Preserving Hula, the Heartbeat of Hawaii at the Merrie Monarch Festival

HILO, Hawaii — The airy Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium in Hilo, Hawaii, was silent except for bird song and the low, steady chanting of Mapuana de Silva as she sprinkled a mixture of turmeric and saltwater along the perimeter of a square stage. Ms. de Silva, a kumu hula (master hula teacher), was conducting a ceremony called pikai, before her students began their 50-minute hula practice.

“We’re known as traditionalists,” Ms. de Silva, 74, said, whose dancers practiced in shirts with the word “boring” on them. Her students performed a seated hula kahiko (ancient hula). The emphasis of their presentation wasn’t movement, but the oli (chant) and mele (song) that they were performing.

Later that night, they would compete against 23 other hula schools in the 60th Merrie Monarch Festival.

The annual post-Easter festival honors King David Kalakaua, known as the “Merrie Monarch” for his enjoyment of the arts. When he assumed the throne in 1871, Native Hawaiian culture had been severely restricted by Christian missionaries, and the Native Hawaiian population had been decimated by western disease. King Kalakaua is credited with reviving many ancient Hawaiian practices, most notably, hula, which he called “the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

Today, the Merrie Monarch Festival includes a parade and a traditional Hawaiian craft fair. However, it is best known for its hula competition, which draws some of the best hula schools, or “halau hula,” in the United States. They compete in two categories: hula kahiko, which refers to hula that predates Western contact, and hula ‘auana, which encompasses hula that has developed post-contact.

Tickets to the competition are $10 to $55 and difficult to obtain: Limited to two per person, they can only be requested by mail, postmarked Dec. 1 or later and paid by money order or cashier’s check. Tickets to the festival’s noncompetitive hula night are $5 and must be bought in person months in advance, ensuring that many attendees will be local residents.

In the imagination of many mainland Americans, hula may mean coconut bras and cellophane skirts. It may conjure visions of a figurine jiggling her hips on a car dashboard or smiling serenely as she is used as a bottle opener.

The kumu hula interprets specific songs and chants into a choreographed dance, and the dancers embody the language of the mele or oli they are performing. “The language comes first,” Ms. de Silva said. “You have to have language to have hula.”

Hilo is normally a sleepy town, known for its drenching rain and sugar plantation past. During Merrie Monarch week, downtown Hilo jolts awake, as its streets, hotels and restaurants fill with festival attendees.

“This is hands down the best time to be in Hawaii, and to be able to see that the Hawaiian people are thriving: in hula, in our culture, in our language, in our different traditional practices,” said Desiree Moana Cruz, 60, a judge of the floral floats in this year’s Royal Parade, held on the final day of the festival’s hula competition.

Families camped out on sidewalks for the parade. A float with the festival’s 60th “royal court” led the procession, which included marching bands, environmental activists, an army J.R.O.T.C. and 19th-century-inspired Pa‘u riders (female equestrians who ride horses astride, not side saddle, while draped in voluminous skirts, or “pa‘u”).

Mitch Roth, the mayor of Hawaii County who marched in the parade, believes that the Merrie Monarch festival is an important cultural anchor that helps keep Hawaiians in Hawaii. You know, we lose a lot of kids, like our three kids, they’re living on the mainland,” Mr. Roth, 58, said. “Part of it is, it’s expensive to live here.”

Land in Hawaii is expensive and scarce, as hotels, Airbnbs, time-shares and second homes drive up real estate prices. According to a January 2023 NPR article, the median price of a single-family home in Hawaii was $900,000 during much of the pandemic; the median price of a single-family home in Oahu, the island with the largest population and the state capital, Honolulu, topped $1 million.

Each year, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development releases a Homeless Assessment Report that provides nationwide demographic data. Its most recent report found that between 2020 and 2022, “family homelessness increased by the largest percentage among people who are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.”

“We’re trying to create affordable housing,” Mr. Roth said. “But also you have to have quality jobs. And so we’re trying to bring quality jobs back. Once you have those things, you need to have things like the environment, our culture and a sense of belonging, you know? Merrie Monarch is part of a culture that gives people a sense of who they are, a sense of purpose.”

Although the Merrie Monarch festival began as a way to bolster Hilo’s economy, which was struggling after a 1960 tsunami and the decline of the sugar industry, the festival has become much more than just an annual economic boost. For the last 60 years, the festival has contributed to the reclamation of Hawaiian culture, language and identity.

After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the provisional government banned Hawaiian language in schools in 1896. According to the Hawaii State Department of Education, “Hawaiian language would not be heard in schools for the next four generations.”

Leaders of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1960s and ’70s, like Edith Kanaka‘ole, are now being recognized for their contributions. Ms. Kanaka‘ole was a venerated kumu hula and cultural practitioner who died in 1979 and helped save the Hawaiian language from extinction by creating university-level Hawaiian studies programs and preschool Hawaiian language immersion programs. In March, the U.S. mint released a quarter with her face above one of her most famous chants, “E ho mai ka ʻike” (“Grant us wisdom”).

Kuha‘o Zane, Ms. Kanaka‘ole’s grandson, said the recognition by the mint was a huge achievement.

In 1985, when Mr. Zane attended one of the first Hawaiian language immersion schools, only 32 children in Hawaii under the age of 18 spoke the Hawaiian language, according to the University of Hawai‘i Foundation. Now, public schools in Hawaii are required to teach Hawaiian culture, history and language, and ‘Olelo Hawai‘i is an official state language.

“The new generation has been raised, a lot of them, with Hawaiian language as their first language,” Ms. Cruz said. “So they come with an incredible confidence and a pride in being Native people, and knowing that we have a responsibility to make some corrections.”

“Right now we are making our lei for kahiko,” said Keoe Hoe, 20, a senior dancer in Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua. After flying in from Oahu, Ms. Hoe and her halau had set up blowup mattresses at a gym in the Keaukaha Native Hawaiian Homestead. She was standing over a picnic table full of golden brown casings found on “‘ulu,” or breadfruit trees. The trees represent growth in Hawaiian culture, she said. “We kind of want to bring that to the stage, seeing that we’re honoring Uncle Johnny and his legacy.”

“Uncle Johnny” is Johnny Lum Ho, an innovative kumu hula from Hilo who died last April. Keano Ka‘upu IV, one of the two kumu of Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua, had studied under Mr. Lum Ho, whose unconventional choreography won many times in the Merrie Monarch’s modern hula competition.

For this year’s female kahiko performance, Mr. Ka‘upu, 47, had composed an original song in Mr. Lum Ho’s honor. (In addition to teaching songs and chants from past generations, kumu hula often compose their own songs and chants, thus adding to the historical record.)

Taizha Hughes-Kaluhiokalani, 27, who won the festival’s soloist competition in 2019, started dancing hula when she was 8. “As a hula dancer, as a true ‘olapa is what we would call it, you become a channel, you become a vessel for the mele that you’re bringing to life,” she said. “It’s so important to know who you are because of the people that came before you, because once you forget, not just those people but the places, the mo‘olelo, the stories, become lost.”

The dancers had been working quietly when they suddenly erupted into cheer: Hokulani Holt, the mother of their other kumu, Lono Padilla, had walked in. In her 45 years teaching hula, Ms. Holt had selected only six students to become kumu hula. Among those six students were her son, Mr. Padilla, and Mr. Ka‘upu.

“For me, hula exemplifies the best way that you can express the meanings of living on these islands, said Ms. Holt, 71, explaining that her family was able to keep their hula lineage alive by practicing in Maui’s countryside.

On the final evening of the three-night competition, in the stadium named after Ms. Kanka‘ole, four teenage boys blew into conch shells in unison, announcing the arrival of this year’s royal court. The audience stood as the festival’s king and queen, members of the Hawaiian community who represent King Kalakaua and his wife, Queen Kapiolani, walked across the stage, then sat on elevated wicker thrones.

A female M.C. began calling out to the audience, asking if Kauai, Maui and the other Hawaiian islands were “in the house.” She then asked about Germany, France, Hong Kong, Tahiti, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Switzerland, California and New York, eliciting a cheer each time.

“When tourists come, we welcome them more during our Merrie Monarch season because they’re coming to witness and honor our culture in the way that we as Hawaiians truly practice it, instead of coming, you know, and going to tacky luaus,” said Waimapuna Tripp, 30, a former participant.

For hours that night and the night before, different halau took the stage, their chants clear and resonant, their dances graceful and athletic. Each gesture was highly controlled and executed in unison — the culmination of months or, in some cases, years, of discipline and training.

Just after midnight, more than six hours after the event began, the judges’ scores were in: Mr. Ka‘upu and Mr. Padilla’s more experimental halau won both male and female categories of the modern hula.

Although the audience began to thin, the dancers, wearing new matching outfits and sitting in the bleachers behind the stage, seemed to buzz with endorphins.

Ola Tripp II, Waimpuna Tripp’s husband, who is 32 and has also participated in the hula competition, likened the night to the Olympics. “The competition is that important,” he said. “The best of the best, internationally watched, internationally supported and keeps our culture alive.”