The Enduring Impact of the Merrie Monarch Festival

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Keoni Souza: Trustee At-Large

Promoting Hawaiian culture is a top priority at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, with our steadfast sponsorship of the Merrie Monarch Festival. We believe ongoing support is vital to ensure the preservation and prosperity of our culture through community engagement and events like the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.

Every year, the Merrie Monarch captivates audiences with its displays of hula, showcasing our rich culture and tradition of Hawaiʻi from a kanaka perspective. But what really goes on behind the scenes to make this event a reality?

The preparations begin months before the actual week of the festival. Organizers work tirelessly to secure venues, coordinate logistics, and select participants. It’s a year-round endeavor that requires meticulous planning and attention to detail. All performers work on fundraising to help pay for the costs to compete. It’s always fun to attend the big hālau fundraiser events where we gather to enjoy ʻono food, music and of course hula.

As the festival approaches, the excitement builds. Rehearsals intensify as dancers perfect their movements and expressions, striving to honor the legacy of their ancestors through their performances. hālau may practice strict protocols, which may include some form of kapu and cleansing rituals. Their dedication and commitment to their training are noteworthy and appreciated.

On the big day, anticipation fills the air as spectators gather to witness the beauty and grace of the hula. As the performances unfold, each dance tells a story, weaving together history, mythology, and emotion in a mesmerizing display of artistry. For some, like myself, the Merrie Monarch Festival holds even deeper significance. Since my high school days, I’ve had the joy of being involved in the Merrie Monarch Festival, eagerly contributing my service and talents. I have been fortunate to have been invited to play for many different hālau for over 20 years of Merrie Monarch. It’s been the greatest blessing to perform with my most talented musician friends for my dear Kumu hoaloha. These cherished moments of music, dance, and camaraderie serve as a testament to the enduring spirit of aloha that permeates the Merrie Monarch Festival.

My wife, Mahina, has also competed at Merrie Monarch with her hālau, Ka Lā ʻŌnohi Mai o Haʻehaʻe. I vividly remember her first year and the overwhelming joy we experienced when they placed third in Wahine ʻAuana, performing “Niʻihau.” Even more profound than winning an award was the feeling of accomplishment and pride, knowing that Mahina and her hula sisters had graced the greatest hula stage in the world. Mahina was later blessed with the opportunity to compete for the coveted title of Miss Aloha Hula, leaving with the third place prize Ipu Heke. I had the privilege to sing for her as she danced, a cherished memory that we both hold dear. The dedication, pride and passion she poured into her performances reflect the immense honor she felt in running for Miss Aloha Hula – an experience and feeling that words alone cannot fully capture.

In addition, throughout the festival, attendees have the opportunity to participate in workshops, cultural demonstrations, and craft fairs, immersing themselves in the traditions that make Hawaiʻi unique. The shopping is also a huge draw of the festival, allowing our local businesses to showcase their latest products.

As the festival draws to a close, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment among everyone involved. Months of hard work have culminated in a weekend of unforgettable performances and cherished memories with our lāhui.

The Merrie Monarch Festival may only last a few days, but its impact resonates far beyond its duration. It’s a testament to the enduring spirit of Hawaiʻi and the power of hula to inspire, educate, and unite people from all walks of life.