Patrick Makuakāne
Patrick Makuakāne | Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

San Francisco’s Patrick Makuakāne is among the 2023 class of MacArthur Foundation awardees, announced last week. Makuakāne, 62, is a famous master teacher of hula. In 1985, he founded a hula school and company called Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, whose name translates to “the many-feathered wreaths at the summit, held in high esteem.”

The MacArthur citation for Makuakāne calls him a “cultural preservationist” and credits him for “blending traditional hula with contemporary music and movements and uplifting Hawaiian culture and history.”

Talking to Slate after the award announcement, Makuakāne described his work in a different way, which writer Dan Kois summarized as “an artist working not to preserve his culture in amber, but to innovate and transform it into something new.”

SF Classical Voice has long followed Makuakāne’s work, noting how he is blending traditional and commercial hula with contemporary music, opera, electronica, alternative, and pop, along with other forms of dance. He has called this hula mua, or “hula that evolves.”

Hula dancers
Makuakāne’s hula company in action | Courtesy of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu

In 2010, SFCV reported on Makuakāne’s company celebrating its 25th anniversary:

Creation myths are all around. Genesis, of course; the Kalevala for the Finns; Theogony for the Greeks; Dreamtime for the Australian indigenous people; and so forth.

In Hawaii, it’s He Kumulipo, a 2,000-line chant about creation and the source of darkness.

On Friday [May 21, 2010], San Francisco’s Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center was the setting for the performance of an excerpt from a Kumulipo work in progress. Patrick Makuakāne’s hula school is developing a full-length work for presentation in the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.”

In Slate last week, Makuakāne spoke of his relationship with hula and once again returned to the theme of origins, with Kois observing that “for many mainlanders, hula is just something they encounter in tiki bars or on TV.”

Makuakāne responded: “They have no idea what it truly represents! I’m an evangelist about hula. Hula is such an important, immersive, expansive part of our culture. It helped to bring the culture back from extinction in the ’70s, during the Hawaiian Renaissance.

Patrick Makuakāne
Patrick Makuakāne | Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

“Everybody says it was music and wayfaring, and I say boldly that it was hula that did it. I’m biased, but you can be biased and right at the same time! Many people my age found a way to express their native identity through hula. That opens the door to so many aspects of our culture that [were] closed before. We can be proud to say we’re Hawaiian.”

“It gives you a language to speak about your origins,” Kois concluded.

Makuakāne has long supported minority groups facing discrimination, including the māhū, the Hawaiian word for a third gender:

“I have all these incredibly talented friends who are māhū! It was 2020, and transgender people were in the news, with Trump and the military and, you know — it was the conversation that was happening.

“I wanted to do a show with my transgender friends who are artists — not to have them onstage rallying their flag, but to have them share their talent, their singing, their dancing. How can you deny these amazing people a seat at the table when you’ve seen their artistry?”

Of this year’s class of awardees, who will each receive $800,000 over five years without conditions, MacArthur Fellows Director Marlies Carruth said:

“The 2023 MacArthur Fellows are applying individual creativity with global perspective, centering connections across generations and communities.

“They forge stunning forms of artistic expression from ancestral and regional traditions, heighten our attention to the natural world, improve how we process massive flows of information for the common good, and deepen understanding of systems shaping our environment.”

Besides Makuakāne, the new MacArthur Fellows are:

— Ada Limón, U.S. poet laureate 
— Courtney Bryan, composer and professor of music at Tulane University
— Jason D. Buenrostro, cellular and molecular biologist at Harvard
— E. Tendayi Achiume, legal scholar
— Andrea Armstrong, incarceration law scholar
— Rina Foygel Barber, statistician
— Ian Bassin, lawyer and democracy advocate
— Raven Chacon, composer and artist
— Diana Greene Foster, demographer and reproductive health researcher
— Carolyn Lazard, artist
— Lester Mackey, computer scientist and statistician
— Linsey Marr, environmental engineer
— Manuel Muñoz, fiction writer
— Imani Perry, interdisciplinary scholar and writer
— Dyani White Hawk, multidisciplinary artist
— A. Park Williams, hydroclimatologist
— Amber Wutich, anthropologist
— María Magdalena Campos-Pons, multidisciplinary artist
— Lucy Hutyra, Boston University professor who studies the impact of urbanization on the carbon cycle