A musical discovery from the ghost of Elvis to the haunting melodies of hula kahiko

The opening notes of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra glide through the darkness, gradually building to form the timeless crescendo to which the King himself, Elvis Presley, finally emerges.

Clad in his trademark sequinned jumpsuit, complete with quiffed hair and glazed eyes, Presley swaggered onto the Honolulu International Center stage, making history on 14 January 1973 by becoming the first artist to perform live via satellite broadcast.

More than 40 years later, Elvis’ ghost lives on in the 50th state, but as I touched down on the runway at Hilo International Airport – the croons of Blue Hawaii exuding from my earphones (cheesy, I know, but at least it wasn’t Jack Johnson) – it wasn’t the music of the archipelago’s adopted son I was in search of, but rather the far more fascinating legend of hula.

Musical sleuth

I’d been sent to Hawaii to cover the state’s largest annual event, the Merrie Monarch Festival and “immerse myself” in the culture and music of the special week-long 50th anniversary.

Formed to commemorate the legacy of Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, the festivities primarily focus on the three-day internationally-renowned hula (Hawaii’s traditional dance) competition, although an array of celebrations are held alongside the main event.

Travelling from the airport in a kitschy yellow cab, the windows wound down to take in the early morning breeze and scents of a new location, the festive vibe appeared to have already taken hold as we entered Hilo. A few kilometres from the town centre, the driver dropped me at the villa I’d booked online, which was to be my base for the coming few days, and after a brief doze I was introduced to Keoni, my local guide and photographer for the duration of my stay.

Street Life

It was midday by the time we eventually ventured into the now thronging streets of Hilo. Various arts and crafts stalls lined the roadside and the smell of grilled laulau (a traditional snack consisting of fish or pork wrapped in taro leaves) filled the air as we headed for a nearby diner to fill up on loco moco and smoothies – it being a little to early in the day for piña coladas. After lunch we explored the stalls and shops selling handmade traditional instruments, including pu’ili (split bamboo sticks) and ‘uli’uli (feathered gourd rattles) and, of course, ukuleles, before taking a taxi back to the villa to prepare for the evening’s proceedings.

Wednesday night is Ho’ike night and the event welcomes not only local dancers and musicians but also those from across the Pacific who join forces in an impressive spectacle. One of the highlights of the festival, Ho’ike Night 2013 honoured the winners of the inaugural Merrie Monarch Competition, in addition to showcasing some of today’s finest hula performers. Thousands of spectators packed into the Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium as the atmosphere and excitement grew. For the next six hours we sat through a collection of colourful, mesmerising and passionate performances. Unfortunately, towards the end of the evening it struck me that I’d lost all feeling in my backside. Note to self: purchase a pillow for future performances.

Miss Aloha Hula

The following morning I awoke bleary-eyed and headed straight for the coffee machine, one of the many swanky amenities on offer in the villa’s kitchen. After a brief trip to a nearby cafe for a homely portion of chicken long rice I sauntered back to my digs and spent a couple of hours fiddling with my brand new uke, waiting for Keoni to call with the evening’s itinerary.

After a brief feed and a couple of Mai Tais, we once again made our way to the stadium, armed with our recently purchased inflatable pillows, to watch the Miss Aloha Hula performances. We arrived relatively early and, to my delight, were able to snag some great seats up front.

After a couple of entertaining hours, Keoni and I sloped off and headed to the downtown bars to indulge in a slice of Hilo’s grassroots music scene. Although, by all accounts, the town is fairly sleepy when the festival is out of town, we dropped anchor at a couple of energetic bars before catching up with a couple of Keoni’s friends and heading down to the beach with ukuleles, a slack key guitar, a couple of congas and a crate of beer in tow.

Meditative Melodies

After catching the 5:30am sunrise, I staggered across the deserted shore back towards the villa. The beach was silent except for the calm crashes of the waves and the faint sound of someone humming. I peered over my shoulder and saw a middle-aged man with dark, quiffed hair and shades sat under a tree, his face partially hidden by the shadows from the branches above. I walked a few more yards, my head swimming with memories of the past few hours, when it struck me what tune the bloke had been humming. I looked back, but the familiar stranger had gone.

The following night we returned, for a final time, to the stadium to watch the ceremonial and greatly revered hula kahiko finale. Unlike the previous evening’s acts, the hula kahiko is a far more spiritual performance undertaken by an elite group of highly-skilled dancers, adorned in traditional garments dating back more than two centuries. The solemnity and precision with which the act is performed was truly moving and, perhaps with the exception of the early morning beachfront jam, was the highlight of an unforgettable trip.


Other Hawaiian Music Festivals not to be missed

Hawaii is one of the world’s musical capitals and well worth more than one trip to absorb the rhythm and tunes. Here are five other music festivals held on the islands.

  • Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival: Held at various locations over the year, the slack key guitar festival has been running since 1982 and aims to celebrate and preserve the unique art form known locally as ki-ho’alu.
  • Infiniti Pacific Rim Jazz Festival: Launched in 2009, the Infiniti Pacific Rim Jazz Festival, held at the Hawaii Convention Center each November, has already attracted both a loyal fan base and big name performers since its inception.
  • Maui Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival: Now in its fifth year, the free three-day festival is usually held in April at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel and boasts live performances, in addition to workshops teaching the steel guitar, ukulele and traditional hula carving.
  • Puna Music Festival: The seven-day annual festival, usually held at the start of May, showcases the best of the island’s local talent, while also attracting some of Hawaii’s higher-profile artists.
  • Wanderlust Hawaii: A diverse festival which brings together renowned musicians, leading yoga instructors, inspirational speakers and some of the region’s top chefs, Wanderlust takes place in O’ahu around the end of February.
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Liam Barnes
A freelance writer from the UK, Liam specialises in country profiles and human interest journalism. A well travelled adventure seeker, he's game for anything and likes to try out new experiences to pass on to the world through his articles and features.