Before Merrie Monarch begins, halau offer special performances for loved ones, supporters

MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Every year, a handful of halau who are not competing in kahiko or 'auana night are invited to a Merrie Monarch showcase Wednesday night.

It's a welcome ceremony of sorts that prepares everyone -- from halau to audience -- for the next three nights of competition.

The Hawaiian word ho'ike means "to show" or "exhibit", but the Ho'ike taking place Wednesday night isn't the only one leading up to competition.

For the 29 halau who are invited to compete, not all their family or friends are able to make the trek to Hilo -- which is why many, like Halau I Ka Wekiu, have a Ho'ike of their own prior to leaving for the festival as a mahalo for those who have supported their journey.

On Easter Sunday, before a standing-room-only crowd in the Mid-Pacific Institute gym, Halau I Ka Wekiu treated those who have helped make this year's competition possible with a sneak peek of their Merrie Monarch performances.

"It's a good starter to the week. It kind of gives us a perspective of where we're at in front of an audience, but the audience is our loved ones so they're here supporting us and they want us to do well," said Matthew Solomon, who has been dancing with the halau for nearly 15 years.

The 2012 overall combined division winners have been on a break from the festival stage, but after watching from the stands for the last few years, they're ready to return to competition.

"It's an eye-opener for me when I get to watch and see how good our hula has become just because of everyone's love for it. Because you don't do it just to do it. It's something that you love and want to do," said Kumu Karl Veto-Baker of Halau I Ka Wekiu.

The halau spent their time away refocusing, rejuvenating and tackling some major projects. The kane made their own 'uli'uli and lei hulu for their kahiko performance. The wahine created their own kahili -- along with picking, cleaning and weaving the hala for their lau hala mats.

"When they say blood sweat and tears, that's what we think about when we see our finished products. We have our lau hala mats, our kahili, our lei hulu -- and even seeing all the people that helped us along the way. It really connects us. And we bring them on the stage, too," said front-line dancer Nanea Oda.

Also with the halau in heart and spirit will be Kumu Michael Lanakila Casupang and Karl Veto-Baker's late hula brother, Keo Woolford -- who died unexpectedly last year after suffering a stroke at the age of 49. The wahine's 'auana number will honor Woolford with a mele from his movie "The Haumana".

"He definitely left an impression on everyone he worked with -- everyone that got to meet him, he just gave freely. So the song 'Aloha Aku, Aloha Mai' says when love is given, love is received. And that's what I wanted to express to him," said Kumu Michael Lanakila Casupang of Halau I Ka Wekiu.

The song was inspired by a thank you poem written by Kumu Casupang for Woolford after working on the film. Woolford took his hula brother's words and set it to music with help from their Kumu, Robert Cazimero. He passed before getting a chance to see it brought to life on the Merrie Monarch stage, but not before knowing it had been selected. A tribute he expressed being humbled by with his trademark: "Wow!"

"That's the message of this song -- just give love freely. Don't expect anything in return. And also, let the people around you that make you who you are and support you -- remind them that you appreciate them and you love them," said Casupang.

Halau I Ka Wekiu is no stranger to the festival stage or the Merrie Monarch audience. They are two-time combined divisions overall winners -- in 2007 and 2012.

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