepared well, and because of this the photo shoot went smoothly.  Directly after the photo shoot, the interview began.

To begin with, she talked briefly about her childhood.  "Most people think that I’ve taken hula since I was a child, but that is incorrect.  I began my formal training in hula after I graduated from college.  I started late, don’t you think?" she laughed.  "Before that the extent of my hula training was the six weeks of hula we were taught during my physical education class in high school.  I think it was about 1965 when I was 16 that I first learned ‘Kāwika.’"

Aunty Māpuana’s parents were born on the island of Maui but had moved to O’ahu well before Māpuana was born.  There were no kumu hula or music professionals in her family.  "However, my father was very good at playing the ‘ukulele.  And I think this is common with most Hawaiian families: when something special occurred, right away everyone gathered for a party.  At times like those, we would often have fun dancing to hapa haole songs." 

The truth is that when Aunty Māpuana was a child, there was not much emphasis on the hula and learning it was a not a common thing . . . Even at Kamehameha, a school for Hawaiian children, standing hula was not allowed.  Hula noho, hula performed sitting down, was allowed.  Hula dancing standing up was not performed until around 1965.  Such was the state of hula when Māpuana was a child.

Upon graduating from high school, she attended a college in Oregon to become a physical education teacher.  At this time, of course, she had no thoughts of becoming a kumu hula.  When I heard, however, that it was her dream to become an educator, I could understand why she applied her effort in this direction.  It was her original dream to follow a path that would allow her to become a teacher, so, in a sense, by becoming a kumu hula, Aunty Māpuana realized her original intention.

It was at Christmas in 1971.  Upon graduating from college, Aunty Māpuana had returned to her home in Hawai‘i.  Because she was not able to find a position as a physical education teacher, she had begun doing other kinds of work.  At this time, her roommate from her college days in Oregon paid a visit to Hawai‘i.  At her former roommate’s suggestion, they went to see a lesson given by Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake.  After watching Aunty Maiki just this once, Māpuana de Silva knew that "Aunty Maiki would be my life-long kumu."  With this conviction in her heart, she proceeded to join the hālau.

"When Aunty Maiki taught her students, she did it with love in her heart.  I could see right away how much she loved hula and how much joy teaching her students brought her.  Even today, I can remember how, in an instant, I was filled with desire to learn from her."

On February 4, 1972, Māpuana de Silva began her lessons at Aunty Maiki’s hālau.  During the first year, she learned only ‘auana numbers, and she diligently attended her once-a-week lessons. 

"I absorbed everything. I learned like a sponge.  Prior to this, I had never paid much attention to the meaning of Hawaiian songs.  But after receiving Aunty Maiki’s meaningful lessons, I was able to se the importance in all mele.  lEven the songs I knew nothing about.  It felt like an awakening to things I never saw or heard before."

Because Aunty Māpuana is such a famous kumu hulu, there is no need for lengthy explanations.  However, I would like to say a few words about her.  We introduced her previously in the 12th issue of Hula Le‘a.  The late Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake was given her hula tradition from the late Lōkālia Montgomery.  Aunty Maiki was a great kumu hula and was instrumental in passing on the hula, allowing the hula world to flouring to what it is today.  That is to say, in the 1970s, most kumu hula were either family members or the few chosen successors who were allowed to ‘ūniki.  However, Aunty Maiki never held back her knowledge to anyone who had the passion and desire to learn hula and allowed even those beyond her family to learn.  As a result, many young people were allowed to ‘uniki as kumu hula, and it can be said that this led to the reinvigoration of the hula world today.

About one year after Aunty Māpuana began her lessons with Aunty Maiki, she learned that a kahiko class was to open, and right away she submitted her application to join.  Remembering this, she giggled when she said: "The truth is I joined the class because I really wanted to learn kahiko.  But a few months later, just around the time we began to learn the ipu, I realized for the first time that it was actually an ‘ūniki class for kumu hula.  After all, with Aunty Maiki, a dancer is not allowed to pa’i and chant with the ipu for other dancers.  Only kumu hula are allowed to do that."  To enter an ‘ūniki class for kumu hula without knowing it?  I guess this shows that even Aunty Māpuana can get lost in enthusiasm when it comes to doing something she really wants.  At any rate, such was the beginning of her two years of training to become a kumu hula.

"During her lifetime, Aunty Maiki conducted four ‘uniki classes for kumu hula.  Each class had a name, and the class I was in was the ‘Ilima class which began in 1973.  The lessons were on Friday nights from 7:00 p.m.  The classes were scheduled for two hours each.  But they never ended on time and often lasted until very late at night.  Many times we were there past 1:00 a.m.

"To explain what the lessons were like:  one day we would be given the words to a chant, and she would first teach us the meaning of its words.  She would then teach us how to chant it.  Then we would learn how to dance it, as well as how to pa‘i the chant on the ipu.  We usually learned everything in one class.  Then, for the next week’s class, we had to have everything fully memorized.  Of course, on days when there were no classes, I had to practice on my own for up to four hours each day in order to get everything memorized.  So in those days, I came to understand about life that was truly, full-immersed in hula." 

When I asked Aunty Māpuana if she had been proficient in the Hawaiian language even then, she answered without hesitation, "No."  She could understand some of the vocabulary, but mostly everything she learned then was by rote-memory alone.  It’s difficult for me to imagine how this was possible, but I can clearly see how much effort was applied to fully memorize one chant a week.

‘Ūniki means "to graduate," and the ‘ūniki ritual differs with each kumu hula or hālau.  Also, because the ritual is spiritual, it is expected that one would refrain from sharing the details of the ‘ūniki process.  However, Aunty Māpuana was gracious in sharing a little about her pre-‘ūniki experience with the readers of Hula Le‘a.

"When the ‘Ilima class began, we students had no idea how many years it would take to complete our ‘ūniki.  The kumu decided everything, and it was for us to intently immerse ourselves in hula.  Then one day in 1975, Aunty Maiki gave each of us the fabric to make the costume that we would ‘ūniki in.  With this, we knew for the first time that our ‘uniki was near."

The rituals for ‘ūniki are quite serious and spiritual.  There are some who ask, "Exactly what kind of ritual is it?"  But I feel that until the time of ‘uniki, this should be left as a surprise for the one who is going through it.  If you know everything before it happens, there’s nothing to look forward to," she laughingly commented.

In 1976, Māpuana de Silva began her hālau at her home in Kailua.  But this didn’t mean that she was totally confident about the endeavor.  Although her love for hula had grown considerably during her ‘ūniki process, there were many times that she wondered, "Am I truly qualified to do this?"  So she felt a bit hesitant and afraid to travel on her path as a kumu hula.  However, it was her strong desired to pass-on what she had learned from Aunty Maiki, who she deeply respected, and the support of her family that encouraged her to proceed.  She started her hālau with the decision to begin with a small class.

The hālau name, Mōhala ‘Ilima, includes the name of her own ‘ūniki class " ‘Ilima " which was the source of her hula training.  Mōhala means "to blossom, ripen, or mature."  It also means "to nurture or to understand."  So her hope for the ‘ilima -- her students -- to mōhala is clearly signified in her choice of hālau name. 

At first, her students were friends and family members, but soon, by word of mouth, her enrollment began to increase, and within months she had enough students to hold classes everyday.

About 20 years ago, a book introducing Hawai‘i’s kumu was published.  In that publication, Māpuana de Silva expressed,  "It is my duty and mission to pass on the tradition I received from Aunty Maiki by reviving the old chants that have been lost and to create new hula to pass on to future generations."  In regards to teaching hula, these two points have been guideposts for Aunty Māpuana and have remained unchanged from the time she began her hālau 29 years ago.  She is determined to never alter what she learned from her teacher, and to pass it on, exactly as she learned it, to her own students.  And she has applied her efforts to creating hula for chants about Kailua whose words alone have been passed down through time.  We could easily lose sight of these chants; they could be buried to the point where history and tradition are entirely lost.  But because Aunty Māpuana adds hula to them, they will reach the eyes and ears of others, and they can be brought back to life again. 

When creating hula that is typical to Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima, Māpuana is careful to apply much effort and research.  Nothing is presented on a whim or mere fanciful thought.  Tradition is always the basis, and it is blended with her own individual style to create new dances.  Here is an episode from 1980; it occurred during the hālau’s second year in the Merrie Monarch competition.  Her kahiko dancers went on stage adorned in feather lei po‘o.  This feather lei po‘o has long since become a trademark of the hālau.  At the time, however, several judges commented, "Feathers were worn only by ali‘i, so is it proper for dancers to be adorned by them?"  When Aunty Māpuana learned of this opinion at the meeting for the next year’s competition, she researched with her husband Kīhei to demonstrate that even dancers of common rank sometimes wore feather lei.  A 20-page report was then submitted to gain the approval of the judges.

Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima is easily identified by its lines of dancers wearing feather lei po‘o, puffy blouses, and striped skirts.  This style of costuming typifies the hālau and was chosen after Māpuana and Kīhei discovered pictures of costumes worn by court dancers in the days after King Kalākaua revived the hula.  I thought that this research was so typical of Māpuana de Silva, but I was further surprised and floored to my knees when I received another answer regarding her decision to use the costumes. 

These costumes actually have an economic reason behind them.  Aunty Māpuana does not think it is important to apply a lot of money to new costumes every year.  She would rather her students use that money for traveling with their families, or going to the movies, or nurturing their emotions.  The amount she gathers from the dancers during the Merrie Monarch competition is a mere $50 fee for their costumes.  At this time, I know of no other hālau like this.  Even if you say that costume fees in Hawai‘i are not as much as they are in Japan.  If you consider the cost of costumes and flowers for the hair for an ‘auana number, it is common for dancers in other hālau to pay at least $200.  

"The hālau presently has four to five different sets of blouses and skirts.  Every year, I think about the combinations and decide on which to use.  Sometimes we will either make new tops or bottoms, but often the skirts we wear will be from two years ago, or the blouse will be the same as last year’s.  I still use costumes from 20-25 years ago.  If the skirts get too old, we use them as under-skirts," Aunty Māpuana giggled as she commented.  "I dislike spending more than necessary on costumes.  Even if the judges decide to lower our scores because we are using the same costumes, neither the dancers nor I let this bother us.  After all, what is important in the hula?"  

When dancing kahiko at Merrie Monarch, it is a rule that no make-up be applied.  In reality, however, there are many hālau whose dancers use make-up even in kahiko numbers.  Once when I asked a certain kumu hula about this practice, the answer was, "Oh, it’s not make-up.  It’s just a little touch-up."  But no matter how hard I tried, it looked like heavy make-up to me, and I wondered if I was the only one who thought so.

In this aspect, Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima truly uses absolutely no make-up.  That is to say, not only during kahiko but even during the ‘auana numbers, no make-up is used!  Actually, it has been two years since the ban of using eyeliner and mascara was lifted for ‘auana numbers only.  But even if you say that!? . . . Usually when getting ready for an ‘auana performance, the dancers will say, "Let’s put on our make-up."  But for Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima it is: "We will now prepare for our ‘auana performance, so let’s wash our faces clean!"

 "For a lady, I agree that it is necessary for one to beautify oneself.  But I don’t feel that heavy make-up will make a woman more beautiful.  That is why, at the hālau, it’s okay to use some make-up during practices.  But when they go on stage, I make everyone wash their faces. (laughs)  I desire for my students to be as beautiful as they can when they stand on stage and to dance in a manner that is most complimentary to them.  Through learning the hula, one learns to express strength and beauty from within.  That’s why make-up and flashy costumes are not necessary."

Thinking that I would receive a stern answer, I asked, "Presently, hula is very popular in Japan.  There are many who feel joy at being able to wear beautiful costumes when dancing.  Aunty Māpuana, what is your opinion on this?"

She answered, "Of course it is a pleasure to dance when adorning oneself with nice things.  However, if that is the extent of what will allow you to feel joy, in my opinion I cannot consider that as hula.  What we are able to learn through hula is something deeper than that.  We are able to learn the beautiful language of Hawai‘i, about the life and knowledge of the Hawaiian people of the past, and about the history which unfolded in each era.  We are also able to deepen the trust and bond we have with the hula sisters we are learning with, and at the same time we can polish our character by nurturing feelings of kindness and respect within ourselves.  This is what I consider as learning hula.

I believe, for those who have found the path which allows them to polish their character, even when they age with time, they are more than beautiful without having to rely on make-up or costumes."

* Shirayuri Gakuen and Gakushuin are prestigious all-girl schools in Japan, commonly attended by young girls whose families desire them to become well-educated and socially refined women.