At Livermore's Bankhead, Hawaiian songs, hula
dance to grace stage
By Lou Fancher
That is the effect Gloria Ruiz and performers from her Pleasanton-based school plan to have Sunday as they present "Hula Lives On" at Livermore's Bankhead Theater. Also appearing on the program are Bay Area musician Faith Ako and a guest artist from Hawaii, Weldon Kekauoha.
Ruiz, born in Panama, says she was drawn to hula as if by a powerful, magical force -- just as the approximately 60 students ages 31/2 to 69 have been attracted to her 2-year-old studio. After renting space for classes at various Tri-Valley venues for the past 10 years, Ruiz is enjoying the stability of a more permanent location. Outgrowing the community centers she has been renting for performances -- the last show had 450 people attending -- Ruiz is making her first move to the Bankhead.
"We were bursting our seams," she says about two recent performances at San Ramon's Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center. "Our audience has grown. We just can't keep it quiet anymore."
Marketing Director Nancy Mueller says she was excited when Ruiz approached the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center. "Hawaiian performances have done well here. Willy K did a holiday performance that sold out weeks before the performance, and Jake Shimabukuro sells out every time."
Ruiz says hula moves not only the body, but the emotions. She primarily teaches the traditional style with drumming and chanting. The slow, subtle hand movements tell expressive stories -- the dances are kinetic narratives of migration or celebrations of the land, visiting kings and queens and more.
"It's like a chanted journal, the story of generations of lives," Ruiz says.
The Halau Makana Lani studio also offers classes in contemporary hula, which boast more technical flair, like rapid spinning, and is most often accompanied by guitar, ukulele and recorded vocals.
Ako, whose three albums and concert appearances have won Hawaiian Music Awards, a Hawaiian genre Grammy entry in 2010 and widespread recognition in California and Hawaii, was born and raised on Oahu. The youngest of 15 children born to Mormon missionary parents from the French Polynesian islands, she's a multicultural blend.
"Our culture is very family-oriented so we were all about music, the food. I am a mix of Samoan and Caucasian influences," Ako says.
Improbably, Ako grew up disliking Hawaiian music and instead, developed a strong preference for throwbacks such as the Temptations and Natalie Cole, and contemporary artists such as Sheryl Crow and Grace Potter.
"It wasn't until I was 40 and started to think I needed to de-stress that I turned to Hawaiian music. My husband brought me a record and said I had to listen to it. It's true: Hawaiian music relaxes you, allows you to breathe," she says.
Ako, 57, often plays the ukulele and will appear with her band at the Bankhead. Ruiz's dancers will join her for three to four traditional songs she will select from her albums to perform.
"The traditional music is slower and sung with a falsetto (high) voice. It's a style developed by people singing in their backyards," Ako says. "I'm more contemporary, because of my training. I use half-Hawaiian, half-English lyrics and you get a more sassy, jazzy, spirited Hollywood sound."
During her 45-minute set, Ako will perform "Enihi Kahele," a more traditional song from her first album. The words tell the story of the last Hawaiian monarch, King David Kalakaua, whose wife, Queen Katiolani, was about to sail to England.
"He had inner emotions about the trip. He was worried and asked her to be careful," Ako explains. "The melody is so touching, the words give you a feeling of his love, of his special prayer for her."
Ako sings a phrase -- the melody rolls like a wave and the words slip softly off her tongue, leaving an impression of longing and tenderness.
Ruiz says her dancers have received "gifts of joy" by immersing themselves in Hawaiian culture. "Now we'll give back to the community and dance about the beautiful world. Hula is for everyone."