Tuning into the Sounds Of Hawaii at the Mele Mei Music Festival

For writer Eliza Escaño-Vasquez, a recent trip to Oah’u uncovers a treasure trove of Hawaiian music

Na Hoku Awards

Taimane Gardner and Kalei Gamiao perform at the Na Hoku Awards. Image: Jonathan Evangelista

For lovers of Hawaiian music, there’s no better time to be Oahu-bound than in May when the month-long Mele Mei music festival occurs. Mele means ‘song’ in the Hawaiian language and Mei simply refers to the month. This year, Honolulu buzzed with events—a concert series at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and at The Halekulani’s House without a Key, the Hawaii Book and Music Festival at the Honolulu Hale Civic Center, and the ‘Ukulele, Slack Key and Steel Guitar Jam at the historic Kapiolani Park—all in celebration of Hawaiian music. These gatherings all built up to the final soiree, the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, where da kine (the best) of this vibrant industry were given its highest honors. About 1300 attendees flocked to the Hawaii Convention Center on May 25th to celebrate the event’s 36th year.

My Mele Mei Experience

Confession time here: when I signed up, I was under the impression it was going to be an ukulele clinic of sorts. I felt pretty badass carrying my ‘uke during the short flight from Maui where I reside. It was time to do this baby some justice, I thought. But my pipe dream of studying with a master quickly faded upon learning that the workshops were more of the panel and Q&A sort, or as we say here “talk story.”

What I discovered instead was a chance to hang out with artists and industry players who gathered for a day of workshops at The Ala Moana Hotel. One room was dedicated to the business side of things—promotions, radio play, and breaking into the all-important Japanese market. The next room was all about exploring the artistic process and was set up as an impromptu performance space. (If you’re interested in participating at other times of the year, the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts, the organizer behind Mele Mei, plans to offer these workshops quarterly).

Mele Mei panel featuring Erika Elona, Johnny Helm and Mike Love

Mele Mei panel featuring Erika Elona, Johnny Helm and Mike Love. Image: Jonathan Evangelista

In the first session, Erika Elona, Johnny Helm and Mike Love shared their creative process before performing a few acoustic songs. Their sound strayed from traditional Hawaiian—we got a taste of soul from Elona, folk rock from Helm and reggae from Love. Though all three have been Na Hoku Hanohano nominees, it’s Love who nabbed the award for Reggae Album of the Year that evening.

Hawaiian acoustic guitar, known as slack key or ki ho’alu, ruled the next two panels. While the guitars are traced from the Spanish and Mexican vaqueros who were sent to Hawaii in the 1830’s; this distinct slack key style was born out of the campfire jam sessions after a day’s labor between the local and visiting wranglers.

Slack key legend Rev. Dennis Kamakahi led the next workshop along with his son, David, both of whom are Na Hoku award winners. The senior Kamakahi has the honor of being the first Hawaiian featured in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. That evening, he was also bestowed the prestigious Ki Ho’alu Foundation Legacy Award. Cyril Pahinui and Peter Moon Jr.—both sons of Hawaiian music pioneers—followed the Kamakahis. They shared stories of their musical upbringing and mentorship by their iconic fathers (Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon Sr. were integral to the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970’s), and honor of carrying the torch for the next generation. Tempered with finesse, the mellow string harmonies from the consecutive duos serenaded the room into a light, blissful mood.

Rev. Dennis Kamakahi  and son David, both of whom are Na Hoku award winners.

Rev. Dennis Kamakahi and son David, both Na Hoku award winners. Image: Jonathan Evangelista

The afternoon was concluded with the electrifying virtuosity of ‘ukulele’s rising stars—Kris Fuchigami, Kalei Gamiao and Brittni Pavia. As inspirations go, Paiva pays tribute to Herb Ohta Jr., Orianthi and Jeff Beck; Gamiao names Andy Mckee, Antoine Dufour and Don Ross; while Fuchigami champions Tupac Shakur, “not only for his music, but the way he lived.” All are quick to mention the massive influence of Jake Shimabukuro in forging a new movement for ‘ukulele music.

An intriguing arsenal of musical references and techy loop pedals helped the three young talents craft a sound that is resolutely modern. Accompanied by keyboards, Fuchigami moved the room with the crescendo of an original, “31 Miles,” and a sweet cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes off You.” Gamiao followed with an enigmatic solo, and Paiva warmed up with the tried and true “Over the Rainbow” before letting loose on an ill rendition of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” a teaser for the evening’s performance with Gamiao and Taimane, another young ‘ukulele sensation.

“The fact that we have technology on our side helps us create something really unique,” said Paiva. “I want my generation to take it as far as possible, continue to experiment and keep the creativity going.” Paiva took home two Na Hoku awards that evening for the ‘Ukulele Album and Instrumental Composition categories.

The morning-after of the Na Hoku awards found me in the buzzing lobby of the Ala Moana Hotel. Crewmembers hazily emerged from their well-deserved after-party stupor, while performers and attendees checked out en masse. Nearby, some Japanese press gathered to interview the person I came to meet. With my weekender duffle and still unused ‘ukulele in hand, I sat with HARA president, Pali Ka’aihue, who had graciously blocked some time for a few questions. Upon learning I had yet to actually play, sound bites quickly gave way to an impromptu lesson. He took the ‘uke out of the case and after a quick tuning, demonstrated three chords—C, G, and F. We alternated holding the ‘ukulele, and I quickly mimicked, pressing my fingers on the right string between the proper frets. Then he asked me to strum continuously while switching between chords.

Author Eliza Escaño-Vasquez gets an impromptu ‘uke session with HARA president, Pali Ka’aihue

The instrument’s lightness and size made it super fun and easy to handle. I clumsily alternated between two keys, G-C-G-C, but eventually found some momentum. I relaxed my fingers more, and a simple melody began to take form. “Some Hawaiian songs can go on like that from beginning to end,” said Ka’aihue, an accomplished musician, television producer, and ambassador for Hawaiian music.

So in the end, my ‘uke lesson did find me, and from a celebrate virtuoso no less. And even though it might be YouTube tutorials for me from here on out, I returned home to Maui fueled by much music and Aloha, an unforgettable melody of place that is pure Hawaii.

*Editors note: For LA-based fans of Hawaiian music and the ukulele, there’s no need to jump on a plane to hear Hawaii’s finest. Tomorrow at Downtown’s LA Live, the Grammy Museum will host a workshop and concert by some of the brightest names in the genre including Pali Ka’aihue, Tony Conjugacion and Tj Mayeshiro. They will be playing and “talking story” about Hawaii’s iconic ‘uke as part of the Aloha Spirit, KoAloha Style performance series. It will be da kine brah…



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