Anticipation is palpable inside the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium and on the streets of Hilo as the Merrie Monarch Festival reaches full momentum.
On Wednesday, the festivals craft fair and Ho‘ike get underway, drawing thousands of attendees from other parts of the islands and worldwide. The stadium, which holds about 5,000 people, is expected to fill, as is the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
On Tuesday, it is much more quiet. Parking stalls are filled throughout downtown Hilo — “downtown” being an approximately eight-block area of low-slung buildings and low-key stores and eateries — but sidewalks are wide open.
At the plate-lunch tent across the street from the Chinen Auditorium, full of craft booths and craft shoppers on Wednesday, local crews on a work break are more likely to be picking up the smoke meat or squid luau plate lunch than are tourists.
From dawn onward on Tuesday, Merrie Monarch Festival director Aunty Luana Kawelu hs busy. Mid-morning onward, she checks in participating halau from a modest folding table at the stadium, as kumu hula and dancers are given the opportunity to rehearse on the stadium stage.
Luana Kawelu’s granddaughter, Kawena Kawelu, 18, was assisting at the check-in table. Beginning Wednesday, “It’s madness, because so many people are coming and going,” she said.
Kawena Kawelu has been helping with the festival “as long as I can remember,” she said. “I’ve never had an Easter — we are all working!”
That’s in the tradition of the family. Luana Kawelu said she began working alongside her mother, Aunty Dottie Thompson, more than 40 years ago. The festival marked its 50th annual return in 2013.
“It’s all kokua,” Luana Kawelu said. “Nobody gets paid, so who better to work than family?”
In town, where first-timers in Hilo can be spotted as they take photos of storefronts or search for the entrance of Sig Zane Designs on Kamehameha Street, shop owners and managers are expecting a flood of visitors. Cultural activities are already underway, with music and hula at the Hilo Hawaiian and Hilo Naniloa hotels, and performances and presentations each day at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.
Tuesday afternoon, Kainani Kahaunaele brought her Hawaiian Music in Action class from the Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian Language at University of Hawaii-Hilo to town, to perform mele (song) in Hawaiian. The Mokupapapa Discovery Center, a federal center interpretation center for the Papahanumokuakea Marine National Monument, hosted the group.
“It’s a very significant time in Hilo,” Kahaunaele said, when both hula and Hawaiian music are honored. The students’ mele paid tribute to the land and people of Kauai, Kahaunaele’s home island.
“We want our facility to be a community resource that promotes culture,” said Virginia Branco, the center’s assistant manager. Mokupapapa is housed in the historic Koehnen building, erected in 1910, at the far end of Kamehameha Avenue, a block from Merrie Monarch magnets Sig Zane Designs and Basically Books.
Branco, who has worked with Mokupapapa in Hilo for 11 years, reaching back to the time when the remote Hawaiian islands and coral reefs were a less-expansive national sanctuary, said center staffers look forward to the week of Merrie Monarch, when visitors from all quarters will come in to find out more about the natural resources of the ocean region.
“We’re proud to have a home for hula, and to have so many come here is welcome,” Branco said.
Down the street, at Basically Books, owner Christine Reed said Merrie Monarch is a “second Christmas” for her shop and others in Hilo. “We really embrace Merrie Monarch, because it fits with the specialty of our business,” she said.
They provide extra incentive for visitors during Merrie Monarch with a daily schedule of visiting photographers, musicians, artists and authors whose works are sold at the bookstore.
Wednesday, kumu hula Kunewa Mook, who’s released a debut CD of mele, “Kunewa, ‘Oia Ka Manawa,” appears at noon. Saturday, Waipuna — Kale Hannahs, Matthew Sproat and David Kamakahi, musicians with deep roots in Hawaiian music — appear at 9:30 a.m.
Reed and husband David Reed opened the bookstore in 1985, shaping it as a haven for Hawaii-oriented books and memorabilia, along with a wide selection of maps and — necessary in Hilo — umbrellas. They also operate Petroglyph Press, which publishes works by well-known printmaker, painter and Hawaiian myth re-teller Dietrich Varez, among others.
Varez, 76, will be at Basically Books to sign his newest book on Thursday, from 11 a.m. onward. “‘Iwa, the Hawaiian Legend” was literally hot off the presses Tuesday — David Reed called just after 2 p.m. to say he was on his way to the bookstore, directly from the Petroglyph print shop.
“He comes down out of the forest and just hangs out all day,” Reed said. It’s a welcome opportunity for his admirers, since Varez doesn’t come to town all that often.
Reed, who has lived on Hawaii island since 1972, remembers the days when people bought Merrie Monarch buttons out of a paper bag from “a little old man” who came around, selling them for a couple of dollars to gain admission, selling them for a dollar.
“It’s so different now,” she said. “It has such finesse. I don’t want to call it competitive, but this is the top quality hula you will find, anywhere.
“I love that it’s growing more, in an international sense. Now, we have halau from Mexico City, and there was a halau from Paris. … That’s what I love about Hawaii — you can love the culture, and have a part in this life.”