Merrie Monarch Festival: 10 Reasons to Love It

2016 Merrie Monarch Festival. 2nd Place Wahine Kahiko,  Hālau Manaola, Kumu Hula Nani Lim Yap.
2016 Merrie Monarch Festival. 2nd Place Wahine Kahiko, Hālau Manaola, Kumu Hula Nani Lim Yap. | Source

Have you ever been to the Merrie Monarch Festival?

  • Yes, and I loved it!
  • No, but I watch it on TV
  • No, but Iʻm more interested now that Iʻve read about it
See results without voting

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!

Laka, Goddess of Hula, Painting by Henry Ha'o. Laka was also known as the goddess of wild plants that grew in the forest.
Laka, Goddess of Hula, Painting by Henry Ha'o. Laka was also known as the goddess of wild plants that grew in the forest.
2015 Kahiko 1st place,Kāne Division, Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina o Ka Lā, Kumu Hula Kaleo Trinidad
2015 Kahiko 1st place,Kāne Division, Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina o Ka Lā, Kumu Hula Kaleo Trinidad | Source

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.

Halau I Ka Wekiu, 2012 2nd place Wahine 'Auana, Kuma Hula Karl Kamaluikauakokoha`aheoinapali Baker & Michael Nalanakila`ekolu Casupang, Honolulu, O'ahu
Halau I Ka Wekiu, 2012 2nd place Wahine 'Auana, Kuma Hula Karl Kamaluikauakokoha`aheoinapali Baker & Michael Nalanakila`ekolu Casupang, Honolulu, O'ahu | Source

2. It honors King Kalākaua, known as the Merrie Monarch.

King Kalākaua, often called the Merrie Monarch.
King Kalākaua, often called the Merrie Monarch. | Source
'Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States.
'Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States. | Source

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!

Aerial view of Hilo
Aerial view of Hilo | Source
Downtown Hilo was repainted in 2014 after winning the Benjamin Moore Paint Co. contest "Main Street Matters"
Downtown Hilo was repainted in 2014 after winning the Benjamin Moore Paint Co. contest "Main Street Matters" | Source

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.

2014 Merrie Monarch, 4th place Wahine Kahiko, Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima, Kumu Hula Māpuana de Silva.
2014 Merrie Monarch, 4th place Wahine Kahiko, Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima, Kumu Hula Māpuana de Silva. | Source
There are usually 7 judges who get a stage-side seat to score the performances.
There are usually 7 judges who get a stage-side seat to score the performances.

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!

Puakenikeni, a sweet-smelling flower, literally means "ten-cent flower" because they were once strung in leis selling for ten cents. If you've never smelled puakenikeni, you don't know what you're missing. But I do.
Puakenikeni, a sweet-smelling flower, literally means "ten-cent flower" because they were once strung in leis selling for ten cents. If you've never smelled puakenikeni, you don't know what you're missing. But I do.
Dancers adorn themselves with flowers in every hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival.
Dancers adorn themselves with flowers in every hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival. | Source
This is the ohi'a lehua flower that will be missing from the Merrie Monarch adornments  in 2016.
This is the ohi'a lehua flower that will be missing from the Merrie Monarch adornments in 2016.

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.

Miss Aloha Hula 2016-  Kayli Kaʻiulani Carr Hālau Hi‘iakaināmakalehua  Nā Kumu Hula: Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV & Lono Padilla
Miss Aloha Hula 2016- Kayli Kaʻiulani Carr Hālau Hi‘iakaināmakalehua Nā Kumu Hula: Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV & Lono Padilla | Source
Miss Aloha Hula 2015 & OHA Hawaiian Language Award winner. Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap. Hula Halau 'o Kamuela. Kuma Hula Kau'ionalani Kamana'o and Kunewa Mook.
Miss Aloha Hula 2015 & OHA Hawaiian Language Award winner. Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap. Hula Halau 'o Kamuela. Kuma Hula Kau'ionalani Kamana'o and Kunewa Mook. | Source
Rebecca Lilinoekekapahauomaunakea Sterling - 2012 Miss Aloha Hula
Rebecca Lilinoekekapahauomaunakea Sterling - 2012 Miss Aloha Hula | Source

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!

2013, Kawailiʻulā - 1st place Kāne Kahiko, 1st place Overall
2013, Kawailiʻulā - 1st place Kāne Kahiko, 1st place Overall | Source
2013, Ke Kai O Kahiki - 3rd place Kāne Kahiko
2013, Ke Kai O Kahiki - 3rd place Kāne Kahiko | Source

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.

Ipu or gourds are used as musical instruments for hula.
Ipu or gourds are used as musical instruments for hula.
Lei pupu o Ni'ihau or Ni'ihau shell leis are prized for their rarity. Each lei holds thousands of the tiny shells that are only found on the island of Ni'ihau.
Lei pupu o Ni'ihau or Ni'ihau shell leis are prized for their rarity. Each lei holds thousands of the tiny shells that are only found on the island of Ni'ihau.

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!

Pā‛ū rider from Moloka'i. Moloka'i's color is green and its flower is the pua kukui. Check out the horse!
Pā‛ū rider from Moloka'i. Moloka'i's color is green and its flower is the pua kukui. Check out the horse! | Source

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

More by this Author


Comments 6 comments

GuitarGear profile image

GuitarGear 2 years ago from Youngstown, Ohio

Thanks for the fantastic hub! The festival is definitely on my bucket list especially since my cousin, Uncle George Holokai was a noted kumu hula.

Hula is a Hawaiian tradition and art form that has endured over the years. Thanks Stephanie! I will make it there some day.


Hawaiian Scribe profile image

Hawaiian Scribe 2 years ago from Hawai'i Author

I do hope you get to visit Hilo to attend the Merrie Monarch Festival. Youʻll love it! Thanks for reading my hub, and enjoy your week. Aloha, Stephanie


travmaj profile image

travmaj 2 years ago from australia

Great hub, I haven't been to Hawaii yet - hopefully when I do I'll aim for the Merrie Monarch Festival. After reading this hub and looking at the photo's I almost feel like I was there with you.


Hawaiian Scribe profile image

Hawaiian Scribe 2 years ago from Hawai'i Author

Thank you travmaj! I, too, hope you will visit Hawaiʻi someday soon. The Merrie Monarch Festival is a great time to visit. Tickets go on sale by mail only the day after Christmas each year and are sold out by New Yearʻs Day. So be sure to use that info in your planning for a trip. Aloha, Stephanie


raymondphilippe profile image

raymondphilippe 2 years ago from The Netherlands

What a lively place you live in. Love reading about exotic festivals like the Merrie Monarch. Voted up.


Hawaiian Scribe profile image

Hawaiian Scribe 2 years ago from Hawai'i Author

Thank you raymondphilippe! Yes, I guess when you live on an island in the middle of the ocean, you have to make things lively however you can. It was a great festival this year! I hope you get to visit sometime. Aloha, Stephanie

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Hawaiian Scribe profile image

    Stephanie Launiu (Hawaiian Scribe)167 Followers
    20 Articles

    Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle & cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives on O'ahu.



    Click to Rate This Article
    working