What Is the Merrie Monarch Festival, and Why Is It So Important to Hawai`i?

“Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people – Kalākaua Rex

The hula competition portion of the Merrie Monarch Festival is officially moving forward in 2021. According to Festival president, Luana Kawelu, the competition this year will be held on June 24th, 25th, and 26th in Hilo at the Edith Kanaka`ole Multi-Purpose Stadium. Due to precautionary COVID-19 measures, the competition won’t have a live audience. Spectators will be able to see a taped telecast aired the week after the live festival. The kumu hula (hula instructors) and their haumana (students) will need to wait until the broadcast airs on July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd to see how each of the hālau (schools) has placed and find out who the winners are.

I remember exactly where I was when the cancelation of the festival was announced for 2020. I was aware that the decision to go forward or cancel the event was weighing heavily on the organizers. As a sponsor of this event, we would support whatever decision they chose to make. I was in Honolulu on the afternoon of March 12, 2020, ready to return to Hilo. The boarding door on the airplane was closing as I was checking my phone: “Merrie Monarch Canceled,” read the headline, just as the flight attendant advised everyone to place their cell phones in airplane mode. As soon as we landed in Hilo, the plane became abuzz with the news that hula’s most prestigious event, planned a year in advance, steeped in more than 50 annual years, and scheduled to take place in just a month, had been officially canceled. I have always appreciated the festival, and, in that moment, I made the promise that I would enjoy and appreciate Merrie Monarch more upon its return.

Kālakaua, the Merrie Monarch

Named in honor of King David Kalākaua, who was known as the Merrie Monarch for his enjoyment of music, hula, food, and drink, the Merrie Monarch Festival was started in 1963 by Helene Hale, Chairwoman for the County of Hawai`i. The island was struggling economically because of the decline of the sugar cane industry coupled with the aftermath of and recovery from a tsunami. Helene, along with her committee members, wished to create an event to capture the flourishing tourism market and provide a boost to the economy. She sent two of her cabinet members, Gene Wilhelm and George Na`ope, to Lahaina on Maui to observe the Lahaina Whaling Spree. They returned to Hilo inspired and encouraged by what they experienced on Maui. From there, the Merrie Monarch Festival was born.

In its early years, the festival included events like:

  • A barbershop quartet singing contest
  • A King Kalākaua beard-emulating contest
  • Relay races
  • A Holokū (formal gown with train) Ball
  • The recreation of King Kalākaua’s coronation

Unfortunately, a few years into the life of the festival, interest waned, and support declined. Fortunately, Dottie Thompson agreed to step in as Executive Director of the festival. She did not want another Hawaiian event to fall by the wayside. She decided that the festival would refocus on objectives to replicate the ideals of King Kalākaua, who strived hard to revitalize the Hawaiian Culture. She sought the advice of well-respected kumu hula, with the goal of gathering the best dancers from throughout Hawai`i to showcase and celebrate hula and Hawaiian music and culture. The kumu felt strongly that it should be done in a competition format. And so, in April of 1971 at the Hilo Civic Auditorium, the first Merrie Monarch Festival Hula Competition took place.  

Hula is the way stories are told.

“We welcome our first contestant for Miss Aloha Hula. Under the direction of kumu hula…” The sound of Kimo Kahoano’s voice heralds the start of the hula competition on Thursday night, also known as Miss Aloha Hula night. Each of the young women vying for hula’s coveted title must perform an `oli or chant entirely in `Olelo Hawai`i, the Hawaiian language, as part of her hula kahiko, or ancient hula presentation, for the first portion of the competition. A separate Hawaiian Language Award sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is presented to the contestant who performs her `oli (chant) the best.  Each entrant must also return to the stage later the same night in the second half to perform a hula `auana, or a modern hula. Taizha Keakealani Hughes-Kaluhiokalani from Hālau Hi`iakaināmakalehua under the direction of Nā Kumu Hula Robert Ke`ano Ka`upu IV and Lono Padilla is the current reigning Miss Aloha Hula, winning the title in 2019.

Hula dancers tell stories of time, place, events, and of love.   

The second night of competition is known as Hula Kahiko night. Groups of dancers compete in the ancient hula, which features chanting that is accompanied by pahu drums or ipu heke (hollowed gourds). Crowd favorite Johnny Lum Ho is famous for writing his own chants and creative choreography.  Whenever this legendary hālau performs, the audience responds with thunderous applause and ovation.  

One of my favorite kahiko performances of recent times happened in 2015 when Hālau Nā Lei Kaumaka O `Uka, under the direction of Kumu Hula Nāpua Greig, dazzled the Merrie Monarch Crowd with their performance of E Manono, which recounted the battle of Kuamoo that took place in Kona in 1819. The hālau from upcountry Maui told the story of Princess Manono, who wanted to join her husband, High Chief Kekuaokalani, in battle. He told her no, but he made for her an area in which she could sit and observe the combat. From my perspective, this had all of the components of a winning hula: It was a brilliantly executed and an impactful hula that left me wanting to know more. It made me want to research the battle, and I did just that. I learned that early into the fighting, Princess Manono saw her husband die from a musket shot. She ran to his side and started to wail. She covered him with his cape, took his spear, and entered into battle herself. The hālau went on to place second in Kahiko. 

Hula is not an activity that is done; it’s not just a performance. Hula is a way of life.

On the final night of competition on Saturday, all the hālau that competed in hula kahiko on Friday night return to showcase their presentations for Hula `Auana, or the modern hula. Here, the hula is performed to singing and accompanied by string instruments, like the `ukulele, guitar, upright bass, and even piano.  Group after group take the stage in a myriad of brilliantly colored articles of clothing, adorned in beautiful and fragrant flower lei.

Some of my recent favorite `auana performances of late have been from perennial winners Hula Hālau `O Kamuela under the direction of Nā Kumu Hula Kaui Kamana`o and Kunewa Mook. In 2018 the hālau danced to My Sweet Pīkake Lei, which was written and sung by Robert `Uluwehi Cazimero. The dancers were attired in red holokū (formal gowns with train) and wore an elaborate hairpiece and numerous strands of neck lei made of pīkake. Even prior to taking the stage, the whole stadium was treated to the beautiful wafting scent of pīkake. I know there were people at home watching the broadcast wishing for smellavision.

Another favorite `auana presentation of mine was in 2019 when Nā Kumu Hula Robert Ke`ano Ka`upu IV and Lono Padilla and their Hālau Hi`iakaināmakalehua, accompanied by Robert `Uluwehi Cazimero on vocals and piano, did a wonderful presentation of the beautiful Ka`ena. I remember seeing it in rehearsal, then again in competition—where it garnered first place—and then again at Nā Hiwahiwa Festival in Tokyo, Japan. Each time I thought that the word “perfection” somehow just did not suffice. I remember running into Robert `Uluwehi Cazimero, the performing vocalist, and telling him how beautiful the presentation was. His response to me was, “The choreography was done so beautifully that I felt I needed to sing better.” Is that even possible when your voice is already the epitome of excellence?

Speaking of Robert `Uluwehi Cazimero, one of my favorite performances at Merrie Monarch ironically has nothing at all to do with hula. It actually took place during the Ho`olaule`a on Wednesday night of the 50th Anniversary, when Robert `Uluwehi Cazimero and Hālau Nā Kamalei O Līlīlehua did an a cappella version of Waika.  You could have heard a hula pin drop. The audience sat eerily silent in full attention and appreciation.  The performance gave me chicken skin.

Hula is spiritual as much as it is physical.

At first, when I heard that 2020’s hula competition would be performed without an audience, I wondered how the dancers would feel dancing without the applause, ovations, and other affirmation that are given by a live, appreciative audience. I worried how it would affect their overall presentation.  But I learned that a dancer does not only dance for the people who are physically present; they dance for the seen and unseen. They dance for their kumu; their family; and, most importantly, for their ancestors who have made the way for them.

Who are you wearing is not just a catchphrase!

During a normal year, a big part of being in Hilo during Merrie Monarch is enjoying all the sights and sounds, eating, and shopping that are associated with the festival. “Who are you wearing?” is not just a catchphrase reserved for the red carpet in Hollywood. Hawai`i has a fashion vibe all its own, and the fashion is not just reserved for the stage. You will see people dressed to the nines in their Hawaiian finery. And the traditional craft fairs are not to be missed.  

Want to support the festival and the participating hālau?

Head on over to the Merrie Monarch Festival website to purchase logo wear such as the official t-shirt, tote bag, and other items.

Who are you wearing?

Want to be part of the amazing fashion? Check out Sig Zane Designs to view their beautiful collection of aloha shirts, dresses, bags, pareu, face masks, and more. You’ll be dressed to impress!


Pair your lole (clothing) with a Pāpale Lauhala (woven hat made out of Lauhala) with a hand sewn lei hulu (feather lei) hat band. Or if you’re feeling extravagant, check out a lei pūpū `o Ni`ihau from Hana Hou Hilo!

Make a lei. Wear a lei. Give a lei.

Learn the art of Hawaiian fresh lei-making from the uber talented Kuana Torres Kahele. In his instructional DVD, Make Lei, he explains and demonstrates lei-making techniques and material gathering that you can easily adapt to wherever you are in the world.  

Most importantly, what will you be eating?

A five- to six-hour broadcast calls for some serious snacking! Whether it’s the Chocolate Dipped Macadamia Nut Shortbreads, Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nut Brownies, Dark Chocolate Kona Coffee Beans (for a little extra viewing energy), or Hawaiian Macadamia Nuts, everyone at your viewing party will love an assortment of goodies from Big Island Candies.

Going to a Merrie Monarch viewing party? Don’t forget to bring a hostess gift. Our gift baskets and bags are beautiful options. Some were even designed by Hawaiian native, Sig Zane!    

Ha`ina `ia mai an aka puana (and so the story is told)

We’re so excited for this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, and we wish all participating hālau hula the very best. We appreciate all of your hard work, research, and dedication in keeping the Hawaiian Culture alive. E `ola!

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