Mysterious Merrie Monarch Judging

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - April 23, 2008
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One of my yearly great joys is going to three nights of the Merrie Monarch hula competition at Edith Kanakaole Stadium in Hilo.

I’ve learned a lot, and come to realize why the president of the annual event, Luana Kawelu, tells me there’s no way it will be moved to Honolulu. Sure, more people could attend and in greater comfort and with better lighting and acoustics. But Merrie Monarch is Hilo’s baby, and there would be a revolution if you told Hilo people they have to travel to Honolulu to see their show.

As much as I love it, I do tend to find things not to like. The stadium (really just a semi-enclosed tennis court) is too small and crowded, and the food stand and scrip sellers can’t handle the crush. The sound is uneven, and the lighting really uneven. The presentation of winning kumu hula drags on too late into the night.

My main complaint is that none of us knows exactly what it is that the judges are judging. I mean, yes, there are general criteria such as language and costume and choreography. But that’s all very subjective. The judges are distinguished kumu, but they come from various lineages with their own idea of what’s “proper” kahiko or auana hula.

So they award points, and sometimes the difference between winning and losing is one point, and sometimes there’s even a mysterious method call a “tie breaker.” I’ve been going for many years, and never has an individual dancer or halau that scored tops on my card been the winner with the seven judges.


(This year they were Cy Bridges, Wayne Chang, Frank Hewett, Nalani Kanakaole, Nathan Napoka, Hokulani Holt-Padilla and Victoria Holt-Takamine. Bridges, Hewett, Kanakaole and Takamine have been regulars.)

I do wish there were some way we, the audience, could get a sense of how the points for halau are awarded or subtracted. Did some judges hate the costumes or the story-telling or the dance movements? And why not release each judge’s scoring sheet to the newspapers for next-day analysis?

I always remember the year Snowbird Bento lost Miss Aloha Hula by one point. One point! I was dying to see where she lost that one because she was the winner in my own scoring system by a whole bunch of points.

This year, Halau Kamuela beat out Sonny Ching’s group by a point. Kamuela is a consistent winner. So is Ching. I wish we could hear from the judges why that is. The halau see the score sheets but not the rest of us. I’d make them public. Better yet, KITV and/or the MM officials could “mic” a judge to explain what he/she liked and didn’t like of a just-finished performance. Those little TV commentaries by kumu and culture icon Pua Kanakaole-Kanahele just aren’t enough.

Obviously, there’s a lot of politics going on, too. All the judges are people with long friendships or enmities with the halau or their kumu. Judges have prejudices about dancing styles. You can see that when you watch Bridges vs. Hewett on stage in the closing night kumu dance. The yin and the yang of hula. And some judges, I think, serve too many years in a row.

Anyway, I felt horrible that night Snowbird Bento lost by one point and went home thinking there has to be a better way. I don’t know what it is, but I’m betting there are some good minds out there that do, and we’ll be hearing from you.

three star

Don Wilkerson, lawyer for convicted killer Kirk Lankford in that Pupukea case, embarrassed himself by saying “shame on you (the news media). Every one of you has participated in the most dishonest reporting I have ever seen in this state.”

He should have said: “I realize my client professed the most half-assed excuse I’ve ever come across, but, hey, I’m required to give him the best defense I can. I can now tell you I knew my client was a liar, but that’s the way the law operates.”

 

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