The men from Ka Leo O Laka i Ka Hikina O Ka La did a mele overlooking the cliffs of the Kilauea caldera yesterday on the Big Island. The halau entered the kane division of the Merrie Monarch Festival for the first time last year. The halau has also entered the Miss Aloha Hula and wahine portions.

Festival fills
the spirit

The Merrie Monarch Festival
attracts people from
around the world

HILO » Dottie Thompson, director of Hilo's annual Merrie Monarch Festival, has no idea of how much money the event contributes to the Big Island economy.

But with 5,000 people attending, she knows it's a lot.



Today is the competition for Miss Aloha Hula at the 42nd annual Merrie Monarch Festival at Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium in Hilo. The event starts at 6:30 p.m.

Just as important, it also contributes to people's spirits.

"We're Hawaiians and they eat a lot, and they've got to buy a present for all their moopuna (grandchildren). They are spenders," she said.

The hula festival was created in 1964 to help pull Hilo's economy out of the slump caused by the devastation of the 1960 tsunami. It has succeeded amply.

The 42nd presentation of the festival this week has people coming from as far away as Japan and Europe. East Hawaii hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are sold out, and that means some attendees are lodged in Kona.

But more than filling pocketbooks, Merrie Monarch fills spirits.

"Merrie Monarch allows people to see an art form that belongs to their heritage and is a living art that reflects who they were with pride and who they are with pride," said Kimo Kahoano, a KITV commentator of the festival for 25 years.

Hula master Ray Fonseca said hula is a way for Hawaiians to assert their cultural identity.

"Our young people today are getting back to their roots, as opposed to the system we live in," he said. "We see more and more young people going into the arts, going into hula, as a recovery."

George Naope, one of the festival's founders, said: "Hula is inner feelings. They don't belong to somebody else."


George Naope: He helped found the hula competition, first held in Hilo in 1964

Naope was one of two people sent to Maui in 1963 by Hawaii County Chief Executive Helene Hale to consider creating something like the Lahaina Whaler's Spree.

That was a rowdy event that lasted just two years, but when Merrie Monarch began in Hilo in 1964, it had some of the same elements, such as a Grog Shoppe. Another element was hula, provided as entertainment. The original "merrie monarch," King Kalakaua, was featured in the form of a Kalakaua look-alike contest.

Penny Vredenburg, a Hilo High schoolgirl at the time, said Hilo was enchanted by the new festival. She made plumeria leis for it, selling some for 25 cents, giving away others.

"I've never stopped being energized by it," said Vredenburg, who has served for years as emcee for several Merrie Monarch events.

But official support faltered until Thompson, a culture and arts specialist with Hawaii County, volunteered to chair the festival, a position she has held ever since.

In 1971 the first competition was held. The contestants were all women. Performances by men were added in 1978.

Initially, most of the performances were auana, or modern hula. Studios that taught ancient hula were rare.

In the pre-European Hawaiian kingdom, commoners were not allowed to do hula, Fonseca said. Through the 19th century, except for Kalakaua's reign, and during territorial days of the 20th century, hula was done only within the family, he said.

Now performances in Merrie Monarch require both skill and cultural understanding.

"We've advanced so much in the culture," Fonseca said. He has been to Bishop Museum to listen to old chants recorded on wax cylinders.

Other times, he has gone to Kauai to listen to old stories that can be transformed into dance. "They tell you the stories, and then you take it from there," he said.

Now the knowledge goes far beyond Hawaii. Fonseca advises a dozen halaus in Mexico. Shari Berinobis' book, "The Spirit of Hula," lists halaus in Germany and the Netherlands.

Thompson said performances by a halau from Japan are as good as local performances. "That's how good our hula instructors from Hawaii are teaching them," she said.

Merrie Monarch Festival

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