Hawaiian language preservationists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo fondly reminisced about the colossal legacy of hula and style of Hawaiian haku mele (song composition) beloved kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho leaves behind. Lum Ho, 81, a recording artist known for his creative and crowd pleasing performances at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, died on Sunday, April 3, just weeks before the world-famous hula competition in the heart of Hilo town.
William H. “Pila” Wilson, a Hawaiian studies professor and linguist at UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language recalled the captivating performances Lum Ho’s award-winning Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua would present at Merrie Monarch that would always end with roaring applause and standing ovations, at times. Wilson admired the mele Lum Ho would write for his hālau to perform in competition.
“It wasn’t about aliʻi and all the fancy love songs, his compositions were more like cleaning out the yard and chasing the fly in the house,” Wilson said. “It was about real life, real Hawaiian kuaʻāina (countryside) life…and we’re gonna miss that!”
A beloved muse
In the 1980s, Lum Ho’s mother Martha, a native speaker or mānaleo, tutored haumāna (students) in the Native Speaker Laboratory at UH Hilo. Aunty Martha, who was also known as Tūtū Mānoanoa, would often share stories about her childhood outside Kalapana where she would catch birds and farm up mauka (mountainside).
“So many stories and many of her stories came out in Johnny’s dancing,” Wilson said. “I would go pick her up to come to campus and she would be working in the yard. She worked really hard, she grew taro, and they had a mynah bird in the house, and Johnny and Tūtū Mānoanoa lived together.”
Haku mele visionary
Larry Kimura, a UH Hilo ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) associate professor who spearheaded the push to revive Hawaiʻi’s native tongue in the 1970s, commends the Hawaiʻi Island native for inspiring a new generation of Hawaiian language composers and musicians. Lum Ho’s compositions graced the albums of some of Hawaiʻi’s top musicians such as Nā Palapalai, Darren Benitez, Mark Yamanaka and The Peter Moon Band’s Cane Fire.
Kimura always admired Lum Ho’s talent and how close he clung to his grassroots.
“He has that local Hawaiʻi standard,” Kimura said. “You don’t put on any front. What you see is what you are. And that’s him. And yet he can perform on anybody’s stage and impress anyone, but he is still going to be who he is.”
Many of Lum Ho’s dancers were haumāna (students) in UH Hilo’s Hawaiian language program. Wilson and Kimura recalled how disciplined the students’ approach to learning was, which was a tribute to exemplary training ingrained from within Lum Ho’s hālau. They also praised his support through the years for ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi revitalization across the state.
Plans are underway to digitize old recordings of Lum Ho’s mother speaking Hawaiian at UH Hilo. Kimura launched Kaniʻāina (Voices of the Land), UH Hilo’s digital library featuring recordings of kūpuna mānaleo (native speaking elders) aimed at preserving the precious collections and enhancing student learning and use of the language.