In seclusion on an island in Hawaii, men move in strong succinct, yet graceful, motions guided by the rhythm of a polished gourd struck with purposeful motion of the chanter. The ocean rails against the shore competing with their calls, their chanting, and their hula.
Kahiko is the most ancient form of hula and it is never performed with a grass skirt nor accompanied by a ukulele and steel guitar. It is, rather, a solemn Hula with sacred ties and strong purpose. Kahiko Hula is danced to the chanting of the Kumu Hula or Hula Master Teacher. A Kumu Hula’s responsibilities used to be the sacred tasks of a priest in ancient Hawaii. Since there was no written language at that time, the priests were given the responsibility of preserving the genealogy of the royal family, recording significant battles, acknowledging valiant efforts by the people and, very often, presenting offerings to the goddesses and gods.
Each Kahiko is dedicated to someone, and it is the task of the Kumu Hula to create or refine a chant and choreograph the hula to accompany it. Men would be selected to perform the Kahiko and form a Halau. This school of performers are then brought into seclusion to learn the Kahiko. They would spend countless hours in strict discipline almost to the point of utter exhaustion. Then, when the Kumu Hula is satisfied with the performance, a great feast called a lu’au is constructed and the Kahiko is performed for all to see.
At this point, the Kumu Hula recites his chant called “oli.” Then the men perform the Kahiko with military precision and the fierceness of one going into battle. Once the hula is performed, the men chant in unison its dedication and walk away with the same solemnness as they had entered.
Today, this ancient form of hula is still being performed and it is the pride and favorite of the Hawaiian people. Although the chants are called “oli” when they are added to song they are called “mele” making it a poetic song that beckons the listener to pay attention. The common reference to this form of hula is “Mele Hula” meaning “song dance” or “Kahiko” but the correct reference is “Hula Kahiko.”
The Kumu Hula’s are not priests in this current time, but they are still highly revered by the Hawaiian people as the keepers of their rich culture and history. The Halau performers are no longer just men; centuries ago women were introduced to Hula Kahiko when the islands were at war and the men were away defending their kingdoms. This is why many meles (songs) and Hula Kahikos are now performed by women troops as well. The movements are still strong but the mood can be softer yet often times very serious in honor of tradition. Currently Hula Kahiko is experiencing a renaissance as new oli and meles are created and new choreography is being introduced to the people.
One of the best venues to see Hula Kahiko performed is during the Merrie Monarch Festival held each year in Hilo, Hawaii for an entire week. In many ways the Merrie Monarch Festival is a symbol of survival for the Hawaiian people and a beloved example of the rich culture by all inhabitants of the islands. The festival is in honor of King David Kalakaua (Kah-lay-kowa) who restored the ancient Hawaiian traditions and hula that had been forbidden for over 70 years by Protestant religions who sought to destroy the heritage of the Hawaiian people. With their quest, they almost destroyed Hawaiian history altogether, but King Kalakaua overturned this ban, and began the arduous task of restoring pride to the Hawaiians.
So when visiting the Hawaiian Islands, pull yourself away from the resorts, the beaches, the alcohol and immerse yourself in the deep heritage of the Hawaiian people. Find a cultural center and ask around for where Hula Kahiko is performed. Let the rhythm of the meles permeate your being, and let the hula enliven your soul. Some say that when visiting Hawaii it is difficult to connect with the native people. Perhaps this is because they have yet to connect with Hula Kahiko and the ancient ways. Whatever the reason may be, observing the beauty of Hula Kahiko is much like a gesture of respect for another’s culture — and who wouldn’t like to befriend people who show an interest in their heritage?
Watch Male Hula Kahiko Hula: Ke Kai O Kahiki Kane- Performing at The Merrie Monarch Festival
Watch Female Hula Kahiko Hula: Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela Wahine- Performing at The Merrie Monarch Festival