Telling our story to the world
Few events have done as much to educate the world about hula — and about Hawaiian culture more broadly — as the one unfurling in Hilo this week: the annual Merrie Monarch Festival.
The town has been hopping since the weeklong festival began Sunday but will explode with hula devotees who are there to take in tonight's hō'ike, or the exhibition concert. The actual competition runs tomorrow through Saturday.
Enthusiasm over the event rose to a fever pitch in the 1990s, with growing interest from international tourists, and participation by hula schools across the country. More recently, the Internet has enabled global viewership and interaction.
By 2010, however, the Merrie Monarch buzz has quieted somewhat and the festival has matured in the cultural landscape. It isn't always glorious — sometimes the rivalries can be downright harsh. But setting aside the occasional tension and sniping, the Merrie Monarch and the other hula events that share its limelight do illuminate an indigenous art, one that captures what's wonderful about its creators and their homeland.
Hula celebrates the Hawaiian sense of rhythm and tonality, especially in its ancient form. Contemporary hula, which adapts the more Western musical traditions, demonstrates the Hawaiians' particular talent for entwining the contributions of other cultures with their own.
The dance itself draws out the sensory delights of the Islands, motions that are fluid one moment and explosive the next, evocative and sensual. There are the colors of flowers and costumes, rich in symbolism, the rustling and scents of ti skirts and lei adornments.
But at its heart, hula is the art of storytelling and poetry. The ever-improving presentation of hula competitions over the years has conveyed the meaning of the words to an expanding audience, one that now better appreciates Hawaiian linguistic gifts.
This is why hula matters. Hawai'i has a rich story from its past that carries into the present. Because of hula, and events like the Merrie Monarch, this tale has a global reach, one that the storytellers of old never could have imagined.