Embracing the Past and Guiding Tomorrow

By Mary Ellen Hunt


Halau o Keikiali’i performs Friday, March 4, at 12 noon in San Francisco’s City Hall Rotunda as part of the free Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West. More information at dancersgroup.org

“What is tradition really?” asks Kawika Alfiche earnestly. “I’m doing what my teacher has done, and what his teacher has done. So I focus on the old and relate it to today. There’s so much in that alone, that I can spend a few lifetimes just focusing on hula traditions and it’s still not enough time.”

The charismatic and energetic Alfiche is the kumu or teacher and leader of the halau that bears his name, Halau o Keikiali’i, which performs March 4 in a free noontime concert under the San Francisco City Hall’s Rotunda. Now in its 17th year, the group was started by one of Alfiche’s teachers, Aunty Harriet Keahilihau-Spalding, who gave the troupe its original name, Hula Halau Aloha Pumehana ‘o Polynesia.

“She’s the one who had me start teaching, although I was really young at the time,” he recalls, noting that Aunty Harriet was only his second teacher, after Tiare Maka Olanolan-Clifford. “In 1992, I was 19 years old. But she mentored me for the first four years that the halau was together and gave the name to it in 1994.”

Alfiche, who grew up in the Bay Area, but traveled back and forth to Hawaii throughout much of his childhood, notes that in the early ’90s, many halaus combined different styles–from Tahitian to Hawaiian–but after he became the kumu or master teacher of the halau, the name changed to Halau o Keikiali’i. “Keikiali’i is my name, so basically it means the school of Keikiali’i” he explains, “It also means prince, or child of the chief.”

The process of becoming a master or kumu is not always a formalized one, Alfiche says, reiterating that he was quite young to take on such an important role and in many ways still thinks of himself as a learner. How one earns the title of master can be vastly different from one group to another, he continues.

“It really depends on who you’re talking to and where they come from. Some people just open up a school and call themselves a teacher, which is fine, anybody can teach,” he says matter-of-factly. “Every lineage has a different way of doing it. In my case, my teacher, Aunty Harriet basically said here’s the name of your halau and take over, this is yours. And that’s how you become a kumu when it comes down to it, to become a kumu hula, your kumu has to say, ‘Okay, you’re the kumu.’

“That’s one process, and another is that you fall under your kumu and for many, many years you learn certain things,” he goes on, “I also went under this process of what we call uniki, which is the right to become a kumu hula. After I became kumu, Aunty Harriet sent me to learn from Kumu Hula Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca–who was a student of Uncle George Lanakilakeikiahiali`i Na’ope, a very well known hula master in Hawaii–for about eleven years. And so I became again formally a kumu hula, this time recognized under Kumu Rae.”

This, says Alfiche, is the way of the hula culture, though. Learning is something that continues throughout your life and even the oldest and wisest of masters never considers him or herself the final authority.

“You can be a lei-maker your whole entire life and you can go up to an Aunty who’s been making leis all her life,” he offers, “And you can say how long have you been learning and are you an expert? And she’ll say I’ve been making leis for 80 years and I’m still a beginner. There’s still always something else to learn, you’re never an expert.”

For Alfiche, as with many other kumus, the approach to hula involves a wholistic view of Hawaiian culture–singing, dancing, chanting, making lei, a sense of connection with the ocean and the land–much of which he’s absorbed on many trips back to the islands. At home, he says, everyone dances and is part of a luau in one way or another, so the yen to be back home is part of the attraction of having a halau here in the Bay Area.

“I usually try to look at the bright side,” he says philosophically. “You can whine and complain that you’ll never be able to do this or that because we’re not in Hawaii, but what’s really important is that we keep our connection. And then, here we have beaches, we have mountains, we have forests, we have all the things that we would need to be hula people here. There are challenges, but at the same time, it can be a good thing, because when we go back to Hawaii, we don’t take anything for granted. Not that people back home do, but when I bring my students there, there is just so much appreciation when they see that particular mountain that they dance about. So I look at it like it’s an opportunity, and as a good thing–we maintain our connection back home all the time.”

Keeping that thread to Hawaii going–whether physical, cultural or spiritual–seems to be such an integral part of hula itself. “Because we didn’t have a written language,” he says with a passionate emphasis, “We needed hula and because of hula, we know about things that happened in the 1700s, 1600s, 1500s, 1400s, because it’s all documented in songs. To me, without hula we would know nothing about our past.”

Which brings us back to the question of tradition and how one keeps traditions so tied to a homeland alive in a new country.

“If you were to ask around in the community, I think I’d be looked at as a traditional kumu,” says Alfiche. “But there are kumus here like Patrick Makuakane. He’s known for modern fusion–he’s coined the term hula mua, but what it boils down to is that he’s being very traditional. He’s a Hawaiian growing up here in San Francisco, and he loves dance music and DJ music. But that’s very Hawaiian to fuse those together. In other people’s minds they’re saying, ‘Oh, that’s not traditional!’–but to me he’s being really traditional. It really depends on who you talk to.

“I focus on the old and relate it to today,” he continues, “And we try to present all these old songs and dances but without having to wear grass skirts and do cartwheels onstage. It’s all about how you explain what’s happening and catching the audience’s eye without having to do the hapa haole hulus and stuff like that.”

And for the audiences that come to see Halau o Keikiali’i in the City Hall Rotunda–what does Alfiche hope that they take from the performance?

“Always my hope is that they see that times are changing,” he says, explaining, “In San Francisco, we, as well as the other halaus, have done a lot of work these past seventeen years to show that hula is not just that one thing that everyone thinks hula is, that thing from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. That was fine, I think it was great, my dad grew up in that era–it’s not my expertise, but it is what it is. But the moment that you start playing a drum and chanting, people are like what is that? I’m hoping that at this performance, people will identify what we do as hula too. It is all hula, and when it’s identifiable to everybody, then we can all move forward.”

CD Release Party
Kawika Alfiche doesn’t just perform hula dance. Announced last month, his latest album, Kale’a, is a compilation of Hawaiian mele (songs), that evoke an array of emotions from joy and happiness to wistful longing. Kale’a features several original compositions written by Alfiche. To hear Alfiche’s music, come to his upcoming concert and CD release party.

Sunday, March 20, 4-6pm
101 Brentwood Dr., So. San Francisco

With the release of Nalei (2005), and now Kale’a, Alfiche continues the traditional sounds of Hawaiian music. It is within the stories told in the mele that have been passed down for generations, with its morals and values, that people can truly be enriched in their personal lives. Everyone can benefit from the lessons taught and Alfiche hopes to reach people far and wide, touching those that may not be familiar with Hawaiian culture and share with them the spirit of aloha.

A portion of the proceeds from this showcase directly benefit the Kaululehua Hawaiian Cultural Center. Alfiche and his halau (dance troupe) have toured nationally and internationally; they are currently preparing for a month-long (March-April) East Coast tour of New York, Vermont, Boston, and Connecticut.

Check out the music downloads, performances and tour dates at kawikaalfiche.com. For more info call 650-588-1091 or email info@apop.net.

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of In Dance.

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.