Kono ‘Ohana wins final Ka Himeni ‘Ana
BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
An important era in Hawaiian music came to a close at Hawaii Theatre on Saturday when Manu Boyd, emcee of the 30th annual Ka Himeni ‘Ana Hawaiian Music Competition, announced near the end of evening that “this is the final Ka Himeni ‘Ana.”
Boyd’s announcement placed Ka Himeni ‘Ana alongside Peter Moon’s Kanikapila concerts at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which ended in 1995, and the Brothers Cazimero May Day concerts at the Waikiki Shell, which ended in 2007. All were important showcases for Hawaiian music, yet all three reached a point in time where it seemed their eras had passed or interest in them had waned.
“This is not a time for sadness,” he continued. “This is a time to celebrate the beautiful beautiful voices, the singing voices, and (the opportunity) to be judged by such beautiful people, and to be organized by Richard (Towill), his lovely wife, Crystal, his dad (the late Richard M. Towill), the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, and all of the ohana in the audience here. Keep all of this magic that we have experienced and that we continue to experience, share it with others (and) promote Hawaiian music.”
The announcement meant that this year’s winners, the Kono ‘Ohana — performing for the first time as a trio, with Chloe Kono joining her father, Gregg Kono, and brother, Grant Kono — would be the final winner in an illustrious list going back to 1983. Gregg and Grant had placed third performing as a duo in 2013.
Ka Himeni ‘Ana was unique among Hawaii talent contests in require all vocalists to sing without microphones and all musicians with the exception of steel guitarists to perform unplugged. Contestants were judged on the quality of the group’s harmonizing, its pronunciation and use of the Hawaiian language and overall musicianship.
The field of four — Kekani, Kono Ohana, Maikapu ‘Uwai and Sons of Kapalama — was the smallest in memory. The apparent lack of interest among members of the Hawaii music community was mentioned as a major factor in the decision to end the competition. That said, the four competing groups represented the traditions of nahenahe (sweet, melodious) acoustic Hawaiian music in compelling style.
The Sons of Kapalama — Pomaika’i Brown (steel guitar), Keli’ikai Paleka (guitar), Halemana Mullaney (ukulele) and Dana Makaila (stand up bass) earned applause a zesty rendition of “A’oia.”
Kekani — John H. Palos (vocals/guitar) and Clyde Oshiro (guitar) — was applauded first for Palos’ strong falsetto singing and then for Oshiro’s guitar work. The duo’s treatment of “Ikona” was a delightful take on an island standard.
Maikapu ‘Uwai — James Mauliola Keaka Stone Jr. (guitar) and Van Ohumukini (ukulele) — opened with an oli (chant) and did some a capella singing in their animated and energetic set. Stone’s dramatic guitar played added to the visual impact.
OHA trustee Haunani Apoliona, Nina Keali’iwahamana and Nola Nahulu were the judges.
Boyd was an excellent host. He shifted seamlessly between standard English, Hawaiian and pidgin, and presided with a sense of humor that was a bit edgy at times — but witty rather than mean. Had there been any tourists or malihini (newcomers) in the audience, they would not have felt unwanted.
The evening was dedicated to the late Richard M. Towill, the founder and underwriter of Ka Himeni ‘Ana throughout its 31 year existence, who died in January. The second half of the program began with a fascinating video memorial to Towill and the competition he created — Stone, Nahulu, Keali’iwahamana and Poma’i Keawe-Lyman were seen in interview clips sharing their mana’o (thoughts). Next came performances by some of the many previous winners
Nahulu and five of the other surviving members of Waikahe, a female choral group, recreated the vocal harmonies that made them the winners of the first Ka Himeni ‘Ana competition in 1983. Nahulu explained that in its earliest years Ka Himeni ‘Ana allowed groups to compete a capella; the rules were later changed to set a maximum of five members per group, in 1983 Waikahi numbered eight, and required that at least half the members of the group perform with and play an instrument.
Many folks in the audience were singing along as Waikahe closed their section of the show with “Kamehameha Waltz.”
Chris Kamaka, Del Beazley and Ku’uipo Kumukahi — winners in 1988 as Kamaka, Beazley & Kumukahi — took Ka Himeni ‘Ana to some places it hadn’t previously gone in terms of looseness and comedy. The program is traditionally pretty straight, each group comes out, does its two songs and leaves. Beazley was riffing from the moment he appeared on stage, walking with exaggerated slowness — and before long he handed his phone to someone in the front row so they could photograph him.
Free-form, off the wall local-style comedy has not been a Ka Himeni ‘Ana thing. Beazley made it work, and the crowd loved it.
“Ka Himeni ‘Ana will never be the same!” he announced during one break between the musical performances that displayed the instrumental and vocal talents that made the trio winners more than a quarter century ago.
Kamaka, Beazley and Kumukahi stayed on to provide unobtrusive instrumental support for Boyd (who won in 1986 as a member of Kipona Leo Hawai ‘i with Kamaka, William “Ama” Aarona and Horace Dudoit III). Boyd opened with one of his own compositions, “Kulaiwai Uluwehiwehi,” and followed it with “Ka Hinano o Puna” (written by Kainani Kahaunaele) and a Dennia Kamakahi song about Moloka’i, “Aloha Ko’olau.”
Last year’s winners, Kaiao, displayed their winning combination of talent and stage presence in the first half of the show with a Hawaiian medley that featured all three members — Ku Souza (stand up bass), Liki Tavete (guitar) and ‘Ekolu Chang (ukulele) — as lead vocalists. The trio showed another side of its repertoire with a hapa haole salute to Andy Cummings when they returned to perform as the final act after intermission.
As in years past the stage was decorated in white ginger and other fragile blossoms. And, as in years past, the beautiful fragrant flowers were free for the taking after “Hawai’i Aloha” was sung and the show was over. The gathering and distribution of the blossoms gave lucky audience members a final bittersweet memento of Richard M. Towill and the competition he created to perpetuate the traditions of nahenahe acoustic Hawaiian music.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.