Where do I even begin? Being from Hawai’i, I am no stranger to the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, not only is it a weekend full of Hawaiian tradition and hula, but the entire week is filled with various events in Hilo on Big Island. People from all over the world fly in to experience this annual event.
Since I grew up on the mainland, I’ve only ever seen the Merrie Monarch from VHS (yes that’s how we use to get them) or the livestream online. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago I was able to attend the Ho’ike, which is an exhibit of various performances, and although it wasn’t the actual festival itself, I was still ecstatic to final sit in the stadium and watch performances on THE Merrie Monarch stage. This groups that performed at the hoʻike were from all over like Aotearoa (New Zealand), Taiwan, just to name some. It’s definitely a great start before the Merrie Monarch competition.
WHAT IS THE MERRIE MONARCH FESTIVAL?
The festival itself began in 1963 and highlighted the skill and knowledge of the ancient and modern hula or kahiko (traditional hula) and ʻauana (modern hula) performed by the different hālau hula (hula school/group). It’s a beautiful display of the Hawaiian culture.
The Merrie Monarch Festival is held to honor the memory of King David Kalākaua and he was a lover of all arts, especially music and dance. After our Hawaiian cultural and traditions were suppressed for so many years, he did his best to revive our culture and bringing back some of our traditions back, one of them being hula.
The competition is held for three days starting with the Miss Aloha Hula Competition,with the kahiko and ʻauana hula to follow for the next two days. Not only do I love seeing all the hula performances, but I love hearing the chants and stories behind each and every one of them.
Now that you guys got a brief history about Merrie Monarch, lets get to the parade.
MERRIE MONARCH PARADE
On the last day of the Merrie Monarch Festival, a parade is held in the morning in Downtown Hilo. This year was my first time attending, but I was solely there for the pāʻū riders and one group in particular, Ka Hui Holo Lio O Ka ‘Ohu Lehua. Before the parade, I’ve actually had very little knowledge about pāʻū riders. There’s usually 8 pāʻū units to represent each of the island in the parade, but this year there were only 4. Pāʻū stands for skirt and that’s what the women wear while they ride astride their horse.
This year, I had the opportunity to help out one of my brother’s friend in preparing for their pāʻū unit here on the Big Island. And since they made one full round of all the islands, this year, the final island they would be representing was Big Island, what a way to go out!
I can’t even begin to explain the amount of planning that goes into this, it’s so much work! Besides the outfits they’d all be wearing, flowers and plants of all kinds needed to be picked to make this a success. There were I believe 7 horses in this unit and all were getting a lei and the riders as well, more than one might I add. They were completely decked out in beautiful flower leis and seeing the ones on the horses were so massive! We had to make so many little flower bundles that would eventually be strung into a lei.
A little over a week was the amount of time to get everything done. I was able to help for three of the days and it was such a memorable experience for me. Growing up in Washington, I wasn’t immersed in my Hawaiian culture, I just knew a little bit here and there. Since I’ve been living in Hawai’i, there are always times where I think I’m never close enough to my culture, yet I’m constantly surrounded by it. Learning about an entire culture takes more than three years, it’s a lifetime of learning.
During Merrie Monarch, I learned so much in that small amount of time. Many worked for hours, picking flowers and plants, cleaning the plants, stringing the leis, it was never-ending. It was so rewarding to see everyoneʻs hard work pay off beautifully. The pictures donʻt speak for itself, itʻs one of those things you have to witness in person.
Each unit are also in a competition with each other and Big Island won this year! How amazing is that?! Her family has been doing this for nearly 10 years and it was their last ride, but they were asked to do the Queenʻs Unit next year! Sadly, I wonʻt be here next year to help, but I look forward to seeing what they come up with!
Iʻm so grateful that I got to be a part of this amazing tradition, met so many great people who just have so much aloha and kokua (help) to give to everyone.
I definitely recommend everyone to make it over to the Big Island during the Merrie Monarch festivities. It brings so much life into Hilo and you can immerse yourself into the Hawaiian culture.
Let me know if you have any questions about the Merrie Monarch Festival or even the pāʻū riders. It was so hard to do a brief explanation about the history of everything without writing an essay!