Thwack, thump, thwack, thump, thump. The sound of more than 30 hollow-gourd drums hitting the floor rumbles through a no-frills suite in a strip mall in west Tempe.
Drummers, young and old, are seated on gray carpet, alternately striking the sides of their instruments - called "ipu heke"- and lowering them to the floor. As the beat builds, they begin to sing:
"Ê Lili'u ê
Noho nani mai
Kô kino ê
"Be careful with your Hawaiian words!" their teacher urges over the rising music. "If you have the 'U' sound, don't be afraid to shape your mouth so that sound comes out nice and strong!"
As the song's lyrics become more pronounced, the teacher, Kaimikahu Valdez, doesn't miss a beat. Within seconds, she slaps her drum, rolls her hand from pinky to thumb on the side of the instrument, drops it to the ground and starts the sequence over again, singing all the while.
Valdez, owner of Kaimikahu Hale O Hula in Tempe, is leading a rehearsal of the "Lili'u e," a Hawaiian song honoring the islands' last reigning monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani. The group, along with about 60 other drummers from halaus - or hula schools - across the Valley, will perform the song Saturday as part of opening ceremonies at the Arizona Aloha Festival in Phoenix.
The two-day event, in its 14th year, draws 80,000 to 100,000 people to Heritage and Science Park to experience the culture of the Pacific islands, according to planning chairwoman Lacretia Bacon.
"There have been Pacific Islanders in Arizona for a long time, and we have a wonderfully rich community in the Valley," she says.
Two stages will feature live music, dance, martial arts and storytelling from a variety of Polynesian cultures. Craft-making booths, a souvenir marketplace, and areas where you can learn to play the ukulele or speak Hawaiian phrases will be available. A food court will offer island-inspired food and shaved ice.
"We've discovered over the years that there are three kinds of people who love this event: The native islanders, who get such joy out of sharing their culture; the people who have been stationed in the islands or vacation there every chance they get; and the people who really want to go and haven't yet," says Bacon, a Tempe resident who fell in love with Hawaii on a 1990 vacation. She's been back at least once a year every year since.
For Honolulu-born Valdez, the festival is more than a performing gig for her hula school. She will receive the festival's Kokua Award, given to Arizona residents who foster understanding of Polynesian cultures and make a positive impact on the community.
Valdez, who lives in Scottsdale and works full time as a customer service manager for Safeway, frequently delivers cultural presentations incorporating language, music, dance, storytelling and genuine props. She also spearheads funding and awareness events for Pearl Harbor Memorial Museum and Visitor Center in Hawaii.