Hula Kapu: Less than a mile down the
beach from the Paradise Cove Lu‘au
Anthony Dutro, Nepo Leutu and Sabre
McArthur rehearse Kahi Keia ‘O Ni‘ihau
in preparation for the annual King
Kamehameha Hula Competition.
The ’70s was also the era of the Hawaiian Renaissance, when Hawai‘i’s traditional culture—eclipsed for decades by the West—was re-emerging in bold new ways. Darrell’s mother wisely recognized that the time was right for the ‘Aiea boys to pour the raw physicality and ribald spirit of their comic act into the serious business of a men’s halau. The boys embraced her suggestion that they create a halau, and in 1978, Darrell became the director and kumu of the newly formed Men of Waimapuna and O’Brian served as chanter and kokua (apprentice kumu). Young and eager, they trained relentlessly, so that when the troupe debuted that year at the Merrie Monarch Festival—the premier stage for hula competition—the audience was stunned by the dancers’ robust athleticism. Emcee for the evening Jackie “Skylark” Rossetti recalls that jaws dropped and judges cried. “The men’s hula was reborn that night. It was always about something much more exciting than the delicacy of women’s hula. This was the warrior spirit reborn on stage,” she says.
Based on their award-winning performance, the Men of Waimapuna became known as originators of “bombastic hula.” It’s a term that some insist goes back to a Hilo newspaper article that hailed the group for their nervy departure from hula orthodoxy. O’Brian recalls that he and his buddies were somewhat surprised by all the fuss. They were dancing from the heart and having fun, he says—the only way they knew how to dance. However their style was labeled, it caused enough of a stir to get their well-established comic act a billing at the Paradise Cove Lu‘au.
Then came a disagreement between O’Brian and Darrell that prompted the old friends to go their separate ways. Did they part over a specific hula? The protocol of the dance? The style? O’Brian is reluctant to say anything except that the resulting pilikia (trouble) was enough to make him contemplate the unthinkable—abandoning hula altogether. The split highlighted O’Brian’s outsider status, for unlike Darrell, he had not undergone extensive formal training and ceremonial initiation into kumu life. Suddenly he found himself caught in a perennial hula debate: Should teachers have a blood tie to the culture? Or can their teaching come from the heart?
A group of dancers who had been dismissed by Darrell believed the latter. They sought out O’Brian and his colleague Thaddius Wilson and pleaded with them to start another halau in time for Merrie Monarch competition. The idea was seconded by Thaddius’ relatives, including a matriarchy of powerful hula women such as Thaddius’ grandmother Keoho Oda.
“I don’t know what Thaddius’ grandmother saw in me, but she believed there was something—only it had to be brought out. So she would meet almost every day with Thaddius and me,” O’Brian recalls. “One sunny day, she plunked down the Bible and said, ‘This is how you will do it! Seek divine inspiration for everything you do in hula.’”
She designated O’Brian the chanter and Thaddius the choreographer, thus defining a partnership that would last for the next quarter of a century with their halau, Na Wai ‘Eha ‘O Puna, The Four Waters of Puna.
O’Brian buckled down in the archives of the Bishop Museum, studying ancient Hawaiian chant. He found he had a zeal for the scholarly work; more worrisome were the rumors circulating about the newly burgeoning competitiveness of hula. One story going around told of a kumu who would sit in the Merrie Monarch stands, eyeing rival dancers with ill intentions and bragging that he could cause them to stumble. O’Brian sought the advice of Pat Namaka Bacon, the
daughter of Hawaiian language scholar Mary Kawena Pukui. “She said hula cannot exist in a world of fear and anger,” he recalls. “She said always teach with kindness and charity.”