Reviving a tradition: Holoku Gala presentation

The beautiful and intricate Holoku gown dates back to 1820 with the missionary era in Hawai‘i, and was first adopted by Hawaiian queens, but also worn by other Hawaiian women who labored intensively on hand sewing these formal dresses. A precursor to the mu‘umu‘u, the Holoku gown was celebrated with a juried competition, the annual Holoku Ball. What was once the social highlight of the season for many of Kaua‘i’s community, all but disappeared due to lack of funds in 1980 — Malama Pono, Kaua‘i AIDS Project, is attempting to revive an annual celebration of this art and important piece of Hawaiian culture and history with a Holoku Gala presentation tomorrow evening at the Kaua‘i Museum.

“The Holoku expresses reverence for Old Hawai‘i by celebrating the original styles popular when the Hawaiian kingdom reigned supreme. There is a long tradition of Holoku events throughout the Hawaiian Islands,” writes Jeff Demma of Malama Pono. The Kaua‘i Museum will be presenting all the Holoku gowns in their collection for viewing during this special event, while gourmet food, wine and beer will be served, and world-class Hawaiian music will be performed.

“Ladies would spend up to a year designing, preparing, and fabricating their Holoku gowns and come to compete for top honors at the ball,” said Demma, Malama Pono’s treasurer and the main steward of the event. “This is an opportunity to educate and teach people about this art form and revive a traditional event that many people still remember and cherish. It’s time to invite the young people into something their parents and grandparents took great pride in.”

Demma’s extensive community involvement since his recent move to Kaua‘i in 2005 with partner Ross Martineau, ranges from running Malama Pono, organizing major fund-raising events such as Paradise Ride, and starring as the legendary Emcee in the recent production of “Cabaret.” His work reflects an embrace of the island and desire to become a leader in the community — the Holoku Gala is the current culmination of this sincere intention.

“When I first heard about the Holoku Ball I was running Malama Pono. This gala presentation is a way to do something that has meaning to Kaua‘i, that will give back to our community while raising money for our non-profit,” Demma said. After being introduced to kupuna Juliet Aiu, a profound resource of this event, Demma felt passionate about reviving a tradition that was so vital to the culture and history of the island. “I knew we needed to partner with another formidable non-profit, the Kaua‘i Museum, keepers of the culture, to realize this history.”

“The annual Holoku Ball drew huge crowds. The gowns were intricately sewn with beautiful details, peacock feathers, shells, and beading. This was the type of event that I felt should continue in some capacity. I don’t expect people will go back to making the gowns by hand, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the legacy of such a rich history in a new way,” said Demma.

While the revival gala was Demma’s brain child, “partnering with a cultural institution (like the museum) creates a level of interest and momentum and invites the wider public into the preservation of culture,” said Demma. While any non-profit struggles with the time for administration, grant-writing, fund-raising and doing the actual non-profit work, Demma is excited about working with the museum and feels the time and energy put into such an event is extremely worthwhile.

“This is an opportunity for both of our organizations to come together, leverage each other’s strengths and support our weaknesses. The museum is such an important cultural institution — we are really honored to collaborate with them in this capacity.”

Tomorrow’s gala, along with fantastic music and gowns, includes an extensive menu. “We’ve gotten an amazing amount of gourmet food donated to this event: 100 pounds of snapper, lau lau, seaweed salads, sushi, all kinds of vegetarian dishes, taro sweet potato, unbelievable desserts from O‘ahu and much more,” said Demma.

The event and presentation at the Kaua‘i Museum benefits Malama Pono and its activities to educate and support the island community on HIV/AIDS. Traditional Hawaiian music artists Manulele, legendary Emma Veary and Kekai Chock will perform for the event. The ticket price includes all food, wine and beer. Help revive an important cultural event while supporting a worthwhile cause. 

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