Mele / Music
Louis Robert Kauakahi
The sound rolled through the still night air and into the house where Louis slept. Stirred from a dream, he gradually surfaced and identiﬁed the boom and roar: Enormous swells at nearby Mākaha Beach were pounding the reef. As he listened, he heard another sound whispering through the din. He concentrated, trying to identify the ghostly voice. It was the echo of the pounding waves reverberating off the cliffs above his house. Louis could not understand why, at three o’clock in the morning, the ocean seemed to be calling to him, but he grabbed a pencil and began to write down its words. Later, he translated the words into Hawaiian and composed a melody to convey the haunting quality of his early morning encounter, and the ballad “Kāhea o Keale” was born.
When Louis joins his voice to others and adds instrumentation, he breathes life into “Kāhea” and recreates a power that can change a listener’s mood and transport an audience beyond the walls of a smoky club, perhaps to the cliffs near Mākaha, where the ocean sings to them. A song writer, like any artist, can only hope the words and music will continue to come, so the transformation will take place again and again. But a musician’s life, especially in Hawai‘i, has challenges that go far beyond realizing artistic dreams. The high cost of island living can make one or two, even three jobs a necessity, with little time left over to keep a musician’s own life in tune, much less the life of a musical group and the songs it sings.
At the time he wrote “Kāhea,” Louis Robert Kauakahi had his life under control. He could support himself, his immediate family, and his guitars. The musical group? Well, Louis played with a quartet called the Mākaha Sons of Ni‘ihau, which would become one of the most successful and inﬂuential of all Hawaiian music groups. But their eighteen-year journey to award-winning albums and sellout concerts would not come easily. Along the way, the members would struggle with poverty, illness, drug abuse, embezzlement, and death. Changes in popular taste would challenge them as interest in Hawaiian songs faded and the “Jawaiian” craze took hold. Eventually, after the group became widely known for its sweet musical harmonies, even Louis would no longer be able to hold the quartet together.
Among Hawaiian entertainers, Louis has a reputation as a shy, private person. He lets others in the group enjoy the spotlight, preferring to concentrate on musical arrangements, Hawaiian pronunciation, and ﬁlling in harmony when the Sons perform. In conversation, Louis, who is forty years old, guards his past and present with the same discipline he uses to manage all the demands of his life--classes, concerts, family, league volleyball, and a full-time job with the National Guard. He squeezes in interviews over the phone, between rehearsals at the union hall, on the grass after a weekend drill or class, or during breaks at the recording studio--never at home or at work. And on most subjects, his replies are as lean as his build and military haircut, and they become cryptic when the issues get too personal.
Louis’s story as a Hawaiian musician begins in the 1970s, when he was a student at Nānākuli High School on the leeward coast of O‘ahu. Nānākuli is an hour’s commute from downtown Honolulu, and the isolation before the highway was built, along with the hot, dry weather, discouraged developers and realtors from undertaking the transformation that was going on in other areas on O‘ahu. The predominately Hawaiian residents enjoyed serenity, the ocean, open farmlands, low-cost housing, wide-open beaches, and a strong sense of community among neighbors. In their backyards, beneath mango and plumeria trees, families such as the Kauakahis gathered on weekends to play Hawaiian music and eat poi and ﬁsh freshly caught from the sea.
Louis’s father, Robert, was a professional musician on Kaua‘i until he moved to Honolulu in 1940. He started a family and worked as a stevedore at the Navy ammunition depot and for Standard Oil. He could ﬁx cars and trucks, make his own nets, and ﬁsh the reef for dinner. But when he played music, when he spoke Hawaiian with older family members, the outside world disappeared.
His son Louis watched him, thinking, “Someday, when I get old, I’m going to play music and talk Hawaiian too.” Louis was the oldest surviving son of thirteen children, of whom only seven lived to see adulthood. Louis’s father, who did not ﬁnish high school, emphasized the importance of education, and his urgency fell upon Louis. “It was through me my father would exert his authority.”
Louis developed into a scrawny teenager trying to plan and control his own future while coping with the stress of having to be the responsible one among siblings who did not care about school. “Nobody else in my family was thinking the way I was thinking. At the time it frustrated me. I felt I had to go to school because nobody else took an interest in it.”
It was not easy being the only member of his family who graduated from high school. In retrospect, Louis smiles quietly, perhaps in gratitude for a process that forged the discipline and convictions he could call on later to help him overcome great obstacles.
During high school, Louis coped with pressure by keeping busy. He left home and moved in with an aunty so he could concentrate on studies and his involvement in student government, the Interact Club, the school band (where he learned how to read music and play the French horn and trumpet), two part-time jobs, and Hawai‘i Upward Bound--a series of summer classes for gifted, underprivileged students.
During the 1972 Upward Bound program, Louis heard two students playing guitar and ‘ukulele. “I liked what I was hearing, not knowing it was a Hawaiian song. I stood there and I listened and I listened, and I thought it was a rock thing that I felt that I could learn.”
The song was “Kāwika.” A young Hawai‘i trio, a new group called Sunday Mānoa, had used rock-and-roll guitar licks to transform a traditional Hawaiian chant honoring King Kalākaua into a contemporary tune. Islanders loved the ﬁrst Sunday Mānoa album, Guava Jam. It was a landmark album at the peak of the Hawaiian Renaissance, which began in the late sixties as a result of young Hawaiians watching the civil rights struggles on the U.S. mainland and witnessing the empowerment that came from the African American community’s new-found pride. They began to search for their own identity and discovered they could play native music and attract hundreds, sometimes thousands, of paying people, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike. They resurrected the Hawaiian language, traditional hula, Hawaiian seafaring arts, healing arts, and the conceptual underpinnings of the Hawaiian mind. They began teaching the history of Hawaiian disenfranchisement, Hawaiian displacement. Cultural survival became the imperative in a state that was becoming increasingly--some would say devastatingly--American.
“Kāwika” snared Louis. By himself, he learned two songs off the Guava Jam album, and he formed a high school combo that memorized and played the rest. His friends called him “Moon” because he tried so hard to imitate Peter Moon, Sunday Mānoa’s leader. The nickname stuck--permanently.
While most graduating seniors as smart as Moon went on to college, Nānākuli students rarely considered it seriously. They were eager, Moon said, but lacked money and direction. “I guess it was the right time when the National Guard recruiter came over.”
Before graduation, in 1973, Moon took the military entrance exam and scored high enough for officer’s training, but he joined the National Guard as an enlisted man. “If I didn’t know how to work as an Indian, I had no business being a chief. So I decided to start off at the bottom and slowly work my way up.”
Moon and his friend and classmate Jerome Koko, known as Jerry, packed their ‘ukulele with them when they headed off to basic training in Louisiana and then to advanced training in Oklahoma. The trip, Moon’s ﬁrst time away from Hawai‘i, gave him a new perspective on his home and his culture. “I needed a period away from the islands to actually appreciate the islands.”
When the two friends returned to Nānākuli in 1974, they began studying Hawaiian culture at a community college near Wai‘anae. Their interest in contemporary native music ignited after Jerry happened to meet someone at the beach who was jamming on an ‘ukulele. It was Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole.
Like many Hawaiians, Israel had grown up hearing music at home and at church, but his family could not afford voice coaches or piano teachers, so he and his brother Henry, nicknamed “Skippy,” learned to sing and play by ear. At Wai‘anae High, Israel and his friends regularly cut class and set up in the bathroom to practice. “We had pianos, upright bass, harmonicas, harps, everything. Sneak ’em out of the band room and push ’em into the bathroom, brah,” Israel once told a reporter. “It was unreal. Fourth period. Bass and all. Four-part harmony. Everybody stay in class and trip out. Then [during recess] they come inside the bathroom, chicks and all. We used to pound.”
Israel invited Jerry Koko to stop by his house and play music. A few nights later Jerry, Moon, and their friend Sam Gray heard music coming from the Kamakawiwo‘ole home. They played through the night with the brothers. “We all got together, about six or seven of us . . . and we just started playing music,” Moon said. “It was like, we play a song, they follow. They play a song, then we follow. . . . Right about then, we felt we had something. And if we just maybe rehearsed more, practiced a little bit, we probably could get something together. . . . Of course, our inspiration came when Gabby heard us play.”
During Louis’s teens, Gabby Pahinui was a hero, a humble, slack-key guitar player who inspired many young Hawaiians. Gabby had the talent to become a star, but he was not going to change to match some promoter’s deﬁnition of success. Even after he became popular, he kept his job working for the county road crew. He became the father of thirteen children, enjoyed his beer and his model trains, and to paraphrase the late Hawaiian journalist Pierre Bowman, over the years his music remained in tune with the cliffs rising behind Gabby’s trim Waimānalo home, with the wind blowing briskly from the nearby sea, with a world that can sing even as it mourns.
“Pops” Pahinui was already there, passed out on a table, when Moon and his music buddies arrived for their gig at a graduation party. When the boys started singing, Gabby woke up. “Skippy! Skippy! Sing Pops a song. Skippy, please sing Pops a song,” he pleaded. Amazed that Gabby Pahinui knew Skippy’s name, they pulled themselves together and dedicated their next song to him. Then Gabby got up and sang with them.
“That was neat,” remembered Moon. “That was a really, really good experience. And everything from there just grew. That’s when we started taking everything a little bit more seriously. Not real serious where we got down to formal rehearsals, but a little bit more than just a backyard jam.”
They named their group the Mākaha Sons of Ni‘ihau, because Israel and Skippy’s mother was from Ni‘ihau, a small, privately owned island off Kaua‘i where two hundred Hawaiians still live and speak the native language. The Sons started getting club dates. Producer Bill Murata heard them at Yoko’s in 1976 and asked if he could record them. The session took two days. Before their second album came out, the following year, Jerry Koko dropped out of the group to take care of his ailing younger brother. After the third album, the Sons became a quartet, with Skippy Kamakawiwo‘ole on twelve-string guitar, his brother Israel, the lead vocalist, on ‘ukulele, their new brother-in-law on rhythm guitar (Moon had married one of their two sisters, Lydia Kamakawiwo‘ole), and a cousin, Melvin Amina, on bass.
In those days of weaning away from “Tiny Bubbles,” island people hungered for the new Hawaiian sound, and critics called the Sons’ music “unspoiled,” “pure and simple,” and “down home.” These qualities captivated Hawaiian elders, and at the same time, the new songs drew young people who were grateful for a group willing to sing songs describing the desecration of their native lands. In one set, the Sons might combine a traditional Hawaiian hymn from their childhood, “E Iesū E Ku‘u Kahu,” with “Pakalōlō,” Israel’s tune about the pleasures of smoking marijuana, or “Pule a Ka Haku” (The Lord’s Prayer) with “Lai Toodle,” where the lyrics express contempt for a Caucasian plantation boss riding a big white horse (“Here comes that son of a bitchin’ haole”).
By 1979 the group was performing so often that Moon decided to leave the National Guard. Regular dates at clubs such as Hank’s Place in Kaimukī had given the group some ﬁnancial stability, and the freedom to grow. The audience grew, too, though they were not always attentive. Late arrivals at Hank’s Place wedged into a small, smoke-ﬁlled room, and the noisy crowd often jabbered right through the singing. The audience’s idea that the Sons were there to provide background music challenged Moon to arrange harmonies and instrumentation that would woo them to listen, perhaps even move them to hula.
Admirers recognized that these musicians, like their mentor, Gabby Pahinui, were being true to the basic honesty and sensitivity in Hawaiian music. “If we were to want money more than our music, our group would never make it,” Skippy told the Honolulu Advertiser in 1981. “But you see, we love our music, and we now have a way that one day Mākaha Sons going to show what we got. But it’s not to prove anything to anybody. It’s to prove something to ourselves--that there is a different way, a different route to success besides a dog-eat-dog style.”
Moon’s arrangements, the depth of Skippy’s convictions, the compelling warmth of Israel’s lead vocals, and the group’s unique harmonies, made complete by Melvin Amina, attracted more and more fans. On a good night at Hank’s Place, the Sons would sing “Kāhea o Keale” and everyone would get chicken skin--that rare pleasure when a song transforms your soul; the babbling crowd was stilled at last. But on other nights, nothing special clicked. Sometimes the group showed up late, or minus a member or two, or not at all.
“Back in the early eighties,” Moon said, “the attitude of the group was more lean back, kick back, just take what comes, not really serious. After the public started noticing us, and once the group was recognized as a musical attribute to Hawai‘i, then I felt we had to do something. Now we are in the public eye, and the public knows of the Mākaha Sons. Everything that we do, both good and bad, will reﬂect on the group. . . . We just needed to polish our act.”
Polishing their act was not easy. Major health problems and ﬁnancial difficulties hounded the group. Schedules were difficult to make and easy to break. Their manager embezzled a year’s worth of earnings and their family savings, $75,000 altogether. The Sons never recovered the money. “Eventually he will get his due,” Moon said. Newspapers and television stations eagerly reported a traffic incident involving Israel; he punched a man in Waikīkī, who happened to be a pastor, and broke his jaw. Both Kamakawiwo‘ole brothers suffered from what is technically termed “morbid obesity,” and were frequently in the hospital, struggling with their weight and complications from it.
Even when the Sons had some money, the high cost of living on O‘ahu required still more. “Truthfully, our music just wasn’t enough to pay for all the necessities,” Moon said about those years. “I told myself, ‘I cannot live like this. I know I can do something better,’ because I had the ability to do whatever I wanted.”
Eighteen months after leaving the National Guard, Moon reenlisted. He began working weekdays (sometimes with weekend drills) and played music Wednesday through Saturday nights. On those nights, he slept at work to avoid the ninety-minute commute home. “I couldn’t quit the group, even at times I felt I should. When I ﬁrst had that interest in Hawaiian music, I told myself that maybe one day I would become a professional musician. And now that I was a professional musician, I committed myself to all the bad, as well as the good. I guess you can say I was married to Hawaiian music. . . .
“It was frustrating as heck at that time. Just when I thought the group was really going somewhere, then something else would come up. Somebody would get sick. Or someone else would get sick. Or somebody else wouldn’t show up for performances. Or somebody would be mad at somebody.”
In 1982, ill and frustrated with Moon’s attempts to manage the unmanageable, Skippy Kamakawiwo‘ole decided to leave the Sons. He and Melvin Amina wanted to start another group. Two weeks later, Skippy died from a heart attack. A decade afterward, the memories were still painful for Moon. His throat tightened and he stopped speaking, searching for words to convey a sense of what he and the group went through without revealing too much. “The change was drastic in other ways than music. There were a lot of things that happened when Skippy died. The group came to a halt, a screeching halt.”
The Sons were down to two performers: Israel and Moon. Looming ahead of them was a six-week engagement--a gig arranged before Skippy died--at the Ranch House, a popular family restaurant featuring Hawaiian music.
“I called Jerry Koko,” Moon remembered. “Before, whenever the group had nights off, I would just call Jerry, and if he didn’t have anything to do, I’d just jump over to his house and then he’d call his brother John, and then John would bring over his bass, and the music that we played was different from what we as the Mäkaha Sons then were playing.”
The Koko brothers had full-time day jobs, but they agreed to help out with the Ranch House commitment. Thirty-odd performances later, the Kokos were part of a group that felt comfortable together, but the sound still wasn’t quite right. They took eleven months off to learn new songs and rearrange old ones. Moon emerged as the leader; Israel was still the lead vocalist and comic; and with the Kokos, Jerry on twelve-string lead guitar and John on upright bass, they maintained the harmonies that had always been the group’s forte. “The Ranch House was calling for us all through the year. I said, ‘We are not ready.’ Finally we went back. . . . They couldn’t believe that it was the same group. . . . The sound was closer together. The harmonies were tight; very simple instrumentation, capitalizing of course on the vocals. We just went from there,” Moon said.
By the mid-1980s, the public was no longer ﬂocking to hear Hawaiian music. Hank’s Place had become the Āina Haina Garden Shop. The Territorial Tavern was turned into a furniture store, then a law office. The Hawaiian lounge at the Ala Moana Hotel became a karaoke bar, and the Ranch House was bought by a businessman from Japan whose twenty-three-year-old son gutted the restaurant, redecorated it with trendy postmodern doodads, raised the prices, and called it Rockchild’s. He bankrupted the place, and his father tore it down. Other taverns, other venues disappeared as well, made extinct by discos, home video, and a campaign against drunk driving.
Hawaiian musical groups had to adapt to survive. For some, like the Mākaha Sons, it was enough to travel more--to the neighbor islands or to the continental United States, where approximately 72,000 Hawaiians, scattered up and down the West Coast, thirsted for the real thing.
Other groups added drums and reggae rhythms from Jamaica to broaden their appeal, just as previous generations of Hawaiian musicians had appropriated country-western, opera, jazz, and rock styles.
Islanders had been dancing to a reggae beat ever since Bob Marley’s international triumph in the 1970s, but in 1990, seemingly overnight, a new hybrid Hawaiian-Jamaican sound called Jawaiian became the most popular style of music in Hawai‘i. One Jawaiian recording sold sixty thousand copies--in a state where ten thousand sales meant a major local hit. Disaffected teenagers, tired of Top Forty music but not urban enough for rap’s attitude, craved a new sound and identity.
Jawaiian’s success boosted sales and bookings for other Hawai‘i musicians, but the reggae-inﬂuenced groups drew the headlines and the huge crowds. This trend disturbed native musicians--those who sang in the Hawaiian language--as well as many serious observers of Hawaiian culture. They believed native performers should have been encouraging young people to experience life in a Hawaiian rather than Jamaican way. Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, a well-known kumu hula, musician, and teacher, told Honolulu Weekly, “I have no trouble with reggae. In fact, I like reggae music. It represents a people’s emotions, a people’s culture. But it is the kuleana [province] of the Jamaican people. . . . The problem is when Hawaiians get lost in someone else’s culture. Time and time again we’ve gotten lost in assimilation, and it’s so sad because we have our own rich traditions that take us back to Sky Father and Earth Mother. . . . Our language is our mana [power]. The word is so very important to Hawaiians. Our music is based on our language, not the rhythm and percussion of reggae music.”
People associated the Mākaha Sons of Ni‘ihau with acoustic, harmonious music in the native language, but the group had always mixed other styles and languages into their repertoire, from the ballads their parents had enjoyed in the 1940s and 1950s to reggae and Tahitian-style songs. The Sons decided to reinforce their traditional identity--they would continue to focus primarily on songs in the Hawaiian language. In 1991, as they completed their tenth album, Ho‘oluana, Moon insisted on excluding anything Jawaiian and was uncomfortable when the group decided to end the album with two English-language tunes.
“I just want to try to keep an identity,” Moon said. “I felt that once we got into Jawaiian, it would be even harder for us to backtrack and stay basically Hawaiian. The public knows the Mākaha Sons as being traditional Hawaiian, at times contemporary Hawaiian. . . . But whatever we do now, with whatever song, it will sound Hawaiian, and I will try to keep it that way. Even if it’s a real contemporary song, once we get ahold of it, it will sound like it is Hawaiian.”
Moon could not deﬁne the “Hawaiian sound” beyond the usual earmarks--Hawaiian language, guitars, upright bass, and ‘ukulele. “I cannot explain what it is, but it’s something that turns this light bulb in here on. To me, it is basically sticking with the roots, trying to keep that as a basic foundation of what this group started off with.”
Moon recognized the irony of the Sons being considered a traditional Hawaiian music group and having only one member who was proﬁcient in speaking and understanding the language--himself. During the recording of Ho‘oluana, he had to coach the other singers on pronunciation, mindful of listeners who would scold Moon for any mispronunciation.
In the group’s earliest days, some Hawaiians drew the Sons aside and told them they should not sing Hawaiian songs until they could speak the language. “You folks have no business singing Hawaiian music,” they said.
Moon decided to enroll his daughter in a private preschool where teachers speak only Hawaiian and the children become ﬂuent through the language-immersion technique. He studied the language himself and gradually became comfortable speaking Hawaiian in public. Moon was motivated by an altercation with a man who insisted the group give up Hawaiian-language songs until they could all understand the language. Moon told him, “We feel singing the music will eventually bring us to the language.”
“No,” the man said, “that’s all wrong.”
Moon is as picky about pronunciation as he is about the songs that he selects for the group to sing. In 1986, Moon decided the Sons should record “Ho‘ōla Lāhui Hawai‘i,” a tune that would become a popular anthem about perpetuating the native race and culture. But as originally written in English, the words to “Ho‘ōla” decried the death of Hawaiians. The message changed after the original English-language lyricist, Dr. Hiram Young, gave his song to Jean Ileialoha Beniamina, a Kaua‘i woman and native speaker who was unable to translate into Hawaiian the poignancy of the pain being expressed. She in turn gave it to her mother, Jean Keale, a pure-blooded Hawaiian raised on Ni‘ihau. “She looked at all the negative points of what the song had and she turned everything around,” Moon said. “She made it positive. She said not what the people are dying of, but what can they do. The song described the Hawaiian people as ﬂowers who will live, who will continue to survive. . . . Although it’s true that Hawaiians are dying, she didn’t want to bring out the message that way. She said, ‘They are not wilted ﬂowers. They are pretty ﬂowers.’
“Communication is one of the most important means of change,” Moon said. “If you go inside and rant and rave at somebody, you may not get anything. I wasn’t for being outspoken. . . . Instead of trying to say something that would hurt somebody, I would rather not say anything at all and think about what the situation was and then come out and say something after I analyzed what I was going to say. This I had to develop. This I had to learn.”
When Moon arranges music written by someone else, he thinks about the words, what they mean, and tries to convey their true meaning in the arrangements. “I try to let the audience understand the meaning of the Hawaiian words by the feeling of the music itself. If the audience can feel what the song is, they have more or less translated the song--into much more than what it literally meant. That is basically what I like to see happen. That’s my high.
“My awareness of the language is [also] making the music more exciting. It’s making it more challenging. The music takes on a new meaning. The culture takes on a new meaning. I can read into a song and more or less understand what the song is saying. That’s how I set the mood. . . . Most of the time it will come out because it has been thought of carefully and then is brought out.”
In 1989, when the Sons began recording Ho‘oluana, it was time to bring together their new work. Their fans had not heard anything new in three years--a dangerous delay. For any artist, a new batch of songs means increased radio air play. Air play in Hawai‘i for island musicians means consideration for a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award (the state’s equivalent of the mainland music industry’s Grammy), and winning a Hōkū generates publicity that revives interest and creates more listeners, more fans, more inﬂuence. The Sons’ previous album, Ho‘ōla, won Hōkū awards for Traditional Hawaiian Album of the Year and Group of the Year.
After playing together for six years, by 1989 the Mākaha Sons were better organized and more rehearsed than ever before, but they also had more distractions. They were in constant demand. Organizers of fund-raisers, summer concerts, hula competitions, and neighbor island shows continually asked them to perform. Israel’s health problems confounded scheduling, as did his ongoing use of cocaine, marijuana, and crystal methamphetamines. Jerry’s night schooling and promotion to foreman at a concrete casting company were two more complications. John worked full-time at Wayne’s Upholstery, and Moon’s responsibilities to the National Guard included two weeks of summer drills and other mandatory classes on the mainland. All of them had families and children.
Ho‘oluana took more than three years to complete. The Sons worked with a new manager named Kata Maduli, producer Lea Uehara, and engineer Jim Linkner at Dolphin Sound, a small recording studio at a television station in the Honolulu industrial district. First, the Sons went into the studio and recorded their instrumentals, repeating take after take until the sections were perfect. The vocals came next, chorused repeatedly until all the words were pronounced correctly and the harmonies were true. A choir from a hālau hula sang background vocals, and then strings and a harpist from the Honolulu Symphony were added. Jim and Kata tinkered with the sound fragments and brought twenty-four tape tracks together. When the album was released, Honolulu Star-Bulletin music critic John Berger said Ho‘oluana “displays the exquisiteness of their music. . . . Cultural pride and music virtuosity permeate the album from start to ﬁnish. . . . This is an album with no low points. . . . All Hawaiian-language albums should be produced and packaged this well.”
When the NBC “Today” show visited O‘ahu in 1991, they invited the Sons to perform one of the songs in English from Ho‘oluana, Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You.” Roughly three-and-a-half million viewers heard the Sons that morning, but as he played, Moon realized that few of them would ever sit down and listen to the album or truly understand the world the Sons sang about in Hawaiian.
To reach tourists, local musicians need a name, and an act, and a promotional budget that few groups can maintain. Furthermore, they are at the mercy of tour packagers who sell activities to big tour groups, activities that salesmen pitch and book in banquet rooms the mornings after tourists arrive en masse. Do they want a trip to the neighbor islands? Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay? A circle O‘ahu tour? A lū‘au at Germaine’s or Paradise Cove? Maybe the Polynesian Cultural Center, or Tihati’s Polynesian Revue?
If a show wants the tourists, it has to pay the tour packager a commission for each person lured to the showroom. The higher the commission, the better the sales pitch. As a result only a few big shows can afford the advertising and commissions to keep people coming. This is no guarantee, however, because the major tour companies also have to like the shows they sell. If one says it does not want a particular song or dance included in a lū‘au performance, the song or dance may have to be removed. So may an individual performer. Without the major travel companies’ sales teams, the Polynesian revues would not survive.
These revues employ many native musicians and hula teachers. A few of the shows give viewers a fairly authentic Hawaiian cultural experience, but most of the big revues are a little bit of this and that Polynesia, with the emphasis on hula, Tahitian drum dances, and the mandatory Samoan ﬁre knife dancer. Most tourists, sucking up mai-tais or beer, cannot say which dance is Hawaiian and most do not care. The average visitor just wants to be entertained--if not at a lū‘au, then at a club with a disc jockey or a karaoke machine. For those who want more than a sunset serenade by the pool, they have to ﬁnd the handful of O‘ahu bars, restaurants, and special events that offer the real thing. As a result, only a few Hawaiians playing beyond the lū‘au circuit can subsist solely on their music.
A few minutes away from the hotels, clubs, and revues, the Waikīkī Shell has been a favorite site for Hawaiian musicians for many years. The Shell is an outdoor amphitheater near Diamond Head. It seats only 6,500 people, but the setting enables local entertainers to attract crowds without compromising their program for tourists. In 1980 a popular Hawaiian group could make money performing at the Shell either by itself or perhaps with one other act. But as interest in Hawaiian music declined in the mid-1980s, a successful concert had to offer a mixture of hula, comedy, and song. In 1988 a promoter persuaded the Sons to headline their own “Mākaha Bash” at the Shell. Despite an assortment of nightmares (Heart attack strikes bankrupt promoter, threatening Bash until rescue by Sons’ friend), the Bash became an annual Memorial Day weekend success up until 1993--the year Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole decided to stop using drugs, start losing weight, and leave the Sons to perform on his own.
People who have followed the group over the years have watched more than once as its heart has missed a beat. After Skippy passed away, in 1982, and the Koko brothers joined the group, Israel’s enthusiasm for music helped the Sons not just to survive but to continue perfecting their distinctive harmonies. The Sons’ fans always returned, conﬁdent that Israel would transform an evening of Hawaiian music into a memorable night and leave them aching from laughter. Israel is a Hawaiian who cares deeply about his land and his people, and he voices his concerns in the introduction and dedication for each song. This underlying seriousness, along with his humorous patter and sweet singing voice, make Israel an exceptional entertainer, but until 1993 his enthusiasm for drugs jeopardized his health and ability to perform.
When Israel missed gigs, Moon empathized both with Israel’s pain and with the disappointment of an audience deprived of Israel’s entertainment. “He has that gift,” Moon said. “If I was given the mike, I would freeze up on stage. He is the show for the audience. . . . When the group is whole, all four performing at our peak, there is nothing more the audience can ask for.”
When Israel’s health deteriorated again, in 1991, Kata Maduli called on island musicians to join in what he saw as a life-saving effort. He decided to promote Israel as the group’s headliner--“Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole and the Mākaha Sons of Ni‘ihau”--hoping that Israel’s fondness for the spotlight would help him take a turn for the better. He also produced Israel’s ﬁrst solo album, which featured songs that went beyond the Sons’ traditional Hawaiian music. An enthusiastic outpouring of support buoyed Israel up, and on May 26, 1991, the full complement of Sons hosted their fourth Mākaha Bash at the Waikīkī Shell.
Kata lined up a television crew to videotape the Bash, which featured three hālau hula, two Jawaiian groups, and song stylist (and Hōkū award winner) Teresa Bright. As for the Sons’ program, concert promoters usually give the headline group an hour to rush through a scripted selection of predictable songs, songs the audience expects to hear. But for this ﬁfteenth anniversary celebration, Kata invited various friends of the Sons to join the group onstage. They shared duets and conversations about the past, and the concert became a relaxed and spontaneous songfest, moving the audience from one mood and place to another. Israel paid tribute to his parents by singing their favorite ballad, “The Art of Making Love.” He honored his Ni‘ihau grandfather with Moon’s song “Kāhea o Keale.” Singer Melveen Leed reminded the crowd that the Sons and the late Gabby Pahinui had been members of a mutual admiration society. Then she asked the group to play one of Gabby’s choice songs, “Wai o Ke Aniani.” “Very, very slow,” she instructed them, “with a lot of mana going through the body.”
As she sang the words about water, rain began to fall and continued until the song ended. During the encore, when the crowd demanded another song, Israel asked the Sons to play a song that Skippy had made famous. It was “Hawai‘i ’78”--Mickey Ioane’s English-language lament about how pained the ali‘i from times past would feel if they could see Hawai‘i today. The angry undercurrent in the song had always disturbed Moon, but he set aside his feelings, as he always had before, and sang as if the song’s tears were his own. Rain began to fall again.
In the dark, along the back fence of the amphitheater, groups of young local boys, adolescents too cool to sit among the families and couples on the lawn, stopped talking and sang the words they all knew by heart. A girl sitting near the stage turned to her father and exclaimed, “Skippy’s here! That’s Skippy’s song! The rain means Skippy’s here because that’s his song!”
The encore pushed the concert beyond 9:30 p.m., the Department of Health’s noise curfew for Shell concerts. The guest performers went onstage and held hands in front of the Mākaha Sons. The crowd stood up and linked hands in long strings across the sweeping amphitheater. They closed the evening with “Hawai‘i Aloha,” composed a hundred years ago by an America-born minister, Reverend Lorenzo Lyons. It is traditionally sung at the conclusion of Hawaiian events, and if not everyone remembers the words to all the verses, few people forget the rejoicing chorus, “‘Oli e! ‘Oli e!” For the six thousand people at the Shell that night, “Hawai‘i Aloha” was more than a parting ritual. As they swayed in time with the solemn, sweet melody and sang out their love for the islands, everyone in the crowd felt part of a community that was--at that moment--harmonious.
E Hawai‘i, e ku‘u one hānau e,
Ku‘u home kulaīwi nei,
‘Oli nō au i nā pono lani e,
E Hawai‘i, aloha e.
E hau‘oli e nā ‘ōpio o Hawai‘i nei
‘Oli e! ‘Oli e!
Mai nā aheahe makani e pā mai nei
Mau ke aloha, nō Hawai‘i.
O Hawai‘i, O sands of my birth,
My native home,
I rejoice in the blessings of heaven.
O Hawai‘i, aloha.
Happy youth of Hawai‘i
Gentle breezes blow
Love always for Hawai‘i.
The concert carried the Sons through the rest of a remarkable ﬁfteenth anniversary year. Israel’s improved health already had revived the group and he had won Hōkū awards for his solo album. The Bash was a success, both musically and ﬁnancially, and so was the television program that followed. Critics and fans praised the group’s new live concert and studio albums. Throughout the islandwide recession, Kata Maduli continued to book the group, enabling them to support their families, and the “Today” show gave them national exposure. Few Hawai‘i musicians would ask for more. But Moon and Israel did.
Israel wanted to be free of drugs, free of 350 pounds, free of welfare (since his weight made it impossible for him to hold a nine-to-ﬁve job), and free of Moon’s stylistic limitations so Israel could record music his own way. When Israel ﬁnally made the break, in 1993, he felt great, and a critic called his solo album “exceptional . . . one of the most signiﬁcant Hawaiian albums of [that] year.” But the fallout from Israel’s departure, widely publicized by the media, became uglier than most divorces.
Any other group might have disintegrated, but Moon and the Koko brothers had already played numerous gigs without Israel, and Jerry took his turn enjoying the spotlight. They knew they could survive as a trio, now called the Mākaha Sons.
In the liner notes for the group’s 1994 album, “Ke Alaula, The Dawning,” Moon wrote, “When we first formed, we dreamed of someday earning the same respect given [the pioneers of Hawaiian music], including the Sons of Hawai‘i, Gabby Pahinui, the Sunday Mānoa, the Kahauanu Lake Trio, among others.
“The road was an uphill struggle, seemingly with only our ambitions to guide us. At times it was frustrating to the point of wanting to abandon our attempts to continue. Yet, these giants of Hawaiian music served as beacons of hope, giving us musical encouragement and the will to continue. To us, these legends were our sunrise, our original rays of light, our guides to what we hoped would be a promising future for us; just as the prior generations now set below their own horizons had been the models for them.
“In our innocence we too wanted to become legends. But today, with eleven albums . . . we still continue in our quest to perpetuate the music of Hawai‘i, both old and new, seeking to expand our horizons, to explore other opportunities, with more sunrises yet to experience.
“‘Ke Alaula,’ the dawning, is a new horizon, a new sunrise, a new ray of hope in the continuing legacy of the Mākaha Sons. We set forth almost twenty years ago when our flame was first lit and burned brightly. Over the years often the flame did flicker, but like the sun, the promise to shine again was always there. And with every flicker, we were fortunate that a new ray did give us the hope and the promise to continue.
“Wehe ‘ia ke alaula no nā hanauna nei, a no nā hanauna ehiki mai ana--thus the dawning of a new era emerges for this generation and for the generations to come.”