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Ekko Ota

Ha means breath, wai means water, and i is spirit A gift from Uncle George, who loved Hawai’i


Ekko Ota

I was born in Okinawa and grew up among Hawaiians of Japanese descent who raised me like family. When I was a teenager, I was absolutely obsessed with surfing – it was my favorite thing to do! While I could do a little hula, it wasn’t really my thing. I remember hating being asked to dance the hula at parties, so I would purposely wear a kimono instead.
One day, a friend of mine invited me to her mother’s party where a famous hula dancer from Hawaii would be there. In a spacious tatami room, I saw an elderly man wearing a pink suit and a pale pink hat. He was so tanned that I couldn’t make out his face or expression. The friendly old man asked me if I could hula, to which I replied, ‘Only a little.’ He then offered to play the ukulele for me and encouraged me to dance. After a few moves, he said, “Next time you come to Hawaii, come and see me. It was then, on Valentine’s Day, in a little place on the edge of Okinawa, that I first met Uncle George Naope.
At the time, I was running a surf store in Okinawa. Coincidentally, the week after I met Naope, I went to Hawaii on a buying trip and visited a hotel where Naope performed every day. During the show, Naope played the ukulele while a boy and a girl danced the hula. Their hand movements were so beautiful and so different from the hula I’d learned before that I couldn’t help but admire them. After meeting them backstage, we unexpectedly found ourselves at Naope’s house the following morning at 8AM. I was supposed to be enjoying my trip surfing in Hawai’i but, what can you do?
At his house, Naope was singing as he beat the pahu drum. Sounds and words I had never heard before. It was my first encounter with the Hawaiian language. When I tried to play the pahu drum, I recognized the rhythm and thought, “Oh, I know this! I know this one!” I was immediately hooked and took lessons every day during my stay. Naope warned me that I would never be able to dance the hula if I got hurt, so I quit surfing after that.
That is where the relationship between master and apprentice began.
On one occasion, when I picked Naope up from Naha Airport, he strode outside and prayed to the plants. He said, ‘Gods of Okinawa, please accept me. Thank you.’
Naope was a lovely man, and as well as being a people person, he was a great producer. At a competition in Hawaii, he instructed my students to sing a song after their hula performance. When the students finished the song, the audience erupted into cheers. The song performed was the elementary school song of Kona. The local audience was delighted, many of whom had learned the song in their youth. Naope had come up with this idea to help the students, who had come all the way from Okinawa, to be accepted by the people of Hawaii. I was so moved by his kind ingenuity.
In the past, Hawaii did not have a writing system, so hula was used as a means of expression to convey both words and thoughts. Naope’s hula was a message like no other. Now, he rests in Kilauea. When I lost my teacher, I thought about giving up hula, but now I want to pass on the message that Uncle George left us, here in Okinawa.
It was in 1997 that Plaza House’s Fair Mall was built. For its opening ceremony, we were asked to perform the hula on the second floor. After the performance, an old Okinawan lady, perhaps with a supernatural insight, beckoned me and said she saw the spirit of a tanned Hawaiian man, jovially looking upon the performance from the corner. Even though back then Uncle George was alive and well in Hawaii, he must have been here with us in spirit! Many years later, I was searching for a rental for my Hula studio when President Taira just so happened to recommend an opening on the second floor of Fair Mall. Lo and behold, it was the exact spot the old lady said she saw Uncle George’s spirit. I guess all things are connected even if they are invisible to us. When you look at it like that, Uncle George is always just a drumbeat away!

Ekko Ota 1
Ekko Ota 2

Ekko Ota

Founder of Hālau Hula Kalākaua, located on 2F Plaza House. Certified Kumu Hula (Master Teacher) in 2000 by Master Kumu Hula Uncle George Na’ope.
TEL: 098-878-5654
Closed on: Sunday, Monday