Aloha, Hula, and Hawaiian Culture

By Kara Dung

Posted on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 3:30 PM PDT

When you mention Hawaiʻi to someone on the mainland, one of the first things that will come to mind is hula dancers. Hula is an ancient tradition in Hawaiʻi and all throughout Polynesia. The Merrie Monarch Festival has become one of the most popular worldwide hula competitions. The Merrie Monarch Festival describes itself as “he perpetuation of hula and the Hawaiian Culture.” It did not start out this way and to how we now know it as a Hula competition.

It began in 1963 as a way to attract tourists to the island of Hawaiʻi, and in 1964 it became a festival with activities in respect and honor of King David Kalākaua. In 1971 it was turned into a hula competition to recreate what King Kalākaua did in the past, which was a festival that he held at the Iolanʻi Place known as the Silver Jubilee, inviting some of the best hula dancers from around the islands to perform.

The competition has progressed since then, still taking place on the island of Hawaiʻi aka the Big Island. This hula competition is now a week long with many different events -  all about traditional and contemporary Hawaiian culture. This year the 55th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival, was held in the first week of April, starting on Easter Sunday. It began with the Hoʻolauleʻa (Ho-oh-la-ow-lay-ah) celebration, when different local Hula Hālaus (Ha-la-ow) or hula groups present an exposition of free performances. Then a few days later, the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair began, featuring local crafters and artists along with entertainment lasting throughout the whole festival.

Over the course of four days (from Wednesday to Saturday) there are four different categories of hula dancing. With the Kāne (men) and Wāhine (women) performing. There is the Hōʻike (Ho-ee-kay) - a mix of folk and hula dance - Miss Aloha Hula the individual Wāhine competition, Group Hula Kahiko (Ka-hee-co) the ancient or traditional style, Group Hula ʻAuana (Ow-ah-na) the modern style & the Award ceremony.

The Hōʻike Performance is the exhibition night, which is an evening of showcasing dances from all throughout the Pacific and Oceania regions, not just from Hawaiʻi. Dancers from New Zealand (what locals call Aotearoa), Tahiti, Samoa, hula hāluaʻs and others who traveled from as far as Japan and California come to the Big Island compete in the Merrie Monarch Festival. Thursday night, the Miss Aloha Hula competition happens; it is kind of the equivalent to a beauty pageant, and judged by the three styles of performing Hula Kahiko. This is usually performed with ancient Hawaiian instruments like usually an ipū heke (a hollowed out gourd), a pahu (Hawaiian drum), ʻiliʻiili (river rocks) and voice. Hula ʻAuana is sometimes performed with instruments like ʻuliʻuli (feathered shaker), a poili (bamboo rattlers), ʻiliʻiili (river rocks), with live mele or recorded mele and an oli (Hawaiian chant). This is performed in two different costumes for traditional and modern styles of hula along with the nā mele (songs) and oli they have chose to perform. Friday night the Hula Kahiko competition is held, where kāne and wāhine from different Hula Halauʻs dancing in the ancient traditional style of hula, sometimes with an ipū heke (a hollowed out gourd), a pahu (Hawaiian drum), ʻiliʻiili (river rocks) and with the performers singing. In the traditional costumes with the kāne wearing leiʻs that they make themselves and traditional maloʻs (loincloth), the wāhine wear cloth tops, tī leaf skirts and leis that are also handmade. Saturday night (the last night) is the Auana performance with the modern style of hula, sometimes performed with instruments like uliʻuli (feathered shaker), a poili (splitted bamboo rattlers), ʻiliʻiili (river rocks), with live mele or recorded mele and also kāne and wāhine from different Hula Hālauʻs. More modern costumes can range from the kāne in pants and an aloha shirt, and the wāhine in a floor length dresses or a skirt and top. There is also the Award ceremony that night with the award presentation for the group winners.

What do you think makes the Merrie Monarch festival so important to Hawaiʻi?, Why are people so captivated by it, and tune in and watch every year and why is is important? Cheryl Dung (4th generation Japanese American in Hawaiʻi) said “There was a time after missionary contact, annexation and we became part of the U.S. when speaking Hawaiian and anything Hawaiian, I.e. Hula was looked down on. People were not allowed to speak Hawaiian. Hawaiian people were perceived as “ignorant” and  “uneducated” people who could not speak English.

Hula is important in giving dignity and respect to and for preserving the Hawaiian culture. Celebrating this tradition helps bring back the authentic culture after years of oppression and domination by those of European descent. Many years of tragedies were inflicted on the Hawaiian people by missionaries who subjugated the people for cheap and free labor to take their natural resources for trade around the world. There were years when Hula was tabu because missionaries thought it was too sexy or violated their own religious doctrine. Because Hawaiian is an oral language and not written, the  hula dances were important along with the music to tell and pass down stories, history, values of Hawaiian culture and its people. Although Hula was almost lost, it survived the European occupation.

The Merrie Monarch competition is very well known and is broadcast on  local TV stations and streamed online, giving full coverage of the festival and information about every halau. In Hawaiʻi it is like watching a big time sports tournament on TV. Watching the Merrie Monarch Festival means something to everyone who watches. For me it is just a way to remind me of the rich, vibrant history of Hawaiian culture that is apart of kuʻu home (my home). I am always in awe of  watching all of the dancers in the festival, as I know how much practice and discipline goes into performing a hula and oli. Some of the kupuna (Hawaiian elderly) have an especially very strong connection with the Merrie Monarch festival; some of them have been there since the first one in 1963. The committee for Merrie Monarch is mainly elderly Native Hawaiian people who know and share the importance that Hula is to the Hawaiian Culture. This festival was once an event meant to bring tourists to the island, and has now become something much more. It is a powerful gathering meant for protecting Hawaiian culture and the practice of Hula for future generations.

Here is a youtube channel that looks at the inside of what kind of preparation that Hula Hālauʻs do for the Merrie Monarch Festival.