Merrie Monarch Festival: 10 Reasons to Love It
A Week of Hula and Hawaiian Culture
The Merrie Monarch Festival is, by far, the premier celebration of hula held anywhere in the world. With over 50 years of festivals under its belt, the festival committee really knows how to put on a great show!
With its humble beginnings in the charming seaside town of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, the Merrie Monarch Festival has grown to become the Headliner of the Year in island events. People from all over the globe tune in to watch it on TV and catch live streams online.
For one golden week each year, the hula world comes alive in Hilo Town. Here are 10 reasons why I love the Merrie Monarch Festival:
1. The hula, of course!
My mother started me in hula classes when I was 5. Iʻve always loved the hula and the stories of Laka, the goddess of hula. Laka is also known as the goddess of the forest whose plants and flowers adorn hula dancers.
Hula is an integral part of the culture of Hawaiʻi and as the saying goes "is the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people." Hula isnʻt just a "dance", it is a taming or disciplining of oneʻs body, mind and spirit. It often takes years of training within a hula hālau (hula school) to become a Merrie Monarch dancer.
At the Merrie Monarch Festival, two types of hula are showcased:
Hula Kahiko is the ancient hula that is danced to chants without the use of modern instruments such as ukulele or guitar. This is true hula in action. The chants are often about Hawaiian deities, the power of nature and respect for life. It is a powerful form of hula and is a strenuous workout that burns off the calories!
Hula ʻAuana is the modern hula that most people are familiar with. With modern costumes and accompanying musicians, the songs of hula ʻauana are a blend of time and place. Some songs are sung in English, others in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language). Songs for hula ʻauana are those composed from the mid-19th century to the modern day.
2. It honors King Kalākaua, known as the Merrie Monarch.
The Merrie Monarch Festival is dedicated to the memory of King David Kalākaua (1836-1891) the last reigning king of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. He is fondly dubbed the "Merrie Monarch" because of his drive to restore the Hawaiian culture, and his love for song, dance and the performing arts.
He lived during a time when the Hawaiian culture was being subjugated by foreign influences; the hula had long met with disapproval by Christian missionaries. In response, Kalākaua worked to revive and preserve the art of chanting and hula. He held grand celebrations where the Hawaiian people could once again be proud of their song and dance traditions.
But Kalākaua was not a man who spent his time worrying about the past. He valued new art forms and modern music, and actively promoted the strange new instrument that had come to Hawaiʻi with Portuguese plantation workers. Hawaiians called it the "ukulele" and it is synonymous with Hawaiian music today. Kalākaua was also the founder of Honolulu Magazine, a sophisticated publication that covers the best of Honolulu and Hawaiʻi people, arts, culture, politics and the island lifestyle.
Along with perpetuating the Hawaiian culture, Kalākaua strived to bring his nation into the approaching 20th century. He was the first reigning monarch (anywhere!) to travel around the world. On his way to Europe in 1881, he stopped in New York to meet with inventor Thomas Edison to see the newfangled "incandescent lamp".
Fresh back from his global trek, Kalākaua commissioned the building of ʻIolani Palace, reminiscent of the palaces he had visited in Europe. In 1886, Kalākaua had electricity installed in the palace, four years before the White House in Washington D.C.
3. It's in Hilo!
OK, so Iʻm partial. I was born in Hilo. A beautiful little seaside town on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, Hilo boasts lots of green space along with the rain that keeps everything moist and lush.
Lying at the foot of majestic Mauna Kea, the townʻs population easily doubles during Merrie Monarch Week. There are hula performances at all of the hotels in town during lunch hour. Shoppers keep the local stores and arts & crafts fairs busy.
Dance performances for the Festival begin on Wednesday night when the free Hō‛ike is held. This is a favorite for local residents; itʻs a night where hula is performed for fun and there are no competitions. After work, people rush to stand in the long lines to get in. No need to make dinner that night. Just get something on the way in - choose from Hawaiian laulau and poi, chili and rice, spam musubi - whatever suits your taste.
In January 2014, Downtown Hilo was one of 20 places nationwide chosen by the Benjamin Moore Paint Company to get a "paint job" as part of its Main Street Matters contest.
4. It's authentic hula; you don't see this in Hollywood.
This isnʻt Hollywood hula, this is the real deal. The most authentic youʻll see anywhere.
To keep it authentic, the competition has judges. The judges are men and women who have been steeped in the Hawaiian culture and understand the Hawaiian language. Most are long-time kumu hula (hula teachers). The judges sit at ground level right at the front edge of the stage. They study everything about the dance performances and they are not paid to be judges, although their accommodations and airfare are covered by the Merrie Monarch Festival.
The hula hālau are judged on twelve criteria: the kaʻi (prelude or entrance dance), interpretation, expression, posture, precision, hand gestures, feet/body movement, hoʻi (exit dance), authenticity of costumes, adornments (no silk or artificial flowers allowed), grooming, overall performance.
Score cards are picked up after each hālau performs and even the judges donʻt know the final outcome until the awards are given out on the final night of the competition.
Using these criteria, viewers at home can score the groups to see if they can pick the winners. Iʻve tried and Iʻve never been able to match the judgesʻ picks. Iʻll let the judges do their work and Iʻll sit back and enjoy the hula for what it is.
5. The flowers are amazing!
Whenever I get off the plane in Hilo, my first breath inhales a warm, sweet smell that is a mix of the rains and the flowers that bloom wherever a seed and soil meet. You donʻt need a green thumb in Hilo; Mother Earth does the work for you.
During Merrie Monarch Week, the smell of flowers and sweet-smelling greenery permeates the air. Plumeria, tuberose, puakenikeni, orchid, maile, ohiʻa lehua, 'ilima, ginger and many other tropical flowers and plants adorn both dancers and audience.
Hula hālau often go out into forests and remote areas in and around Hilo to gather leaves and flowers that are traditionally used in hula. Then they spend their pre-performance days stringing leis and adornments.
Sadly, in 2016 there is a plant disease that is affecting our native ohi'a forests. This disease is called 'rapid ohi'a death or ohi'a wilt'. There will be no ohi'a lehua at the Merrie Monarch this year, because kumu are being asked to keep their gathering activities away from the native forests. The fungal disease can be tracked on shoes and clothing, and we DON'T want the disease to spread to other islands.
I hope that next year, I'll have some good news and the ohi'a forests will be regaining their health.
6. The women are beautiful.
On Thursday night of Merrie Monarch Week, the Miss Aloha Hula competition is held and is the first night that the dance performances are televised. Throughout Hawaiʻi, people are glued to their TV sets (or DVRʻs are whirring) as the Miss Aloha Hula Night (Thursday) Hula Kahiko (Friday) and Hula ʻAuana (Saturday) performances grace their screens.
Hula Hālau choose their most skilled dancer to enter the Miss Aloha Hula contest, and about a dozen women are chosen to compete in this solo competition. Each dancer performs both a hula kahiko and hula ʻauana, and at the end of the night a new Miss Aloha Hula is crowned. Many of those who have won this contest have gone on to become kuma hula (hula teachers) themselves, beginning with the late Kumu Hula Aloha Dalire who was the first Miss Aloha Hula in 1971.
Miss Aloha Hula is not a beauty contest like Miss America or Miss Universe. The women are judged solely on their hula performances and spirit/body connection that they evoke while dancing. I have seen winners ranging from petite Size 2 women to 200 pound beauties. Western culture's body image doesnʻt count here, thank you.
7. And so are the men!
Five years after the hula competition started in 1971, male hālau were invited to enter the competition as well. Each kuma hula decides whether they will teach hula to women (wahine), men (kāne), or both. Kuma hula can enter their men and women into the contests, but the sexes donʻt mix during hula performances (although men and women dance hula together all the time at family and community events).
The men often spice up the competition with their hula kahiko performances, and they are always a crowd pleaser.
Many male kumu hula have hālau who have won in both the male and female divisions. Kealiʻi Reichel, Manu Boyd, Sonny Ching and Johnny Lum Ho are a few of the male kumu hula who have had their women and men bring home the winning prizes.
8. You won't see Arts and Crafts Fairs like these anywhere else.
Shoppers beware! Youʻll spend tons of money during Merrie Monarch Week.
Not only is there an official Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair held at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, but you canʻt turn a corner anywhere in Hilo without seeing Hawaiian arts and crafts for sale. Theyʻre everywhere...downtown Hilo, Prince Kuhio Plaza, at churches, community centers, farmers markets.
There are official Merrie Monarch T-shirts, event programs, tote bags and posters that command a high price as collectorsʻ items after the Merrie Monarch Festival ends each year.
Sought after items at the arts and crafts fairs are lauhala hats and bags, handmade kapa fabric, poi pounders, wall art, jewelry including the prized Niʻihau shell leis, and Hawaiian home décor.
If you plan to attend the Merrie Monarch next year, start saving money now, because you wonʻt be able to leave Hilo without spending a pretty penny at the craft fairs and loving every minute of it.
9. The Merrie Monarch Parade is a show-stopper!
Tensions rise during Merrie Monarch Week as the Miss Aloha Hula winner is crowned on Thursday and Hula Kahiko competitions are completed on Friday night. Now everyone is excitedly waiting for the final night of Hula ʻAuana performances on Saturday night.
A welcome break in competition takes place on Saturday morning at the Merrie Monarch Royal Parade that winds through downtown Hilo at a leisurely pace. Marching bands, the Royal Court with an honorary King and Queen depicting King Kalākaua and his Queen Kapiʻolani, the new Miss Aloha Hula riding in a convertible, Hawaiian entertainers on floats, and the mainstay of any Hawaiian parade - pāʻū riders.
Pāʻū riders are women on horseback dressed in flowing satin gowns that flow almost to the ground. Each Hawaiian island has a color that it is known for because of its most profusive flower. In Hawaiian parades, each island is represented by that color with a host of pāʻū riders dressed in matching costumes. Even the horses are decked out with elaborately woven haku lei.
10. It starts on Easter Sunday.
Iʻm not sure when the festival decided on its Easter Sunday start; itʻs been that way for a long time. But isnʻt it a little ironic that the premier hula festival begins a weeklong celebration on the holiest of Christian days? Especially when the missionaries who came to preach the gospel to the Hawaiians in the 19th century abhorred the hula and forced it underground to the point that a Hawaiian king named Kalākaua felt inspired to bring it into the light once again.
And bring it into the light he did.
Most Hawaiians are Christian today, so it isnʻt about Christianity. The Easter Sunday Hoʻolauleʻa begins after most people return from church.
Itʻs about the hula.
It always was.
© 2014 Stephanie Launiu
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