“Hi Meleana. This is Auntie Luana [Kawelu]. I’m calling to let you know that this is your formal invitation to participate in Merrie Monarch 2020.”
This was the call that changed kumu hula Meleana Manuel’s life. A native of Volcano on Hawaiʻi Island, Manuel had competed in the prestigious Merrie Monarch Festival, known as the Olympics of hula, as a dancer for many years. She had been chosen as the queen in the royal court. She had sung the national anthem. And her haumāna (students) had performed at several hotel and craft fair shows during Merrie Monarch week. But this was the first year she would step on to the stage in the hallowed Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium in Hilo as a kumu.
“It was unbelievable. I wasn’t even sure I heard correctly, so I had to ask again,” Manuel says of the call from Kawelu, festival president, last year. “I can remember [the moment I told my students the news] so vividly in my mind’s eye, but to explain it in words, that’s really difficult. There were so much happy tears.”
Manuel’s Hālau Hula Ke ‘Olu Makani O Mauna Loa began ramping up practices, eventually increasing to four times a week starting in January. Manuel, who opened her hālau 30 years ago, flew to the Mainland to search for and buy fabric for their costumes. The hālau even traveled to O‘ahu to do research for their mele (songs).
Many kumu and hālau spend thousands of dollars on the invitation-only Merrie Monarch. Manuel knows of some that spend $30,000 to $40,000 each year. The costumes, flowers, adornments, flights, accommodations, food and transportation alone are big bucks, not to mention the hours of grueling practices needed to put on such stunning performances.
The Merrie Monarch is a major commitment.
But last month, Manuel and the rest of the hula community got word that the festival, which was scheduled to kick off this week, was canceled due to COVID-19. In a statement posted on the festival’s website, Kawelu announced the news, saying that “we could not risk the health and well being of our community, hālau participants, vendors and the thousands of people who attend Merrie Monarch every year. In the end, we believe that keeping people healthy and safe must be the highest priority, and we all need to take on this kuleana (responsibility) in the face of the threat posed by COVID-19.”
Many in the hula community praised Kawelu for making the tough yet necessary decision. But that didn’t mean the circumstances weren’t disappointing.
“Everyone was in tears,” Manuel says when her hālau heard the news. “[But] within 10 minutes, everyone was in agreement that even though this is something out of our control, we can control our feelings. Then there was the relief that somebody was thinking about the community and humanity in general.”
Although Merrie Monarch is a hula competition, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of nondancers involved in the weeklong festivities. There are the dancers’ families and helpers. There are the musicians, judges, festival and support staff, artisans, costume designers and craft fair vendors. And there are the local businesses and hotels that host the thousands of visitors who flock to Hilo. The list goes on.
SEE ALSO: Merrie Monarch Fact Sheets, Explained
Merrie Monarch week is a major seller for many vendors. Nita Pilago, owner of local clothing line Wahine Toa Designs, is one of them. For the past 11 years, Pilago has been selling her clothes at the Merrie Monarch Invitational Arts & Crafts Fair. She had ordered extra inventory this year because it would be the first time she’d also sell her clothes at the Grand Naniloa Hotel’s craft fair.
Pilago makes about a third (about 4,000 items) of her annual sales during that week alone. Some shoppers line up at 6 a.m., three hours before the fair opens, to get to her booth, with the line often snaking around the auditorium. And most times, she sells out before the close of the week. Because she doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar shop—she operates from the garage of her Kailua-Kona home—events and fairs like Merrie Monarch are essential to her bottom line.
Left with the extra inventory, she created her first website to sell online.
“It’s a big eye opener,” Pilago says. “We would make the most money during Merrie Monarch out of all of the fairs. It was a big blow to us but cannot help.”
For Hilo-based shop Sig Zane, the cancellation meant “a huge lifestyle shift.” Creative director Kūha‘o Zane says Merrie Monarch is “pretty much like a second Christmas. During Christmas time, you might have those sales, but it’s over a four-week period. For Merrie Monarch time, we usually will do Christmas numbers in one week.”
SEE ALSO: A Local’s Guide to Hawaiʻi: Kūhaʻo Zane
The company typically begins creating specialty products for the festival in August and September of the previous year. The team also boosts production to create three times their typical inventory.
When the festival was canceled, they tried to cancel all of their orders but couldn’t do so last minute. Instead, the items are now online. Sig Zane also might add one of its exclusive Merrie Monarch products to the Pop-Up Mākeke, a virtual marketplace that allows local vendors, including those typically at the Merrie Monarch, to sell their inventory. Kūha‘o Zane has heard from other local businesses that are also trying to sell their extra inventory.
“The breadth of influence that Merrie Monarch has on Hawai‘i is pretty crazy,” says Zane, who has performed on hō‘ike night for the past 20 years with Hālau O Kekuhi, led by his mom, Nālani Kanaka‘ole Zane, and auntie, Pua Kanaka‘ole Kanahele. “It’s really evident now. It’s a significant adjustment in Hawai‘i.”
As for other hālau that were slated to compete this year, many are looking forward to 2021 and the years to come. Kumu hula and renowned musician Robert Cazimero was supposed to return to Merrie Monarch this year with his Hālau Nā Kamalei O Līlīlehua. Although Cazimero typically returns to the festival every 10 years (that would’ve been in 2025), he decided to come back five years earlier.
But now, Cazimero, who first took his hālau to Merrie Monarch in 1976 and has sung for many others on ‘auana night, made the decision to pause this year’s performance and return in 2025, his hālau’s 50th anniversary.
“No one ever remembers anything like this before. We’re in unchartered territory,” Cazimero says. “[But] it’s a good lesson to learn. It gives us the opportunity to sit back, breathe a little bit, let the Earth breathe a lot, take account of what we’re grateful for and be grateful for those things. We just move on.”