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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 11, 2003

Take a week to fully experience Merrie Monarch

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Travel Editor

HILO, Hawai'i — The most chicken-skin moment at the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition took place in an almost empty stadium, witnessed by about 50 people.

Performances like this one by Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa O Laka at this year's Merrie Monarch Festival, are beautiful, but pre-event rehearsals are worth watching, too.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Robert and Roland Cazimero, Manu Boyd and Kaipo Hale joined their voices in powerful harmony for the first time in rehearsal for the 'auana (modern) performance of Ka'enaalohaokau'ikaukehakeha Aoe Hopkins of Halau I Ka Wekiu, known to Robert Cazimero, her godfather, and all her 'ohana as Ka'ena.

The sound swelled and spilled across the stage. The hair on my arms literally stood up from wrist to elbow, and tears welled up along with with the chorus of Pua Laha'ole ("Rare Flower").

"He 'ipo na ke 'onaona no na kau a kau," they sang.

"My sweetheart imbued with fragrance from season to season ... "

Breaking off abruptly after a few bars, Robert, at the piano, fluted with feigned concern, "Oh, does that sound OK?" The answering laughter broke the tension.

It's the Merrie Monarch's open secret: open rehearsals. Every day from Easter Sunday through the last day of competition on the next Saturday, from 6 in the morning until 5 in the evening, Miss Aloha Hula candidates and competing halau, one after the other, take advantage of their assigned hour on the stage.

Anyone can come to watch unless the kumu hula prefers to see the house cleared. (Such kuma hula are in the minority, but if you are asked to leave, you must respect the request, said Merrie Monarch assistant director Luana Kawelu).

Though Merrie Monarch 2003 wrapped up just two weeks ago, now is the time to think about attending next year's competition, April 15 to 17. Hilo-area hotels and bed and breakfasts are taking advance reservations requests and compiling waiting lists; in most cases, you'll be asked to pay in advance come September. Cars can and should be reserved now, though rates aren't guaranteed until closer to the date.

And make a mental note to call Merrie Monarch for a ticket request form in September; requests will not be accepted before that time. Tickets are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis in January and there aren't a huge number of them. The Merrie Monarch configuration creates between 5,500 and 5,800 seats in the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium of which perhaps one-third are reserved for halau and VIP seating. However, I did see some people selling tickets they couldn't use.

But if you don't make reservations now, you won't find a place to stay or a car to drive, even if you are able to land tickets.

Watch rehearsals free

Ika Vea, owner of Vea Polynesian Gifts, was one of the many vendors at the Merrie Monarch Festival arts and crafts fair at the Civic Center Auditorium. Fairs and exhibits are a big draw during Merrie Monarch.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Even if you don't score tickets, you can experience many of Merrie Monarch's pleasures by spending a long Easter weekend in Hilo: Various events and shows take place every day from Easter Sunday through the week.

You can pop in on rehearsals during the day. And you won't want to miss Wednesday night's free Ho'ike (hula show), which always features a rare opportunity to see the Kanaka'ole sisters' Halau 'O Kekuhi, as well as musicians and performers who don't generally participate in the competition.

This year, for example, a halau long missing from Merrie Monarch was seen: Halau Na Leo O Kaholoku, with kumu hula Donna Leialoha Amina and Nani Lim Yap, of the famed musical Lim family of Waikoloa. The Ho'ike also welcomed a Tahitian performing group.

Attending rehearsals is a way to see how the kumu hula interact with the dancers, to experience the best seats in the house and, if you're lucky enough to have scored tickets, to familiarize yourself with the songs and dances before seeing them in their final form.

You might also meet and talk story with the "kokua" — family and friends who accompany hula halau to help with costumes, adornments and other matters.

Perched in a judge's chair — the best seats in the house, naturally, on a dais that places your eyes just above the level of the stage — I experienced the full effect of Chinky Mahoe's hula 'auna kane in "He I'a Nui Ka'u/Komo Pono."

These guys flirt outrageously, flashing their eyes and raising their eyebrows in that time-honored way that says, "YOU know what the koana is, yeah? — the hidden meaning? Da song about fishin' but that not all, eh?"

Had there been a price of admission, this would definitely have been worth it.

Craft fairs big part of week

Craft fairs and other exhibits are integral to the Merrie Monarch experience.

While craftspeople are out in full force during Merrie Monarch, the main attraction is the hula. Here, Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula performs.

Advertiser library photo

The official Merrie Monarch Hawaiian Arts and Crafts Fair at the Civic Center around the corner from the Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium opens on the Wednesday after Easter and continues through the next Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

In addition, the Hawai'i Naniloa Hotel hosts a craft fair Thursday through Saturday and in downtown Hilo locations on those days.

Many small, cutting-edge aloha-wear designers come from around the Islands to show their new wares (Hawaiian Force and Sig Zane from Hilo, Kapala 'Ahu from Kane'ohe, Double Paws Wear from Kaimuko, Nake'u Awai from Honolulu and more).

Lauhala weavers are out in force, proving that anything that will stand still can be lauhala'd, from tissue dispensers to walking canes. Makers of hula instruments from pahu drums to 'ili'ili clicking stones and of native Hawaiian implements (war clubs, digging sticks and such) are present, too.

Practitioners of Hawaiian healing arts, la'au lapa'au (herbal healing) and lomilomi (massage) host booths dispensing oils, herbs and informational materials. The latest in lei making is displayed, both in natural and artificial materials; the big item this year was the crocheted and knotted silk thread lei that can be made to resemble 'ohai ali'i and other hairy foliage.

Farmers Market in Hilo has an impressive range of fruits and flowers.

Advertiser library photo

A Hawaiian quilting show was held this year at the Wailoa Visitors Center in Hilo town. And there is always a Ho'olaule'a on Easter Sunday at Coconut Island (Moku'ola) (a park reached by footbridge off Banyan Drive in Hilo), with music, talks on Hawaiian cultural practices and hula. In addition, free hula performances are offered daily at the Hawai'i Naniloa Hotel and the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on Banyan Drive.

Add to this the Wednesday and Saturday Farmer's Market downtown, worth visiting if only to shop with the eyes — the range of fruits and flowers is impressive.

Another draw: Hilo's complement of restaurants — Cafe Pesto, Pescatore and the new Restaurant Kaikodo at the finer end of the spectrum, inexpensive and quick local plate-lunch favorites Kuhio Grille, Cafe 100 and Verna's (open 24 hours on Merrie Monarch weekend — "If no can, no can, if can, Verna's") at the other end.

And finally, regardless of whether you're able to attend the hula events at night, you have the day to make a run up to Volcano, along the Hamakua Coast or over to Ka'u.

• • •

Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition

• April 15-17, 2004, Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium, Hilo, Hawai'i

• Ticket prices, which have been in the $15-$23 range for a three-night package, may change.

• Ticket-request forms are available after Sept. 1. Call the Merrie Monarch office, (808) 935-9168, to request a form.