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Let’s hula! Festival organizers plan scaled down celebration one year after 50th anniversary

Last year’s Merrie Monarch Festival golden anniversary jubilee was a celebration that would have met with the hearty approval of King David Kalakaua, the festival’s namesake.

This year’s 51st edition will be “scaled down,” according to festival President Luana Kawelu, daughter of the late Dorothy “Dot” Thompson, the Merrie Monarch’s longtime chief executive.

“We’re not doing the extras like we did last year, like the beard contest, the coronation pageant and the barbershop quartets,” Kawelu said last month.

“Scaled down” is a relative term when it comes to Merrie Monarch. In Hilo town, where the pace is laid back, it’s the busiest week of the year. Hotels are at full occupancy, rental cars sold out and restaurant patrons deal with lines and no available reservations.

Nothing will appear scaled down inside the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium, where the three-night hula competition — the festival’s crown jewel — takes place. The stadium seats about 4,200, with roughly half the tickets going to the participating halau. The remainder sold out quickly after becoming available to the public the day after Christmas.

Among the fortunate few who scored seats to the event include visitors from Japan, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Kawelu said.

Twenty-three halau will take part in the event, with 17 entering in the wahine group competition and 11 in the kane group competition. Both the men and women will dance in Friday night’s hula kahiko (ancient hula) and Saturday night’s hula ‘auana (modern hula).

Thirteen young women will compete Thursday for the coveted title of Miss Aloha Hula. The wahine solo competition has both kahiko and ‘auana components.

Last year’s overall winning halau, Kawaili‘ula, is returning under the direction of kumu hula Chinky Mahoe. The halau from Kailua, Oahu, scored a clean sweep of the kane kahiko, ‘auana and overall titles, and won the festival’s overall title by just three points over Mapuana de Silva’s Halau Mohala ‘Ilima.

Kumu hula de Silva’s women, who took the wahine overall and kahiko titles, are entered in the wahine group and Miss Aloha Hula competition. The halau’s Miss Aloha Hula candidate is Sarah Kapuahelani Sterling, sister of Miss Aloha Hula 2012 Lilinoe Sterling, who also represented Halau Mohala ‘Ilima.

Also returning is Aloha Dalire’s Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa O Laka, which won the wahine ‘auana title. In a rare move, Dalire has entered her kane as well as her wahine in the group competition. In addition, Dalire’s 18-year-old granddaughter, Kilioulaninuiamamaoho‘opi‘iwahinekapualokeokalaniakea Lai, has an opportunity to become the first and only third-generation Miss Aloha Hula — following in the footsteps of her mother, two aunts, and grandmother, who won the initial title in 1971, which was then called Miss Hula.

The only other halau to enter the kane, wahine and Miss Aloha Hula competition is Halau Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu under the direction of kumu hula Sonny Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera. The return of the Kapahulu, Oahu, halau after an absence of a few years is cause for excitement, as it has won numerous Merrie Monarch accolades, including both wahine and kane overall titles in 2009.

Another perennial favorite in the field is Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela, under the direction of kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook, entered in the wahine group and Miss Aloha Hula categories. The halau from Kahihi and Waimanalo, Oahu, placed second last year in wahine kahiko and ‘auana and were the wahine overall runners-up.

One halau certain to be a crowd pleaser is Academy of Hawaiian Arts of Oakland, Calif. Kumu hula Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu’s original arrangements of ancient chants have garnered disapproval from some who favor a more traditional approach, but always seem to find an appreciative audience at Merrie Monarch.

Three Hawaii Island halau are entered this year. One is Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani under the direction of kumu hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang, which placed third in kane ‘auana, fourth in kane kahiko and fifth in wahine ‘auana in 2013. The Hilo halau will again enter the kane and wahine group competition.

New to the Merrie Monarch stage this year is Halau Na Lei Hiwahiwa O Ku‘ualoha of Hilo under the direction of Sammye Ku‘ualoha Young, entered in the wahine group and Miss Aloha Hula competitions. Young was a student of the late kumu hula Rae Fonseca at Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani.

Beamer-Solomon Halau O Po‘ohala, which boasts a 154-year heritage, will return after a three-year absence. The Waimea halau, under the direction of of kumu hula Hulali Solomon Covington, will compete in the wahine group and Miss Aloha Hula categories.

Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua of Kalihi, Oahu, will also compete for the first time at Merrie Monarch, in the wahine group and Miss Aloha Hula categories. Kumu are Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV of Keaukaha — a student of Fonseca and kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho, who completed his ‘uniki (graduation) under Hokulani Holt — and Lono Padilla of Maui, who is Holt’s son and student.

Another notable making her Merrie Monarch debut is kumu hula Puanani Jung, whose Halau Hula Lani Ola from Laguna Hills, Calif., is entered in the wahine group competition. Jung is the daughter of kumu hula Puanani Alama, the only living judge remaining from the first Merrie Monarch hula competition, and the niece of kumu hula Leilani Alama, who was also an early Merrie Monarch judge, and who died of cancer on April 4.

This year’s judges include Keali‘i Reichel, the Hawaiian music luminary and kumu hula from Maui whose Halau Kealaokamaile twice produced Miss Aloha Hula winners in its three years in the competition. His first appearance at the judges’ table was last year.

The others are also noted experts in hula and Hawaiian culture — Cy M. Bridges, Victoria Holt Takamine, Nalani Kanaka‘ole, Noenoelani Zuttermeister Lewis, Kalena Silva and Alicia Keawekane Smith.

The Wednesday night Ho‘ike, which charged admission for its special 50th anniversary program last year, goes back to being free this year, with admission on a first-come, first-served basis. As always, it will be an event worthy of an admission charge, featuring Halau O Kekuhi under the direction of kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole, the daughter of the late Hawaiian cultural icon Edith Kanaka‘ole, and ‘Ilima Hula Studio &Family under the direction of kumu hula Lani-Girl Kaleiki-AhLo. The Ho‘ike also includes two halau from Japan and a five-time national champion Maori dance troupe from Aotearoa (New Zealand), in keeping with the event’s tradition of hula and Polynesian dance from around the Pacific.

Merrie Monarch week kicks off today with the free Ho‘olaule‘a at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, featuring its own stellar lineup of hula and Polynesian dance. The lineup includes kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, which competed in last year’s Merrie Monarch but is on hiatus this year, and Halau O Kekuhi under the direction of kumu hula Kekuhi Keali‘ikanaka‘olelohaililani.

The week’s activities includes free hula exhibitions and Hawaiian music all over Hilo, including the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, the Hilo’s Naniloa hotel, the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. The civic also hosts the invitational Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair. Craft fairs unaffiliated with the festival have also sprung up in various locations around town, as well.

The Merrie Monarch has always celebrated the traditional. That approach was reflected in Thompson, who for years resisted the construction of a Merrie Monarch website, noting the festival’s success without one. For the past several years, however, the festival has been online at, and has now entered the realm of social media, as well. Kawelu said the festival’s Facebook page received 2.9 million visits last year, with 1.4 million occurring in a one-month period — the two weeks prior to and after the festival.

“That’s the world we live in today,” she said. n


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