Merrie Monarch Festival returns, and with it spirit

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The Merrie Monarch Festival begins on April 17, 2022. The beloved hula festival was begun in 1963, conceived as an effort to attract visitors to Hawaii Island. It celebrates the legacy of beloved King David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch himself, an elected king whose legacy of devotion to arts and culture and to the best interests of his Native Hawaiian people continues well over 100 years since his death in 1891.

Photo of King David Kalakaua
King David Kalakaua is heralded as saving the hula tradition after it had been outlawed by Christian influence.

After being cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic (a devastating blow that made the magnitude of the grave threat of covid immediate and crystal clear), Merrie Monarch was held without an audience in 2021. Its reopening to the public in 2022 is an encouraging, erm, shot in the arm to countless lovers of the ancient art all over the world. Indeed, hula halau from far and wide have participated in the festival through the years since its inception.

It’s difficult to overstate the cultural importance of the Merrie Monarch Festival and it’s easy to drift into hyperbole. We’ll go with hyperbole: it is the most quintessentially Hawaiian manifestation of community, love, and true Aloha that exists on this earth. The weeklong festival attracts thousands to the opening parade in Hilo, and to the modest Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium during Merrie Monarch’s many events and activities.

Hula Dancers
Merrie Monarch is a lifelong commitment for many.

It is always the hottest ticket in town. This means any town in Hawaii, really, as hula halau across the state prepare year-round for the annual competition with unshakeable commitment. Seats are always sold out. Families prepare months in advance for the trip to Hilo, booking flights, hotels, campgrounds, and “ohana units”. Needless to say, but we’ll say it, the effort to feed the hoard of dancers and their family and fans that descend on Hilo Town each year is colossal. From Tutu’s kitchen to the fast-food drive-thru, that work doesn’t stop in the weeks before, during, and after the Merrie Monarch Festival.

“Someone’s gotta feed these people!”

The festival culminates with the Ho’ike (non-competitive performance), and the competitive Hula Kahiko (ancient, traditional form), Hula ‘Auana (modern form), and Miss Aloha Hula events. The atmosphere is charged with an electric anticipation and excitement. The determination of the hula halau and their dancers is seen in their movements, on their faces, and reflected in the expressions of their supporters in the stands and streaming at home.

The resuming of the Merrie Monarch Festival and its reopening to the public comes with new restrictions to address the ongoing threat of the pandemic. Coveted tickets are even more difficult to come by. Or they were, anyway. Ho’ike tickets for the general public sold out in a mad rush as soon as they were made available, as reported by the local news (happens every year).

Beautiful Hilo, home to the Merrie Monarch Festival.

There were 2,000 of them available for the public, 10 max per person. Tickets for the historically free Ho’ike performance went for $5. Seating at Edith Kamaka’ole Stadium for the Hula Kahiko and Hula ‘Auana is carefully selected for family and halau members only. Attendance at the stadium will be limited to a third of its capacity.

So, how to watch? Easy! If you happen to be in Hawaii, you can watch the live broadcast on local K-5 (KFVE TV). If you’re not in Hawaii, you can tune in via livestream at Hawaii News Now.