HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Hilo for Hula! Merrie Monarch Festival


HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Hilo for Hula! 

       There’s one week a year when every hotel room in Hilo is booked solid, and it’s not during Summer vacations or Winter holidays.  It’s the week of the Merrie Monarch Festival – March 30-April 5, this year – when Hilo celebrates its status as the world capital of hula.

          King David Kalakaua (dubbed the “merrie monarch” for his joie-de-vivre) liked to have the Islands’ ancient dances performed.  This upset the missionaries and haole educators who had long tried to suppress the native culture and language.  But Kalakaua understood that, for the Hawaiians – with no previously written language – hula was a kind of cultural language, ideal for telling stories and passing on myths, and that it ought to be preserved for future generations.  So, the world’s largest hula festival is named in his honor.

          But a royal command alone did not – could not – keep hula going.  After the overthrow of the monarchy, puritanical attitudes again prevailed, and for most of the twentieth century hula was denigrated as mere entertainment.  The careful movements of hands and bodies that had evolved to tell complex tales were crudely simplified to fit tourists’ expectations of something “Hawaiian.” (The cliché of grass skirts and twirling hips, by the way, is actually Tahitian.)  And for much the same reasons as girls elsewhere took piano lessons, girls in Hawaii took hula lessons.  Boys, however, did not – like ballet, hula was considered an effeminate pursuit.

          But then, seemingly overnight, in the 1970s, hula came roaring back.  Along with the revival of traditional Hawaiian folk music (see Posts: “Hawaii Musics (Plural)” – Part 1 & Part 2) with which some styles of hula were closely associated, there was a renewed interest in Hawaiian legends, language, and traditional handicrafts, many of which also had links to hula. And the surviving kumu hula (masters/teachers of hula) attracted new acolytes.

But the tipping point came when two of the Islands’ most celebrated musicians – the Cazimero Brothers – started a hula halau (school) for men.  Before European contact, the biggest, strongest Hawaiian men danced high-energy, athletic forms of hula.  And now, in the Merrie Monarch Festival, it’s the beefcake troupes in the male hula competitions that draw the loudest cheers.


           The top competitive events are held on the last three (Thurs., Fri. and Sat.) nights; and if you haven’t already gotten tickets, you probably can’t get them now: they go on sale for only one week, at the beginning of each year, and sell out almost immediately.  But those competitions will be televised, live, so you can watch them anywhere in the state.

          Every other event, all week long, is free.  Informal hula shows are presented each weekday at noon, at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and the Naniloa Volcanoes Hotel, on Banyan Drive.  There’s a huge arts-and-crafts fair, with many handicrafts related to hula and Hawaiian music; and a big parade winds through downtown Hilo, starting at 10:30 Saturday morning (Apr. 5).

          Admission to the big Wednesday night (Apr. 2) show – though not a competition – is also free.  Just be sure to get to the stadium early, because it will fill up with local families long before the 6:30 starting time.  It’s worth noting that although that venue was originally built as a tennis stadium, it’s Hilo’s largest performance space, and it’s named in honor of the late Edith Kanaka’ole, the Big Island’s most famous kumu hula.

          For more information, call 808-935-9168, or visit the Merrie Monarch Festival’s website, at:

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