HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Robert Cazimero is much more than just an accomplished singer and musician -- he is also considered one of the most renown Kumu hula of our time, but Halau Na Kamalei o Lililehua only goes to Merrie Monarch once every ten years!
This year their highly anticipated return to the Festival stage happens to also coincide with a major milestone for the halau -- their 40th anniversary.
"To have the opportunity 40 years later to be going through this is to be first of all grateful and to be really happy being a part of something so amazingly, wonderful. If we are going to profess that ours is a living culture than you know, hula and dance and music is definitely really high up there. Just to have something to hold onto as Hawaiians and to be able to say this is from us, from the people who came before us and we can be proud of it and keep it going," said Kumu Robert Cazimero.
Since the halau only goes once a decade -- on stage alongside veteran dancers will also be kane who've never competed.
"It's kind of amazing to have our first competition be Merrie Monarch and it's kind of scary too but it's great when we have hula brothers like the hula brothers we have -- it's an amazing journey," said Kaipo Leopoldino, who has been dancing for Kumu Cazimero for four years.
"My footsteps up there and the legacy that I'll leave behind and then hopefully come back to later on -- it's more than just hula, it's a journey," explained 17-year-old Parker Spencer.
So much changes in the span between Merrie Monarch competitions, even dancers who've gone before say the experience is exhilerating.
"I was telling the guys just the other day, these people have been waiting ten years to see us so when we get up on stage -- the silence that happened in 2005 was almost overwhelming, because you could hear a pin drop and I told them that's probably what's going to happen again because people are so excited to see what we're going to do," said Kyle Atabay, an alaka'i who has been dancing with Na Kamalei for 31 years.
Kumu Cazimero competes in Merrie Monarch so infrequently, one dancer has been flying back and forth from California every weekend for the past month just to practice because he doesn't want to miss out on what could be his last chance on the festival stage.
"You can't really describe how it feels. You kind of step on there and the 'oli starts and then you start dancing and then all of a sudden it's done and you're walking off the stage. It's almost like an out-of-body experience. It's hard to explain, but it's almost like you're not there in the moment and you're kind of hovering above and all of a sudden that seven minutes is up and you're walking off the stage and you're kind of wondering wait -- did it all just happen?! It's over just like that," described Todd Tajiri, who started dancing with Na Kamalei in 1998.
Both their 'auana and kahiko mele honor the halau's O'ahu home.
"It's amazing. It's nothing I've ever seen on that Merrie Monarch stage and I've heard it many a time -- people will say, you never have seen it -- but this is truly, nobody has ever seen. It's a story that a lot people have never heard before, so to be able to tell that story to the world -- that energy right there and that feeling -- just to be able to do that is awesome," explained Alaka'i Lastimado, who has been dancing with Na Kamalei for the last four years.
Adding to the excitement is the fact this year is also the halau's 40th anniversary.
Kumu Cazimero says he invited all his former dancers to come back with him this year, but Aunty Luana Kawelu, the Festival president, has a rule that if you're a teacher with students -- you cannot be in the line.
"What I didn't realize was that she was giving us a gift -- that gift was that all my students came back anyway. They are chanting with me, they are cooking the food, they are driving the vans, they are picking up stuff at Costco, they are ironing costumes for the ones who are in it. Now if that isn't a 40 year full-fledged hula school believing that hula is life then I have been wasting 40 years of my life trying to prove my Kumu Maiki Aiu is a genius," Kumu Cazimero said with a smile, leaning back in his chair before adding with a laugh, "It's not."