There’s a friendly, colorful, musical time to be had at the Four Days of Aloha Festival in Esther Short Park this weekend.
But don’t forget the serious reason for all the joy: preserving and transmitting the uniqueness of island culture to thousands of people, especially Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who’ve relocated to the continental U.S.
“It’s really easy to disconnect when you move away,” said Kaloku Holt, who grew up in Vancouver. He took up the mission begun by his late mother, Deva Yamashiro, a Hawaiian native who started the educational Ke Kukui Foundation here in 2006.
The foundation’s July music-and-dance festival has grown into one of Vancouver’s signature summer events, with as many as 30,000 people attending in a single weekend in recent years. When the formerly free festival put up a gate and started charging admission last year, 12,000 people still showed up.
This year, organizers say they’re expecting as many as 20,000 in a big pandemic rebound. Dozens of entertainers, educators and vendors are coming from across the region and as far away as Hawaii itself.
“It’s grown into this big festival over the last 20 years, but it started as a cultural camp and that’s still the foundation,” said Holt’s wife, Alyssa Reyes. “There are thousands and thousands of native Hawaiians living here. It’s not easy to stay culturally connected, but it’s really important.
“As parents raising our kids here, it’s not just a hobby or something fun to do,” Reyes said. “It’s something that’s needed.”
‘Culture straight from the source’
It’s still possible to sign up for some of the Aloha festival’s cultural classes and hurry down to Clark College (or participate online via livestreaming) today and Friday, Holt said. Morning and afternoon sessions on both days will cover hula dancing, crafts, Hawaiian language, Indigenous foods, and even canoe paddling on the Columbia River.
Check the website for details, course availability and the teaching talent that’s bringing authentic expertise from Hawaii, including hula master and educator Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin, who was crowned champion of Hawaii’s Merry Monarch Festival earlier this year.
“It’s the most prestigious hula dance competition and she was named the overall winner,” Holt said.
Also on hand will be hula master Victoria Holt Takamine, fashion designer Manaola Yap, composer Robert Cazimero and musician and storyteller Jonah Kahanuola Solatorio, to name a few.
“We’re bringing Hawaiian culture straight from the source,” Reyes said. “Authenticity is really important to us.”
When educational events at Clark College wind down Friday afternoon, the party in Esther Short Park revs up. Friday’s entertainment lineup includes local band CoLoSo and culminates with Kapena, an intergenerational family band led by Kelly Boy DeLima that’s been famous in Hawaii for nearly 40 years, Holt said.
On Saturday, hula workshop participants will join their instructors onstage to demonstrate what they’ve learned. A daylong lineup of entertainers winds up with Nathan Aweau, a powerful Hawaiian singer, songwriter and virtuoso multi-instrumentalist.
Sunday starts with a fundraising run along the Columbia River. After that, festivities in the park highlight local and visiting multicultural performers.
“A Hawaiian festival is really a festival of multiculturalism,” Reyes said. “We want to highlight that because Hawaii is such a melting pot. It’s known as the melting pot of the Pacific.”
The Ke Kukui Foundation almost folded during the COVID-19 pandemic, Holt said.
“We couldn’t hold weekly classes and we lost our space,” which had been a storefront in the Salmon Creek area, he said. “We went on Zoom and found Zoom is not really conducive to what we do. But we tried to get used to it.”
While the foundation has struggled, its summer festival has kept growing. What started out as a free Three Days of Aloha is now four days, with tickets required.
“I was worried about that, because it’s been free for so long,” Holt said. “But a lot of precautions have come with COVID, and we wanted to ensure everyone’s safety. With the number of entertainers and the value we bring to the community, you can’t expect free forever.”
“All the proceeds go to cultural programs, bringing our cultural programs back from COVID,” Holt said. “We’re doing it all for the community.”