Anticipation is palpable inside Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium and on the streets of Hilo as the Merrie Monarch Festival reaches full momentum.
On Wednesday the festival’s 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.
Tuesday was more quiet. At the plate-lunch tent across the street from the auditorium, local crews on a work break were more likely than tourists the ones picking up smoked meat or squid luau.
Merrie Monarch Festival director Auntie Luana Kawelu was busy from dawn onward, and by midmorning was checking in participating halau from a modest folding table at the stadium, where kumu hula and dancers were given the opportunity to rehearse onstage.
Kawelu’s granddaughter, Kawena Kawelu, 18, was assisting at the check-in table. "It’s madness because so many people are coming and going," she said.
Kawena Kawelu said she has been helping with the festival "as long as I can remember. 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, Auntie Dottie Thompson, more than 40 years ago. The festival marked its 50th year 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 could be spotted as they took photos of storefronts or searched for the entrance of Sig Zane Designs on Kamehameha Street, shop owners and managers were expecting a flood of visitors. Cultural activities were 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.
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 on Tuesday afternoon. The Mokupapapa Discovery Center, affiliated with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, hosted the group.
"It’s a very significant time in Hilo," when both hula and Hawaiian music are honored, Kahaunaele said.
"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, said center staffers look forward to Merrie Monarch week, when visitors from all quarters 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.
Reed and her husband, David, 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, "‘Iwa, the Hawaiian Legend," on Thursday.
"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 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.
"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."