Attending the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival for the first time
Images by Paul Kema/Paiea Projects, Noelle Kauanoe Campbell and Ito
Merrie Monarch 2102 Kane Overall Winners Halau I Ka Wekiu. Ho, is that Cully from Ooklah the Moc in the middle?
Like A Virgin
I lost my Merrie Monarch virginity last Saturday. Despite being raised in Hilo, I’ve never had an opportunity to attend the festival. My first time was on`Auana (contemporary style of dance) night at the world’s grandest hula competition, which is held annually in Hilo at the Edith Kanaka`ole Stadium in April. Alcohol was involved. Peer pressure played a factor. I got wet and sweaty in the whole process. Somebody blacked out. Beautiful people were everywhere, finely-dressed in aloha wear. Live Hawaiian music gave me multiple eargasms. Chicken skin abound like a pandemic breakout. There was too much mana and mana`o shared that evening to accurately capture it in a single post. The following text is a humble, and sometimes ignorant and lewd, account of a late-bloomer’s first experience at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival.
New Media Team Assemble!
The evening started at 5 p.m. with a rendezvous at Kuha`o’s house in Keaukaha. The New Media Team—KZ, myself, photographer Paul Kema, intern El Kellum and chef Ryan Nakagawa—rolled to Merrie Monarch in Renaissance Moke style via lifted-truck. And yes, the NM Team rolls with a culinary artist. What? Social media members get hungry, too.
“I’ll Catch A Grenade For You”
We were barreling down Kalaniana`ole Avenue, and KZ suddenly whips a screeching U-turn.
“Frick! I forgot something,” said our fearless leader Kuhao.
“What? Your phone?” I ask.
“Nope,” replied KZ.
We pull up to Margarita Village.
“Frick!” I said in my head. We were taking a round of grenade shots before Merrie Monarch.
After the quick round of shots, we jumped back in the rig and headed to the Sig Zane shop to check on videographer Luke Aguinaldo. Right before we get to Bayfront, KZ realizes he actually forgot his iPhone at home.
PK and Luke capturing the amazingness of the evening.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly when we got in MM. PK and I found seats near the entrance, which was a not bad angle for Paul to take pictures. The bleacher seat in front of me was also free so it allowed me to write on my knees and take notes. I scribbled furiously on my reporter pad at every observation like a college student at the first day of a paid-internship.
-i like halau in white dresses…halau’s name?
-can’t hear Kimo K. announcing from here
- think they’re from Kaua‘i
-halau after is wearing white, too
-need to acquire a program
-no halau from big island competing this year…seriously?
Local Japanese lady sitting next to me keeps looking at us.
“Excuse me, I hope you’re temporarily sitting here,” said the woman with a staring problem.
“These seats are saved for the halau.”
“No worries,” I reply, “we’ll be going soon so my photographer can get a better angle.”
MM Judge, Nalani Kanaka`ole has the best seat in the house.
Merrie Monarch For Dummies: TV Coverage > Live
After hastily moving seats to a higher vantage point I start to realize that it’s going to be impossible to cover this event from a traditional, journalistic perspective for three reasons. First, I can’t understand Kimo Kahoano when he announces the halau’s names. Second, the only things I jot down are the costumes I like, which feels really superficial. Third, I’m feeling a little bit of Imposter syndrome because I only notice what the dancers are wearing and the musicians. I realize that watching the Merrie Monarch live telecast on K-FVE is easier to follow for a hula layman like myself. I also realize that the comfort of my couch offers back support and the bleacher don’t.
Back support and butt padding is key when attending the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival.
I abandon the tenacious note-taking and start snapping a bunch of Instagram photos so I’ll have some visual notes. El and Ryan, who just arrived, also start IG-ing. All of our phones vibrate at the same time like synchronized sex toys.
“Straight to Kim’s for intermission,” texts KZ.
We walk out of the stadium, it starts to pour and then we’re running to Kim’s in the rain. Not a drizzle, but full-on Hilo rain. At this point, I’m glad I didn’t wear my Sig Zane Designs x Kicks/HI x Vans Vault Mauka/Makai pack because they would’ve been ruined. When we get into the bar I immediately head to the restroom to dry off. In the lua I see my classmate, Kai Hudgens, who I haven’t seen in years. We share a hug and start catching up as we head to the bar.
“So what? Just cruising or did you come to see somebody in particular?” I ask.
“Just cruising. You never get a chance to be around these many Hawaiians at once unless it’s Merrie Monarch,” said Kai.
PK and Ryan (pictured above) start double-fisting with Margaritas and Coors Lights. Heavy! During the intermission, a Hawaii News Now story comes on about the Mauka to Makai shoes. Everybody is stoked, and I notice that Homesteady Founder, Malani, is wearing the Mauka Chukka Boots. To my surprise, I only count three people wearing the Mauka, and two people (including KZ) wearing the Makai Era at Merrie Monarch.
Merrie Monarch 2012 Wahine Overall Winners Halau `O Ke `A`ali`i Ku Makani. Ho, is that Pono’s wife in the middle?
Before KZ heads back to the stadium, he has a mission for El, Ryan and I: get Luke from the shop. You see, Luke was holed up in the Sig Zane offices all day, editing the release party recap video. I jump behind the wheel of Kuhao’s truck and we scoop up Luke. By the way, driving KZ’s rig feels like you’re perpetually on the Airplane Bridge. It vibrates and hums the whole way. During the ride, we all try to charge our iPhones, which are all on 20% battery life left. Too much Twitter and Instagram in the first half of Merrie Monarch. Watching grown men fight over car chargers is a pathetic, frivolous sight (heavy sigh). That’s why hard.
And…We’re Back Live At the Edith Kanakaole Tennis Stadium
By the time we get back, the performances are over and the judges are calculating the scores. Half the crowd is going home because it’s already after midnight. There are open seats in the front row next to KZ and Brandy so El, Ryan, Luke, PK and I join them. While the judges deliberate, the men of Halau Ke Kai O Kahiki take the stage for a tribute to their recently deceased kumu, O’Brian Eselu, who passed away in his sleep a week and a half before Merrie Monarch.
It was an emotionally paradoxical experience. Sad and joyful. Melancholy and beautiful. The young boy in the front row stole the show during the tribute. “That’s my hero,” said KZ about the young hula practitioner.
This is for you, OBE!
After the tribute, the awards were announced and I realize why going to the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival is better than just watching it on TV. It’s sharing feelings with the dancers, teachers, judges, supporters, staff, media and audience at the Edith Kanaka`ole Tennis Stadium. I felt sadness with all of those that knew OBE during the tribute. I also felt joy with the winners, especially Manu Boyd and his Halau `O Ke `A`ali`i Ku Makani when they tasted victory for the first time at the Merrie Monarch. There is an excitement in the air all week in Hilo, and I believe this energy spikes after the awards.
Kumu Manu Boyd accepting the award for wining overall wahine. Congratulations, Kumu Hula!
The New Media Team.
We left Merrie Monarach after 1:30 a.m., and we got wasted! The rest of the night was a blur of toasts, “chee-hu’s,” laughs and rousting. Here is what I can recall and hope to always remember about the after parties:
I got to eat the best the kalua pig of my life at Lehua Kalima’s sister’s house. The secret ingredient was the opae (shrimp) in there. So. Good!
After we ate, we went to a pool party at the Ontai’s House to celebrate with Manu Boyd and his halau. They projected the recording of the Merrie Monarch on a huge screen. Nobody jumped in the pool because it was too cold in Waiakea Uka, but it didn’t matter because the party was still raging. There was awesome impromptu Hawaiian music and hula performances going down in the garage. Several bottles of booze were passed around and “somebody” blacked out. I’m not going to mention names, but they know who they are.
So this is our best friend’s wife, Noelle, who dances in Manu’s halau. I’m so stoked we got to celebrate with her that morning, and she kept walking around with a bottle of Jack for everybody to take a swig. We took this inebriated IG pic for her husband, Pono, who said he was “being a good daddy” and that’s why he didn’t come to the after party.
The highlight of popping my Merrie Monarch cherry was drinking with Hilo Mayor Billy Kenoi at the after party. I’ve been a big fan of him for being a leader, native Hawaiian and a hardcore surfer. That guy is so rad! And, super funny, too. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, and I hope to be invited back to cover the event and have some drinks with my boy, Billy.