Hilo does a littleBy Cynthia Oi
dance of its own when this hula
festival comes to town
YOU had to have been there. You have to have done it. You have to have bought the T-shirt . While television brings the Merrie Monarch hula competition to homes across the state, the festival travels way beyond the small screen in Hilo.
Shopping malls, hotels, civic and community centers and dozens of festival craft fairs vibrate with music, laughter, dancing and talking story.
There is a whole lot of kissing and hugging going on. People meet up with friends they haven't seen since the last festival or run into long-time-no-see relatives and make new acquaintances.
Where there is usually light foot traffic, pedestrians dodge each other up and down sidewalks in Hilo town. During the parade Saturday, about 10,000 people lined Kilauea and Kamehameha avenues to watch the 100 units of floats, pa'u riders and community groups strut their stuff.
The festival touches almost every resident in Hilo, simply because of the number of people that invade this sleepy hollow between shoreline and volcanoes. They suffer the population boom and reap the rewards.
Josie Apolo and her husband Kepa don't go down to Edith Kanakaole stadium to take in the hula competition, preferring to watch it on TV. Like other residents, they are deterred by the hassles of securing rare tickets, jockeying for parking and the discomfort of hard bleacher seats.
"Better to stay at home and watch," said Josie, who was at Honolulu airport, waiting to fly back to the Big Island after visiting relatives. "It's more comfortable. Can go bathroom whenever."
She will, however, take in the craft fairs because there are good bargains to be had.
Anyway, hula isn't limited to the stadium.
On the same flight to Hilo were 25 members of Hula Halau O Ishibashi from Yokohama, Japan. Wearing the gray official Merrie Monarch T-shirts, they were excited and pleased to be dancing in some of the dozens of free programs around town.
Hula isn't limited to a schedule. At the Seven Seas craft fair Friday, kumu hula Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewitt kicked off his rubber slippers, and in sweatshirt and shorts stopped the buying and selling to sway impromptu to music by the Kealoha Kalama Serenaders.
On Banyan Drive, Hawaiian music and humidity compete to fill the air. At the Hilo Hawaiian, a group of musicians practice, enticing Uncle George Naope, one of the founders of the festival, to hula in the hotel lobby. At the Naniloa Hotel, entertainers Willie K and Amy Gilliom rock the balconies in a performance that has hundreds whooping and whistling.
After the show, crowds dodge and weave through the craft tables. Wallets stay open from one vendor to another, spreading festival wealth.
The vendors don't take away from the established retailers along the bayfront.
Designer Sig Zane, whose clothing line is much sought after because it is only available in Hilo, says the event makes things very merry.
"It is the most festive time for our town," Zane said. "The biggest event on the island."
Hula builds an appreciation of things Hawaiian: culture, music, art and spiritual beliefs and the festival gives people direct exposure to all of it, he said.
Zane, a member of the Kanakaole hula family,also sees the practical side of the festival.
He introduces most of his new styles during Merrie Monarch week and sells more in that period than at any other time, including the weeks during Christmas season.
At the KTA on Highway 11, Craig Kurakazu stocked special shelves with Kelly Boy's breads and cookies. The 9-by-9-foot display goes in only during the festival and features Big Island products visitors usually want, he said. The company he owns with brother Kelly and sister-in-law Paulette will see a 20 percent increase in sales during the week.
Other than bringing in more business, the festival provides diversion for residents.
Besides the craft fairs, many took in the Wednesday night Ho'ike, a free dance and music concert. In fact, the audience this year was the biggest in recent memory, festival officials said. So big that the security force members of the KOA Puna motorcycle club were hard pressed to control the crowds.
"Ho'ike night is tough," said Wayne Waipa. "People don't need tickets to see this so we have a harder time."
Waipa is a formidable man, as are most of the guards. But they rule with friendliness rather than force. Among those sharing duty at the performers' entrance with Waipa were Angel Sanford and Bobby Kamelamela, among others. The men, identified by black T-shirts and club leathers, politely directed people to the front entrance, patiently repeating instructions to the hundreds they encountered.
Like many of the Merrie Monarch staff, KOA Puna members, 150 strong statewide, are volunteers.
So is Sister Pat Rapoza. She and Gerry Ah Yo sell the official festival T-shirts at various booths around town, Sister Pat for the past 12 years.
Some of the money from sales goes to St. Joseph's School, she said, so she's happy to do the job.
Sister Pat's smiling face is one of many visitors are exposed to in Hilo, for if anything, Merrie Monarch is blessed by a genuine small-town friendliness.
Carla Quinories is another one. The thirtyish mother of two girls was born and raised in Hilo and lived there until last year when she moved to Paradise Park.
Saturday morning, she packed up the truck and children and drove to town to catch the parade she has never missed in her life.
With a wry smile, Quinories acknowledges that the parade doesn't have the elaborate floats and entertainers that, say, an Aloha Festival parade has.
The attraction for her and her daughters is the familiarity. Quinories seems to know everyone in the parade: "That lady rides every year," she comments about a pa'u queen. "She works at the Safeway."
When a float goes by, the women on it wave to her. She calls out the names and waves at dozens in the parade and dozens who drift past on the sidewalk.
A group of friends and relatives come by and sit with her family along Kamehameha Avenue to catch up with news.
The scene is repeated everywhere in Hilo. Smiles and greetings from friends and strangers alike are the most common commodity.
Keali'i Reichel was pleased to be asked to sing and play for one of the halau in the festival.
"What's good is to see everyone -- other kumu hula, my friends, other entertainers -- and touch base again. The atmosphere is really nice."
Cy Bridges, one of the contest judges, participates in the festival because it gives him a chance to see old friends. He considers the event as a constructive way for people to get together.
"The Merrie Monarch pulls together people from all cultures to Hilo. Just like a lei, the small petals of different flowers make up the beautiful whole," he said.
The winners of the 1999 Merrie Monarch Festival hula contest (halau, kumu hula, points awarded):
Merrie Monarch winners
1. Hula Halau 'O Kamuela, Paleka Leinaala Mattos and Kunewa Mook, 588
2. Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu, William "Sonny" Ching, 581
3. Halau Mohala 'Ilima, Mapuana de Silva, 579
4. Halau Hula Olana, Howard and Olana Ai, 575
5. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka, Aloha Dalire, 573
1. Hula Halau 'O Kamuela, Paleka Leinaala Mattos and Kunewa Mook, 620
2. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka, Aloha Dalire, 618
3. Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu, William Ching, 615
4. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula, Chinky Mahoe, 604
5. Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani, Ray Fonseca, 594
1. Hula Halau 'O Kamuela, Paleka Leinaala Mattos and Kunewa Mook, 1,208
2. Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu, William Ching, 1,196
3. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka, Aloha Dalire, 1,191
1. Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu, William Ching, 595
2. Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani, Ray Fonseca, 560
3. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula, Chinky Mahoe, 559
4. Halau Ke Kia'i A O Hula, Kapi'olani Ha'o, 552
1. Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu, William Ching, 614
2. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula, Chinky Mahoe, 607
3. Halau Na Kamalei, Robert Cazimero, 601
4. Halau Ke Kia'i A O Hula, Kapi'olani Ha'o, 587
1. Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu, William Ching, 1,209
2. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula, Chinky Mahoe, 1,166
3. Halau Na Kamalei, Robert Cazimero, 1,149
Halau Na Mamo 'O Pu'uanahulu, William Ching, 1,209
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