For Kumu O’Brian Eselu, Hula is About Character By Nina Wu
Since 1980, O’Brian Eselu has been director of entertainment at Paradise Cove Luau, overseeing a troupe of Polynesian dancers that delight visitors. While he presides over the show every evening, Eselu also has another role: kumu hula.
Eselu’s halau, Ke Kai o Kahiki, has swept the men’s division at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo three years in a row. Last year, with just six male dancers, the halau netted the highest score from Merrie Monarch, winning the overall title.
This year, with eight male dancers, the halau took the men’s division again. It’s an accomplishment worth noting, earning him respect in the traditional hula world, especially since O’Brian is competing against many younger kumu hula that feature larger halau.
A kumu hula since 1979, he has always been humble about winning.
“I’ve been doing this for 32 years and my role is to teach what I know. And that’s it,” he says.
He respects traditions but is still an innovator, having introduced a new step to the competition in 2010. This was no small feat, since Merrie Monarch judges are notoriously rigorous in their requirements for every step, word and implement to have a basis in tradition. Eselu was up to the challenge as his mele (songs or chants) are carefully chosen for their poetry and hidden meanings.
The kahiko they performed at the festival, A Ka‘uku, depicted a land battle between Pele and half-man, half-pig demigod Kamapua‘a in a vigorous, stage-stomping performance that showcased the new step—ke nakulu—which involves a jump and quick arm-cross movement that reflect the resounding thunder of Akaka Falls. Eselu said he learned the step from his own kumu decades ago. His halau is the only one that performs the move, but he was nervous about including it because he wasn’t sure how the judges would react. So he wrote up a fact sheet explaining it, and luckily the judges accepted it.
O’Brian, 55, was born in ‘Aiea to Samoan parents and raised in Halawa public housing. He credits his late hula partner Thaddius Wilson (who first competed at the festival 31 years ago with the Na Wai ‘Eha ‘O Puna halau), Thaddius’s mother Verna Wilson and her mother, Keoho Oda, who set him on the path. Other mentors include Aunty Pat Bacon, the late Malia Craver and the late Aunty Genoa Keawe.
Ke Kai o Kahiki translates into English as “seas of the ancestral lands,” which encompasses Tahiti, Samoa, New Zealand, Tonga and other isles.
Today, Eselu is invited to perform all over the world. The halau just returned from a trip to Tahiti, and will head to Fukuoka, Japan, after practicing once a week at a scenic stretch of green called Lanikuhonua, which means “where heaven meets the earth.”
It’s a special place with spiritual assets, says Eselu—one he feels fortunate to have been able to practice at for more than 25 years.
“It has all the elements that we need for hula—the elements of nature—and it has a connection to Pele,” he says, adding that he was inspired to compose a song called “Lanikuhonua” one day while waiting for his students to come for class. While strumming his ‘ukulele overlooking Anianiku Cove, feeling the gentle rain and soft breeze, he completed the tune, which appears on his latest album, Aloha E, Alohe E, Aloha E (2010).
The song brings the listener to Lanikuhonua as the day breaks, describing the magical area, by detailing the rain “E ho‘opulu ia e ka ua Pala‘ila‘i (Drench by the Pala‘ila‘i rain);” the wind “Pa Mai Ana ka makani o a‘eloa (Blowing is the a‘eloa wind)” and the swaying palm trees.
With a voice that is distinct, yet soft or commanding at times, Eselu has also won recognition for his compositions in the music world. In 1998, Eselu made his recording debut with the album Ke Kumu, which won the “Most Promising Artist” award at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, Hawai‘i’s version of the Grammys.
As the director of entertainment at the lu‘au, Eselu expects hard work and discipline from his entertainers. As a kumu hula, he expects the same from his students. For example, his students go through a regular regimen, which includes climbing coconut trees to strengthen their legs. Besides the discipline of the dance, Eselu expects integrity from his haumana (students). Most importantly, he wants them to have the heart of a hula dancer, which is of pure aloha.
“The Hawaiian heart is so special and beautiful. It has no prejudice, no boundaries and limits,” he says, adding: “Love is like that.”
Eselu will take a break from Merrie Monarch next year, but is planning to participate in the 50th anniversary two years from now. Ensuring his halau serves an important role in promoting men’s style of dance, he makes sure they follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, and remain healthy.
“I want to make sure that men have their place in the hula world, just like the women,” he says.
He hopes to develop great dancers, believing every one of his students will carve out his own path in life.
“As long as they’re good human beings, good fathers and husbands, everyone has their own destiny,” he says. “To be in my halau you create your own destiny—hula is just one of the stepping stones.”