Ka Himeni ‘Ana celebrates Hawaiian music

Aug. 23, 2014 | 0 Comments In the Star-Advertiser Friday Print Edition
The members of Keauhou -- Aina Asing, left, Kahanuola Solatorio, Zachary Lum and Kaipo Tilton -- flanked Marlene Sai and Richard M. Towill in 2008 after winning Ka Himeni 'Ana, which continues this year despite Towill's death in January. (John Berger / jberger@staradvertiser.com)

The members of Keauhou — Aina Asing, left, Kahanuola Solatorio, Zachary Lum and Kaipo Tilton — flanked Marlene Sai and Richard M. Towill in 2008 after winning Ka Himeni ‘Ana, which continues this year despite Towill’s death in January. (John Berger / jberger@staradvertiser.com)

BY JOHN BERGER / jberger@staradvertiser.com

An important era in Hawaiian music comes to an end this weekend with the 30th annual Ka Himeni ‘Ana Hawaiian music competition Saturday at Hawaii Theatre. Richard M. Towill, founder of Ka Himeni ‘Ana and its primary underwriter during its 31-year existence, died in January.

His son, Rick Towill, is presenting the contest in his father’s honor. After this year, however, changes are in the works.

KA HIMENI ‘ANA

» Where: Hawaii Theatre
» When: 7 p.m. Saturday
» Cost: $20-$30
» Info: (808) 528-0506, hawaiitheatre.com

Will the concert series continue? The answer to that question won’t be known until Saturday.

“We don’t know how it’ll go going forward, but we’ll be able to announce it at the concert,” Towill said. “We don’t know exactly where it’s going to go next.”

RICHARD TOWILL created Ka Himeni ‘Ana in 1983 after sitting through a company Christmas party where the “background musicians” played so loudly that conversation was impossible without yelling. Towill talked about it with his secretary, Marge Hansen, who agreed that traditional Hawaiian music was becoming an endangered art form and that a contest would encourage a revival of interest in traditional nahenahe (sweet, melodious) unamplified Hawaiian music and traditional Hawaiian vocal groups.

“(My father) remembered how nice it was when he was a little boy and grew up for a few years at Kapaa on Kauai,” Rick Towill said. “During the holidays, a touring car would come and four Hawaiians would get out of the car and just serenade them with Hawaiian music. The sweet melodiousness was something he always remembered.”

Hansen was the “spearhead” of the event for many years, Rick Towill recalled.

“She was the one that solicited for the groups, came up with the program for the evening, all sorts of stuff,” Towill said. “For the last four months leading up to the contest (each year), she’d put in quite an amount of time to get the logistics right.”

It’s a true test to one’s ability in singing. To be able to deliver Hawaiian music in a theater with a large audience unamplified — (it’s a) very operatic approach.”

–Ku’uipo Kumukahi
She won in 1988 as a member of Kamaka, Beazley and Kumukahi

The rules were simple but uncompromising. Each group must have at least two and no more than five members. At least half the members must perform with and play an instrument. All contestants must perform without microphones.

Musical instruments must be considered “traditional” as the term currently applies to Hawaiian music — acoustic guitar, ukulele, acoustic “stand-up” bass (or acoustic bass guitar or washtub “pakini” bass), steel guitar, piano and other instruments that were used in the 19th century or earlier. In 2012, one group used pre-contact Hawaiian percussion instruments.

With the exception of steel guitar, all instruments must be acoustic and unamplified.

The songs must either date from before 1945 or be written in the nahenahe style.

Each duo or group is judged on the quality of its harmonizing, its pronunciation and use of the Hawaiian language, and its overall musicianship.

The Towill family underwrote the competition, provided prizes and donated the countless stalks of fragrant white ginger and other fragile island flowers that decorated the stage.

One of the traditions of Ka Himeni ‘Ana was that the audience could take the flowers home with them. Towill family ginger brightened many island homes the morning after Ka Himeni ‘Ana.

Ho'opi'i 'Ohana took home the Ka Himeni 'Ana crown at the Hawaii Theatre in 2010. (Courtesy Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame)

Ho’opi’i ‘Ohana took home the Ka Himeni ‘Ana crown at the Hawaii Theatre in 2010. (Courtesy Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame)

KA HIMENI ‘ANA was held at the University of Hawaii’s Orvis Auditorium in the early years. In the 1990s, it moved to the Hawaii Theatre.

Rick Towill said Nona Beamer came up with the name (“old-fashioned singing”) and helped with “all of the little things that make it what it is, and make it Hawaiian as much as possible.” She also recruited her brother, “Uncle Keola” Beamer, as emcee.

Nona Beamer was also one of the judges in the early years. Others included Charles K.L. Davis, Irmgard Farden Aluli and Bill Kaiwa.

Judges this year are Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Haunani Apoliona, Nina Keali’iwahamana, Aaron Mahi and Nola Nahulu.

Ku’uipo Kumukahi, who won in 1988 as a member of Kamaka, Beazley and Kumukahi, recalled being nervous “because of who the judges were. They were the who’s who of Hawaiian music — icons — and I was so scared of their judgment. The good part was that we entered when the event was at Orvis Auditorium and the event was two nights. So basically the first night was rehearsal for us and the second night is when the judges showed up.”

Kumukahi described winning Ka Himeni ‘Ana as a “steppingstone” to her successful career. She is a Na Hoku Hanohano award winner as a solo artist, as a member of Ke’alohi (with Kamaka and Iokepa DeSantos) and as the featured vocalist with the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Serenaders.

“I will forever be grateful,” she said. “It taught me humility and to understand my own capacity to deliver Hawaiian songs. The steppingstone led to opportunities and honing my skills in Hawaiian music in any setting.

“It’s a true test to one’s ability in singing. To be able to deliver Hawaiian music in a theater with a large audience unamplified — (it’s a) very operatic approach.”

Her partners, Del Beazley and Chris Kamaka, are two of the many other Hawaiian performers for whom Ka Himeni ‘Ana was a career booster.

Winners who went on to record — some as Hoku award winners — include the Kanele’a Connection (1993), Kanilau (1995), ‘Ale’a (1998), Pai’ea (1999), Holunape (2004), Pilioha (2006) and Manoa Voices (2007). For some, a record deal was one of their prizes. Others recorded on their own.

HORACE DUDOIT III, a founding member of Ho’okena, won Ka Himeni ‘Ana in 1986 as a member of a predecessor group, Kipona Leo Hawai’i, with Kamaka, Manu Boyd and William “Ama” Aarona.

“We were just doing it for the love of it. We liked the format of singing unamplified,” Dudoit recalled. “To do songs from that certain era was even more appealing. The acoustics at Orvis Auditorium were good. It worked out awesome and to gain a $1,000 prize — even (divided) four ways, that was still big money back then.”

Towill said that in recent years it’s been difficult to get enough qualified entrants — groups that can sing Hawaiian songs and perform unamplified.

“That’s been the biggest difficulty. It’s really hard to get guys to come out, but when once they come out, look where it goes. It’s an irony of life,” Towill said.

The “irony” includes the fact that while some of the winning groups have been relatively short-lived, individual members of those groups have gone on to success as solo artists or with other groups — Eric Lee of the Kanile’a Connection, Kale Hannahs of ‘Ale’a and Barrett Awai of Pai’ea, to name three.

Kumukahi summed up Ka Himeni ‘Ana as one of the ultimate challenges for singers in Hawaii.

“Vocal techniques are absolutely necessary, as is stage presence, blending, dynamics and most importantly, song deliverance,” Kumukahi said. “A singer must take these components and be able to adjust each facet at the very last minute to convey everything to the audience.

“As a group, everyone needs to know each other so well and yield to one another accordingly, so that the performance is seamless.”

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