Written by Kapena Alapai | Images from http://www.merriemonarch.com/
Every year in April, the rural town of Hilo, Hawaiʻi swells with excitement for the annual Merrie Monarch Festival. The world-renowned festival celebrates hula, an ancient and modern Hawaiian dance, and honors the Hawaiian monarch King David Kalākaua. The Merrie Monarch Festival invites more than 10,000 visitors each year, and thousands more watch live coverage of the festival on television. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the festival; its successes are reflected in annual sold out tickets and in a worldwide growing demand for hula. With the demand for hula growing both in and out Hawaiʻi, the Merrie Monarch Festival Organization faces inevitable questions of expansion. While there are opportunities to expand to larger venues in larger urban cities, is this expansion the next inevitable step?
The seven-day festival hosts a myriad of cultural, educational, and artisanal events including a four-day long hula competition that showcases the different styles of teachings throughout Hawaiʻi. The competition portion of the festival is held in the Edith Kanakaʻole Tennis Stadium in Hilo. The Stadium is transformed every year just for the competition and holds a maximum audience of 4,200 members. Every year more than 7,000 people apply for tickets that are allotted on a first-come-first-serve basis; tickets cost, at most, $30 for all nights of competition.
The Merrie Monarch Festival, since its start in 1963, has contributed greatly in rejuvenating Hilo’s declining economy after a devastating tsunami in 1960. Since its inception, the festival has grown to be an institutional festival and arguably outgrown its place in rural Hilo. Suggestions were raised to move the festival to the urban city of Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, and specifically to the Neal Blaisdell Arena that can accommodate more than twice the number of audience members than the current tennis stadium in Hilo. This opportunity to move locations carries with it the potential to double the festivals earned income and fulfill one of its missions to make hula more accessible for those who want it.
While Honolulu offers an infrastructure that can support the present demand, one must contemplate the threats to the original mission of the festival. Even though the price of tickets would not increase, the price to stay in Honolulu is substantially higher than rural Hilo. Another risk with moving the Merrie Monarch Festival to Honolulu is that it would involve moving the festival away from the home of the Hawaiian Language revitalization movement and many independent Hawaiian artists that benefit greatly from participating in the festival’s annual craft fairs. What direction is most beneficial while keeping with the organization’s original mission to maintain the highest quality and authenticity of hula? Kathy Kawelu, Vice President of the organization, expressed that there is no plan to move the festival; it is at home in Hilo.
The criticism surrounding the issue of place with Merrie Monarch Festival raises this question: Is expansion always the next step, or is it acceptable to be content with current operations? Hula is becoming more and more popular around the world; it is seen in schools being founded in Japan, the United States, and also Mexico. However, due to some cultural traditions, hula itself may not be an appropriate art form for the masses to witness and authenticity must be maintained. The Merrie Monarch Festival Organization has decided that physical expansion is not the right solution for itself, and so it is to be concluded that expansion is not always the best option for those who are able, but rather for those who are ready.
This year’s Merrie Monarch Festival takes place between April 20-26, with the competition streamed live online on April 24-26(check link below). Please join in the celebration of this Hawaiian art form and all it can teach us. For more information, click on the links below. Mahalo!
Merrie Monarch Home Page
KFVE the Home Team Live Coverage
About the Author
ʻO wau nō ʻo Kapena Alapai. No Puʻuanahulu, Hawaiʻi koʻu ʻohana a noho mākou ma Kalaoa. ʻO Gordon Alapai koʻu makuakāne a ʻo Sally Bloedorn Alapai koʻu makuahine. ʻAkahi nō wau a puka mai ke kula nui o Hawaiʻi ma Hilo ma ka Haʻawina Hawaiʻi a kū koʻu hoihoi i ka pāheona. I kēia manawa, aia wau ma Nū Ioka e hele ana i ke kula nui ʻo Pratt Institute ma ka papahana laeoʻo o Arts and Cultural Management. ʻO ka mea nui ma kaʻu hana paheona, he makepono ke paʻa ka manaʻo i loko. I koʻu manaʻo, maikaʻi ke kiʻi inā hāpai ʻia ka nīnau i loko o kākou. He mea nui ke kūkākūkā ʻana i loko o kākou. I ka paʻa ʻana o nā kuanaʻike ʻokoʻa i loko o kākou, ʻoi aku ko kākou holomua.
I am Kapena Alapai. My family is from Puʻuanahulu, Hawaiʻi and currently resides in Kalaoa. My father is Gordon Alapai and my mother is Sally Bloedorn Alapai. I have recently graduated from the University of Hawaii at Hilo with a degree in Hawaiian Studies and my interests lie in Art. I am now living in New York City studying at Pratt Institute in the Arts and Cultural Management masters program. The one thing to consider when creating art is having meaning in the work. I believe art is at its best when it raises questions within the artist as well as the onlooker. It is important to have an open dialogue within ourselves, and when we understand the views of others, we are greater off.