The Sources of Our Songs

moku o keawe

This coming week I have the honor and privilege of leading a group of students around the island exploring the meaning and history of Hawaiian mele and the places they are about. In four days we will visit four different areas of the island and learn a song or two that tells a story about that place’s history. As the students will be learning during the week, I hope to learn too. We will have special guests joining us in each region who will share with us their mana`o about the mele we will be learning. Our journey will start in our home, Waimea. We will start with two songs that are well known and closely tied to the history of Waimea, “Hole Waimea and “Waika.” These songs are modern interpretations of chants that date back to the time of Kamehameha and the famous warriors of the Waimea area. In addition, Hole Waimea is the school song of Hawai`i Preparatory Academy where I teach, and today is now chanted with a borrowed verse from Waika. These two songs are closely intertwined and represent the binding histories of the past and present. The second part of our journey in Waimea will focus on “Waiomina” which tells the story of the famous adventure of three paniolo to Cheyenne, Wyoming to compete in the Frontier Days World Championship roping competition where Ikua Purdy won first place and set the world record. We will visit the Paniolo Hall of Fame located at Pukalani Stables where paniolo historian Dr. Billy Bergin will talk to us about paniolo culture and specifically the unique saddle making history of Waimea.

On day two we will travel up the Hamakua Coast to visit two waterfalls, `Akaka Falls and Waianuenue. At our stop at `Akaka Falls we will learn about the beautiful mele “`Akaka Falls” and the legend of `Akaka. From there we will go into Hilo town and admire the beauty of Hilo Bay through the mele “Kuhio Bay”. This song is a great vehicle to learn about the many beautiful places found in Hilo such as Waiakea, Moku Ola and Waianuenue. Here we have the honor of being led by a Hawaiian Studies professor from UH-Hilo who will share with us about the stories of this song and the special meaning of these different areas in Hilo.

Our third day will take us down to the Kohala Coast to the Kalahuipua`a fishponds at Mauna Lani where Hawaiian Kahu, historian, storyteller and musician Reverend Danny Akaka will lead us through the history and stories of the area with the mele “Keawaiki” which was written there. This is truly a special opportunity as Danny is a treasure trove of information and history. I look forward to learning more about this mele and its composition as it has always been one of my favorites by the great Gabby Pahinui.

After our visit at Kalahuipua`a, we will take a short hike over to Paniau beach which is located at the southern end of Puako Bay. I am hoping that Danny can grace us with the his beautiful singing voice and `ukulele playing and play for us the song “Paniau”. This is one of the great mele of Hawaiian music and unfortunately very rarely heard or known today, Danny being one of the few blessed with the knowledge of the history of its composition and skill is singing and playing it. Hearing him sing this mele is chicken skin indeed!

Finally on our last day we will travel to South Kona and visit Pu`u Honua o Honaunau. Through the educational waiver program so graciously offered by our National Park Service we will be allowed free access to the park so the students can enjoy the importance of the historical area. While the recent storm did remove sand from certain parts of the beach making access to the Heiau limited, we will still have the opportunity to view Hale o Keawe from a distance and enjoy its majestic power. I am hoping to be joined at the park by Hawaiian musician Bula Ka`iliwai who recorded the mele “Honaunau Paka”.

This is another song that is rarely heard today, yet to me is an example of the beauty and meaning of Hawaiian musical poetry. Of course this mele holds a special place in my heart as I grew up in Honaunau and spent many many days of my youth in and around Pu`u Honua o Honaunau swimming, fishing and enjoying its beautiful grounds. In fact, it was in the powerful tide pools of Keawewai that I almost lost my life at a young age when I was swept out to sea by a powerful surge of waves only to be rescued by a Hawaiian man who risked his own life swimming out into large surf to save me.

So I am truly looking forward to this experience, to not only share my knowledge and love of Hawaiian music with the students, but to learn along with them from our special guests. The mele of Hawai`i is a vehicle for us to learn more about the land and the special characteristics of the places all around us. It is my hope that in this journey we can then turn inward and learn more about ourselves and to ho`analu….go beyond the known boundaries of what who think we are and discover more.

Talking Story With Jesse Kalima’s Nephew



When you grow up in the Big Island the big city is in Hilo.  And having spent my whole life on the west side, I still get lost over there and I still find places in parts of town I never knew existed.  During the time I spent playing music with Braddah Smitty I had the wonderful opportunity to play in some of these little hole in the wall joints, that I otherwise would have never known existed or would have never dared walk into for that matter.

One of the most interesting things about paying music with Smitty is you never knew when or where a music throw down was about to happen.  Once after playing a baby luau in Hilo we decided to stop into a bar for some drink and pupu.  We found some little hole in the wall in the industrial part of town.  Upon entering it was like the whole entire staff rearranged things to accommodate Smitty. Tables would be moved, chairs changed around, pupu magically arriving out of the kitchen and of course cold beers quickly arriving in front of us.  I wasn’t of interest to anybody, it was all for Smitty.  Soon an entire table would amass with people coming to sit down, talk story and say their hellos.

After some food and drinks would come the gracious request if he would so kindly be interested in plugging in and doing some entertaining.  Smitty would always generously oblige and we would play a short set for whoever happened to be there.  It was one of my most favorite moments to be apart of.  I felt like I was experiencing something magical, spontaneous and above all real.  These people longed to hear Smitty sing.  They needed it.  People would dance the hula, people would cry, hoot, holler, whatever the music did to move them.  I was just lucky to be along for the ride.

On this particular night after we had finished sharing some music I was seated next to a kind elderly gentleman who was very interested in where I was from and how I learned to play `ukulele.  I told him my story and he was very complimentary of my playing. He told me his uncle was the great Jesse Kalima.  I was shocked.  Jesse Kalima is one of the first true virtuosi of the `ukulele.  His album Jess’ Uke was revolutionary in its use of chord voicing, intricate picking lines and tremolo rhythmic strumming.  Coming out in 1962 it, along with Eddie Kamae’s “Heart of the `Ukulele” set the gold standard from what is possible on this little four stringed wonder.

It was so great to sit and talk story with this man.  He was so forthcoming in his compliments of me and his advice to keep doing what I do, that the art of true `ukulele playing is being lost to all the newer emphasis on flashy showmanship and single note rapid picking.  I felt so humbled to hear this from a man who I know had heard and seen the real deal.  But he also told me an important thing.  Have your own style.  He said that’s what truly set his Uncle Jesse apart.  He always strived to have his own style.  And if you listen to his recordings, especially the Jesse Kalima and Sons & Sam Wai`au album you will know what I mean.  Unfortunately this album is out of print, but if you ever get your hands on it you will be amazed.  The song “Kila Kila O Moanalua” still blows me away with its use of syncopated rhythmic drumming and subtle ukulele counterpoint.  It sounds like if Hawaiians brought their music to Mexico, taught them how to play and left, not the other way around.  Truly innovative and unique.

HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.  When I think back to this moment in time and I listen to Jesse Kalima’s music I think about how much he went beyond the known boundaries.  He put his own stamp on Hawaiian music.  He never played a song how others were playing it.  His tempo, instrumentation and arrangements were always his, but always Hawaiian at the same time.  I love when I hear an arrangement of a song that is new and fresh and unlike anything I have before.  It is getting rarer and rarer these days.  More people continue to churn out the same arrangements of the classics done so many times before.  that is OK, that is what they know.  But for me, I look to HO`ANALU….to go beyond the known boundaries.  I like to play Hawaiian music with my own little flourish.  I learned this from people like the great Braddah Smitty who always did things his way.  He played Hawaiian music the right way, with the right heart, the right feeling, but it was always a little different.  It had that little touch of something that was unique to him.  He along with so many others embody that spirit of HO`ANALU….to beyond known boundaries.