It was mid-March 2020, and Luana Kawelu, president of the Merrie Monarch Festival, had an important decision to make.
The virus causing the deadly COVID-19 disease was spreading around the globe, and Hawaiʻi was not spared: Infections and COVID-19 cases throughout the islands were rising rapidly. But 22 hālau were slated to perform at the festival – the most prestigious and longest-running hula event in the world – and they had already paid for airfare and costumes; made meal plans; booked vans, musicians and accommodations; and were in full swing with practice sessions.
“It was a very difficult decision to make, but I had to cancel the 2020 festival,” Kawelu said. “It was less than a month from when the hālau were supposed to take the stage, but health and safety were and continue to be the top priorities.”
In 2021 the festival resumed as a virtual event, with 15 hālau dancing at Hilo’s Edith Kanakaʻole Multipurpose Stadium from June 24-26 with no live audience – only the judges and a television crew from K5 before them. K5 broadcast the performances on July 1-3.
For this year’s 59th annual event, 18 hālau will be competing before a live, albeit limited, audience comprising family members, helpers and longtime festival sponsors. Tickets were not sold to the general public.
“Some people might ask why we didn’t completely open the festival this year because restrictions are loosening, but we had to submit a COVID-19 plan to the county in February,” Kawelu said. “It’s not possible to make last-minute changes for an event of this size, so we are sticking to that plan.”
Spectators must wear masks and be fully vaccinated. IDs, temperatures and vaccination cards will be checked at the entrance, and the audience will be spaced at least two seats apart.
Live singing wasn’t allowed last year, so all the music was pre-recorded. This year, chanters, vocalists and musicians will again accompany the hālau in person. “I’m excited to see things moving in the right direction,” Kawelu said. “Hula is the heart of who Hawaiians are as a people. The Merrie Monarch Festival celebrates that; it’s where people who love and appreciate hula can connect, share and be inspired.”
Chinky Māhoe concurs. He is the kumu hula of Kawai-liʻulā, based in Kailua and at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa on Oʻahu, which will be making its 31st appearance at this year’s festival. Last year, they captured first place in all three Kāne categories (Kahiko, ʻAuana and Overall) and were named the festival’s Overall Winner.
“The Merrie Monarch Festival is vital to the Hawaiian community,” Māhoe said. “It perpetuates hula, an art form that has multigenerational appeal. I’ve had mother and daughter, father and daughter, and father and son dancing in the same line at Merrie Monarch. I think the festival has awakened us as Hawaiians so that in addition to hula, there are now more people speaking the language; singing and writing mele; and reviving traditions such as lua, paʻi ʻai, lau hala weaving and kapa and lei-making.”
Although only about 1,800 people will be in attendance this year, compared to the pre-pandemic full house of close to 6,000, Māhoe said, “Opening up even a little is a start to normalcy. My hālau is looking forward to having their loved ones in the stadium again to see them dance. Merrie Monarch brings together families, spotlights our culture and shows what aloha is all about. It has touched people around the world.”
Hālau Kekuaokalāʻauʻalaʻiliahi from Wailuku, Maui, led by kumu hula Joy Haunani Paredes and her husband, ʻIliahi, won six awards last year: third place for Wāhine Kahiko, first place for Wāhine Auwana and Wāhine Overall and second place for Kāne ʻAuana, Kāne Overall and Overall Winner. They will be competing at Merrie Monarch for the 10th time this year.
Paredes recalled that in 2020, their largest group ever was planning to make the trip to Hilo – 28 kāne and 35 wāhine. When she and ʻIliahi gathered their students and ʻohana to share the news that the festival was canceled, everyone burst into tears.
“For our high school seniors, who were preparing to head off to college and would not be participating at Merrie Monarch for a while, it was doubly heartbreaking,” Paredes said. “Still, we fully supported Aunty Luana’s decision, which was based on protecting our lāhui. We, as the kumu, now had the kuleana to infuse hope and motivation in our haumāna. We told them hula resides deep within us, and although Merrie Monarch 2020 would not be happening, we all must keep the flame of hula burning bright within us.”
And they have. Hālau Kekuaokalāʻauʻalaʻiliahi is thrilled to be able to dance before a live audience again. “Nothing compares to the electrifying vibe that we feel when we’re surrounded by a crowd of hula enthusiasts,” Paredes said. “Hula has given us so many gifts – of ʻike, history, culture, family and friendship. Hula connects us to and teaches us the ways of our kūpuna. It guides us in all that we do to be the best kānaka and community members that we can be. We regard the Merrie Monarch Festival as an essential part of the encyclopedia of Hawaiian culture.”
For the Merrie Monarch Festival’s 60th anniversary next year, Kawelu hopes the Edith Kanakaʻole Multipurpose Stadium will once again be filled to capacity. “We are strong, we are resilient,” she said. “We are going to return 100 percent, and it’s going to be wonderful!”
Front-Row Seats at Home
OHA is proud to be a television and live stream sponsor of the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition making the hula celebration available for viewing throughout the pae ʻāina and around the world.
K5 will broadcast all three nights of the competition live—Thursday through Saturday, April 21-23, from 6 p.m. to midnight. The TV station will also be airing a “Backstage Special,” including select moments from the non-competitive Hōʻike, on Wednesday, April 20, from 7 to 9 p.m.
You can also watch the performances live on hawaiinewsnow.com and the Hawaii News Now Mobile App or by downloading the Hawaii News Now app on your smart TV’s device (e.g., Roku or Amazon Fire).