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Making a Difference: Let the Music Play

How Dave and Sherry Pettus help Honokaa with an annual music festival.


Dave and Sherry Pettus

Photo: macario

On the morning of the first performance of what was to become the Hamakua Music Festival, Sherry Pettus woke up with a huge rash on her face. It had been raining. For months, she and her husband, Dave, had been sleeping in a tent on their property outside Honokaa, while their home was being built. Mud was at times so thick “our shoes got stuck walking from one end of the tent to the other.” Both phone lines emerging from their small macadamia nut grove—one for them, one for the festival—were out. They had little money and no job prospects.

Since moving to this small plantation town, their focus had been on this festival, and, the night before it was scheduled, they discovered that only 60 out of 2,500 tickets had been sold. The internationally famous jazz pianist Gene Harris, who they had contacted because they were fans, would open the festival to a nearly empty theater.

“We were pretty nervous,” Sherry says.

That afternoon, as they were putting up lights in the 500-seat Honokaa People’s Theater, someone noticed a bustle of activity outside.

“So I walked out, and there was this huge line starting to form, and that was the first time that I thought, OK, maybe this will work,” Sherry says.

Since the first concert 11 years ago, the Hamakua Music Festival has changed the community in ways that this small former plantation town (population 2,000) could not have predicted. Top-notch talent—Ray Brown, Kenny Loggins—not only plays the festival (for $25 to $35 a ticket), but most artists also workshop with area high school students.

The festival gives music scholarships to Island youth, pays for after-school music instruction for students and funds an elementary school music instructor and equipment for the local high school band. During the festival, local bed-and-breakfasts sell out, and local businesses receive a boost from visitors. In 2004, the festival split in two—the “Jazz Getaway” will take place this year from May 5 through 8, and the “Mixed Plate” festival will take place in the fall.

“Without the festival, we wouldn’t necessarily be where we are musically,” says Wade Lee, registrar of Honokaa High School. “Being from a small community, a lot of our kids learn by listening to grandpa play in the garage. This has given them the opportunity to take it one step further.”

The Pettus’ moved to this rugged coastal outpost from California, without jobs or a background in music promotion or nonprofit work, but with “a feeling like it was a special area.”

Within an hour of purchasing their land, they met Don Mitts, who was working at the historic theatre. The trio discussed a possible classical musical performance. The Pettus’ friends, Dorothy and Cary Lewis of Lanier Trio—who were featured in Time Magazine that year—were to play on O’ahu. “We thought maybe we could get 30 people together and cover the cost of interisland airfare.”

The festival grew from there. “We realized that, whenever you go into something, you are likely to find more than you knew was there, but we just went ahead,” Dave says. “We don’t take any credit for all this. We just happened to meet all the right people and be at the right place at the right time.”


Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawaii Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawaii’s people. For information: www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org


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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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