May Day is “Lei Day” in Hawaii, and the annual appreciation of the iconic flower garland celebrated on May 1 remains a perfect time to make a lei, wear a lei and give a lei.
For Robert Cazimero, a world-renowned kumu (teacher) of hula and mele (song), May Day holds a special place in his heart with so many powerful memories tied to the Native Hawaiian culture and music that helps keep the culture alive and thriving.
“Name me a culture where you give a flower lei – that’s ours,” says Cazimero. “It started for us, by us, here in Hawaii; recognized by someone from the outside looking in and wanting to create a day on which you can live this legendary part of our culture. It’s May Day, so it’s ingrained in our culture and things that we believe that make Hawaii special as we carry on these traditions.”
The May Day tradition continues on Wednesday, May 1 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Hawaii Convention Center as a star-studded concert will honor the past, while also giving the highly anticipated celebration a refreshed look and feel to carry it on for generations to come.
The “Hawaiian Airlines May Day 2019: The Tradition Continues” event will feature headlining group Keauhou, an award-winning ensemble of Jonah Kahanuola Solatorio and brothers Nicholas and Zachary Lum. Cazimero and his Hālau Nā Kamalei o Līlīlehua will perform hula, and attendees will also be treated to performances from Kahulanui and the Kamehameha Schools Concert Glee Club, as well as the hula of Hālau Hi‘iakaināmakalehua under the direction of Kumu Hula (teachers) Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV and Lono Padilla.
“May Day provides a once-in-a-year opportunity for us to celebrate something as simple yet profound as lei,” says Zachary Lum. “In this one poignant thought, we get to hold this huge concert for this lei, and see an intersection between tourism and our culture in a way that isn’t compromising. It is a celebration, and it’s important not only for us as people who celebrate significant Hawaiian cultural events, but also for the larger community.
“We’re privileged and happy to be the hosts for this year, but this is not Keauhou’s May Day; it’s May Day, and we’re excited to see where it goes.”
The revitalized May Day concert signifies a passing of the torch, or a lei, from kumu to haumāna (students) as Cazimero and Keauhou work diligently to blend entertainment, culture and history.
“It’s overwhelming, and it makes me very happy and proud. Such has been my life of encouraging young things to grow in helping our Hawaiian culture take its rightful place in a world with so many beautiful cultures,” says Cazimero of the May Day concert experience. “I’m looking forward to Keauhou taking that kuleana (responsibility) of passing on the culture for years to come. When I think about Keauhou, it represents a fresh start, while also carrying on the knowledge and traditions of our past.”
May Day celebrations in Hawaii can be traced back to the first lei contest held on May 1, 1928, referred to as Lei Day.
Don Blanding, originally from Oklahoma, came to Hawaii in 1915 after seeing a play in Kansas City called “The Bird of Paradise” that depicted a romantic – and completely fictional – Hawaii. In 1927, Blanding and a fellow Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper writer Grace Tower Warren came up with the idea of honoring the tradition of the lei, which, they thought, appeared to be in decline and in need of a revival. The first Lei Day was held on May 1, 1928 and was a resounding success and included a lei competition in which the flower strands were judged based on the appropriate use of flowers and colors of islands as designated in 1923 by Hawaii’s Territorial Legislature’s Joint Resolution 1.
Ever since this inaugural lei competition in 1928, both kama‘āina (locals) and malihini (visitors, guests) continue to celebrate May Day in Hawaii as being synonymous with Lei Day as a special way to celebrate shared traditions and memories.
Cazimero recalls that as a keiki (child), the May Day concert was held at the Waikiki Shell “and they would have a lei-making contest and a May Day Queen and her Court would be chosen, which they still do today, so there’s quite a history there. And, going to school in Kalihi, we had May Day celebrations then, too.”
The veteran performer notes that he and his “gang” initially started performing at May Day brunch celebrations that incorporated music and also recognized those who had crafted beautiful lei that would be showcased throughout the day. The performance became so popular that, in 1977, the Brothers Cazimero – Robert and his brother Roland, who passed away in 2017 – held May Day concerts under the stars at the iconic Shell for a remarkable 30-year run.
“We haven’t been to a May Day concert at the Shell that Robert and Roland were singing at, but we see all the videos and hear the stories of how great it used to be, so it’s amazing to be given that opportunity to carry that torch and the tradition,” says Solatorio. “Especially from someone who we respect in Robert Cazimero, who has done so much for the Hawaiian language, hula and music. We’re going to work hard to fulfil that task and holomua (improve, progress).”
As Cazimero recalls, “The Brothers Cazimero were part of the May Day Concert for 30 years. And, it was 30 long, aggravating, stressful, amazing, wonderful, never-to-be-forgotten years of my life.”
The historical context and importance of May Day across multiple generations is something that Keauhou considers and holds dear when taking on the responsibility of headlining the concert.
“For me and Zach, because we dance hula with Kumu Robert, we hear all these stories from our hula brothers about how fun May Day was, and what a huge party it became,” says Nicholas Lum. “It was a great time for everyone to get together and share a moment. Unfortunately, because we’re young, we didn’t get to experience that. It’s our kuleana to provide that experience for our generation and create happy moments for those who may not have been able to see the Brothers Cazimero perform.”
Concert attendees will also be treated to exclusive access to the May Day Mākeke, a marketplace featuring local vendors and artisans, as well as music from Kaumaka‘iwa Kānaka‘ole, Nā Palapalai and Shawn Pimental. Food and beverage will be available for purchase, including VIP cuisine selections from award-winning chef Mark Noguchi, co-founder and executive chef of the Pili Group and a Hawaiian Airlines featured chef. Tickets are available at Keauhou’s website for $35, and VIP tables are available as well.
“We’re always looking for someone to continue good work, especially when it comes to the Hawaiian culture,” says Cazimero. “We went through a period of renaissance, rebirth and re-understanding, and it was an obvious choice that Keauhou would be the ones to carry it on and do the good work in the way so many of us would want to see it. We’re appreciative to have so many sponsors that allow us to keep Hawaii so touchable, huggable and real.”
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