Aloha everyone, it’s me, Jessica again. Hope everyone is in the Merrie Monarch spirit, which is right around the corner, because that is what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about my experience and share a bit of my knowledge about this amazing Hawaiian festival that is now well-known and loved all around the world.
Merrie Monarch, a festival dedicated to the memory of King David La’amea Kalākaua, is a week-long cultural festival that takes place annually in our very own town of Hilo. The festival is held at the Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium during the week after Easter, which features Hawaiian culture and hula competitions. Originally organized in 1963, the festival didn’t really take its form as we know it today until 1971. What originally was a festival of different activities is now a big and very organized festival to showcase Hawaiian artistry, hula competitions, a celebration of Hawaiian culture, and to continue to pass on that knowledge and tradition to its people.
As a child born in East Hawaii, on the Big Island, I’ve always heard about the Merrie Monarch and how there was a hula competition that occurred every year. Even though I am not Hawaiian, I always wanted to learn how to dance hula ever since I can remember and hoped that maybe one day I could join my Hawaiian friends and their hālau (school, academy, or group for hula) so I could perform with them at the Merrie Monarch festival. Unfortunately, that dream never came true when I had to leave the country for a few years with my family.
Even though I wasn’t able to perform at the Merrie Monarch as I once wanted to, I attended one of their free nights during high school after coming back to the island. I’ve also helped as a translator for the Japanese hālaus while going to the University of Hawaii at Hilo and also marched down the downtown streets chanting in Hawaiian for the Saturday closing parade with my Hawaiian Studies class.
After graduating from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, I joined the festival in a different form. Now I became a craft vendor. Putting together our crafts, I rented out a space where a couple of my friends and I could sell our handcrafted Hawaiian-themed items to the public. This lasted for a couple of years until booth prices began going up and competition among vendors started to increase as well. Although I still do crafts and sell them elsewhere now, I do still enjoy going to the different venues to see what other crafters are creating and selling. It is such an enjoyable event.
For those who are unfamiliar with what kind of hula is performed at this festival, let me give you a brief breakdown. The competition is basically divided into three main categories. We have the Miss Aloha Hula, Kahiko (ancient style), and ‘Auana (modern style) categories.
The Miss Aloha Hula is a competition among the individual Wāhine (women) competitors who are judged on their Hula Kahiko, Hula ‘Auana, and Oli (chant) expressions and abilities. For the Kahiko and ‘Auana categories, they are divided into Wāhine (women) and Kāne (men) division groups. I have seen a few mixed-gender performances before but I am not sure what category or division they would fall under. After the competition is over, and the results are announced on the last night of the competition, the winner of the Miss Aloha Hula is crowned for a year and participates in the parade that marches through downtown Hilo as a conclusion of the one-week-long festival.
Although we had to forego the 2020 Merrie Monarch Festival due to the shutdown from COVID-19, we did celebrate the festival in 2021 and 2022 both via online streaming. This year, however, will be the first time open to the public (with tickets) to attend as before. The festival will take place starting April 9th until April 15th. If you are interested in Hawaiian culture, Hawaiian language, or simply hula dancing, you might want to check it out. It is quite the experience!