Article: The Legacy of the "Merrie Monarch"


Hui Lei Mamo

Hawaiʻi’s last King, Kalākaua, has been referred to as a Renaissance man. Concerned about the loss of native Hawaiian culture and traditions, Kalākaua encouraged the transcription of Hawaiian oral traditions, and supported the revival of and public performances of the hula.

He advocated a renewed sense of pride in such things as Hawaiian mythology, medicine, chant and hula. Ancient Hawaiians had no written language, but chant and hula served to record such things as genealogy, mythology, history and religion.

While seeking to revive many elements of Hawaiian culture that were slipping away, the King also promoted the advancement of modern sciences, art and literature.

He is remembered as the “Merrie Monarch” because he was a patron of culture and arts, and enjoyed socializing and entertaining.

All of Kalakaua’s dancers were kept on retainer and were given a place to live on the palace grounds. These dancers, musicians, and chanters were all compensated for performing. Dancing the hula for entertainment was their source of income. (Tong)

Kalākaua believed his nation and people would prosper with cultural rebirth and brought hula teachers from the countryside and neighboring islands to his court. At his 1883 coronation and 1886 50th birthday jubilee, Kalākaua’s dancers performed publicly on palace grounds for about two weeks on each occasion. (Imada)

“Kalākaua always had dancers in his court dancing for his pleasure…. There were parties for his guests from the mainland on their way to Australia with dancers as well. They weren’t only for his friends, but for everyone in Honolulu.” (Kupahu; Tong)

Through chanted poetry and bodily movements, these hula performers celebrated the births and achievements of ali‘i, recorded the genealogies of high chiefs, and relayed Hawaiian epics. Hula was also embedded in a culture of sexual arousal.

In 1886, the same year of his jubilee, Kalākaua assembled Hui Lei Mamo, a group of eight Hawaiian women and girls under the age of 20. Hui Lei Mamo was a ‘glee club’; it performed acculturated hula performance as well as choral music. (Imada)

As a member of the royal family and the reigning monarch of Hawai‘i, King Kalākaua had the rightful authority to dictate when the hula would be performed. (Tong)

While Kalākaua’s older court dancers performed pre-contact forms of hula with indigenous instrumentation and chanting, the young women of Hui Lei Mamo performed only the hula ku‘i, ‘the modern hula’.

An acculturated dance that developed in the king’s cosmopolitan court, hula ku‘i merged Western music and instruments with traditional hula steps. It is suggested that Kalākaua himself was the inventor of this hybrid genre …

“[The king] took some steps out of the old-fashioned [hula] and put them into the modern [hula] with guitar. He was the first one to start this.” (Kapahu; Imada)

Performed in Hawaiian language and accompanied by guitar and ’ukulele, this hula utilized polka or waltz tempos, couplet verses and a vamp that separated the verses.

Every Thursday afternoon from 2 to 5 pm, Kalākaua invited friends and out-of-town guests to Healani, his boathouse in Honolulu Harbor, where his younger court dancers performed hula ku‘i. (Imada)

When Kalākaua died in 1891, the dancers no longer had a place in court. Nevertheless, they continued to benefit directly from Kalākaua’s cultural renaissance through training in hula ‘schools’.

Called hālau hula or pā hula, these schools became gendered institutions through which a critical subset of Hawaiian women received rigorous training in performance, history, religion and protocol.

Namake‘elua (who is sometimes recorded as Nama-elua), a hula teacher Kalākaua summoned for his jubilee, had decided to remain in Honolulu instead of returning to his home on the island of Kaua‘i.

The handful of students undertook training in hula genres associated with Indigenous pre-European contact traditions, very different from the hula ku‘i of the court. (Imada)

Four women entered the hālau hula. Three of them were Hui Lei Mamo dancers. Their intensive training commenced in 1892, with the young women taking residence in the teacher’s home.

For about six weeks, the dancers were kapu (sacred or consecrated). They dedicated themselves to the goddess Laka, the patron of hula, and erected a hula kuahu (altar), imploring Laka to give them knowledge.

They danced for about six hours a day, taking swims in the ocean and meals in between practices. The repertoire was ‘very religious’. Hula practice was a part of a sacred realm and governed by strict rules, because hula performances manifested the gods’ and ali‘i’s mana (sacred power) and rank.

On the day of the ‘ūniki (ritual graduation), graduates of other hula schools came to watch the four women dance. Only after undergoing ‘ūniki were they released from sacredness and became noa (free). The following day, they celebrated their release with a feast and public performance for friends and family.

In 1893, some of these dancers went to the Chicago World’s Fair as part of the Midway Plaisance, a street of themed villages from around the world. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.

The Midway Plaisance was inspired by the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, where the French government and prominent anthropologists turned representations of the French colonies into ethnological villages featuring people from Africa and Asia. (Tong)

The performers who went abroad directly benefited from King David Kalākaua’s national revival of hula and traditional cultural arts during his reign from 1872 to 1891.

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