Na Hoku Hamajang

I joined the HARA this year more so out of curiosity than anything, and it’s turned out to be quite an interesting experience. From the six month long process of confirming a membership I had already payed for, to the arbitrary placement of my music in their preset categories, there has yet to be a dull moment.

I do want to say I highly respect the Hawai`i recording industry and all those that are a part of it. But I do want to say also that I am highly suspect of the establishment and anything I can do to shake things up I embrace. And I feel if I do it from a place of respect and graciousness I am being as appropriately engaged as anyone. Really my main goal is to express myself artistically and if in the meantime I can do something to move the Hawaiian music scene forward, mo bettah. And in a time of extreme stagnation I do not think there is anything wrong with that. In fact, I would say it should be highly encouraged.

What I wanted to talk about in this post is the placement of my album “Paniolo Music” in the contemporary category for consideration for album of the year. And I’d like to use the term “consideration” loosely as I am not delusional enough to think that my album has any chance of actually being nominated for contemporary album of the year. Really it’s about how the establishment interprets people’s art and dictates how it is consumed by the masses.

So just to give you a quick rundown of how it all works after you’ve paid the $110 fee and prove you’re a resident of the state of Hawai`i, you submit your album to the Na Hoku Hamajang awards. When doing so you fill out a form and check boxes listing your first, second and third preferred choices as to what category you’d like your album placed in. The options can be seen here .

I put down “alternative” for my first choice “contemporary” for my second and really for lack of a better category “island” for my third. And after having read the descriptor for “island” album I realized my album isn’t even eligible for that category!

So I figured that was that, I’ll go back to writing music and playing the music I love in my little town I love. But then a few weeks later I received an email from the chairperson of the selection committee informing me that my album was not going to be placed in the “alternative” category but rather in the “contemporary” category. At first I shrugged it off and figured, fine no bodda me. But after thinking it over I was a little peeved that this album I put so much energy into creating is being placed in a category that I felt did not properly reflect the type of music I was creating.

So I wrote back and said so to the chairperson. At this point I was referred to the official website descriptors of the categories which you can read here. Now if you look carefully at the summaries of the “alternative” and contemporary” categories you can see it’s not much help. If you didn’t bother with the link I’ll summarize for you here:

Alternative Album of the Year:  Best performance of music in an alternative style.

Contemporary Album of the Year:  Best performance of music in a contemporary style.


So I did a google search and came across this other document which was a little more helpful:

Contemporary Album of the Year: Best performance in a contemporary style.

Oh wait, in some ways it was helpful:

Alternative Album of the Year “Alternative” is defined as music of a non-traditional form that retains an outsider and underground perspective, and is mostly outside the mainstream music consciousness. Currently viewed as avant-garde in nature, the music and recordings may utilize new and vintage technology, innovative production techniques and could contain trace elements of mainstream punk, rock, pop, R&B, reggae, dance, folk classical, Hawaiian, and other musical forms.

Aha! So now I had something to work with. Now this had some meat to it. “Non-traditional”? Well the International Council of Traditional Music defines traditional music as “songs and tunes which have been performed, by custom, over a long period (usually several generations)”. Ok, so I’m good, I wrote all these songs so unless you consider the ten years I spent writing them they haven’t been performed for a “long” time, definitely not over several generations.

“Retains an outsider and underground perspective” Well that’s easy, I determine my perspective and I say it’s outsider and underground and i’ve retained that rather well thank you. “Mostly outside the mainstream music consciousness”? Easy, mainstream country music is based on a form of hard rock with song topics centered around attractive young females, drinking, trucks and partying, things none of my songs talk about or sound like. My songs talk about heartbreak, redemption, yearning for lost love and finding it again.

Shall I go on? “Currently viewed as avant-garde in nature”, well this is a little subjective, but I am incorporating the ukulele into an interpretation of country music based on the outlaw country movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Sounds avant-guard to me. “The music and recordings may utilize new and vintage technology, innovative production techniques”. Sure, I used new technology, some old ones as well such as live miking of acoustic instruments, innovative production techniques such as multi-tracking of slide guitars and the ukulele as well as open tuned resonator guitars buried in the mix for ambient drone sounds.

And finally “could contain trace elements of mainstream punk, rock, pop, R&B, reggae, dance, folk, classical, Hawaiian, and other musical forms”. Well you said it “could” but trace elements of folk, Hawaiian and other musical forms, for sure! There’s all kinds of that stuff on there. Anyways, doesn’t take “trace” to merit much of anything does it?

So I concluded my music was alternative. Which was great because if I had to best categorize it by currently accepted modes of genre placement I’d say it is alternative-folk or alternative-country. These are categories I regularly use and tag my music with in different social media platforms and other popularly used music sharing sites such as Soundcloud, Reverb Nation, Band Camp and the like.

So I wrote her back and said thanks but no thanks, my album should be placed in the “alternative” category. But alas. no beans they said. They took another listen and responded with “not having a Country or Folk category, most submissions in the past have gone into the Contemporary category as the closest category we could find”.

Fair enough I thought.

So please go listen to the 2014 alternative album of the year winner and tell me this fits into that description of alternative at all. Tell me that is anywhere near what that category descriptor says. It doesn’t! It’s contemporary acoustic pop!

As for contemporary, well with the description being “best performance in a contemporary style” I don’t know what to say. Other than when I listen to mainstream or contemporary country radio I hear what I just explained a few paragraphs previous. Do they mean “adult contemporary” What does “contemporary” even mean?

If I look at the past winners such Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliam, Kapena De Lima, Waipuna, Anuhea there is no continuum. It could be soft R-n-B, Hawaiian or pop. So is it just a catch all for things that don’t fall into the prescribed categories? I’m asking because I don’t know. Is the music of Hawai`i moving towards such blurred categorical uniqueness that really anything can be placed in contemporary. Is this catch all the future of Hawaiian music where everything is so watered down that it can’t be placed in specially defined categories?

If we as artists don’t strive to maintain our individual artistic integrity and help promote and encourage each other to record our music and submit it into specific categories to merit their inclusion, will we all just end up being thrown into the “contemporary” category?

Listening to the winners for alternative album I have no idea how it is any different than any other contemporary album. Really none if this makes any sense and seems so arbitrary.

So I digress. I dunno you can listen to my album if you’d like and decide for your self. I just wanted to give a little insight into my experience with the process and share a little bit about how I view this categorization. Which if you couldn’t gather from my post I think is a bunch of crap anyways. So I’ll keep making my music and probably keep submitting my recordings anyhow. Will I win an award some day? Who knows. Would I be grateful if I did, well of course, but I won’t loose any sleep over it in the meantime. I’ll keep doing my art and leave the categorizing and genre defining to others. I know I’m just an outsider existing in the underground on the little ole Big Island away from the center of the music industry in Honolulu. Wait that sounds kinda alternative to me…


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