The Family That Plays Together

There’s a regal elegance to the way musician and kumu hula Ilima Rivera handles the hairpieces, lei and uli’uli she’s set aside for her three daughters before a performance. She handles her daughters much in the same way. It’s a quiet, precious communication that is careful, precise, and full of love and respect.

“This has always been my life,” she says.

Daughter of living legend Larry Rivera, Ilima has been in the spotlight since childhood. Being from a family of entertainers – she is the fourth of Larry and Gloria Rivera’s six children, Lurline, Ilima and Leilani, (all recording artists) Larry Jr. (who has his own band, Derek and Dwayne – Ilima is hardly just her father’s daughter. She’s a creator and entertainment visionary in her own right.

Also a singer and award-winning songwriter, composer and kihoalu player, she has snagged a few Kaua’i Mokihana Composers song awards with her original compositions, and her “Love on Lumahai” CD hit No. 1 on Kaua’i. Known also for her hapa-haole tunes like My Little Grass Shack, (her first hula number) Coco Palms was just as much her stomping grounds as it was her dad’s, even as a tot.

“I was born into the show,” she says.

The world was her stage, too.

Before becoming a mom, Rivera traveled throughout Europe, Japan, Micronesia and Mexico, and performed aboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise ship, where she wrote her first song, “Cruising the Hawaiian Islands,” while with a Polynesian show.

It was in the ’80s that Rivera returned to Kaua’i, she says.

“I knew home is always home, I could travel all around while I could and come back home when I wanted to.”

Upon her return she started singing in the Coco Palms Lagoon dining bar and sang early evenings, performing duos with her father.

While at Coco Palms she had solo acts, too, including the kalua fire dance, during which she would wear a Tahitian skirt and original headpiece she designed.

Now her three daughters are sharing her stage, wearing mom’s costumes and playing her songs.

“Entertainment is my life, so they saw it the first moment of theirs. They have just constantly been surrounded by it,” she says of Selena, 14, Sophia, 13, and Angelina, 9.

For all three, that meant exposure to song and dance in utero, Rivera says.

“I sang to them while I was carrying them – I did my shows while I was carrying them,” she says. “So they already had a sense of it from my singing. It was like – makaukau – get ready.”

Rivera says that from the time she was pregnant with Selena, she knew Selena could hear and feel what was happening.

“And then when I was just about to give birth to Sophia, the other one was in the stroller watching me perform,” she says, of continuing her two-decade run as a weekly performer at Kukui Grove even while hapai.

From then on, her daughters absorbed entertainment into their lives, she adds.

“As soon as they could hold the poi ball, they were entertaining with me,” she says.

“I would hold it and twirl around and they would copy. As they’d be watching, I’d teach them and help them with the poi balls, movements and steps.”

Whether it was song, hula or choreography, all preparation was done at home, in an organic fashion, from “since forever,” she says.

“We started playing in the garage,” says Rivera, who builds her own stages that the girls would use for practicing.

Dancing as early as age 2 and 3 on stage, (her Irish twins, as she calls them) Rivera says in the beginning, Selena and Sophia weren’t overly choreographed.

“You can’t really tell a 2-year old what to do, but they danced naturally,” she says.

Before too long, the girls would make three appearances in her show, including Tahitian dance and hula.

It makes sense that they would start early in life, as Rivera got her start playing guitar at the age of 6 and designing Tahitian head pieces and Polynesian costumes, part-inspired by her kumu at the time, Ku’ulei Punua, at the age of 13.

That’s how it is for Selena, too, says Rivera, who has begun making her own designs. “I teach to my girls. They are very creative, artistic, and make crafts, costumes and lei.”

It’s not all she has taught her daughters. She’s also taught them about giving back to their community, volunteering with entities such as March of Dimes and the Veterans Parade, and this month will be volunteering at the Salvation Army luncheon, as they have every year since they were born.

“They look forward to that luncheon,” Rivera says. “We perform, sing,” she says. “It’s a tradition we started with my father, so we are carrying it on.”

Teaching and carrying on cultural tradition in general is important to Rivera, who created the annual Kaua’i Kau Wela Festival five years ago, which highlights hula and Tahitian dancing and drumming. Rivera (who taught Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island how to hula and appeared on Fantasy Island) also offers cultural mana’o to residents and visitors alike at Kamokila Hawaiian Village. She will be launching an upcoming Christmas lua’u luncheon there in December.

Her father Larry Rivera didn’t want to steal his daughter’s spotlight, but says he’s proud.

“She’s been a natural her whole life,” he says.