9 of the Best Music Festivals to Experience in Hawaii

With its breezy island rhythm and welcoming aloha spirit, Hawaii has a way of bringing people together through song and dance. Across this Pacific paradise, music festivals large and small honor the islands’ diverse cultural traditions, talented artists, and distinctive musical forms. From slack key guitar jams in lush rainforests to ukulele singalongs on sunny beaches, Hawaii’s festivals offer unforgettable ways to engage with this special place. In this guide, we’ll explore some of Hawaii’s remarkable music festivals that showcase everything from Polynesian drumming to jazz, reggae, hula, and more.

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1. Merrie Monarch Festival

For lovers of Hawaiian music and hula, the Merrie Monarch Festival on the Big Island of Hawaii is a beloved event. Taking place annually in Hilo, this weeklong celebration of Hawaiian arts and culture has occurred since 1964 and offers a unique showcase of talent. The highlight is the prestigious hula competition held over three nights where halau (hula schools) take the stage to perform ceremonial and folk dances honoring Hawaii’s heritage.

This is one of the Hawaiian cultural festivals featuring male and female dancers dressed in elaborate handmade costumes consisting of plant materials like ferns, leaves, and flowers. They use their hands, feet, and exaggerated facial gestures to convey powerful stories passed down through generations. The hypnotic choreography moves smoothly from kneeling positions to rhythmic pulsating motions. The dancers are accompanied by heartfelt chants, drumming, and traditional instruments like the ipu heke gourd and ‘uli‘uli feathered gourd rattles.

The revered kahiko or ancient style performances tell stories of Hawaiian gods, royalty, and natural wonders through undulating motions representing elements like waves or birds in flight. The more lively ‘auana or modern style features faster rhythms influenced by Western music and tells tales of more contemporary Hawai’i. Judges evaluate each hālau hula on criteria like interpretation, costumes, and flawless dancing in one of the most prestigious hula competitions in the world.

Throughout the week, attendees can also enjoy Hawaiian music concerts, an extensive arts and Hawaiian crafts fair, demonstrations of practices like canoe carving, and a vibrant grand parade through Hilo town. For both locals and visitors, the Merrie Monarch Festival offers an immersive experience showcasing the rich artistic history of the Hawaiian Islands.

For more information: https://www.merriemonarch.com/

2. Prince Lot Hula Festival

Another one of the most popular Hawaii music festivals is devoted to hula is the Prince Lot Hula Festival held each July on Oahu. Set against the breathtaking natural backdrop of Moanalua Gardens, this festival came about in 1978 to honor Prince Lot Kapuāiwa who revived public hula performances back in the 19th century. Hula schools from across Hawai’i gather to present both kahiko and ‘auana routines in front of large outdoor audiences in this free two-day event.

Besides flawless dancing, the performers use their expressive hand motions, swaying arms, and shifting shoulders to convey deep stories and sentimental meaning. The hypnotic drums, rattles, and chants complement colorful costumes hand-sewn with botanical accents. Watching these performances allows attendees to witness the evolution of hula from its origins in ancient rituals to the graceful modern form that continues to captivate audiences worldwide.  This is a great festival to attend that has a relaxed island atmosphere. 

For more information: https://moanaluagardensfoundation.org/prince-lot/

3. Hawaii International Music Festival 

For those music lovers seeking large, internationally-acclaimed musical acts, the Hawaii International Music Festival held on Oahu provides a one-of-a-kind tropical backdrop. Launched in 2006, this two-week summer festival features Grammy-winning headliners performing everything from classical and jazz to pop genres. Concerts take place in the evenings with renowned artists like violinist Joshua Bell and Grammy award singer-songwriter k.d. lang thrilling audiences backed by the professional Hawaii International Music Festival Orchestra.

Throughout the days, talented local Hawaiian musicians can be heard playing at beachside venues across Waikiki for free. Slack key guitarists, ukulele duos, and youth hula troupes allow visitors to experience more grassroots music alongside the world-famous concert performances. For a mix of top talent with Hawai’i’s own artists, this festival creates an unforgettable musical experience against palm trees and island breezes.

4. Hawaii Songwriting Festival

Celebrating Hawai’i’s songwriters and musicians, the Hawaii Songwriting Festival is held each May along the Kona Coast on the Big Island. Grammy-winning artists lead interactive workshops and talk story sessions, providing insight into songcraft and sharing how Hawaiian culture influences their music. Up-and-coming local artists have the opportunity to perform original songs and receive feedback from music industry professionals at this small Hawaii music festival.

Evening concerts under the stars at the amphitheater feature songwriters of all levels plus Hawaiian musicians along with international headliners. The festival not only showcases great live music performed by creators connected to the islands but helps talented Hawaiian songwriters better navigate the business and grow their careers.  The festival participants are limited to around 200 to keep it an intimate experience.

For more information: http://www.hawaiisongwritingfestival.com/

5. Ukulele Festival

The Ukulele Festival Hawaii is one of the best music festivals held in July on the Island of Oahu. Located not far from the famous Waikiki beach at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand with the Diamond Head volcano as a backdrop, this 3-day festival first began in 1971 as a small gathering meant to preserve Hawaiian ukulele music. Since then, it has grown into one of the largest ukulele celebrations in the world, attracting thousands of devoted musicians and fans.

Throughout the day, attendees can watch live concerts from award-winning local acts as well as talented international performers. There are also interactive workshops led by ukulele masters like Roy Sakuma that allow players of all skill levels to hone their craft. The outdoor marketplace is bustling with dozens of vendors selling handmade and vintage ukuleles from all over the globe.

The evening concerts under the stars feature ukulele music across many genres from traditional Hawaiian to jazz, rock, and orchestral arrangements. Amateur ukulele players can show off their talents in lively competitions and even try building their own instruments. The grand finale is a mass ukulele jam with hundreds of players led by the pros in a magical, Hawaiian-style singalong.

For over 50 years, the Ukulele Festival Hawaii has honored Hawaii’s beloved instrument by bringing master musicians and passionate players together to celebrate ukulele music and culture. It’s an unforgettable experience and a well-known annual event for performers and attendees alike held in an idyllic outdoor Hawaiian setting.

Address: 3555 Harding Ave Ste 1 Honolulu, HI 96816

For more information: ukulelefestivalhawaii.org

Need an Oahu Hawaii travel guide? Here’s a detailed guide and 7-day itineraries!

6. Honolulu Festival

Another one of Hawaii’s music festivals is the Honolulu Festival in March which transforms city streets into a musical extravaganza. Taking place over three days, this cultural celebration includes dance performances, musical shows, hands-on arts and crafts, and a grand parade. Groups from Hawaii, Japan, and across the Pacific Rim perform live on outdoor stages and floats, showcasing everything from world-class musicians to Ennichi folk dances to Taiko drumming and Polynesian rhythms.

Street food vendors offer culinary specialties from poke bowls to spam musubi while fireworks light up the night sky. From Shinto dances to Bollywood moves, the Honolulu Festival provides a glimpse into the diverse music and dance that makes Hawaii a cultural melting pot. The event culminates in a friendship gala meant to inspire global harmony through shared artistic celebrations.  The Festivals ends with a parade on Kalakāuā Ave on Sun afternoon, followed by a fireworks show on Waikīkī Beach in the evening.

For more information: honolulufestival.com

7. Ka Molokai Makahiki Festival

Smaller Hawaii music festivals around the islands also highlight Hawaii’s proud musical traditions. On rural Molokai, a two-day festival called the Ka Molokai Makahiki Festival is an annual cultural event held on the Hawaiian island of Molokai to honor and preserve ancient traditions. Taking place over one week every January or February at Makahiki Grounds near Kaunakakai, this festival celebrates the Makahiki season which marked the traditional Hawaiian New Year. Dating back centuries, Makahiki was a time of peace, celebration, and renewal of life.

The modern Ka Molokai Makahiki festival aims to pass down historic Hawaiian sports, crafts, dancing, music and practices. Attendees can watch and participate in ancient games like maika stone bowling, ulu maika discus throwing, Hawaiian martial arts, and outrigger canoe races. Skilled practitioners demonstrate Hawaiian arts like kapa cloth beating, lei making, net fishing, and cooking in an underground imu oven. Local musicians play traditional instruments while colorfully costumed hula halau dance with puili bamboo sticks.

hawaii music festivals photos shows performers blowing conch shells

An essential part of the festival is the ‘aha‘aina, a bountiful Hawaiian feast where the community gathers to share food, dance, song and fun. The week-long event promotes cultural pride and knowledge, acting as a living museum to celebrate the history and spirits of Molokai. For both residents and visitors, the Ka Molokai Makahiki Festival provides an immersive opportunity to experience Hawaii’s rich past come alive through hands-on outdoor activities, crafts, food, and rituals.

8. Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival

For over two decades, the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival has celebrated the islands’ unique fingerstyle tradition annually in June. While this Hawaii music festival originated at the Big Island’s Kaiwa Ridge Farm, it has expanded to Oahu’s bustling Waikiki Shell venue which is a great opportunity to bring the slack key to larger audiences. Against a backdrop of gentle waves and swaying palms, slack key masters like Ledward Kaapana and Jeff Peterson showcase their distinctive open tunings and intricate picking techniques under the stars. 

hawaii music festivals slack festival logo showing guitar and hibiscus flower

The concert captures the nostalgic, soothing genre of slack key guitar while introducing visitors to the paniolo cowboy origins of this acoustic guitar style. Through both performances and workshops, young players gain knowledge to carry slack key into the future. By bringing slack key guitar festivals to Oahu as well as the next generation, the Waikiki edition of the festival shares Hawaii’s special musical heritage with locals and tourists alike in an idyllic outdoor setting.

For more info: https://www.facebook.com/Slackkeyfestivals/

9. Nā Hōkū Hanohano Music Festival

Honoring the best in Hawaiian music, the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Music Festival takes place each May on the lush Garden Isle of Kauai. Established in 1978, this prestigious awards show recognizes acclaimed musicians carrying on the islands’ unique musical traditions. The festival spans multiple days, allowing attendees to immerse themselves in the songs and rhythms of Hawaiʻi. Under the swaying palms at the beachfront Kauai Beach Resort, the days are filled with educational workshops, morning songwriting sessions, and intimate afternoon performances. As the sun sets over the Pacific, the evening concerts under the stars feature beloved vocalists, chanters, and multi-generational halau dancing with passion. 

The festival culminates in a formal awards ceremony where the coveted koa wood Hōkū trophies are bestowed upon musical artists excelling in Hawaiian-style, contemporary, and traditional genres – a memorable experience for participants and visitors. 

For more information: https://www.facebook.com/nahokuhanohano/

10. The Hana Hou Festival 

The Hana Hou Festival with Jake Shimabukuro & Friends is an intimate concert held annually in December at the Hawaii Theatre in Honolulu. Headlined by ukulele virtuoso and independent artist Jake Shimabukuro, a Hawaii native who has brought the ukulele to the global stage, this event showcases Jake collaborating with talented musicians from Hawaii and beyond. 

The festival began in 2021 as a celebration of live music returning after the isolation of the pandemic. Fans are treated to inventive arrangements and good-natured musical conversations as Jake welcomes special guests to share both new original music and holiday favorites. Backed by bass, guitar, and percussion, the performances highlight the diversity of the ukulele beyond its Hawaiian roots. An inspirational main event for Jake Shimabukuro, the Hana Hou Festival allows this world-famous artist to reconnect with his local community each holiday season through the universal language of music.

Whether you seek intimate cultural celebrations or major concerts from world-famous artists, Hawaii’s music festivals offer memorable experiences for everyone. As the sun sets over volcanic peaks, lush jungles, and sandy shores, join in honoring this special place through its diverse musical expressions. Sway to falsetto harmonies, watch powerful hula dancing, and immerse yourself in the aloha spirit at these spirited annual gatherings across the Islands.

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