Becoming a Kumu Hula
Although many hula teachers are referred to by the title kumu hula, not all choose to undergo the rigorous training process that culminates in what is known as an ‘uniki, a formal graduation ceremony.
A master teacher instructs those studying to become formally graduated kumu hula, passing on knowledge received within their own hula lineage. In addition to dance technique and choreography, training includes study of esoteric knowledge of costuming, plants, and protocol related to the hula altar dedicated to Laka, hula’s patron goddess. When the teacher is satisfied that the knowledge will be responsibly used and carefully protected by the student, then an ‘uniki ceremony is scheduled.
Patrick Makuakane. Photo by Julie Mau.
Here, Patrick Makuakane describes the process of training he is currently undergoing to gain recognition as a formally graduated kumu hula.
One Story of an ‘Uniki
Aunty Mae greets me with great affection and aloha, as if the twenty years since we last spoke were just a whisper of time. Time has not changed Aunty’s gentleness or her confident demeanor. Nor has it altered her sense of history. Scattered throughout her halau in Kane’ohe are pictures capturing the supreme grace and dignity of Ma’iki Aiu Lake, Aunty Mae’s kumu. In one photo, Lokalia Montgomery, Aunty Ma’iki’s kumu, stands bedecked with strands of golden ‘ilima lei. Her soft brown face seems to be lit from within.
Aunty asks me to bring a table and two chairs from the garage into the studio so that we can sit and talk story. At 70, she is slight and spry. Yet her physical attributes belie her stature in hula as an immensely knowledgeable authority.
Aunty tells me about how her kumu‘s elders had insisted that Mae graduate students, following the carefully guarded process and the protocols of ‘uniki. Thus transgenerational knowledge is successfully passed down from teacher to student and ancient rituals are not be lost or watered down. (Not everyone hues faithfully to tradition. Today the word ‘uniki can refer to passing out paper certificates or to loosely structured ceremonies with few parameters; some people have even created their own stylized version of ‘uniki with only vestiges of traditional customs.)
At first she resisted, but in the last two decades Aunty has taken on many students, “graduating” them variously as ‘olapa (dancer), ho’opa’a (chanter) and even kumu (teacher).
In 2001, I became one of her most recent wards, following the same strict tenets of the process that she learned from Aunty Ma’iki.
“Li’uli’u wale i ka uka o Koholalele (Long have I tarried in the uplands of Koholalele) … Ina ka pu’unui o waho nei la e/he anu e (Oh, how I suffer out here/in the cold).” So begins an oli kahea, a chant asking permission to enter the halau. This was the first chant I learned from Aunty Mae. Until I entered her halau as a student, I did not realize how cold it was outside.
Soon I was learning many more beautiful oli kahea, ranging from casual to formal. The imagery conjured by these chants and poems guides the students toward the ‘ike (knowledge) they seek. Some chants are rooted in ancient myths and legends and serve as parables.
I also learned the oli komo, which is chanted inside the halau and grants the student permission to enter.
I recall once during the first months of study, when two others and I were outside the halau waiting for the designated time to begin our oli kahea. We were quite apprehensive, because we had only chanted it once before. We chanted pleadingly, fervently; to our dismay, there was no response. Aunty hadn’t told us what to do if we asked and she didn’t answer. Puzzled, we decided she wanted us to use another oli kahea, which we rendered very lovingly. Still, no response. We became worried. We had one more oli kahea to try, the most difficult. This was what Aunty was probably waiting for. We took deep breaths and chanted with great affection and presence. Our execution was completely sublime; I was sure the doors were going to burst open on their own! We waited. No response. By now, we were frantic, lost, and confused. We tried in vain to collect ourselves, look in our notes, and see what vital piece we may have forgotten. All of a sudden, a blue streak of steel sped down the driveway, unceremoniously jerking to a stop in the garage. Out from the dark blue sedan popped Aunty Mae, breathlessly asking if we got the message that she was going to be late. “I hope you guys were practicing!” she added.
About two dozen students join me in Aunty’s ‘uniki class. Some of us have been with her for many years. Most have already gone through an ‘uniki, graduating as ‘olapa and perhaps even ho’opa’a.
Two other students, like me, are from California: Shawna Ngum, a close friend and fellow dancer from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and Rolanda Reese, an expatriate living in Los Angeles who teaches at Loyola Marymount University. We each possess decades of experience in hula, but none of us has ever participated in a formal ‘uniki. We are attempting to graduate in all three levels at the same ‘uniki. Aunty feels that our past experience, coupled with her formidable approach, will allow us to successfully accomplish this. No pressure…
One of the most important parts of our training is to study the poetry of our tradition. Every chant we learn must be meticulously researched. This includes learning vocabulary, breaking down kaona (metaphors, double entendres, and veiled meanings), reviewing pertinent myths, and casting about for historical references and anecdotes. We are expected to develop our own thoughts for each chant, song, or dance. Studying with Aunty has allowed me to strip away a lot of the uncertainties and mysteries, revealing certain truths that have surprised and delighted me.
For an ‘uniki, each student must fashion his or her own hula instruments, such as the pahu (drum), ipu heke (double gourd), ‘uli’uli (feathered gourd rattle), or puniu (small knee drum).
Constructing the pahu hula is important because the drum is embued with sacredness. Typically, you meet every Saturday for several months until it’s finished. For those of us who could only work once a month, it took six months. The process starts with finding a log from a coconut tree, removing the thick bark, digging out the center, then carving a design on the drum. All of this is done while adhering to a strict use of manual implements. No electric tools allowed! There was a lot of pounding, huffing, and puffing. After the first day, my body was sore for a week. Every night I dreamt of power tools.
Our ‘Uniki Papa Laua’e (my class bears the name of a favorite island fern) is scheduled for this August. Aunty Mae will make the decision about who will graduate — and at what level — on the day of the ‘uniki, after carefully scrutinizing circumstances and the performance of certain rituals. Ho’ailona (signs and omens) may predict good or ill will. Students who pick up a hula implement with the wrong hand may not be allowed
to puka (graduate). Eat the wrong end of the pig and you’re dead meat!
Several elements of the ‘uniki remain secret, even to participants. However, I can share a few details of the two-day ceremony with you. On the first day, dancers will arrive at a designated time (tardiness results in expulsion) to meet with the kumu and other key participants. Dancers prepare their leis and garments for the next day’s festivities. Rituals may include bathing in the sea for purification. Special attention is paid to preparing and cooking the pig and other foods that will be eaten the next day.
The second day, invited guests arrive. These include close family and friends of the dancers as well as elders of the hula community. The students eat a carefully prepared Hawaiian meal composed of foods representing characteristics the students must embody. One important ritual is the ‘ailolo ceremony. All the students must eat the brains of a pig without leaving a single morsel remaining. The ‘ailolo ceremony is a rite reserved for ‘uniki in which someone is obtaining the rank of kumu.
I cannot yet tell you how this journey will end. No matter the outcome, preparing for the ‘uniki has been unforgettable. Everything I learned put me further in touch with our traditions and our rich, complex history. The knowledge I acquired made hula and our culture less enigmatic (though still esoteric). I unlocked many mysteries and discovered new ones. I even made my own drum — an unparalleled feat on my part, given my usual incompetence with any kind of tool!
My students will be surprised to hear that I re-discovered the joy of being a student. And, of course, there was the privilege of spending one week in Hawai’i every month for two years.
But even that doesn’t match the privilege of being back here and carrying on that tradition.