It’s been a little over two weeks since the debut of my new single Ha’aheo Nā Kanaka Paniolo from my upcoming album ‘Song for Waimea’ and I couldn’t be happier with the reception it has received. The highlight has been the realization of one of my dreams when my song was played on KAPA radio during Bradda G’s “Homegrown Hawaii Island” show. Big shout out to KAPA radio for all your support of local musicians and Hawaiian music!
While this song is just being broadcast out into the world now, the seed of its creation was first planted many years ago. While participating in a cultural music festival down at Laupahoehoe Point I was struck by a symbol along with the phrase “ha’aheo nā kanaka paniolo, i nā wa’a holo honua”. I asked cultural practitioner Kaniela Akaka what this meant and he explained to me the story about the paniolo or Hawaiian cowboy on his horse riding through the mountains like the seafaring navigators sailing on the ocean. So in that moment I just quickly jotted down that phrase in my notes knowing that one day this would have to be made into a song.
Some time later the song began to manifest itself. It started with a minor key bounce as I knew this song had to give the feel of a cowboy riding on his horse across the open hills of Waimea. There was definitely some influence of the song “Ghostriders In the Sky”, as that is one of my favorite old cowboy tunes. In terms of the words, I was able to get the lyrics going with “the horse is the paniolo wa’a, the ground the paniolo sea”. And from there I started building out the song.
The lyrics came pretty quickly as I had a good idea in my head what I wanted the story of the song to be about. I wanted to capture a moment in a paniolo’s life and really share out about their connection with the land and the sea. While the common perception of the paniolo is living up in the mountains roping cattle, in Hawaii the cowboy’s life extends from the mountains all the way down to the sea. With the cultural component of the ahupua’a as the foundation of their relationship to the land, it is ingrained in the paniolo to have a connection with all the elements from “mauka to makai” as we say. Hawaiian paniolo not only herd, rope, and brand cattle up in the hills, they also need to know how to load cattle onto ships down at the ocean. So part of their life is spend down by the sea also sourcing food and other resources from the ocean.
Once I had the overall structure of the story and the lyrics set there was one missing element. I wanted a strong chorus that could really take the song to the next level. Minor key songs can at times feel repetitive and while that does work well for the repeating motion of the cowboy galloping on their horse, this dual metaphor of the horse and the canoe needed to be honored. Upon reflection this immediately brought to mind the song by the Sons of Hawai’i called “Moku Kia Kahi”. This has always been one of my favorite Sons song, mostly because of this really cool key change in the song where it goes from minor to major. Right there it clicked, if I can incorporate this element into this song it will totally take it to that next level I was aiming for. After some tweaking around with the chords and feel of the rhythm I was able to get this change from Am to C as the song transitioned from the verses to the chorus.
But it was not only the key change that was so important, because that alone wouldn’t have been enough for it to become part of this creation I was in the middle of manifesting. But it was also the thematic elements of the song “Moku kia Kahi” that were so important. You see this song talks about the one-masted schooner waiting to set sail on the ocean. The lyrics say “ho’alu li’ili’i ‘oe, pala’ini jifi a’o mua”, which means “give a little slack to the lines at the bow”. Boom, this imagery of the sailor giving slack to the lines like a paniolo giving slack to the reins on a horse was just magic! while this is a subtle nod to the song, there was a truly intentional homage being put into the composition here. You can take a listen to the song “Moku Kia Kahi” by watching the video below.
So now all the pieces were locking into place. The song had a clear structure, feel, and form and I knew something special had manifested itself in front of me! People always ask, “how do you write songs?”, and this is always a difficult question to answer. I mean how do you put into words this whole process of all these different elements coming together? It truly is like something outside of your self is floating in the air and you as the songwriter is just trying to capture it and put it into some sort of digestible form. I really feel like this song was already out there waiting to be accessed, and I just happened to be there to put the pieces together.
With the verses in place, the key change to the chorus, there was just one more piece to this puzzle. I really wanted a “ha’ina” in the song as an ode to the tradition of Hawaiian song writing in which the song ends with a repetition of the main theme of the song starting with the phrase “ha’ina ia ai ka puana” or some variant of that. Which roughly translates as “thus then story is told”. It is this beautifully simple Hawaiian songwriting tradition, that as one well known Hawaiian musician once told me, “is so we no forget what the song was about”. And this makes sense in a lot of ways, if in some case the verses are lost, if you have that “ha’ina” song with the melody, the main part of the song is kept. And it is true that entire songs have been rewritten from just the survival of the “ha’ina” verse.
What was interesting is how the repeat of the “ha’ina” verse actually fell within the structure of the song. Most Hawaiian songs feature the repetition of a two or four line melodic phrase throughout the entire song. So often at the end when the “ha’ina” verse is sung, you just repeat the same verse twice to mark the end of the song. But with the key change I had placed in this song, the “ha’ina” fell on the major key section, and then the repeat falls back on the minor key part. This allows a nice symmetry in which the song finishes on the same minor key verse as it started. Listen to the song linked at the bottom of this post and you’ll hear what I’m talking about.
I am very proud and grateful for this song. It really speaks to the all the people before me who created these elements that allowed the song to come together. So a big mahalo to the person who conceptualized the “i na wa’a honua” imagery, Kaniela Akaka for his explanation, Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawai’i for the “Moku Kia Kahi” song, the composer of Ghostriders in the Sky, and really all the Hawaiian music composers that came before me.
I hope you enjoy this song as much as I did in bringing it to life. I am linking it here as a lyric video so you can follow along to the words, and I am also including a link to Soundcloud for those of you without a streaming account: