Na Hoku Hanohano

Kalani Peʻa


For a young Kalani Peʻa, music wasn’t just a hobby he enjoyed – it was also therapy, as he worked through a childhood speech impediment. On a new NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG, the Grammy and Nā Hōkū-winning singer and his band perform selections from his albums, E Walea and No ʻAneʻi in the PBS Hawaiʻi studio. Discover Peʻa’s humble beginnings in Panaʻewa, Hawaiʻi Island, his creative drive and how music changed his life.


More from Kalani Peʻa:


Music Saved Me


There’s Beauty Everywhere




Kalani Peʻa

Cover story by Liberty Peralta, PBS Hawaiʻi


Kalani Peʻa


For Grammy- and Nā Hōkū Hanohano-winning singer Kalani Peʻa, music wasn’t just a hobby. It was therapy.


“I stuttered a lot as a child,” he says. “In preschool, my mom wanted me to take speech therapy. That didn’t work.”


A pivotal moment came when Pe‘a was only three years old, when his parents found him serenading a mannequin at a Hilo shopping mall.


“[My parents] were like: ‘If we put him through choir [and] vocal training, will that really help him, give him the confidence to be comfortable with himself, to be able to overcome such a challenge?’” Peʻa says.


The answer was a resounding “yes.” Indeed, Peʻa’s parents signed him up for vocal lessons and choir. Throughout childhood and into his college years, Peʻa would keep singing in talent shows and public performances.


NĀ MELE - Traditions on Hawaiian Song: Kalani Peʻa“Music saved me,” he says. “[Singing] helps me to enunciate and pronounce certain words, whether it’s in Hawaiian music or English.”


One word that many may find difficult to pronounce – his legal first name. “What the heck is a ‘Trazaara’?” Peʻa laughs. (It’s pronounced “trah-zah-ah-rah.”) “Trazaara is an English men’s cologne. My mom gave that to me. Sounds like an entertainer’s name, right?”


Growing up, Pe‘a lived with his family in a pink trailer home in Panaʻewa Homestead near Hilo. “We had lanterns; we didn’t have electricity,” he recalls. “And it was such a loving family. We weren’t rich, we weren’t poor, but I knew that we had to work hard … That home is a reminder of hard work for me.”


While continuing to work through his speech impediment in the third grade, he asked his parents about transferring from a mainstream English language school to a Hawaiian immersion program. “I wanted to speak [the Hawaiian language] just like my siblings,” Peʻa says.


He would remain in Hawaiian immersion schools, graduating from Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu in Keaʻau, Hawai‘i Island. Wanting to cement his speech abilities, he moved to Colorado for college and earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.


Singer Kalani Pe‘a (in red cap) performing in the PBS Hawai‘i studio. He’s accompanied by Aron Nelson on piano, Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals, Henry Aiau Koa on guitar and Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar. In the foreground, from left, are Hula Hālau ‘O Kamuela dancers Julyen Kaluna, Auli‘i Faurot and Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap.
Singer Kalani Peʻa (in red cap) performing in the PBS Hawaiʻi studio. He’s accompanied by Aron Nelson on piano, Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals, Henry Aiau Koa on guitar and Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar. In the foreground, from left, are Hula Hālau ʻO Kamuela dancers Julyen Kaluna, Auliʻi Faurot and Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap.


“I was told that I would never be successful,” Peʻa says. “My siblings and I were told that if we spoke Hawaiian fluently, we’ll never go to college. And I went to college. We had to overcome challenges and misconceptions. That’s what I do.”


Music saved me

– Kalani Peʻa


And he does much of this through music. In a new episode of Nā Mele: Traditions in Hawaiian Song, Peʻa performs selections from his albums, E Walea and No ʻAneʻi, both of which won Grammy Awards for Best Regional Roots Album. Supporting Peʻa are: Henry Aiau Koa on guitar; Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals; Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar; and Aron Nelson on piano. Members of Hula Hālau ʻO Kamuela provide hula accompaniment. And from the lighting on set to his wardrobe, it’s clear that Peʻa has a trademark color, one often associated with royalty and creativity: purple.


For a creative like Peʻa, every moment is a chance to craft a melody. “I’m just inspired all the time, whether I’m sipping on coffee, or eating breakfast with my ʻohana …I’m all about pushing the envelope and coming up with ideas.”


He says the desire to strive and create are traits that have served Hawaiians well. “We’re all about collaborating with each other and finding innovative things to do,” he says. “Kalākaua was an innovative king. Kamehameha I was an innovative king, collaborating with the people of England. So when it comes to tradition, part of our traditional practices and values play a role in our lives now, but we seek balance between modern technology and our old cultural practices.”


Peʻa is familiar with this balancing act – honoring cultural traditions without sacrificing his personal identity. “I would call myself a modern Hawaiian, a Hawaiian of this century,” he says. “I speak Hawaiian fluently, I honor my kūpuna, I understand my values and protocol and teaching. [And] I am the guy with the purple sequined jacket. That’s who I am.”




Paula Fuga


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 13, 2007


A Rising Musical Star


Paula Fuga is not a household name yet. But this local girl, who showed up at the auditions for American Idol wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Big Girls Rock’ and who was named the Na Hoku Hanohano Most Promising Artist of the Year – is making a name for herself.


Something you should know right off the top about this 28-year-old rising local star. She knows what it’s like to be a child living in a tent, homeless, on a beach. And helping others is part of who she is. Paula’s last name is spelled f-u-g-a and it’s pronounced ‘funga.’


Paula Fuga Audio


Download the Transcript




Paula Fuga is not a household name yet. But this local girl, who showed up at the auditions for American Idol wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Big Girls Rock’ and who was named the Na Hoku Hanohano Most Promising Artist of the Year – is making a name for herself. Aloha no and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Something you should know right off the top about this 28-year-old rising local star. She knows what it’s like to be a child living in a tent, homeless, on a beach. And helping others is part of who she is. Paula’s last name is spelled f-u-g-a and it’s pronounced ‘funga.’


Let’s talk about this wonderful honor you’ve received. You won the Na Hoku Hanohano Most Promising Artist of the Year.


Well, I think it’s such an honor, and I was up for three awards. And that is the award that I wanted the most. because it says that, you know, ‘Hey, congratulations! We recognize you. We also know that there’s more in store for you.’ And it’s such a wonderful honor. And I’ve always imagined myself being a part of the Hokus and, you know, a part of the Hawaii Academy of Recording Artists.


You know, there’s such a buzz about you – that you’re the new face of Hawaiian music. And one of the best musicians in Hawaii, Matt Catingub, the conductor of the Honolulu Symphony Pops – what he said about you was tremendous. He said your voice is unforgettable and it’s sweet and soulful. Would you agree with that assessment?


Well, I mean, you know I try to be humble. So I don’t really like to talk like, you know, too much about myself, like in a good way. I mean, it’s typically Hawaiian to not talk, you know, not sing your own praises. But you know, I’m just very blessed. You know, I know I have something special, a gift that I was given.


Well now, when did you know you had this gift? How old were you when you figured out, I’ve got — my voice will rock?


I was probably about four.


Really? But you always thought you had something that would take you forward?


Yeah. I think I really knew for sure what I would be when I was about nine years old. Someone asked me, ‘Paula, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ And it was an adult that wasn’t very supportive of, you know, like wasn’t very positive. So I stopped for a moment, and I looked away, and I looked up and I saw myself on a stage in front of a huge audience that I couldn’t number. And I was holding a microphone and there was this whitish-blue light shining on me. And I knew in my heart it was to be a singer, you know. But I turned and I said, ‘A teacher.’ Just to kinda protect the dream.


And yet, how many young women and young men have said, I’m gonna be a star one day, I’m gonna have a powerful voice, and I’m gonna have my own album. And it, of course, it hasn’t come to be. But here you are.


Yeah. Well, it took a lot of time. I was in high school and I entered different contests, like Brown Bags to Stardom and Keiki Stars, which is the children’s version of Hawaii Stars. And you know I just always knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t quite know how to go about pursuing that dream. But I would do just little things. Like in high school, I took ukulele lessons from Roy Sakuma. And it wasn’t to be this fantastic ukulele player; it was just so that I’d have an instrument to play while I tried to write songs or so I could sing, sing along to it. And you know, just little steps here and there. Called the radio station and I asked, I said, you know, ‘How do you get voice lessons or something?’ And you know, like I listened to the radio stations a lot. And I would call up and enter all these contests and what not, and just pay attention to the music scene in Hawaii.


And yet, much of the time, your childhood was not the typical suburban neighborhood childhood. You were living on the beach for part of your life, and in foster homes for another part.


Yeah. I lived on the beach a couple of times, and I was in foster care. But I think the fortunate thing for me is that my foster parents were my grandparents. And so I was really lucky that I got to be placed with family. And that’s when I really started getting active in different programs, is when I lived with them in foster care. And you know, I just feel really blessed for, you know, the things that did come my way.


When you were living on Waimanalo Beach, what was it like? Did you feel deprived? Did you think, you know, ‘How come I can’t live in a house like the other kids?’ or ‘How come I don’t have the newest things?’ Anything like that?


No, not really, because before I lived on the beach, I was living with aunts and my grandparents. But we just missed — my sister and I, we just missed my mom so much that we didn’t care about living in a house. It didn’t seem like, you know, a burden or anything to live on the beach because you come home, and it’s like, there’s the ocean, you know. You get to go swimming and play with all these kids. Like I didn’t think there was anything wrong. Only when we were teased about it; that’s about it.


Paula remembers raking pinecones away from the tent so her family wouldn’t step on their sharp edges – part of childhood spent homeless – now singled out as the Most Promising Artist of the Year by the Hawaii Academy of Recording Artists. Stay with us for more with local girl Paula Fuga.


Welcome back to Long Story Short. We’re talking with Paula Fuga, who is the Hoku Award winning most promising artist of the year. Now, you’ve talked about being homeless and going through different housing situations. Usually, that’s enough to take away a kid’s confidence. But you thought — you always thought you had a gift that you would take to the world and be successful with.


Yeah; you know, when I think as an – when I was in my intermediate years, I started to realize what was going on, like in my life and in, you know, comparison to the world, you know. And I started to realize that you know, the life that I was experiencing at that point wasn’t the life that I had to have forever. You know what I’m saying? I knew that I would grow up one day, and I knew that I’d be able to make my own choices. And I thought — this is really, truly what I thought. I thought, you know, ‘Yeah, when I grow up and I have a family, I’m never gonna let this happen to my kids.’ You know what I’m saying? And that was kind of the thing that made me choose to do right, you know. I chose not to drink and party in high school, or you know, things like that. Just a little choice.


Did it attract you at all?


Oh, yeah. There were kids that drank and, you know, smoked pakalolo and what not in school. And you know, I stayed away from that kinda thing and it’s just — and then in college, you know, friends I knew some friends, and they started getting in to cocaine, and I would write these letters and telling my friend, Hey, you know, one day I want to grow old with you and I want to have our kids play, you know, at the park on a Sunday, or something like that. And how are you gonna do any of that if you’re not here, you know; if you’re like strung out on drugs and stuff like that. And I would tell them, ‘Hey, you know, I know where this leads, and it doesn’t lead to a beautiful place.’ You know what I’m saying?


What was their reaction? Did they say, ‘Okay, good point, Paula; point taken,’ or …


Well, I’m a crier, so they kind of just listen to me and console me. They were consoling me now, and I’m like serious about it. And I’d like to think that I helped them, you know. ‘Cause now, like that friend in particular, he’s not doing drugs, he’s doing very well. He lives on the mainland, he’s working and you know, had a good life now. And I hope that what I said had a part in his decision to stop, you know.


So your life as a child was an example to you in a negative fashion. You realized, ‘That’s not what I want; I want the opposite of that.’ And you struck out for that.


Oh, definitely. I was very fortunate to have positive adult role models in my life; namely my grandparents, my aunties. They were positive role models to me, you know. Growing up and having cousins that, you know, they had high standards. And I lived on the beach, my mom did drugs, she cruised around with a lot of people who made poor choices, like stealing was acceptable. And I remember I was in the car with my grandma one day — one night, and we were at the old Gems in Kaneohe. And I guess there was — it was a rent-a-center or something like that. And we were sitting right outside of the window, and I’m looking at all these big screen TVs and couches, and what, stereo systems. And I remember I told my grandma, I said, ‘Yup, if I had a truck and a brick, I could load up my truck with all this stuff and…’ And my grandma turned around, she goes — she looks at me, she goes, ‘What are you thinking about? Like, where is your mind? Like, that’s stealing, that’s wrong. What is — what’s the matter with you?’ You know. ‘Don’t you know any better?’ And she scolded me. And I was like, ‘Whoa. Like, wow.’ I was just kinda thinking out loud, you know, and I realized at that moment, like wow; all of the things that were acceptable to me is not acceptable to the world. You know what I mean? It’s like not a good thing to be a stealer. You know what I mean? And I had to learn that. But it’s a trip, because you know, I feel so fortunate to have had those people in my life that set me straight, you know, and said,’ No, that’s not okay, that’s unacceptable.’


It must have been very hard, seeing your mom and other people you knew and cared about do things that weren’t — you knew weren’t right, but you still loved them.


Oh, yeah.


And it must have been kind of delicate for the other members of your family to say, ‘Don’t do that.’ But you know, of course that’s your family.


It was kind of a trip – that part was kind of hidden from the other side of my family. You know what I mean? And it’s like things that were done without them knowing about it. My grandma didn’t know that, you know, we were around people who like, they stole cars, you know, and we — I went joyriding in those cars. I was like twelve or thirteen years old, riding the back roads.


You were keeping the secret?


Yeah. Like we kept that a secret from the other side of our family. And there was a rule for a while, and I don’t know why I listened, ‘cause I’m real kolohe. But there was a rule that said I couldn’t cross the highway to see my grandparents, because my mom was afraid that if we went over — ‘cause we’re not gonna lie, you know — and our grandparents ask us, ‘Eh, what’s going on at your house?’ We’ll tell ‘em, you know. And so she was very adamant about us not going over. And to this day, I don’t understand why I listened, you know. Like I shoulda went across the street, you know.


What if you hadn’t had your grandma and these people who really cared about you and told you, ‘That’s not right?’ When you think — well ‘cause there are other children in your position who may not have had those connections.


Ooh. If I never — I don’t know where I would be, quite honestly.


You know, you say you stayed away from alcohol and drugs when you were in high school ‘cause you saw where that path would lead you. But you know, it’s a cliché; people who get successful in entertainment, they have all kinds of opportunities and temptations and pressures.


Do you see yourself ever taking that turn?`


Never. I don’t ever see myself taking that turn. And what happened was I had to learn to hate it. Hate it with a passion too, you know?


A passion that comes from a childhood filled with struggles – from an artist whose album is named for the passion fruit, Liliko‘i: Paula Fuga, a fresh, new face on Hawaii’s music scene, a long way from a tent and the pinecones scattered on Waimanalo Beach. She’s already performed with Jack Johnson and is scheduled to perform with Sheryl Crow.


We’re back on Long Story Short with Paula Fuga. And if you’re not familiar with her name yet, I think you’re gonna hear it in many years to come. Most promising artist, as chosen by the Na Hoku Hanohano judges. Wow. And you’re also a composer.


Yes; I’m – well, kind of. I write songs.


Can you talk about maybe, one of the songs you’ve done and explain how it came about?


Sure. Um, let me think. I guess I can talk about this one song. I started to write it, and I didn’t have any music to it, for instance. And I had this melody in my head, and so I started singing this the words, and it ended up being a song about love, and I found myself writing about that. And I was like, ‘What? Man, I’m not even in love with anybody. How am I gonna write this song?’ And so I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I write this song, and imagine how it feels to be in love.’ You know, I’ll just imagine what it feels like. And so I wrote, and it’s called Sweet Reverie. It’s track number eleven on my album. And it’s so wonderful. I got to perform it with the Honolulu Symphony in August. And it’s just beautiful. And I imagined strings in the song, and so for the arrangement on my album, we hired some musicians and they came; a string quartet, and they played strings on my album. And it’s just so beautiful, and it’s you know. All these years later, I’ve fallen in love, and it’s exactly how I thought I would feel.


Its exactly as you imagined it?




Wow! Who are you in love with?


I’m in love with this beautiful plumber. From the North Shore.


Ive never heard of a plumber described as beautiful.


Well, you never met my boyfriend. Nah, just joking. But, yeah. And um, he’s older than me, and he lives in Pupukea and he’s a really good person and I feel really blessed to, you know, have found the one that I love and you know.


Do you feel like your life’s an open book, or are there places you really want to protect inside?


There are certain places that I want to protect, just ‘cause I’m not comfortable with talking about things like that yet. And I know that there will be a time and a place for certain things in my life to come out into the open, and I think that, you know, it’ll happen in its own time for its own purposes. But you know, it’s like sometimes things happen, and they’re too hard to deal with. And for instance, for a long time, I’ve, as you mentioned, like I write my songs, my own songs, I would write about love, all love songs. And I think the reason I couldn’t write about what happened in my life, you know, is because it was too close, still. You know what I mean? And too, too painful to talk about.


So you would write about what you wished would happen, rather than what had happened. Even though you think some of the things you’ve been through would — are the makings of wonderful songs that really touch people.


Yeah. And I think that when it — when I’m far enough removed from the situation in my life, in my heart, I think I’ll be able to write about it. You know what I mean?


Yup; good point. Perspective.




You know, um, so many people who describe your voice say it’s powerful. I mean, there’s a core in you, and your voice is powerful. Where does the power come from?


It comes from my heart. Truly. I if I sing a song, say it’s a cover, a song that I never wrote. I’ll listen to the song, and I’ll listen to the words, and the emotion that the song was written with, I can tap into that. And I think it comes from being empathetic too. I think that that’s one of my greatest gifts, is having empathy. And I think that’s something that the world lacks, a lot of, you know, consideration. ‘Hey, imagine how you would feel if someone were to do this to you.’ You know what I mean? And so when I sing, I try to use that, and I try to tap into the emotion that the song was written with. I’m still working on, you know, controlling my voice. I’m still working on learning how to use my voice to its maximum potential. Because I have a powerful voice, it takes a lot out of me when I sing. And so I’m trying to find that balance, you know, like to find the highs and the lows, and you know, try to project emotion in even the pronunciation of words in my songs.


How do you think your next album, whenever you’re ready to do it, will differ from the first?


I think it’s gonna be a lot more bluesy. Because I really like blues, and it’s a natural progression in me, you know. I love like old soulful music, and I think that the songs that I’m writing right now are more bluesy, I guess you could say. And I just think that my next album is gonna be a lot deeper too. And I think that this first album’s given me the courage to speak up a little more, you know, and not only sing of love. I mean, love is like the most beautiful thing. It’s the thing that you know, joins people together. And it’s important, but there are other things that are important too. And so I kinda want to write more about those things, things that maybe I was ashamed or scared to sing about before, or write about. And I’m also writing a book right now. And my poems are a lot deeper than my songs. Just ‘cause songs, you have to sing ‘em, you know. But poems, you don’t have to sing ‘em. And you can write whatever you want, and be as raw as you — you can. And you don’t have to worry about having to speak it. You can just write it in a — on a piece of paper, and that’s good enough.


Well, we’re looking forward to hearing you go deep in albums and poetry, and looking forward to hearing from you in the future in—in any way you choose to express yourself.


Thank you so much, Leslie, for having me on your show.


Thank you, Paula.


Good luck to you with all of your other interesting interviews.


Thank you so much —


Thank you.


– for sitting with us. Appreciate it. Thank you so much.


The expressive Paula Fuga – 28 years old with a powerful voice and a powerful message. She’s establishing a non- profit organization called the Liliko‘i Foundation to benefit women who, like Paula, have had to struggle. Mahalo for joining me for another episode of Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


My whole life, I’ve grown up hearing Fuga. So when I introduce, you know, myself, sometimes I say ‘Fuga.’ But it’s really ‘Funga.’ And I just learned what it means.


What does it mean?


It means flower blossom.


Do you like that meaning?


Oh, yeah.


What’s your grandma’s name? Tell us. Give her credit.


My grandma’s name is Judy Spencer.


From Waimanalo.


Yeah. That’s her nickname. Her real name is Hiltrudis. That’s my name. My middle name is Hiltrudis.


Oh, named after her.


And it means — it’s derived from Judith, which comes from Judah – and Judah means praise. So my first name means little in Spanish. So it’s Little Praise Flower Blossom.


Can I just call you Little?


You can call me Flower Blossom.


Kawika Kahiapo


Original air date: Tues., Jun. 09, 2009


Na Hoku Hanohano Award Winning Musician


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Na Hoku Hanohano-award-winning musician Kawika Kahiapo about fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a professional musician, his early experiences performing with Gabby “Pops” Pahinui and Pahinui family; the “it-was-meant-to-be” first encounter with the musicians who would become his group Kaukahi, and his dedication to giving back to the community.


Kawika Kahiapo Audio


Download the Transcript




We’re in the garage again. We’re looking at each other, and all the other, our families, our friends, everyone’s like, “Wait a minute, have you guys ever rehearsed–no?” You guys sound like a band.


Next, meet a slack-key guitar artist, a singer/composer, and a kahu in a small Windward Oahu church. He loves life in these islands… and, he enjoys giving slack-key tips to his friend, recording artist Jack Johnson. He is the heart of “Kaukahi”; he is Kawika Kahiapo.


That’s “Kaukahi” singing their huge hit from 2007, “Life in These Islands”. Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to another edition of “Long Story Short”. There’s more music to come later in the show, but now meet Kawika Kahiapo, the leader of the group, a man who learned some of his slack-key skills from the late great Gabby Pahinui. Kawika has a passion for his music and for protecting our island lifestyle.


I love your song, “Life in These Islands” which you wrote, and in that song you say, “From Kalalau to Naalehu, there’s a certain way we do what we do. Day by day, at work or play, in these islands…”


Wow. You should come sing the song with us some day.


Too bad I’m tone deaf. But you say, uh you refer to grandma’s favorite hula, brother strumming his old guitar, um, papa laughing with the keiki. Now, what I don’t know, is that nostalgia? Is that life as you’d like it in the future, or is that really your life in these islands?


The idea hopefully inspires people to think that if this is a place that you come to and want to be a part of this place that there’s an understanding of how we do what we do, here in these islands, and that’s, that covers everything from social, economical, um, environmental. So knowing, you know, when you go down to the beach pick up your trash, um emphasis on farming, ag, youth, all of that, just sustaining our unique way of life because it’s so simple but yet so profound and I think that’s what will carry us into the future.


Did you sit down to write that song, or did it come to you as you were in your car?


Part of it came when I was in the car. I was on the way to a gig I was a strolling musician at a, at a hotel, and uh, one day it started, and the melodies are coming to me and I’m, I dig out I think an old menu from a restaurant or something. I just start chicken scratch on that thing and uh, that started the process. I went and did my gig. And um, went home that night and, finished the song.


In 2007, “Life in These Islands” received a Hoku Award as the Song of the Year; you win as Ki Ho’alu Slack-Key Artist of the Year; “Kaukahi” is named Group of the Year…and your son Dalen receives a Hoku Award as well.


My son did the graphics and he won the graphics…of the year, so that was that was a good year for us. And uh, I think it was a good opportunity for the message of the song to get on a, a more high profile visibility level so being able to have dialogues or conversations like this to explain why is exactly why I wrote the song.


You know, you’re fairly young and um and I run into a number of young people lately who, when you talk about you know eating crack seed, and uh, licking the bag after you eat seed mui, stuff like that, they’re so nostalgic, they they miss that, they feel like those days are leaving us. And here you are saying yeah, it’s still good. It’s still happening.


Right. It’s interesting you make that comment because that’s been the process of uh this “Life in These Islands” kind of uh, journey. We sing the song and perform that, and some people actually dance the hula to that now, but um, it it really was intended to do that to be like a lens or a template so that people can say, not only say “I understand what you’re saying” but “these are the experiences that I’ve had”, you know.


They add more to them.


Oh, they totally add more to that and so uh, it sort of lends to the layers of all the ideas and scenarios that we play in our mind, and uh, so again, the diversity of all the cultures like um, the foods we eat at a potluck, right? So so diverse and, even the Hawaiian plate, Hawaiian plate, we talk about fusion into the culture, yeah? The long rice came from China, the salmon came from the Pacific Northwest, so, Hawaiian culture as we know it today, historically and chronologically I guess as time goes on I think that’s stuff that continues to add to the beauty of what life in these islands is all about.


Well, the examples you give in the song sound like they come from your life. So your Dad laughed with the keiki through the night?


Yeah. My Dad, my grandparents, we had music all the time. I was inspired by music. First for my Dad you know started playing ukulele when I was eight and—


Was your Dad a professional musician?


No, he wasn’t he could have been. But he spent his time, most of his time working two jobs.


What jobs?


Um, he was a state worker for 35 years, and during the day, he did construction, uh construction work… like stuff, and so he would, around the clock, be gone through the night, throughout the day, come home for dinner and…but because he was a state worker you had the time off, vacations and stuff so, during the summer we would camp for like a 6 weeks at a time, down at the beach. Now they call it squatting.


Where did you live?


Kaneohe, born and raised in Kaneohe.


So, what beach did you go to?


Uh, anywhere from like Waimanalo to North Shore. Mostly to Kahana Bay, my aunties, my aunty lived up in the valley of Kahana, so we would camp on the beach, hike to the swimming holes, pick mountain apple, just, that’s life in these islands, that’s, that’s classic stuff that we all, we all knew and grew up by, or um, before the influence of other electronic techno stuff came along you know.


So was standard camping gear your guitar or ukulele?


At some point it was actually, you know, before that it was just, you know, fishing pole, fishnet, but there were times that we went camping and, the guitar and ukulele was standard equipment.


Did you um, did you think you would become a professional musician, or did you have your sights set elsewhere?


Now, no I pretty much had my sights set since I was about 9 years old. I want to do this, you know.


Now did you want to be a star, or did you want to be a musician?


I wanted to just do it. I didn’t I didn’t know what the star thing meant. I didn’t know what the uh performer’s side of it was, all I knew was that uh, for instance when my Dad put a guitar in my lap, it was tuned to slack-key, so it’s a complete open tuning. It’s an alternative to you know kiho alu. But he stuck the guitar in my lap, and before I strummed it, he strummed it for me. And just the vibration of the guitar, it to me I describe it as a spiritual experience. And from then on I felt like, “Man, I want to do this so, I would just practice in my room for hours at a time… nine, ten, twelve years old, all the way to high school, and, had jam sessions in the garage with my uncles…all the time.


And there was a certain calabash uncle too?


At some point, when I was about a sophomore in high school, my uncles would bring Gabby Pahinui over to the house…




And uh, man did I pick his brain.


And did you play with him?


I did play with him. Quite a few times, and he taught me some pretty profound lessons that are like just unbelievably um simple, you know? Once, one particular time, he talked about, a piece of advice that he gave me was, all music, whoever um was inspired to create or perform is influenced by other outside influences, and so he said, you can take music from one genre, from another an another, and everyone knows his first love was jazz.


Wow. What else did he teach you?


Um, discipline? Uh, the importance of keeping your guitar in tune, and knowing that as a musician, uh, there’s certain gaps to fill, and certain gaps to leave alone, you know. Nowadays I think a lot of the young people who want to do music or perform um have this sense that wow, I want to flash with my my ability or style. What he told me, he says, “Whether you’re playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or some jazz piece, make it come from here (POINTS TO HEART), not just here (POINTS TO HEAD). Because I think technically and uh, I guess emotionally or even spiritually, people will know whether you’re performing from your head or your heart.


Was he mentoring you, or were these things that came along just by the way?


It was both. There were times when it was just casual and, for all the parties that we played at, all the times that we we got together I knew one thing. My uncles was trying to, my uncles was trying to stick me in front of him, you know like a check this kid out you know and, and so there would be times when we’d be playing and so Gabby would say “Oh play something” and I I was already at the point where I would try to mimic some of his uh, guitar moves and uh, I think he noticed that, and that starting to figure out that uh, it got to a point where we were playing, he would sometimes just call out, “OK, Dave, take one you know I mean, I was just soaking it up, I was like a kid in a candy shop you know it was like, hangin’ out with Gabby it was one of the most memorable things in my life.


So how would you say he influences you today?


For instance today, I’m performing with his son Martin Pahinui. And what I’ve purposely done is incorporated a lot of those phrases I guess, or guitar riffs, that I learned off of some of Gabby’s albums. Now that I’m able to play with Martin, the songs that he sings and my ability to to to do that, uh, Martin has a big smile on his face. And he says “I’m so happy to make music with you”, because there’s a there’s a there’s a awesome synergy and, so I guess what I’m doing is just perpetuating and being able to continue something that Gabby deposited into my life. And uh, yeah. Being able to do that is is an awesome thing.


Let me interrupt our conversation with Kawika Kahiapo just long enough to remind you all that we’ll see and hear “Life in These Islands” recorded live at the Outrigger Reef “Kani Ka Pila Grille” at the end of this program.


You know I know you always knew you had your sights set on music you say, but you became a carpenter.


You know you gotta eventually get a real job and feed your family so, this year, my wife of 30 years, um, and my five children, um, part of life in these islands is you know, the whole thing, you know? There’s times of uh want, and there’s times of prosperity, but I wouldn’t trade any day or any moment for for anything and uh, but my involvement in being a carpenter, I went through the whole thing, Carpenters’ Union, building homes, building high rises. Coming home all dirty.


You’ve reached a point in your life now though that you don’t take any other jobs but music jobs.


Pretty much, yeah, I’ve given up the carpentry thing. I always say that I once in a while do a side job for somebody but, I’m building an addition on my house right now, but other than that I’m just doing the uh, the music thing and, I’m a kahu of a little church that we gather in Kaneohe at He‘eia State Park. And most of my life now is, basically, community. And building community and being parts of different organizations, and community groups and agencies that bring some sort of assistance to some school or youth group, community group.


How formal is your church that meets at He‘eia Kea State Park?


Very informal. In fact I think if you walked in at one of our gatherings, it would look more like a family gathering under the tree. Um, we meet at He‘eia State Park and um, on a nice they we’d be under the tree, only when it rains we’ll go inside. So it’s a time of just sitting down and just um, kuka kuka talk story, I’m not much a talking head as we just try to try to facilitate as an ohana. What are our concerns, what are our triumphs, victories. Uh, each each individual is able to share what’s going on in his or her life. And how they’re giving back to community, so I think I try to translate all of that. The bottom line is um, what good is all of that, unless through our hands or through our actions we effect change in our community, so that’s what it’s all about.


That’s a big responsibility to be kahu of even a small church, but from a young age you took responsibility. You got married young.


Yeah. Right outta high school um, so my wife and I were both 19 years old… when we got married and that was in 1979 so…


Did she go to Castle High School as well in Kaneohe?


No, actually, she was born and raised in Kaneohe. But she went to Roosevelt. Yeah, so, I met her at some party and we got acquainted and actually I think I won her heart by playing a song for her.


What song, do you remember?


Uh, “Ku‘u Home O Kahaluu” actually. So I sat there playing the song and, she actually drew a little closer to me and, the rest is history I guess—


And now you have five children?


Five children.


But you come from a family of six children—


Six children, yeah, Kaneohe.


And did you expect, well did you want a large family?


I did, I did think at least at some time in my life when I was young, thinking I would like to have a family of 5 or 6 kids too. You know, I mean just, I mean all the stuff, I mean domestically when you think about it, being raised in a big family, there’s all the stuff that goes on, the typical animosity and all of that and, sibling rivalries, but I think uh, but the beauty of being raised in a family of multiple siblings, you learn a whole lot of lessons about sharing, taking care of each other, learning when it was your turn to move into a different role or responsibility in the house or something else, like when you’re old enough to cook rice, and um…


Did you have to wait for hand-me-downs?


All the time. All the time.


So it taught you about doing, doing with less too.


Doing with less and being content with what you had. My Mom and Dad worked hard to raise us, to put food on the table, but we never lacked in love and we never lacked in uh, fun times, and um, knowing that you know I mean. It’s funny ‘cause growing up in that situation, you don’t think to yourself, “Uh oh, we’re poor, we don’t have money.” You just live life making things work and being happy in every situation and being content you know.


I see you as content, even though, you know I’m sure you, you’re striving as a performer, and you’ve got ambition and plans. But it seems like you’re you’re happy with what you have as well.


I try to keep that um, state of mind. And then again there’s a good, there’s there’s good days and bad days. But I have to thank my parents for that really, just their influence on us to remember to be thankful for everything you have. And I guess it was all those times camping down at the beach.


Your career has really taken a turn. For for many years, you were a very much in demand side-man, you were a studio musician. All of the top groups here locally wanted you, and you did a wonderful job on guitar. But now you’ve moved into a a solo and a top group format. How did that happen?


I don’t think you could describe how that happens. Um, you just do what you do and um, we were having this conversation the other day, we were on Kauai this past weekend and our boys were talking about um, the ability to perform…and play music, and and perform for for monetary compensation and all the fringe benefits that come with that but we all agreed, I think most musicians agree that we are in a place and uh, and are able to do what we do, what we do, because we love the craft you know. Like one who paints or does poetry or, or whatever performing arts anyone has, I think you gotta, you gotta have a a absolute love and passion for what you’re doing. When that’s your motivation, when you perform, then the public I think, basically sets up the stepping stones where do you go and how successful you become and, so I’m, thankful for a lot of that and um, being able to play but I’ve really, even with all the nominations and whatever and awards come with it I’m in a lifelong commitment to say that uh, till I go to the grave I think I’ll be, making and performing music, just to bring smile to people’s faces, and inspire them in a way that will bring back a memory or, or some situation that will cause them to think, you know.


What brought your group together, the men of Kaukahi?


Um, one of the members, Dean Wilhelm, was a member of another group, and uh, he kind of laughs when he tells a story, he had been sort of stalking me for some period of time, actually about 3 or 5 years. Finally he got my number from someone, a mutual friend or ours.


Did you know his work already?


Uh, I did know about the group that he was performing in. So I knew who he was and didn’t know him as a person yet. So we got acquainted, we started talking and then he came along one day and introduced um Walt, who’s in our band, Walt Mits Keale, his Mom is a Keale. And we started, you know, fumbling around with some music. And so Dean was still performing with Barrett Awai in the group Paiea. And um, uh, just a series of events, started to unfold and Paiea eventually disbanded and I think Dean and Barrett had a talk one day and “why don’t we have-get Walt and Kawika together and form a band so, Dean had a casual barbeque at his house one night? Invited us over. Let’s just jam, you know, so uh it was my first time meeting Barrett at this barbeque. So after the food and the talking and everything we-s gathered in the garage and from from the first song we counted down, just ok what chord are you playing in? And from the first song, an hour and a half later, we just played song after song after song and, at the end of that hour and a half of, you know, garage jam—


You’re in the garage again.


We’re in the garage again. We’re looking at each other, and all the other, our families, our friends, everyone’s like, “Wait a minute, have you guys ever rehearsed, no?” You guys sound like a band. And it just, the synergy was there from from day 1.


You just knew at that point?


Yeah, we knew some things, we weren’t sure then we were a band but then we started talking and then, it was like, there was a natural thing to do. The boys were in transition. So was I, you know Kaukahi I describe is a, is a sum of our parts? So me with the slack-key and Walt’s ukulele, it’s the combination of what brings it all together is what each guy brings to the group. We’re still trying to work through some sharpening issues regarding our vocal sharpness, our musical ability, and and synergy. But uh, we only hope to get better.


You’re awfully good. Um, you’ve given lessons I think, ki ho ‘alu, slack-key lessons to Jack Johnson?


Yeah, you know uh—


Multi-Platinum recording artist?


I was at a wedding for uh Pancho Sullivan, local surfer, he was getting married, him and his beautiful wife Haunani, uh, were getting married and at their reception, a bunch of us slack-key artists were performing. And uh, so I went up and I played my set, and prior to that, Jack Jack had come in and sort of introduced himself to everybody and we had a bunch of mutual friends too, but we never formally met…each other. And after I, I had played was proceeding to leave the gate, to get in my car and get out of here, and I felt a tap on my back and I turned around it was Jack, he was like, he came to me and said, “I’ve been learning slack-key from an old guy on the North Shore and uh, I hear a lot of slack-key all over the place but your slack-key is like something different.” I get that a lot so um, we exchanged numbers, information um, decided to get together and hang out. And from then on, we started to grow in our relationship, and um, later that year he invited me to come and sing for his son’s baby party and we started to play together and and uh, so this whole journey you know is like so amazing because I’m actually coming into a role of, just living out a dream of serving community, playing music, hangin’ out with cool people, and uh, what a ride.


Mahalo to our extremely cool and talented guest, Kawika Kahiapo.


and now stay with us and listen to “Kaukahi” and “Life in These Islands”, right after this 20 second thank-you to Sony. For PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.