Merrie Monarch Festival: Celebrating Hawaiian Tradition

During the last week of April, Hilo town of the Big Island will be filled with people from all over the world with the same passion: an interest in the Hawaiian culture and a love for hula. The week-long 2011 Merrie Monarch Festival will be held from April 24-30, 2011, and will feature a three-day internationally acclaimed hula competition, a crafts fair, an art show, hula shows, and a grand parade through Hilo.
(Photo: Alan L. / Flickr / With no written language, ancient Hawaiians were able to pass down the culture, history, stories, as well as every aspect of Hawaiian life through hula. Hula and its accompanying chants recorded Hawaiian genealogy, mythology, and prayers of the heart and mind, so it is very important to Hawaiians. However, when missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820, they banned hula stating that the dance was heathen. Although forbidden, the ancient Hawaiians continued to secretly teach and dance until King David Kalākaua single-handed restored the hula during his reign. Patron of the arts, especially music and dance, King Kalākaua was known as the “Merrie Monarch” for his flamboyant and fun-loving ways. The festival is dedicated to the King and its major purpose is the perpetuation, preservation, and promotion of the art of hula and the Hawaiian culture. The Merrie Monarch Festival maintains strict standards of authenticity, allowing the true history and culture of the ancient Hawaiian people to be perpetuated. The existence of the Merrie Monarch Festival helped to keep the history and unique traditions of the Hawaiian people from being lost forever. After suffering from a tidal wave and business downturn in the early 60s, Helene Hale, the Chairman of the County of Hawai´i, was eager to find a way to attract tourist to the island. In order to gather information, Hale sent Gene Wilhelm, her Administrative Assistant, and George Na´ope, her Promoter of Activities, to Maui to see the Lahaina Whaling Spree on Maui, which is a community celebration of Hawai´i’s rich history. The two returned to Hilo with an idea to launch a Merrie Monarch Festival. The Merrie Monarch Festival in 1964 was different from what it is today. The festival consisted of a King Kalākaua beard look-alike contest, a barbershop quartet contest, a relay race, a re-creation of King Kalākaua’s coronation, a Holoku (Hawaiian gown) Ball and other events. The festival did not do well by 1968, until Dottie Thompson took over as Executive Director of the festival. She wanted the festival to move toward a more Hawaiian theme, so she invited George Na´ope to be in charge of pageantry and the coronation, and Albert Nahalea to be in charge of music. With the intent to replicate what King Kalākaua had done, they brought the best hula dancers from around the islands to go to Hilo and perform, as well as share the quality and authenticity of hula at the time. Thus the hula competition was introduced in 1971. At first there were only wahine (women) hālau (hula school) that took part in the competition, but then in 1976, the festival opened the competition up to kāne (men). This year’s hula competition participants include hālau from the mainland and from four of the Hawaiian Islands: Hawai´i, Oahu, Maui, and Kaua´i. The 2011 festival events have not yet been released, but you can view the 2010 festival events, along with other important event information and get an idea of what to expect. The Merrie Monarch hula competition is always in high demand. Last year, the tickets to the Edith Kanaka´ole Stadium were sold out causing boxes of ticket requests to be returned to disappointed hula fans.

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