HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Ke Kai O Kahiki swept the kane division at the Merrie Monarch Festival in 2010 and also placed first overall -- a recognition the Waianae halau has taken home four times.
In 2012, their beloved Kumu O'Brian Eselu unexpectedly died. Three years later, the men are settling into a rhythm under the direction of a former hula brother who once led the front line.
"When O'Brien passed I knew he was capable of taking it on – you know, just finishing O'Brien's work. And to me he has. That's what inspired me to come back," said Carl Na'ea Naeole, who started dancing with the halau in 1987.
The kane of Ke Kai O Kahiki say Kumu La'akea Perry is keeping Eselu's legacy alive and thriving.
"I don't think there's anybody else that could've filled O'Brien's shoes. La'a was born for it pretty much," said Jacob Makepa, who has been dancing for the past ten years. "He went the extra mile to be where he is. And so where he is, he deserves to be there. Definitely."
The men have been preparing for Merrie Monarch for months and they're no strangers to the festival stage. The halau has placed first in the male kahiko division five times in the last 15 years.
"As all dancers know -- going through this year of preparation -- blood, sweat and tears. I think just getting on that stage -- or making the line -- is a trophy in itself, but taking home that prize, of course -- any halau would be more than happy," described Lonoehu Kum, who has competed at Merrie Monarch seven times.
The halau's style of dance, 'ai ha'a, is physically grueling and training is a must. Weekly practices at Lanikohonua include running laps and climbing coconut trees.
"In times when you're dying and your legs are about to fall apart and you're on fire -- you got to give that extra bit of more effort to stay with it and pull through. Not only for you, you're doing it for your brothers too," explained Makepa.
Getting ready for hula's biggest stage requires not just hours of practice to perfect the motions, but also a clear understanding of the mele, or song, they're performing. This year's kahiko mele is a chant about Pele's movement that was composed for the halau by Aunty Nalani Kanaka'ole.
"The mele talks about Pele and her process of consuming, cleansing and creating new land. To do this mele at this time, it wasn't something that we planned. It just happened by inspiration and to see the connection between what we're doing and what's going on there now was like the inspiration was received correctly," described Kumu Perry.
The chant was written to be performed by Perry specifically, but the new kumu says he felt it was an appropriate tribute for the entire halau to dance it in honor of Eselu and his kane say they're humbled by the opportunity.
"The difference this year is we have to take our hula spirit to a whole other level -- not just our dancing. I think it's the spirit that's inside of us that has to come out and that's all along what O'Brien has taught us. Aloha, aloha, aloha -- and that needs to come out in our hula," said Kum.
Kumu Perry says the most important thing he hopes to convey is that their mele isn't about destruction but a natural process that's been going on from the beginning of time that still continues today.
"The generation that live in harmony with Pele are dying out. They're no longer there, and this is just a reminder to everyone," said Perry.
Ke Kai O Kahiki's 'auana number also pays tribute to the people of Hawai'i Island.