Jack Johnson (left) and John Cruz (right) jamming together

Sound travels

Text Stephen Fox

Imagine a professional recording facility, place it in paradise, and now put it on wheels inside a solar-powered, retro-hipster Airstream trailer that you can roll up in to any beach or mountain with a road. The story only gets better: this dream studio is real, and it belongs to the Mana Mele project. Providing innovative educational and artistic opportunities for Hawai‘i youth, the project brings supplemental programs to a growing set of Hawaiian charter schools, currently serving about 2,500 students annually. In the summer of 2015, they launched the mobile studio program.

Mana Mele arose as a joint venture of non-profit Mana Maoli, which supports culturally grounded education, and the MELE (Music Entertainment and Learning Experience) recording and music business program at Honolulu Community College. During school hours, the studio forms the centerpiece of an incredibly sophisticated learning system—using music, media production and Hawaiian culture to support language, math and science curricula.

“The idea draws on our love for music in Hawai‘i,” says John Vierra of MELE. “We tap into that so students who wouldn’t generally be interested in science are learning through music. For instance, physics concepts are applied to acoustics, and we’re allowing students to engage. And then they realize they have a love of science.”

Vierra’s MELE program provides technical expertise, mentors, interns and learning opportunities for the Mana Mele students. Kelli Heath Cruz started out in Vierra’s program, and is now Project Lead Engineer/Instructor for Mana Mele, consulting with curriculum designers to connect the academic subjects to the practical components.

“I offer my insights as an audio engineer to the person who brings the educational and cultural side,” Cruz explains. “So it’s not only about working with musicians. We’re merging the art and science and culture of recording music.”

“Knowledge should be subjective and intimate,” project director Keola Nakanishi relates. “When students are being introduced to seemingly abstract concepts such as sound waves, we want the students to be able to master the content in a way that is tangible and useful.”

Mana Mele is partly funded by a grant from the federal Administration for Native Americans, which also covers Native Hawaiians, but is actively pursuing economic self-sustainability, in part through commercial use of the studio.

“In non-school hours, it’s a social enterprise venture,” Nakanishi says. “We can offer power, sound, entertainment and recording of audio and video to businesses, musicians, other non-profits and schools, individuals and families.”

At these events, students form part of the staff, supervised and mentored by industry professionals. In addition to the studio and engineers, Mana Mele can provide musicians and dancers for events, along with students to help with planning and promotion, and on-site logistical support. Sean Livingston Mosley coordinates mentors and keeps the studio operational; Cruz engineers. Musical mentors have included Liko Martin, Paula Fuga and Lopaka Colon. Wayne Enos, lead singer of Natural Vibrations, coached ‘ukulele for a year at one school recently.

While the program will provide real-world skills in entertainment jobs, the vision is much bigger. “We’re nurturing not just the next wave of engineers, videographers and music professionals,” Nakanishi explains. ‘We’re cultivating a new wave of leaders. When they learn how to build a budget and plan an event, how to communicate, how to use social media—all of these skills are transferrable to any industry.”

The final and most important piece of the puzzle is culture. In addition to the practical and scientific components, the program is based firmly in Hawaiian culture and sense of place.

“To function and live together, you’ve got to know about your place, whether you’re Hawaiian or not,” says Cruz. “If you are Hawaiian, it’s a way to connect with your kupuna—your ancestors; you’re learning history. Grounding our youth in the culture that surrounds them gives purpose, a sense of place and a reason to keep themselves growing positively.“

Students are already using the mobile studio to produce knowledge resources, including interviews with kupuna and instructional videos about topics such as dryland kalo planting and canoe lashing.

“They’re creating a digital place and culture-based curriculum,” Nakanishi explains. “The idea is walking successfully in both worlds—the traditional Hawaiian world and the technological one—to find a balance.”

Currently, Mana Mele is fundraising to convert the truck that pulls the Airstream to biodiesel, to release a series of CDs of music by the students and mentors, and to begin a project called ‘Opio TV, which would broadcast student news stories. Nakanishi lists three ways to help: Make a donation at manamaoli.org/donate; volunteer your time in the classroom, the office, at events, in-person or remotely; invest in Mana Mele event services and studio products (manamele.org). There is also a recently begun kickstarter campaign that you can back.


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