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Piʻikea Kekīhenelehuawewehiikekauʻōnohi Lopes, KSK ‘18, claimed the prestigious title of Miss Aloha Hula at Merrie Monarch Festival in 2022. This year, 12 wāhine will vie for the coveted title.

Merrie Monarch, Hilo’s world-renowned hula festival celebrates kanaono makahiki - 60 years

April 10, 2023

Contributed by Manu Boyd, Cultural Consultant, KS Ho‘okahua

Hilo town on the east side of Hawaii, Moku o Keawe, comes alive each year with a spectacular celebration of Hawaiian culture that now has thousands of fans around the world. Established in 1962 by Kumu Hula George Nā‘ope and Dorothy “Dottie” Thompson, the first few years of the Hilo festival – with support from the Hilo Chamber of Commerce – started with the idea of giving Hawaiʻi Island a small economic boost. However, the hula competition that became a part of the program a few years later would become an important part of hula in Hawaiʻi.

The Merrie Monarch Festival honors Hawai‘i’s seventh mō‘ī, King Kalākaua, a pivotal supporter of the revival of Hawaiian traditions in the late 1800s after decades of suppression, disapproval, and even illegality.

“Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” These well-remembered words attributed to King Kalākaua have endeared generations of kama‘āina and malihini to hula, which is not just dancing, but also ways of thinking and living.

The original hoʻokūkū hula, or hula competition, was carefully guided by well-respected kumu hula (dance masters) who set the judging criteria. Six decades later, the rules and adjudication criteria have seen little change, a nod to the wisdom of the amazing culture bearers who succeeded in keeping traditional hula alive. They did so in the face of strong headwinds, including the waning interest in and understanding of Hawaiian mele, ‘ōlelo, as well as a myriad of associated cultural practices; from the gathering of kinolau or symbolic flora and greenery for hula adornments, to the complex training and ceremonies associated with traditional hula.

The revival of interest in Hawaiian culture and identity – among Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike – is a remarkable testament to the tenacity and mana of our kūpuna, our forebears.

Easter Sunday marked the wehena or opening of the festival that begins with a ceremony at Mokuola in Hilo Bay. The mākeke or marketplaces open throughout Hilo offer the finest island apparel, art, craft products, and ‘ono food.

Located in the Hilo land section named Waiākea (“Wide open waters”), the hula competition venue honors the name of a revered kumu hula and educator, Edith Kanaka‘ole. Her own hālau hula now led by her ‘ohana will perform at the Hō‘ike on Wednesday evening. This non-competitive precursor to the ho‘okūkū is where the hula energy is ignited that has grown tremendously in popularity over the years. To honor Kanakaʻole and her legacy, the US Mint has just released a quarter with her image and the iconic words “E hō mai”. That phrase is part of a mele she composed which seeks wisdom. It has become ubiquitous throughout the world.

Among the kumu hula judges who will keenly watch, listen to, feel and consider is Nālani Kanaka‘ole, one of the stadium namesake’s daughters. The seven-member panel includes Cy Bridges, Kalena Silva, Vicky Holt Takamine and other hula treasures.

Twelve soloists will vie for the coveted title of Miss Aloha Hula on Thursday evening. Friday’s hula kahiko and Saturday’s hula ‘auana performances will include nine kāne groups and 19 wāhine groups for a total of 28 performances on both nights. Groups are required to compete in both the traditional and modern hula divisions. Usually near midnight on Saturday, the awards ceremony culminates the Merrie Monarch Festival, which is marked by the elegant recession of the Aloaliʻi, or Royal Court, featuring community members representing King Kalākaua and his ‘ohana, donning regal costuming which mimics the late 19th-century Hawaiian-Victorian lavish clothing and adornments.

Luana Kawelu, daughter of festival co-founder Aunty Dottie Thompson, guides the longstanding Hawaiian cultural celebration along its familiar path of excellence.

As tickets to the live event are nearly impossible to procure, tune in to KFVE April 12-15, following the six o’clock evening news.

Hula le‘a Waiākea i ka ua Kanilehua! Waiākea, Hilo, will surely dance with joy in the lehua-refreshing rain of that ‘āina.

merrie monarch festival,native hawaiian identity,hula,cultural vibrancy

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