In the heart of Hilo, Hawai'i, a mesmerizing scene unfolds at the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium--graceful hula dancers take the stage, moving in perfect harmony as they bring an ancient Hawaiian myth to life through rhythmic chants known as mele. This captivating display is not merely a performance; it's a profound celebration of Hawaiian culture, a tribute to a heritage that was once banned and suppressed.
The Merrie Monarch Festival
Entering its 60th year in April, the week-long Merrie Monarch Festival stands as the "Olympics of hula." This annual event holds a special place in Hawaiian hearts, perpetuating the sacred tradition of hula, an art form intertwined with the native language, history, religion, and culture.
Thousands of Hawaiians gather on the Big Island to witness the competition firsthand, while many more tune in to watch the televised performances of Hawai'i's top 23 hālau (hula groups). Beyond being a mere contest, the festival encompasses dance, arts and crafts, and a grand royal parade, showcasing Hawaiian culture on an unprecedented scale.
The Reverence for King Kalākaua
"It's the one week out of the year where we celebrate being Hawaiian," affirms Kū Kahakalau, an expert in Hawaiian language and culture. This celebration, integral to the Hawaiian identity, owes much to King David La'amea Kalākaua, affectionately known as "The Merrie Monarch." As the final monarch of Hawai'i, his reign from 1874 to 1891 marked a period of cultural reawakening.
Reviving Hawaiian Heritage
During the reign of King Kalākaua, the very essence of Native Hawaiian heritage was at stake. Missionaries' arrival in 1820 had introduced diseases, converting islanders and suppressing traditional practices.
Once central to the Hawaiian way of life, the hula had been branded as "vile heathen chants" and forbidden. King Kalākaua's vision sought to reclaim Hawaii's pride and cultural roots. His era saw a resurgence of language, music, arts, and traditional medicines that the influence of earlier rulers had stifled.
The Revival of Hula
King Kalākaua's legacy is intrinsically tied to the preservation of hula. "Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people," he famously proclaimed. Often misunderstood as a kitschy dance, hula is an ancient practice that carries the weight of Native Hawaiian stories and beliefs.
Before written language arrived with Captain James Cook in 1778, hula was a living archive, passing down the cultural identity orally through generations. Even when banned, Hawaiians persisted, teaching the forbidden dance in secret locations.
A Global Ambassador of Culture
King Kalākaua's influence stretched beyond Hawai'i's shores. In 1881, he embarked on an ambitious 281-day journey, becoming the first head of state to circumnavigate the globe. He interacted with dignitaries during his travels, fostering international relationships that benefited the Hawaiian people.
In Japan, he was greeted with his national anthem; in Egypt, he explored the Great Sphinx. Meetings with Queen Victoria of England and Thomas Edison showcased his reach. His forward-thinking nature was evident in his pursuit of innovation; he designed inventions from tornado-proof ships to electric lights for 'Iolani Palace, preceding the White House's electrification.
A Cultural Legacy
Kalākaua's commitment to Hawaiian culture persisted. Collaborating with traditional priests and elders, he compiled ancient myths and chants into written records, solidifying the legacy of hula and mele.
In 1888, he translated these stories into English, sharing them with foreign dignitaries through "Legends and Myths of Hawai'i." The Hawaiian Youths Abroad Program, a brainchild of Kalākaua, sent young Hawaiians abroad to learn skills that would shape the Kingdom's future.