George Naʻope

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George Naʻope
George Naʻope at the 'Keauhou Beach Hotel', Kailua-Kona (Hawaii)

George Lanakilakekiahialiʻi Naʻope (February 25, 1928 – October 26, 2009), born in Kalihi, Hawaiʻi, was a celebrated kumu hula, master Hawaiian chanter, and leading advocate and preservationist of native Hawaiian culture worldwide. He taught hula dancing for over sixty years in Hawaiʻi, Japan, Guam, Australia, Germany, England, North America, and South America.[1]

Naʻope was a scholar of ancient hula, which is hula developed and danced before 1893. He first studied hula at three years old under his great-grandmother, Mary Malia Pukaokalani Naʻope, who lived to be over 100 years old. At the age of four he began to study with Mary Kanaele, the mother and teacher of Edith Kanaka'ole. When he moved to Oʻahu at the age of ten, he studied for ten years with Joseph Ilalaʻole. After graduating from high school, Naʻope moved to Honolulu where he opened the George Naʻope Hula School, then later continued his studies under Kumu Hula Lokalia Montgomery and Tom Hiona.[2]

Naʻope began to teach hula at the age of thirteen. His family was poor, so he taught hula for fifty cents per week in order to continue to pay for school. He taught chant and kahiko to the Ray Kinney dancers, and traveled with Ray Kinney.[3]

In 1964, Naʻope founded the Merrie Monarch Festival, an annual week-long festival of traditional Hawaiian arts, crafts, and performances featuring a three-day hula competition. The festival became both a popular success and an important part of the Hawaiian Renaissance. In an interview Naʻope said of founding the festival, "I felt the hula was becoming too modern and that we have to preserve it. David Kalakaua [King of Hawaii, 1874–91; aka "The Merrie Monarch"] brought the hula back to Hawaii and made us realize how important it was for our people. There was nothing here in Hilo, so I decided to honor Kalakaua and have a festival with just hula. I didn't realize that it was going to turn out to be one of the biggest things in our state."

Naʻope was honored with numerous other awards, including being named a Living Treasure of Hawai'i by the Buddhist temple Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i,[4] "Treasure of Hawaiʻi" by President George W. Bush and the Smithsonian Institution and receiving the National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.[5]


Naʻope also founded the Humu Moʻolelo, a quarterly journal of the hula arts. Until his death from cancer on October 26, 2009, aged 81, he resided in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, and attended many hula festivals where he was considered a "living treasure".[6][not in citation given]

Trust of Uncle George Na`ope[edit]

Prior to his death, George created a trust to manage his estate. You are able to view his wishes on the following link:

An affiliate of Hula Is Hawai`i, LLC joined forces with Halau Hula Is Hawaii Trust on December 5, 2007. You are able to view these efforts of providing a venue for Uncle's wishes on the following link:

Thank you all for supporting his wishes.

Words of Uncle George Na`ope[edit]

None of us sees the world through a blank slate or by seeing what is “actually there”; we focus on the world through an esthetic prism. The way we represent the world arises through our social fabric, of language, myth, history, attitudes, and ways of doing things. Our world-view is a cultural pattern that shapes our mind from birth, as fate. It varies from culture to culture. Then with imagination and vision we weave our own reality as we become a cooperating strand in the social web.

I was born on February 25, 1928, in Honolulu in Kalihi. My full name is George Lanakila-keiki-ahi-ali‘i Na‘ope. The name means “the light that would lead the way” or “the protector of things of Hawai‘i”. Not knowing what I do today, my great-grandmother, Mary Malia-Puka-o-ka-lani Na‘ope, named me before I was born. Most of the Hawaiians named their people, the way she named me. My great-grandmother, my grandpa’s mother, was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Lili ‘uokalani. She lived to be over 100 years old. By her account our lineage goes back to the House of Keawe at Hookena and Pa‘ao, a well-known cornerstone figure in Hawaiian history and reformer of the Hawaiian priesthood of the 11th century.

My family is a musical family number one. My grandfather, Harry Na‘ope, was a very famous music conductor and composer of several beautiful Hawaiian songs including Hawai‘i No E Ka Oi, Manu O‘o, and Hilo E.

In the old days, children were selected at a young age to devote their lives to the hula. They were dedicated to Laka, goddess of the hula. They lived sequestered for years in their halau under the strict teachings of the kumu hula who was a master and teacher of the hula arts. It was not until they graduated, often in their teens, that they were even allowed to mingle with anyone outside their halau. They were not to be tainted by any other influence. Hula dancers do not live that way any more. My great grand mother knew of these customs and she raised us in a very Hawaiian household where we spoke Hawaiian and were given a foundation in the ways of old Hawaii and oral traditions.

While I was a baby, I came to Hilo with my parents to live with my great grand mother. I was educated there at Keaukaha School. I began to learn Hula at the age of three. In those days no one studied the hula, not openly, anyway, since hula was still underground. My first kumu was a woman who lived next door to my family in Hilo, Mary Kanaile who was the mother of Edith Kanakaole. She was married to a Japanese man so we called her Mama Fujii. She was a short lady, but she was a master of the hula. I studied under her for five years. I will always remember her and consider her to be my kumu hula because she did the hard work of giving me my foundation and my basics. That is the hardest thing to teach. Mama Fujii was my great-grandmother’s very dear friend and that is the reason I was sent to her to learn hula. My great-grandmother told me that our kupuna were kumu pa‘a so she felt that someone should carry on the tradition and learn the old ways. She didn’t dance hula. So, it wasn’t really a matter of me having a choice about learning or not learning. My great-grandmother was friends with all of the great hula masters of her time and they came to see her quite often. That is why they took me under their wing as I got older.

I never knew I was going to be a hula teacher. Because when I was little, I hated the hula. I was forced to go for four or more hours every day and I couldn’t go play. Mama Fujii was very strict. It was six days a week, hula after school, thank God for Sunday - gotta go church. That was our day off. It wasn’t until later that I realized how great a teacher Mama Fujii was. She spoke fluent Hawaiian and she had a deep love and feeling for the hula.

At first, I mostly learned to chant. Then one day when I was about seven or eight years old, she told me: “It’s your turn to dance.” I didn’t think I could dance. I sat through all those years listening to the dancers getting yelled at. I was glad I was not dancing. I didn’t realize I knew all of the dances. I had watched all those years and had chanted and beat the drums. Every time someone made a mistake we had to start again so I was watching closely and hoping they would get it right. In dancing, Mama Fujii taught me only kahiko but since she was a Christian she only talked about the kapu during hula training and there was no kuahu. We always did Christian prayers before and after we danced. She also taught us the noho (sitting) dances.

Then at the age of ten, I began to learned to dance from the master Joe ‘Ilala‘ole who was from Hilo but lived in Puna. I studied under him for a while, about ten years until he left for Honolulu to become a policeman. He taught me the kapu and all the training from the olden days. We had to chant a password to enter the halau and if it was correct, he would answer your chant and let you in.

My family was poor so I began to teach in 1942 when I was thirteen-years-old. This Japanese lady, Mrs. Tsubaki was retiring from the barbershop business in Hilo so she took out all the chairs and let me use her shop to teach hula. I only taught kahiko. It wasn’t until about ten years later that I added modern style hula to my lessons. I charged fifty cents a week and with that money I was able to get through school.

I began my recording career at the age of twelve making records with popular companies of the time, 49th State and Tropical Recordings. In my junior year I went to Farrington High School because I was working at the Niumalu Hotel and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel with Ray Kinney, his Royal Hawaiian Review.

During that time, I met a lot of people. Oh, lots of people. The Royal Hawaiian, oh everybody. Bing Crosby. I became good friends with Sammy Davis and all of them. You know, and Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope. Gene Autry. Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. Elvis. We toured widely in the U.S. and Europe with the Royal Hawaiian Review, which also recorded several 78-rpm disks. We spent a long time in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles. We were there during vaudeville days, playing the Trivoli Theatre and Palomar, you know, all in Denver and all over, and Colorado Springs, Vancouver, Calgary, Lake Louise, Canada. All over. Of course, we did Las Vegas. But also in New York. We spent a long time with Arthur Godfrey. We used to be all, we were the main attraction. You know they have like Sammy Davis and all these people, then the Hawaiian show, the Royal Hawaiian Review at the Tropicana.

Then, when they closed up, I came back and finished high school at Hilo High. After graduating from Hilo High School, I studied under Aunty Anna Hall who taught me chanting and aunty Jennie Wilson who taught me ‘auwana. Aunty Jennie had a very sedate way of moving her hands. She taught me that the hands tell the story so nothing can be kuikau. Every hand movement had to be a definite motion.

After high school, I moved to Honolulu and opened the George Na`ope Hula School. I was teaching kahiko when almost no one else would. To me the hula was serious. Hula had religious aspects that were not popular at that time. I was very strict. I tried to get my students to make the connection to the heart. King David Kalakaua said, "Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people." I always tried to honor that idea in my teaching since he was instrumental in reviving hula, which had been banned by the missionaries. He also hosted many gala events and festivals at Iolani Palace during his reign. I was inspired by his style and the efforts that he made to bring back the Hawaiian traditions before it was too late. It wasn’t easy in those days, those who had the knowledge and were willing to share were often looked down on by both sides.

I was also teaching hula to the inmates of O`ahu and Kulani prisons as well as in multi-ethnic, less privileged communities on O`ahu such as Kamehameha IV and Mayor Wright Housing areas. Sometime after that I was picked as a chanter by Ray Kinney who was a world famous Hawaiian singer on the mainland – he called and I joined his show. I stayed with him for two years. Then I came back and went to the Niumalu Hotel [now called Hilton Hawaiian Village] as a chanter with master teacher Tom Hiona, and also I learned Hula from Uncle Tom. I stayed with Uncle Tom for a while.

Later I went under grand master of tutoring Lokalia Montgomery. She was one of the best teachers of all the teachers I had but she was really tough. She was 400 something pounds and had a very old house with big windows. One day I said: “Aunty, can I ask you a question? When I dance all the windows shake.” She said: “A very simple answer: You’re stupid. You’re not good yet, that’s why.” So that answered that. She’d be chanting while she was typing another chant Then she would pull it out of the typewriter and say “Okay, here is the next one you learn.” Then we would have to copy every word down ourselves. And get it correct. She would then sit us down and we would have to read them before we danced. She would tell us the meaning of all these things we had written down. That way you would never forget. I still do that with my students. They learn the words first, then the chant and then the dance.

I speak my mother tongue, and I teach it to my students. How else are they going to learn the hula if they don’t know what they are dancing about. I also like to take them to the different places that the songs are written about. I make them dance it right there so they can feel the words. Verse by verse. Then when they do it in a show or somewhere else, they can imagine how beautiful or cold or windy it is. And that’s the way they are going to really learn it. Especially the language. Even in Japan they have to learn all of the Hawaiian words.

Aften Lokalia Montgomery I learned from Tom Hiona. I learned the various different styles from all of these great masters – they were some of the finest teachers in Hawai’i. Chanting I learned from Daddy Bray, and what kind of costumes, you know. I’m very, very fortunate to have learned under all these people. I was lucky that I was able to live at the time when all of these masters were alive. And I was so fortunate to be able to take hula from most of them.

I chanted for Harriet ‘Iolani Luahine for many years, and learned a few numbers from her. She was not my teacher, but I had the privilege of being her close friend and chanting for her on various occasions in shows and pageants on Hawai‘i Island and on O’ahu. She was very special to me. I knew her all my life from when I was little. I would sit for hours with her and she would tell me stories. Auntie was a great artist. She was a dancer of genius. I think she was the best hula dancer of modern times. When she danced I’d get so engrossed in her dancing that I would get into a trance. I’d be drumming and watching her and I’d forget the beat. She lived the hula. It was her life. She was very mystical a kind of priestess, an enchantress. But she was also very funny, spontaneous and flamboyant. Aunty ‘Io never danced a song the same way. She created as she went along. As soon as she started to dance her whole body would change and the movements would just flow. Everyone would sit in awe. She danced for six presidents; she danced at the White House.

Her name means “heavenly bird” or bird (‘io) of heaven (lani). Every year in the beginnings of the Merrie Monarch she would open the Festival for me. Every year I would chant and she would dance. Birds would come into the stadium. The ‘io from volcano came. Her gift of hula will long be remembered and that is why I wanted to start the ‘Iolani Luahine Hula Festival and Scholarship Competition, to perpetuate the memory of ‘Iolani Luahine and her contribution to the preservation of hula and Hawaiian culture. E mau loa aku e ‘Iolani. And to remember those gifts she left for all of us to perpetuate. By offering a hula scholarship award each year, the festival makes sure that one dedicated student will be encouraged and has the ability to continue the study of hula. and that the legacy of hula lives on by providing this opportunity for world-wide halaus to participate and learn. I know she would like that.

She died in 1976. But right up until the end, when she was dying of cancer, she lived her off-the-cuff, invent-each-moment style. On her last night she spent in her home in Napo‘opo‘o village, she decided to invite about thirty people for a small party. She had just come in that morning from the Honolulu hospital, but between the airport and Napo‘opo‘o she invited ...well, 135 people came. After she died, I came to live in her house and stayed there for ten years. Sometimes people say, “Your just like Auntie ‘Io”. I wish I was, but I’m not. When our creator created her, He broke the mold. But I guess I learned to fool around like her and I like to make fun.

I went to the University of Utah. Graduated from there. Then I went to Oberlin Conservatory of Music and graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music with a doctor’s degree in music. And I came home to teach hula. I went to teach school at the University— I don’t want to mention the name, but anyway I taught school for six years. My major was music but I taught anthropology, which was not for me. I didn’t want to dig up anybody’s grave or anything. So anyway, I did that.

I was drafted into the Korean War. In 1952, After serving twenty-four months in front-line combat as a member of the 10th Corps of the American Corps of Engineers, I returned to Hawai`i and that’s when I went into the modern hula. None of the teachers were teaching kahiko they weren’t really interested in it. If anything else, they taught Tahitian. So it looked kind of weird if you didn’t do the things the rest of them were doing. Although I kept teaching ancient hula the emphasis was on the modern hula. Then you had “Lovely Hula Hands” and “Beyond the Reef” and “Little grass Shack.” Its modern hula but to me it wasn’t Hawai‘i.

I try to be fair to other teachers and other teaching styles. In fact, in Hula the first thing you must teach is respect. First, respect for yourself, because if you have respect for you, you will have respect for the next person. Rule number two from the old days says ‘A‘ohe I pau ka ‘ike I ka halau ho‘okahi – “Think not that all wisdom lies in your school.” So you have no time to criticize the next person. Especially since so much was lost and fragmented. The teachers that carried it on were often in remote parts of the islands and separated from each other. I am so grateful that they thought it important enough to save the little we still have.

Even in the old times different areas evolved differently just like the plants. Even though they may have the same base each location and the isolation that is Hawai‘i provides for diversification and uniqueness. And there are different points of view. Like more than one-side to the story. That’s what keeps things interesting. I teach my students, if you see somebody dance and you think its junk or not right, you pa‘a ka waha, “keep your mouth shut” and enjoy it because you know how hard it is to learn. Everybody has his own way of teaching. Its wonderful to take from other teachers. Because every teacher has something that another teacher doesn’t have. And we all have our own style. The hula to me is the ability to create one’s inner most feelings and no one else’s. When learning a hula about the deep love of the composer for his wife and the place that they fell in love, one of my dancers said to me “Although I have never been to that place, I can remember the place where I fell in love with my husband, and when I am dancing I just imagine that and it helps me express the feeling.”

I was appointed “Promoter of Activities” with the County of Hawai‘i under the Hale Administration. I served in this capacity for four years. It was during this time, 1962 that the Merrie Monarch Festival was born. Hilo had no real attractions so the mayor asked me to come up with an idea. I went to Maui with Gene to watch the Whaling Spree in Lahina. It was a lot of drinking and I knew we couldn’t do that in Hilo where everyone goes to church. Come Monday morning when the mayor asked what our plan was, off the top of my head I suddenly said: “We’re going to have a King Kalakaua Festival” –divine inspiration. David Kalakaua was a popular monarch because he tried to renew respect for Hawaiian culture, particularly hula and chant. He was also known for his love of socializing and celebrations. That’s how he came by the title “The Merrie Monarch.”

Also in this period, I was honored to be recognized by the Governor and Hawai‘i State Legislature of 1960 with the designation of “Living Golden Treasure.” The hula had been lost for about 75 years as a public performance. Kalakaua sent couriers out all over the islands to seek out all of the practicing kumu hula. He knew where they were hiding. He invited them all to his coronation. That brought back interest in all these dances.

During the first three years of the “Merrie Monarch Festival I had a big show –150 people were in the cast. It was more of a play where we acted out Kalakaua’s coronation. Hula came after. It wasn’t the main attraction and it wasn’t a competition. Later on it was the kumu hula themselves that wanted competition. The halau all came, but almost none knew ancient hula. Only three out of the twenty-six halau. Later, I sent everybody a tape of chanting and drumming, and then it became a competition. Everybody doing the same chant but creating their own motions. I did that for nine or ten years; after that, I got tired of it and told them that from now on they had to do their own thing. Now they are all so good.

I am really a purist when it comes to kahiko. It probably comes from the years of listening to my teachers correct and start over when things were not done precisely. I really want to keep kahiko traditional. I am kind of a stickler for that. The kahiko is of the old. It is the history of Hawai‘i, the chants. So how can we add anything into it. In my learning, you could not improvise. In oral tradition it is important to keep things exact so that you didn’t change the story.

I went on to create the Lili‘uokalani Keiki Hula Festival, the experience from which the Kalihi-Palama Cultural and Arts Society was formed. Next came the Kalakaua Invitational Hula Festival, followed by the Kupuna Hula Festival. In 1981 I began the Japan Merrie Monarch Hula Festival” to afford hula education to my Japanese students. It’s now in its .... Successful year and has become an annual summer event attracting thousands of worldwide participants.

While living at Napo‘opo‘o at Iolani Luahine’s home, we helped set up a Foundation along with our Princess Abigail Kawananakoa – it’s called the Luahine-Kawananakoa Foundation.

Besides entertaining and teaching hula, I began cataloging many of the old chants – taping many of the chants, taping the stories and backgrounds of these chants for the future, you know, for anybody to use when they want to. This is what the Foundation is all about. I did an album on chants that hadn’t been recorded so that they’ll be saved for posterity. We’re still taping all of these chants and, pageantries and Hawaiian temple dances and just putting them all down on record. It’s a good thing that we have a tape recorder because it’s faster than writing them down.

In the 1970s, I was a member of the Honokohau Advisory Commission and served as a charter member of that group that has guided the creation of the 750-acre Kaloko Honkohau National Park in Kekaha, Kona. Aunty ‘Iolani, David Kahelemauna Roy In the wake of urban development and land use patterns that were taking place in North Kohala, we saw the unique opportunity to provide a new dimension to visitor experience and at the same time, help maintain the integrity of the Hawaiian culture. Although it has not been followed exactly as we proposed. I am so proud to have been an integral part of the decision-making process and that our work resulted in the site being set aside and will be preserved under the National Historical Park designation. It was one of the first times that native Hawaiians were able to tell their story and tell it in their own way. I was recently shown the draft of the

In 1993, I co-authored a book in two volumes entitled “The Lost Secrets of Ancient Hawaiian Huna”.

I love to share my culture. The hula is the one of the only things we have left of our own. Teaching it the same way that you were taught helps to keep it alive. My students come from different races and religions but it doesn’t bother me at all. No matter what race or what color, when they dance the hula they are Hawaiian. I have taught for and helped to organize groups such as Hui O Na Kumuhula in the Northwest U.S. as well as groups in California and New York. Over the years I have also taught the dance of Hawai‘i in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, London, Guam, Okinawa, Korea, Australia, and Tahiti. You know, it’s so wonderful, I have my friends from Germany, from Berlin. I also taught in Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Munich and Brenan. I have a friend who comes from Berlin who makes the best sauerkraut. I like traveling and I like sharing the hula. And you know, I still return annually to several mainland locations and many of these countries, to help with their local competitions and renew the skills of my students.

I have taught in Japan for since the early 1960s. I still don’t know how to speak Japanese. People ask “Uncle, how do you teach the Japanese how to dance?” I say “Very simple. I teach them in Hawaiian.” I like their culture, but their culture is also fading. It’s so Americanized and Westernized. They’re losing their Japanese dancing. I like traditional Japanese dance. Their kahiko is almost like ours. The Japanese study hard and they work hard. They know it is not their culture but they love it.

One halau I go to in Japan has 5,000 students. There was a big write-up in the paper with my picture in it that said the hula is the best thing for older people for exercise. The doctors say it is good for then to keep limber. After that, 2,000 people signed up to take from my teachers.

I was recognized in 1960 by the state as a "Living Golden Treasure” and in 1999, I was nominated as a National Treasure by Councilman, Curtis Tyler and the Hawai`i Island County Council. Then in 2006, I was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with an NEA National Heritage Fellowship Lifetime Honors award. I was very proud to be recognized but even more proud that I had dedicated my life to my Hawaiian culture and helped to ensure its place in the world’s annals of heritage. I just love Hawaii and I love my culture. My greatest gift is the ability to share the hula with people around the world and to see that they enjoy it and feel the aloha.

At the age of 78, I was still actively teaching and entertaining. I became passionately committed and actively pursuing the creation of a hula archive that would preserve the many songs, chants and dances of Hawai’i through recordings and exhibits. Although it has still not become a reality, I hope that it will someday be a place for people to gather and learn about the hula.

I studied with the great masters. But, I never thought I would be a kumu hula. I never thought that one day they would recognize me as one of the masters of the hula and a historian of the Hawaiian culture. I just happened to be around at the right time when there were still some of them who were trained in the old ways. It was not very popular at that time like it is now. It’s my people and it reflects me. Its my life.

At the hour of Uncle's death a whistling wind blew in across Keaukaha bringing with it the Kani lehua, the rain that sings upon the lehua began to fall all across Hilo. This is the simple but awesome power of love. We celebrate your wonderful life and our love for Hawaii's Culture. Mahalo no e Ke Akua. Aloha no e na kupuna.

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