Merrie Monarch, Hawaii’s biggest hula festival, is honoring Lahaina wildfire victims this year


Jayda Lum Lung will dance a traditional hula in honor of Lahaina wildfire victims at Hawaii’s biggest hula competition of the year. Her hand movements will flow gracefully to symbolize the winds, rains and mountains, she said, and the dance itself will tell a story of the sacred land.

Lung, whose family was at home the morning of Aug. 8 and barely escaped the fires, is a returning participant to the Merrie Monarch Festival, a weeklong cultural event in Hilo, Hawaii, every spring. The hula competition, which runs April 4-6, features the best hālau hula, or hula schools, from across the country, and this year performers will pay special tribute to Maui with dances and songs in the Hawaiian language.

“The mele [song] for Kahiko [traditional hula] and ‘Auana [modern hula] are about Lahaina. When I dance it, when we practice every time, it just gives me a special sense of connection and it makes me so proud to be from Lahaina,” Lung said. “I hope to bring a sense of hope for Lahaina, and to remind everyone that we can do this together and we are going to come out stronger.”

Merrie Monarch Hula Festival
Hula teacher Manu Boyd chants at the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo, Hawaii, in 2007.Tim Wright / AP file

Four hālaus from Maui were invited to the festival this year: Hālau Hula Kauluokalā, Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua, Hālau Kekuaokalā‘au‘ala‘iliahi and Hālau Nā Lei Kaumaka o Uka.

Seven dancers in the Merrie Monarch lineup from Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua lost their homes in the fires.

“We have a mother and three daughters who are struggling financially to dance,” said Kamaka Kukona, Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua’s kumu hula (master hula teacher), about a family fighting to make ends meet after the fire. “But we have raised money for them to be able to go.”

“We have two sisters who are originally from Catalina Island who sacrificed everything to live in Maui, to dance hula — they lost their home. We have a young, 15-year-old girl whose family lost their home. Somehow, we are managing to pull it all together,” Kukona added.

At Hālau Hula Kauluokalā, Lung is one of two dancers whose families were displaced by the wildfires. Their boat ramp on Kahana Beach, 9 miles north of the historic Lahaina town, became a delivery hub for supplies in the following days.

“I feel like when I dance hula, when I dance in general, it clears my mind in a way,” Lung said. “I’m not seeking anything except for the hulas that I’m dancing and it’s a nice way to escape.”

Other hālaus have chosen to dedicate their performance to survivors like Lung’s family.

“We are humbled to take Lahaina to the Merrie Monarch stage this year, a kuleana [responsibility] we do not take lightly,” Napua Silva, Hālau Nā Lei Kaumaka o Uka’s kumu hula, wrote on Facebook. “It is our hope, e ko Lahaina, that when you watch us, you see you. You see the great aloha you have for your home and the great aloha we have for you.”

The Merrie Monarch Festival is also creating an opportunity for the audience to directly support recovery efforts. Organizers are providing free admission to the Wednesday-night Ho’ike performances in return for donations at the door toward Maui wildfire relief funds.

Dancers perform an ancient hula at the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festiva
Dancers perform an ancient hula at the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo, Hawaii, in 2007.Tim Wright / AP file

The stage is not the only place where Maui and Lahaina will be represented. Lahainaluna High School students, who could not return to the classroom for two months due to environmental concerns, will be able to watch the hālaus from a special spot backstage.

“To give these students that real-life experience that nobody in the general public gets to have … it’s going to increase their passion for hula,” Lahainaluna High School Kumu Hula Eva Palakiko said.

And that hula is providing a safe space for the community to heal.

“I can confidently say at least 90% of my students who are going have either lost their home or cannot currently live in their home,” Palakiko said. “This trip for them would be a trip of healing. It’s just a time for them to disconnect from the strain and pressures of their daily lives.”


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