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Na Lio Maui explores the history of horses and mixing of cultures in Hawaii

By Staff | Sep 17, 2015

From left, Na Lio Maui Show Director Makalapua Kanuha, owner/creator Marla Braun-Miller and partner Sandra Braun-Ortega at the grand opening of Na Lio Maui. PHOTOS COURTESY OF NA LIO MAUI.

LAHAINA – To say it’s a horse show does it no justice. Na Lio Maui is an artistic collaboration, a labor of love and a celebration of the history of horses, paniolo traditions and cultural melting pot of Hawaii. It’s West Maui’s newest visitor attraction and recently had a grand opening.

We met Na Lio staff at their storefront in the Lahaina Gateway center and were whisked away by shuttle along the Lahaina Bypass to Kahalawai Farms & Stables on the lower slopes of Mauna Kahalawai. Along the way, the friendly faces of Na Lio’s greeters in full paniolo attire handed out programs and explained the production, giving us hints of surprises in store.

As the shuttle pulled up next to the arena, we were treated to the heady aromas of Iron Imu Catering’s barbecue. Inside the arena on a raised lanai were beautifully decorated tables set for dinner. In chuck wagon tradition but with a gourmet twist, we were served plates heaped with BBQ brisket, chicken, ribs and pulled pork accompanied by sides of baked beans, creamy mac-n-cheese, tangy coleslaw, grilled ‘ulu (breadfruit grown on the farm) and cornbread. All the guests tucked into the meal like hungry hands back from a day on the range. Although the show does not currently include dining, a similar dinner menu may soon be added to the Ali’i package. At this time, guests can enjoy locally made snacks and soft drinks while watching a hula preshow.

The show was created by owner Marla Braun-Miller and developed in the context of Hawaiian traditions by show Director Makalapua Kanuha. Na Lio means “the horses” in Hawaiian. This production reflects a love and respect for horses and the pa’u riding style that’s unique to Hawaii. Since she was a young girl growing up in Tahiti, Braun-Miller has ridden horses and continued to hone her equestrian skills.

She remarked, “I have learned many riding disciplines from jumping to reining and dressage. I learned about pa’u riding watching (Kamehameha Commemorative) parades on Front Street. Four years ago, I met Bryson DeSilva from the Big Island, who shared his knowledge about pa’u riding with me and taught us about wrapping the skirt. This style of riding is more defined by what you wear than a specific way of riding.”

A quadrille of pa‘u horsewomen ride at the conclusion of Na Lio Maui. PHOTO COURTESY OF NA LIO MAUI.

The art of pa’u wrapping and wahine holo lio (female horseback riding) are two of several Hawaiian traditions showcased in this production. The performance opens around the campfire circa 1910. Uncle, the narrator (performed to perfection by Derek Nakagawa) is asked by a young man to tell the story of horses and Hawaii’s paniolo (cowboys).

We journeyed a century back in time to the arrival of the first horses in the Hawaiian Islands, which were gifted to Kamehameha I along with a herd of cattle. Because these unusual animals were made kapu (the king forbid them to be slaughtered), cattle roamed wild and caused damage to homesteads. By the time of Kamehameha III in the mid-19th century, cowboys from Mexico, Central and South America were invited to the islands to train horses and teach Hawaiians how to work herds of cattle.

So the story of the vaqueros in Hawaii unfolds, when cultures start mixing and a new lifestyle begins. We learned how the Spanish vaqueros taught Hawaiians to maneuver horses, rope cattle and play the guitar. The performance is also underscored with a love story: romance between a vaquera and a Hawaiian cowboy. Angell Estrada vibrantly portrays the young vaquera who grows into the wahine holo lio trainer of Queen Emma and her Royal Hawaiian Ladies.

Live music from a talented band led by Daniel Querubin punctuates the narration, dancing and equestrian performances. A large cast of dancers and actors with rodeo and horse riding skills brings the story to life with hula, humor, playfulness, intriguing costumes and demonstrations on horseback. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous horses that play an important role in the production.

“We have nine horses in the show,” explained Marla. “My goal is to use the talent already existing at the farm and in the state. I have been blessed to have horse owners who are so supportive and thrilled to see their horses shine.”

The riding arena and stage are lit with low yet dramatic lighting. There’s only one spotlight directed down on the arena where the horses enter and soft light around the campfire. Slack key guitar master George Kahumoku joins Uncle around the campfire for a melodious demonstration of how ki ho’alu (loosen the key) was born when the vaqueros left guitars with their Hawaiian hosts.

I asked Marla how both locals and visitors would benefit from experiencing this show: “The story of the horse in Hawaii is a testimony to how the Hawaiian people embraced a new culture and made it their own. It is a history that they can be proud of, and descendants of these paniolo are honored to have this story told.”

As a history buff, I heartily agree. Na Lio Maui is available on Monday, Tuesday and Friday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. During September, you can register to win two Ali’i tickets, which include meeting the horses. For reservations, call (808) 270-2225 or visit www.naliomaui.com.