History of the Merrie Monarch

Published: Mar. 29, 2010 at 10:43 AM HST|Updated: Apr. 15, 2010 at 11:29 AM HST
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Luana Kawelu
Luana Kawelu

By Malika Dudley - bio | email

HILO (HawaiiNewsNow) - King David Kalakaua, also known as the Merrie Monarch, was a patron of the arts – especially traditional Hawaiian music and dance. The festival named in his honor has come a long way from its beginning. This morning, Malika Dudley brings us the first of a series of stories from her home town of Hilo, as we count down the days to the Merrie Monarch  Festival.

The Merrie Monarch Festival is just a few years shy of its Golden Anniversary, with 47 years of culture, crafts, music and dance. It's brought about a renaissance of Hawaiian culture, but it wasn't started with such a lofty goal in mind.

"In 1963, the chairman of the county of Hawaii that was the forerunner of the mayor was Helene Hail, and she wanted something to boost our economy," said Luana Kawelu, executive director of the Merrie Monarch Festival.

Her director of programs at the time was none other than the legendary Uncle George Naope. It was his idea to honor King Kalakaua with a festival. The year was 1964.

"We had a grog shop, we had a big coronation pageant," said Kawelu. "Uncle loved pageantry. Kalakauka-style beards will highlight the festival

But it wasn't long before the festival was in trouble.

"After the fifth year nobody wanted to be chairman, so the festival was going to fold," said Kawela. "So my mom volunteered."

Dot Thompson, or Aunti Dot as most call her, met with Uncle George and several prominent hula masters.

"And they convinced my mom to do a contest," said Kawelu. "She wanted to do things to replicate what King Kalakaua brought back like the traditions, hula, culture and the arts."

In 1971, the first hula competition was staged. Buying a $1 button got you in to all of the events.

"And in actuality it didn't do very well," said Kawelu. "My mom and uncle would go all around town begging people to buy buttons, and still it was very cooly accepted."

It wasn't until six years later, with the addition of Kane Hula, that it really took off.

"That was something unusual that they hadn't seen in a long time, and it brought excitement," said Kawelu. "With the halaus now, the audience goes crazy when Kane Halau come on."

The Kane are a draw, but every halau brings something special to the stage after undergoing months of intense preparation.

"All the dancers, all the kumu, all the time and hard work they spend…I so admire them. It's tremendous, for seven minutes on that stage," said Kawelu.

In addition to hula training, kumu hulas must create fact sheets that explain the meaning and translates the ka'i, or entrance; the mele; the dance itself; and the ho'i, or exit.

"A lot of the kumu have told me how much they appreciate my mom forcing them to do this research because they themselves have learned a lot through this," said Kawelu.

And it's not cheap.

"I understand from a lot of halau it takes about $45,000 to bring a halau here, and so I really want to get the message across to people that we should appreciate what they've given us. It's a treasure," said Kawelu.
A treasure that they share with the world.