Independent Lens: Nā Kamalei: The Men of Hula

“I like teaching guys,” says Robert Uluwehi Cazimero, “because it’s so much easier to discipline them.” He’s talking about students in his hula school, Hālau Nā Kamalei, which he started in 1975. His passion is infectious. During an early rehearsal, as his students are work to perfect a particular song, Cazimero keeps time by clapping his hands. While the lyrics are in Hawaiian, he offers an example of the beat using English: “I hate your guts,” he chants, “You son of a bitch, I hate you!” The men nod and clap along with him, on beat.

As Cazimero notes more than once Nā Kamalei: The Men of Hula, Lisette Kaualena Flanary’s documentary, premiering tonight on PBS’ Independent Lens, his devotion to hula hasn’t always been easy. The stereotype associated with the art has been sensuous, slightly exotic, and long-haired, grass-skirted women. As the film points out, this image was cultivated recently and insistently, during the period not quite known as Before the Renaissance. Long associated with the Hawaiian martial art of lua — which Cazimero describes as “a bone-breaking or joint-dislocating fighting art that was taught to the chief in the old days” — ancient hula (or kahiko) was transformed into a plainly commercial art, called ʻauana. Here the film includes black-and-white footage of U.S. sailors disembarking, greeted by women with leis, under the familiar Hawaii 5-0 theme song. Cazimero recalls being encouraged to play football and engage in other manly activities when he was a child, the legacy of work by 19th-century missionaries who had tried to ban the hula altogether. “One of the best ways to take over somewhere,” he says, “is to instill your own ideals.”

The process had obvious ramifications for other cultural traditions. During the 20th century, Nā Kamalei graduate Manu Boyd says, Hālau was increasingly accompanied by Western instruments like the guitar and the ʻukulele, and arranged with wealthy white male tourists in mind. As Boyd puts it, this was entertainment for consumers who “wanted to see moonlit beaches and palm trees and pretty girls.” Under the discomforting tune of “Hapa-Haole Hula Girl” (“All the time, in the tropical clime where they do the hula hula dance, / I fell in love, with a chocolate dove while learnin’ this funny funny dance, / This poor little kid, why, she never did a bit of loving before”), white men in Hawaiian shirts move their hips awkwardly, instructed by lovely, perpetually smiling ladies with flowers in their perfectly permed hair. “That meant,” Boyd continues, “it was better to be white, it was better to speak English. Our parents and grandparents grew up in times when it was frowned upon to be Hawaiian, it was not good to be Hawaiian.”

Robert Cazimero and the men of Halau Nā Kamalei celebrating.

The Renaissance of the 1970s helped to change some of that broad-based devotion to the tourist economy, or at least included other histories, as “the Hawaiians with a stronger sense of self-identity began to claim ownership of their culture.” The Sunday Manoa performed traditional music and sold records as well (they “changed the whole scene,” observes Kumu Hula specialist Leinaala Kalama Heine). Cazimero and his brother Roland started singing with the Sunday Manoa, then formed their own duo, the Brothers Cazimero (still Robert’s primary source of income, as he doesn’t charge for his Hālau classes). Robert contextualizes the Renaissance within mainland movements as well, including “the black people trying to gain equality.” As Hawaiians recovered and revered traditional arts — from music to dancing to paddling — men and women came to understand their shared affinities and resilience. Hula dancer Reggie Keaunui says that his wife introduced him to paddling and he introduced her to dancing (“Men weren’t necessarily less than men because they danced hula,” he smiles, “Many times, we settled it in the parking lot”). He remarks the similar skills needed for both paddling and dancing, and his own commitment to dancing: “Hula has helped me to be a more gentle person,” he says, “I was pretty rough around the edges.”

Each of the stories in Nā Kamalei‘s brief history of male hula dancing raises a question worth pursuing in another documentary. But after laying out these several contexts, Flanary’s film focuses on Cazimero’s group’s preparations for the 2005 Merrie Monarch Festival, “the hula event of the world.” They put in long hours to become, as Karl “Veto” Baker says, “A hot line of guys [who] can move together and dance like men: it’s pretty awesome.” Repeatedly underscoring hula’s exhilarating gender-bending, the film includes mini-portraits of the competition group’s members, ranging from 19-year-old Kaulana “Kauboy” Vares to Connecticut-born Brad Cooper, now 55 years old (“I want to be out there and I want to be in that competition line,” the longtime student says). Firefighter Edward “Babooze” Hanohano tears up when his adult son expresses his admiration for his dad’s dancing (“You don’t see men move their bodies like that”), and Keola “Bully” Maka’iau, who has been dancing for 16 years and so fulfilling his grandmother’s belief that one of her grandchildren would pursue her own interest in Hawaiiana. After he describes his father’s initial apprehension concerning hula (“He’s a man of very few words”), Maka’iau is here visibly moved by his approval. “His mind is very open now,” Maka’iau reports, “I think he said something like, ‘Good job.’ To me, that’s like a whole paragraph.”

RATING 6 / 10