The World-Famous Merrie Monarch Festival
For some, it’s a week to recoup after a busy Easter holiday. For the people of Hawaii, it’s a full seven days devoted to the art of ancient Hawaii. It’s called the Merrie Monarch Festival, a week-long event dedicated to a noble Hawaiian king, Kalakaua, and showcasing one of Hawaii’s most prized art forms, hula. Before King David Kalakaua ruled Hawaii in the late 1800s, Christian values persuaded Queen Ka’ahumanu to forbid certain traditions in Hawaii. But Kalakaua reinstated a strong sense of pride in Hawaii’s arts by reviving hula, chants, ancient sports and more. His joyful nature and love of the arts earned him the nickname “Merrie Monarch,” and his reign marked a renaissance of Hawaiian culture.Yet following his death in 1891, the strength of his efforts waned. Although Hawaii’s authentic art forms once again started to fade, they would soon return with speed—greater than ever before. In the 1960s, after devastating tidal waves hit the Big Island, the town of Hilo organized the first Merrie Monarch Festival to honor King Kalakaua. The organizers wanted to attract more tourists to Hilo, Big Island, in hopes of uplifting a faltering local economy. At the time, the festival wasn’t limited to hula. These organizers later decided that if they were to truly honor the memory of Kalakaua, then the festival must only feature authentic Hawaiian dance and song. They enacted strict guidelines for hula performances to ensure authenticity. When the first competitive Merrie Monarch Festival was held in 1971, traditional hula came back to life. Over time, the festival’s organizers introduced different categories, including a men’s division (kane), Miss Aloha Hula, and a modern dance division (auana). Costumes for the original kahiko category, or ancient-style hula, feature colorful flowers (leis) on a dancer’s head, neck, wrist and ankles. Dress is just as important as dance, and these costumes are created to connect dancers to the spiritual energy of hula. Kahiko dance is the most “authentic” form of hula, rooted deep in ancient storytelling and the power of the gods. Auana gives dancers the freedom to translate hula into a contemporary expression of life. However, the Hawaiian word auana does not mean “modern,” but instead means “to wander.” The category expands the horizon for artists hoping to create new dance forms founded in hulas origins.
For 40 years, the Merrie Monarch Festival has mesmerized spectators with its graceful yet powerful performances that capture the purest spirit of Hawaii. It’s the biggest, most respected hula celebration in the world. Nothing else comes close. Hula deserves nothing less than one of Hawaii’s greatest cultural celebrations, the Merrie Monarch Festival. — The Merrie Monarch Festival runs from April 24-30, 2011 in Hilo, Big Island. Free activities throughout the week offer crafts, arts exhibits and performances. Tickets are available for the hula competitions held from April 28-30. — Discover Hawaii Tours has operated Big Island tours throughout Hawaii since 1995.