My father-in-law was celebrating his 85th birthday on Oahu and all the family from near and far went to celebrate him. My husband’s family is from Hawaii and it’s where we met, at a radio station we both worked at. To this day we remain intense devotees of Hawaiian music. Earlier in his career, my husband produced a few Hawaiian albums, that are still talked about. Recently, we’d seen a remarkable young talent from the islands, a young man named Makana, a guitar virtuoso who blew us both away. Makana, while not Hawaiian, was a child prodigy and studied under one of the great slack key guitar masters, Sonny Chillingworth. When we arrived in Honolulu we wanted to find out who this guy was and how he learned to play. Of course, our friend, a world class percussionist Gerardo Velez knew everything about him and had played with him. We discussed how tough it is to break into the mainland and international music scene if you’re from Hawaii – no matter your brilliance. Makana has actually released 5 albums, with the most success in the Hawaiian islands, and he’s currently recording another new collection in Los Angeles. Iz, (full name Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) best known internationally for his magnificent ukelele rendition of Wonderful World, was the exception in terms of Hawaiian music recognized globally. Some might cite the 60’s singer Don Ho, of course, who for me, isn’t worth mentioning in the context of true Hawaiian music (just my opinion, of course, others might disagree ). Unlike Bob Marley and the entrancing beat of reggae, Hawaiian music is hard to export — too laid back and not a rhythmic pattern you catch onto immediately.
Now, if you don’t know my friend Gerardo Velez by name, you’ve heard him, somewhere. He’s the guy on percussion next to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, his roommate at the time!
Gerardo also started Spyro Gyra and has played with every major great in every decade from Bowie, to Sir Elton, to Deodato, to Guns n Roses, to Stevie Wonder to Jack Johnson now. Gerardo is a human in constant motion. A percussionist, he will rhythmically beat on anything nearby him from a table to his chest to a conga if one is handy. He’s also a virtual walking musical encyclopedia of every musician and their contribution from the late 50s on. I couldn’t believe the information this guy is carrying in his head. Taking a break from the brutal east coast, Gerardo and his wife Heather are in Hawaii (with their dog Stella) experiencing a different island life than his childhood in Puerto Rico. What a road he’s traveled. Gerardo shared a story about taking Jimi Hendrix to meet Miles Davis at his house. Can you imagine? That’s one I’d have loved to have witnessed.
During the time we were in the islands we heard a lot of real Hawaiian music and experienced some real hula dancing, not Waikiki kind. We saw dolphins at sea and a few whales and some momma tortoises and their babies. We thanked the many Hawaiian spirits for our beautiful trip when we left, sadly, one more time. While I understand that Hawaiian music may not make it off the islands I love with the big success I’d want the musicians to have, maybe the music belongs just there – in the flow of the palm trees and the the beauty of the Ko’olau mountains and the turquoise water and fabulous flowers everywhere, untarnished…