Hawaiian Music Legend Comes to National Museum of the American Indian

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"Celebrate Hawai'i," the National Museum of the American Indian's third annual Hawaiian cultural festival, is this weekend, and the Brothers Cazimero, internationally-known Hawaiian musicians from Honolulu, are its headliners.

On Friday night, the museum will be showing Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula, a 2006 documentary about Robert Cazimero and the all-male hula school, Halau Na Kamalei (meaning: "the lei of children"), that he founded in 1975. In the 1970s, Hawaii experienced a cultural renaissance, and Cazimero, with his hula school, is partly credited for the resurgence in native arts. At this point, the screening is sold out. But, luckily, Robert and his brother Roland Cazimero will be holding a free outdoor concert at 5 p.m. on Saturday. The Halau Na Kamalei dancers will be performing as well.

I spoke with Robert Cazimero in anticipation of this weekend's festivities.

How did the documentary come about?

One of my students was working and living in New York City. I had taken him on a trip to Japan, and while we were on a basketball court in a little school, he said to me, what would you think of us doing a video about you? A year later we were having our first meeting in New York City, and then Lisette Marie Flanary was in Honolulu following me around. I fought it for awhile, but I thought if this would help to honor my teacher, Ma’iki Aiu Lake, then I’ll do it.

What do you hope people take away from it?

That you can gather a bunch of guys and do some really good stuff if you put your mind to it and they put their minds to it as well. And that we do have a culture that is worthy of seeing and knowing a little bit more about.

Which came first, your start in music or in hula? Did one lead to the other?

The latter of those things. Our parents were entertainers. My mom had a little Polynesian show, and she would work the military circuits, parties and things. It all came real quick and real early in our lives.

How is this type of hula different from the tourist-type?

This one is a little more rooted. We have a genealogy of hula, as far as teachers are concerned. To tell you the truth, I am almost more familiar with my hula line than I am with my own family. Our particular style and school tradition has been passed on from generation to generation. What we’ve presented in the documentary and what we try to do when we present our hulas publicly is to show that it’s deep and deeply rooted in our culture.

What types of stories are told through the dance and song?

Oh, all kinds, from speaking of kings and queens to goddesses and gods and ordinary people and places and events. My teacher used to always say that hula is life, and that’s what our hulas are. They’re about life.

How has hula changed in the past 34 years since you’ve taught it?

It was real easy for people to make fun of it in the beginning. It was a thing for only girls to do. What’s happened since then is that male hula has received a lot more recognition and respect. Hula, in general, has become more significant and not just solely for entertainment purposes but for tapping into your culture and your roots and being proud of it and yourself.

What makes it an important cultural tradition to you?

Basically, we’ve lost so much of our culture. That’s why in the early 1970s, during the renaissance, all different facets from language to dance to music and preparation of food and religion became more prominent. It was a time to embrace it and to find worth and power in it. Music and dance are two of the things that still remain strong in our culture. If we lost both of those things right now, then we are no more.

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