HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - O'Brian Eselu drove his dancers to move with passion and vigor, a style of hula that combined power and grace. His all-male halau, Ke Kai O Kahiki, won multiple titles at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival.
"They had the loudest applause. They had the loudest screams because it was very exciting. It was very masculine," said John Aeto, Eselu's longtime business manager
"His men all had that physique and that strength of the body already," friend and kumu hula Chinky Mahoe said. "He worked with that body that he had and brought out that beauty in the hula."
Eselu became enthralled with Hawaiian culture and dance at a young age. As a kumu hula, he was a visionary.
"He would dream the dance and visualize it. And then he would draw it with stick figures," Aeto said.
Eselu's artistry was also on display for over thirty years as the director of the Polynesian show at Paradise Cove.
"I was trying to think about how many people, visitors and kamaaina alike that he entertained. It must have been well over a million, maybe two," Paradise Cove president and CEO Keith Horita said.
Besides hula, Eselu also excelled as a singer and composer. His R&B roots added to a unique Hawaiian music style that earned him a Na Hoku Hanohano award.
"That's really what he's most famous for in the recording industry, his unique falsetto sound," Aeto said.
Eselu graduated from Aiea High School in 1973. He was Samoan, firmly committed to the Mormon Church and to hula.
"For someone to embrace another person's culture full on like how he did -- hat's off to him," Mahoe said.
Those close to him said although Eselu suffered from diabetes and was on dialysis treatments, he was in good health.
He died Monday night in his sleep at his Halawa home. He was 56.
"The major emotions we're feeling in the community is shock and disbelief." Aeto said.
Eselu once said he used hula to unite people. He was a student of his art, and it showed.
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Statement from Paradise Cove:
The voice of one of Hawaii's most beloved entertainers has been silenced, with the passing of O'Brian Eselu. Co-workers at Paradise Cove Lu'au in the Ko Olina Resort – where Eselu had worked for 32 years -- began gathering early today to comfort one another and share stories of their respected kumu (teacher), entertainer and friend. Eselu had been living with diabetes and related health issues.
As Entertainment Director for Paradise Cove Lu'au, O'Brian Eselu taught two generations of hula dancers and Hawaiian musicians, entertained many thousands of island visitors, and provided cultural guidance at the popular attraction.
"O'Brian Eselu was a cultural treasure, a talented composer and musician, and a gifted kumu," said Keith Horita, President and CEO of Paradise Cove Lu'au
"O'Brian was a teacher, a leader, and a friend who inspired and motivated so many of Hawaii's youth, especially along O'ahu's Wai'anae Coast, and so many of our islands' visitors, with his wisdom, compassion and humor -- and his true sense of aloha," added Horita.
"As humble as he was, O'Brian was born to entertain. He loved it. Audiences loved it. And I'm so glad that his aloha spirit can live on through the performers and musicians in his halau and here at Paradise Cove."
Eselu's hula group, Halau Ke Kai O Kahiki (The Seas of the Ancestral Land) won top honors as the best overall halau and best male halau at the 2011 Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. Many of the group's disciplined young men worked with Eselu at Paradise Cove.
"O'Brian was, by far, our most popular emcee," said Horita. "We've literally had visitors come back to Paradise Cove and ask if O'Brian would be emceeing that evening's show. We've had requests from U.S. Senators, APEC delegates and even the White House."
Eselu directed the Paradise Cove Hawaiian Revue, a popular evening show that features hula, fire knife dancing, comedy and live Hawaiian music.
"O'Brian will be missed -- no doubt about that. But his spirit will live on in our performances. He always encouraged our dancers and musicians to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture through song and dance." Horita said. "I really think those were O'Brian's great loves – his students and his culture. And those are his legacy."