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Merrie Monarch Celebrates 50th Year

Fifty Years/Seven Minutes: It takes centuries to develop a cultural practice like hula. Half a century to build a festival like the Merrie Monarch. A year for a halau to prepare its performance. And seven minutes to dance on a hallowed stage.


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Not everyone agrees on  whether to compete

Maile Loo-Ching, kumu hula and founder of the Hula Preservation Society

“For the hula elders we have worked with at HPS over the years, competition wasn’t a part of their hula lives. Even when Uncle George Naope started the Merrie Monarch, he didn’t create a competition, but rather a festival.

Big competitions didn’t exist in the 1940s and ’50s, and so it’s something our hula elders cannot readily relate to, as they were not raised in a time when hula and competitions went together like today. But they agree it does give the students and the halau a common goal to focus on, and helps people learn to work hard and work together. And that’s a good thing, no matter what age or hula line you come from. I personally come from a line of hula where I was taught you do not compete with your hula. So I have not and will not compete there myself, or take my students. But we enjoy watching and appreciate all the hard work that goes into it.”


The Producer

Roland Yamamoto, owner of production company The Kukui Media Group

“In 1981, I was a young cameraman on the first multi-camera broadcast for KITV-4, and met Auntie Dottie, who became one of the greatest influences on my life. Since then I have directed and/or produced many of the shows over the years. I’m not a dancer; I’m a TV person. Our job is to portray what goes on the best we can. Realistically, it will never be as good or as exciting as it will be in person. Our job is to get as close as we can, to get the spirit of the festival.

“The stage is plywood, but the way I see it, it becomes the center of the hula world those nights. The mana of the kumu hula and the dancers goes into it, everyone who has ever danced on it or chanted on that stage, is in it. When you go into the Edith Kanakaole Stadium on a normal day, when people are playing tennis, you don’t get any sense of that.

“We certainly have more cameras and angles than we used to. Many of my conversations were about getting permission to place cameras. First with Dottie and now with [her daughter and current festival president] Luana Kawelu, about where we can put a camera. If I put in a camera, it takes away 15 seats. The first year we televised, we had three cameras, and now we’re up to 11. Two are robotic—remote control. They are placed on the ceiling, looking down. 

“They say my camera placement is classic, which I guess means old-school. As a kid, my grandfather owned a theater in Kona, and I remember all those old musicals, Fred and Ginger, and Busby Berkeley. The ideas of showing dance are timeless. I just borrow from everything I’ve ever seen in my life.”


Bringing the Show Home

John Fink, general manager of KFVE

“The Merrie Monarch is the most-watched, longest-running local TV program in Hawaii. We get about 75,000 to 100,000 viewers. For the Internet streaming, more than 150,000. People from 100 countries tune in at some point—from India, France, Mexico, Finland, New Zealand, Africa. And almost 50 percent of the viewers are from Japan; about a million page views.

“There is a great curiosity about the beautiful cultural tradition that is hula. People really want to understand what it’s all about. Or at least try to understand. Some would say you can’t just look at hula, that it’s about the customs, language, the ties to the land and sky. It’s certainly deeper than just watching someone dance, and yet we acknowledge that this is an expression.

[In the future], “the question is, whether there are other ways, such as cable or pay-per-view that could be beneficial to the festival. The West Coast is also fertile ground for us to explore.

“The stadium could use some refurbishing. It’s not a great visual and certainly not great for audio. The roof is metal and the sound bounces all over. Getting the audio right is such a challenge and here you have some of the best musicians in Hawaii. What sounds good in row 42, might not sound good on TV, might not sound good on stage.

“It’s an indoor/outdoor stadium. If a guy two blocks down revs his motorcycle, you can hear it. This is not Radio City Music Hall.”


The festival as a teaching tool

Taupouri Tangaro, Hawaii Community College hula professor and humanities chairperson

“Merrie Monarch is a huge chunk of the spring semester hula curricula. Some [students] dance on the competition stage and use the experience to evidence learning; others stand in line to experience the Merrie Monarch and write reflection papers; some watch from home. What’s most important is that it provides an authentic opportunity for our learners to experience how vast is the soul of the hula.

“There is something about Hilo that makes the Merrie Monarch. I think it has to do with all the earthquakes, the volcanic sulfuric wind, the tidal waves, that keep Hilo a Hawaiian community. Secondly, many of the halau on the stage have some hula connection to the Keaukaha hula traditions. So to bring the dances or hula stylings is to return the energy to the old Hilo hula masters, all of whom are dead but live through the human canoes—halau—who continue their traditions.”

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