Decision to cancel Merrie Monarch praised

  • ALOHA VICTOR

  • Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu, right, with her late mother, Dorothy "Aunty Dot" Thompson, the hula competition's founding mother.

A Kona kumu hula whose halau was set to compete at the 57th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival said he thinks the cancellation of the festival is “the best decision for our people, our culture and the safety of everybody.”

Kumu hula Kenneth “Aloha” Victor of Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu was reacting to the cancellation announcement made by Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu Thursday on the festival’s Facebook page.

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Kawelu said the cancellation was because “of the threat posed by COVID-19.”

“In the end, we believe that keeping people healthy and safe must be the highest priority …,” Kawelu said. She added that she “could not risk the health and well-being of our community, halau participants, vendors and the thousands of people who attend Merrie Monarch every year.”

“I know it was a tough decision for Aunty Luana and the committee,” Victor said. “And I know that she always thinks of everybody first. And it’s going to be an interesting ride for the next couple of weeks with what’s going to happen, the reactions of people.”

Victor’s halau is one of three Big Island halau selected for the competition known as the “Super Bowl of Hula,” which was scheduled for the week of April 12-18. The others are Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani, under the direction of kumu hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang, and Hula Halau Ke ‘Olu Makani O Mauna Loa, under the direction of kumu hula Meleana Manuel.

Halau spend all year raising funds to come to Merrie Monarch, which is an expensive proposition, as Victor noted, with airfare, lodging, meals, hula attire and adornments, and more.

“For us, even being a small halau, we’re spending a lot of money to go to Merrie Monarch. I can imagine the larger halaus,” he said, adding there are “thousands of people — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the halaus alone” involved in putting on Hilo’s signature event every year.

In her statement, Kawelu mentioned those concerns.

“Please give our airlines and hotels a day or so to sort out details. This is such an undertaking for all of them — their willingness and cooperation to work with us is a saving grace. We will update our own festival information when details become available,” she said.

“We just hope that Hawaiian Airlines is kind to us, to be able to restructure our flights … ,” Victor said. “Hopefully, the hotels and the people who have lodging reservations are going to be able to switch their deposits around. Hopefully, the car dealerships and the rent-a-car people will also be kind (in) this situation. And I hope that everybody is able to recover from this.

“But first and foremost, being safe is the most important thing.”

The hula competition, while the crown jewel of Merrie Monarch week, is just one aspect of the weeklong festival. The official Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair and a host of other unofficial craft fairs have a huge impact on what is usually a banner economic week in Hilo.

Victor is a vendor, as well, and is a fashion designer with his own clothing line, Kaulua‘e.

“We invested a bunch of money from October for production, so these are just things as business people we have to figure out,” he said. “But we know that it’s better safe than sorry.”

Chris Tatum, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said his organization respects the festival’s decision to cancel.

“We we feel it’s the right thing to do to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors, especially with all the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tatum said. “HTA has been a longtime supporter of the Merrie Monarch Festival and looks forward to the return of this important cultural event in the future.”

Kumu hula Mapuana de Silva of Oahu’s Halau Halau Mohala ʻIlima, a longtime Merrie Monarch participant, echoed that she is “100% in support” of the cancellation.

“As a kumu, I am responsible for the well-being of my haumana (students), their families, and especially of their kupuna,” de Silva said. “I believe that cancelling this year’s festival is necessary for the health of our lahui (nation) and the perpetuation of our culture and its intergenerational values.”

Victor acknowledged that despite safety concerns, there is disappointment within the hula community over the cancellation.

“I think, no matter what, everybody is going to be sad about it,” he said. “I have seniors in high school in the halau. This is just before they go off to college. I’m sad for one of my women that this is her last year of being able to compete because of her age. But we’ll be able to pick up and just wait for the next Merrie Monarch.

“You know, our people are resilient. We’re like the blades of the pili grass where the water just runs right off. We’ll be able to recover.

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“Hopefully, this coronavirus is going to get contained and quickly, so all of our lives can go back to normal.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.