By Léo Azambuja

Hula dancers perform at the 2017 Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival. Photo by Malie Foundation/Joe Olivas

More than three decades ago, three Hawaiian musicians on Kaua‘i started a visionary composers’ contest. Armed with ideas too modern for their time and a few dollars in their pockets, they weren’t too sure if the event would be financially possible.

“I said, ‘If we make a profit, that’s my sign to continue.’ After everything was done, we made $5,” said “Uncle” Nathan Kalama, the mastermind behind the first Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival held in 1984.

That tiny profit has gone a long way. Today, the weeklong festival held every September is in its 34th edition, and has become a showpiece for the evolution and reinvention of Hawaiian music and hula dancing.

“It’s a contemporary view of our culture,” said Kalama. “There are other festivals that concentrate on the traditional side of the culture; they stick within a boundary. I purposely didn’t want to go there because I felt that our culture is constantly evolving.”

The Mālie musical trio, left to right, James ‘Ekolu’ Panui, Larry Duhaylongsod and the only surviving member, Nathan Kalama, circa 1980s.

Back in the early 1980s, Kalama, along with James “Ekolu” Panui and Larry Keli‘i Duhaylongsod, raised the bar on cultural creativity and artistic license — along with more than a few eyebrows — when they joined talents to form the group Mālie. In 1984, Kalama proposed to his music partners a new music and hula festival as an avenue for Hawaiian artists to express their talents. But Kalama said it had to be something different and unique, “something that no other hula competition was doing.”

Had the Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival stuck within old, traditional cultural boundaries, he said, it could never include the cultural changes happening in Hawai‘i in modern times.

“We consider ourselves to be a contemporary Hawaiian festival that’s open to try new things within our culture,” said Kalama, the only surviving member of Mālie. Panui and Duhaylongsod passed away years ago, but Kalama continued the group’s legacy by being the festival’s director for a quarter of century.

Nine years ago, kumu hula Maka Herrod took over the position of festival director. He had been helping Kalama since before Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992. Herrod started participating in the festival as a contestant in the mid-1990s, entering his kane (men), wahine (women), and keiki (children) dancers over the years. He also served as a host for the halau of his “hula brother,” the late kumu hula Doric Yaris.

This year’s Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival starts Sunday, Sept. 23 with a special service, and music and hula at the Kapa‘a First Hawaiian Church, founded by Queen Deborah Kapule in 1879.

Musician Shilo Pa performs during a past Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival
Photo by Mālie Foundation/Joe Olivas

On Monday, Sept. 24, the Historic Waimea Theather will be the venue for the Kaua‘i Composers Concert and Contest. On Tuesday, Sept. 25, the festival moves to the Kaua‘i War Memorial Convention Hall in Lihu‘e, where Hawaiian immersion school children will enter their Hawaiian language songs in the Eō, E Liliʻu contest.

The remaining of the festival will be held at the War Memorial Convention Hall, with the Kahiko Nei Hula Competition (solo and group) on Thursday, Sept. 27; the ‘Auana Hula Competition (solo) on Friday, Sept. 28; and the grand finale and ‘Auana Hula Competition (group) on Saturday.

“Some halau, or hula schools, choose to stick to the traditional mele, or songs or chants. And then some will create (something different), and so that’s what we encourage,” said Herrod, adding participants earn bonus points if they innovate.

Kalama said he wants participants to go where they’re “not supposed to go,” because somebody should be telling the story about what’s happening today.

“They have the ability to create new chants, new songs, and have an avenue where the public can see and hear about the new stories. Somebody, right now, should be writing about what’s happening in Puna,” Kalama said of the recent lava flow that has inundated neighborhoods, forests and even filled an entire bay on the Big Island.

In any other hula festival, he said, contestants are required to stay within traditional boundaries.

Hula dancers performing at the 2017 Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival
Photo by Mālie Foundation/Joe Olivas

“You can do that in our competition, but you have the ability to step out of the box and go there; we want you to go there,” Kalama said.

There is also the welcoming aspect that each halau is chaperoned by a host or a hostess.

“We take care of the halaus, from the time the competition starts until it’s over, by having hosts and hostesses for each halau,” Kalama said. They make sure each halau has everything they need, whether it’s in the dressing room, during rehearsals, or before, during or after their performance. This creates a strong and lasting personal connection among hula students from different halaus.

Herrod, who has been in the roles of both participant and host, said the people from the halaus don’t feel like they are in a competition. A lot of times, he said, when you enter other hula competitions, there’s no aloha, people are just passing by all the time without interaction. But at this festival, because the way it’s set up, everybody talks to each other, share flowers, stories and more importantly, aloha.

Before the competition starts, everyone gets together in a circle, do a pule, or prayer. The rules are explained and the judges are introduced. All this takes time, sometimes half an hour, but it is well worth it.

Kumu hula Maka Herrod at a former Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival. Photo by Mālie Foundation/Joe Olivas

This friendly environment makes the festival a good choice for halaus that have never entered a competition before. Kalama said that at this year’s prestigious Merry Monarch festival on the Big Island, there were about 10 halaus that had performed first at the Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival.

The idea for the festival came to Kalama in 1982 while he was sleeping. He dreamed about a composers contest. But the fear of not being ready and the fact of not having any money caused him to put the idea aside for two years. He said when he finally approached Panui and Duhaylongsod, they told him they would be in as long as he did the work.

And work he did.

Kalama went to KUAI 720 radio station without any money. When he lied that he had $300, he was laughed at: It wasn’t even enough to buy decent air-time. But they liked the idea, and sponsored the festival with insurance. The rest happened by some magic, and a lot of hard work and donations. Mayor Eduardo Malapit donated the War Memorial Convention Hall, Duhaylongsod carved the trophies, and the Hasegawa Komuten Relations Board (from Kaua‘i Beach Resort) donated the $300 Kalama said he had. Some of Kalama’s friends came from O‘ahu to judge the contest, along with Larry Rivera and Art Umezu.

That first year, there were only about a dozen songs entered. Some may say it wasn’t a huge success, but that $5 profit was, if anything, a sign for Kalama to organize the event again the following year. It was a smart move. The contest grew more than five-fold to over 60 songs in the next year. The festival then was moved to the Kaua‘i Beach Resort, and it was sold out. Over the years, the festival increased to become a week-long affair, with many different kinds of events all over the island.

Kumu hula Kapu Kinimaka-Alquiza. Photo by Mālie Foundation/Joe Olivas

Three years ago, the organizers brought back a lei contest, which will be again held this year. But this is no ordinary lei contest: no flowers are allowed. Some of the categories include recyclables, seeds and feathers. Organizers are expecting about 60 entries.

One of the reasons Kalama thinks the festival is important for Kaua‘i is that most hula practitioners believe hula started here, when Hi‘iaka danced for Lohi‘au in Ke‘e, in the far reaches of the North Shore. There are others who believe hula started on Molokai, and that’s OK, he said, but most hula genealogies tell the Ke‘e story, which is the basis for the connection between Kaua‘i and hula.

Until 2006, the festival was held under the umbrella of the nonprofit Garden Island Arts Council. The Mālie Foundation was designated as a nonprofit organization that year, and has since then taken over the festival’s oversight.

Visit for more information and a detailed schedule for the Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival.