Maui celebrates Hawaiian music

Text Stephen Fox
Thread music

The Aloha Maui Music Festival celebrates the culmination of months of training as the graduating students of the University of Hawaii Maui College's (UHMC) Institute of Hawaiian Music (IHM) show what they have learned. With the beautiful backdrop of the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens to set the ambiance, the audience will enjoy the students' works as well as performances by notable professional musicians connected to the program.

"We tried to focus on the folks who have been mentors for the program," explains Keola Donaghy, who currently runs IHM. "So Uncle George Kahumoku, obviously, because he's been there from the beginning. Kenneth Makuakane is another of our primary mentors; he lives on Oahu but comes here frequently, and whenever he does he makes time to work with our students."

Composer and educator Robert Wehrman dreamed up IHM while on sabbatical from his duties running the UHMC music program. Wehrman's health required that he step away, and the program started in 2012 under the direction of Hoku and Grammy winner George Kahumoku, Jr. Composer and performer Keola Donaghy took the helm in Spring of 2013, and currently heads IHM and the UHMC music program. Fresh from completing a PhD in ethnomusicology in Aotearoa (New Zealand), Donaghy is a former governor of the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts and a prolific composer of music recorded by top Hawaii artists.

"The purpose is to prepare musicians for the Hawaii entertainment and music industry," Donaghy explains, "to help them develop the skills they will need, but also to provide the mentoring aspect of working with established musicians. In the history of Hawaiian music, much of the knowledge is passed down through the family, and that's fragmented over the years because of dispersion of the families, not everybody's living close to their parents anymore. There are folks who really want to learn Hawaiian music and don't have anyone in their ohana who can guide them."

The program has three foundational aspects: olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian language), music theory, and applied music. The latter is where students take classes and lessons in voice or their instruments of choice, often from the best musicians in the genre.

The mentors are the real power of the program. Kahumoku brought in a stellar list from the start, including Maui musicians Richard Ho'opi'i, Willie K, and the late Dennis Kamakahi. Other prominent musicians would stop in when they came to perform at Kahumoku's ongoing slack key shows at the Napili Kai Beach Resort, including Led Ka'apana and Cyril Pahunui. Donaghy has added Keali'i Reichel, Barry Flanagin of Hapa, Eric Gilliom and Kenneth Makuakane to the list of regular mentors.

"When I hear an artist is coming to Maui," Donaghy says, "I try to reach out and see if they can come in. And unless there's a scheduling conflict, all of them have been happy to come in and work with the students."

Makuakane was a founder of the Pandanus Club, and a continuing light in the Hawaiian music pantheon. He has become a bulwark mentor and a huge asset to the IHM program.

"He's got 14 Na Hoku Hanohano awards," says Donaghy, "and this year, he's being honored with a lifetime achievement award. I call him the Swiss Army knife of Hawaiian music. He has awards as a solo artist, as a group member, song-writer, producer, and engineer, which is more categories than any other artist."

The UHMC faculty and the mentors have now shepherded two cohorts through the program. In culmination of their months of training, the graduating cohort has recorded a CD that will be available for purchase at the festival. The songs all relate to Maui in some way, and will be performed as the day progresses.

"The festival event was really driven by the students," Donaghy relates. "They realized that they had benefited greatly from the efforts of Uncle George as well as the first group of students, who had done numerous performances to generate donations for our scholarship fund. So these folks decided they wanted to pay it forward and put some money in for the next group."

Supporting those around you is deeply embedded in Hawaiian culture, in concepts of kokua, of lokahi and laulima. Not all of the students are Hawaiian, but all have had to learn the concepts as they learn the language and just learn the art.

"More than any other discipline, they depend on each other for success," Donaghy explains. "Playing music, you have to work together. In an ensemble situation, if you let the personalities get in the way, it's a sink or swim situation. And they are benefiting from the knowledge that has been left for them to learn, whether from practitioners or from books, but somebody did the work and created the songs they are recording."

IHM forms a vehicle to propel Hawaiian culture into the future, and some students enter with well-developed cultural goals in mind. Leihuanani Keali'inohomoku is a former pre-school teacher at Kamehameha Schools.

"I wanted to get into IHM to further my knowledge of playing children's mele," she explains. "At the preschool, we would often play the same mele that were played twenty years ago. Mele is one of the vehicles we use to inspire learning for children. I wanted to begin to write children's mele to help build the curriculum."

"I really emphasize how important it is that they use that music for social good," Donaghy relates. "Their music has the power to influence society and the way things are developing."

The Aloha Maui Music Festival will provide a day of fun and relaxation in a beautiful spot, but it's really about something deeper. On a practical level, the students themselves created the festival as a way to give back to the community and to begin a scholarship fund for the next cohort of students who have already begun to audition and who start in Fall 2015. On a deeper level, IHM is an anchor to secure the place of Hawaiian music in the Maui community as the world changes around us.

The show opens with hula halau Pa'u O Hi'iaka under the direction of Hokulani Holt-Padilla. Other performers include Kenneth Makuakāne, George Kahumoku, Nā Wai 'Ehā, Mailani and, of course, the graduating students of the IHM program.

Aloha Maui Music Festival
Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, 150 Kanaloa Ave., Kahului, Maui
Sat., April 18, 10am
$10–15, all ages


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

2017 S King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96826
Ikaika Hussey
Creative Director
Mae Ariola
Will Caron
Copy Editor
Karen Shishido
Assistant Editor
James Charisma