Listen Up!

From Jazz to Rock to Reggae, Hawaii’s creating great music.


Published:

It’s our third annual music issue. In previous years, we’ve brought you the best and brightest from the local Hawaiian music scene. But we didn’t want to overlook the talented Island musicians working in genres other than Hawaiian. In the following pages, we introduce you to 22 acts who are writing and playing all kinds of great music, adding an unmistakable local flavor to jazz, rock, classical, hip-hop and more.

It’s a fact: In the Islands, Hawaiian music rules. It’s among the most unique and identifiable musical genres in the world, and it’s one of the richest expressions of our local culture. But beyond the beauty of ‘ukulele and ha‘i falsetto, there’s a whole world of music being played here, in genres ranging from jazz to hip-hop to Zimbabwean Shona music.

On a recent weekend, for example, as we were assembling this issue, Honolulu was hopping. Nerd-rock legend Elvis Costello managed to please diehard fans and classical music buffs alike with the help of the Honolulu Symphony at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, while Diamond Head Crater resounded with the classic sounds of the Steve Miller Band, WAR and Linda Ronstadt.

More exciting than the visiting acts, though, was the range of local talent performing in Honolulu that same weekend. Jazz fans had their pick of singer Azure McCall at Deep Blue or sax virtuoso Gabe Baltazar at the International Jazz Festival. Punkers happily slammed into each other at Pink Cadillac, to the strains of The Hell Caminos and The Insurgents. Salsa dancers danced the night away to Son Caribe’s Latin grooves at the Elk’s Club Waikiki. Even good old-fashioned rock got its due, thanks to the Piranha Brothers at Bobby G’s Spot.

Of course, there are many different ways to measure musical success: quality, fame, money. Plenty of Hawai‘i’s performers in niche genres have got that first one sewed up; the second two are harder to come by. There’s a reason the words “struggling” and “musician” go together so well.

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges for local musicians in rock and other genres is the success story that is Hawaiian music. As we’ve detailed in the past two years of Music Issues, the Hawaiian music industry has become a relative juggernaut, with good radio coverage, increasing record sales and local artists who are achieving international recognition. But when it comes to promotion and radio play, Hawaiian’s popularity can inadvertently shove other genres out of the public eye.

Hawai‘i radio stations play little, if any, local music that isn’t Hawaiian or Jawaiian. There are a couple reasons for this: Radio program directors are in the business of making the masses happy. In Hawai‘i, that means Jawaiian, and lots of it. And while Hawaiian music has no outside, mainstream competitors, Hawai‘i rock and hip-hop artists have to compete against national versions of themselves. In a battle between local band Sugahdaddy and Hootie and the Blowfish—Hootie wins every time.

John Aeto, sales director for Cox Radio, says, “For local acts, it’s an uphill battle to get airplay at all, and if you’re outside the Hawaiian genre, it’s next to impossible. To get on the air here, you almost have to do what Yvonne Elliman or Jack Johnson did: make it nationally, and then the music will come back.”

It’s hard to blame commercial radio stations for keeping a closer eye on their bottom lines than the diversity of their playlists. The last station universally lauded by Hawai‘i musicians for its devotion to the local scene—Radio Free Hawai‘i—went under in 1997, a victim of weak ad sales.

Josh, from The 86 List. photo by Alex Viarnes

The two current exceptions to the radio dial’s local lockout are nonprofit endeavors: Hawai‘i Public Radio and University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s KTUH, where dedicated listeners can catch locally created jazz, rock, reggae and classical. The key word here is “dedicated.” Want to hear the latest in local hip-hop? You’ll have to set your alarm clock for 3 a.m. on Saturday, when KTUH broadcasts the GenuineHI Show.

With anemic radio support, many local bands have taken matters into their own hands, turning to the Web as a potent and low-cost avenue for self-promotion. Most of the groups we interviewed not only have Web sites of their own, but pages on MySpace, the ever-more-popular social networking site (your kid probably has a MySpace page). Artists such as The 86 List and jazz drummer Abe Lagrimas offer free samples of their music, get fans in touch with each other and announce upcoming show dates.

One area where the playing field is reasonably level across genres is the live music scene. There are plenty of places to play around town—the trick, for any musician, is to get paid for it. This is an age-old problem, but you’ll hear a constant refrain from musicians and promoters alike: The business of live music just isn’t what it used to be. Jack Law, owner of Hula’s Bar and Grill and The Wave, recalls the golden age of the late ’60s and early ’70s: “Waikiki—all of Honolulu—was awash in live entertainment. You’d walk down Waikiki and there’d be five different places per block with live music. Down on Hotel Street, same thing.”

Law says the abundance was fueled by a quirk in Honolulu’s liquor laws. “At the time, you were required by the Liquor Commission to have a live band in order to have dancing,” says Law. It’s the reason he hired punk band The Squids as The Wave’s first house band back in 1980, although he continued to employ live acts such as Sonja and Revolucion even after the legal requirement itself was abolished. (Sadly, The Wave closed this month after 25 years to make room for a condo development.)

Today, cost-effective disc jockeys typically supply the music in local clubs, and it can be tough for a live act to find a steady, paying gig. Darrell Aquino, of local rock band Sugahdaddy, says it’s been difficult to find club owners in Hawai‘i willing to shell out for their unique brand of roots rock. “There are a few places where you can make $100 an hour. But those are so few, and so booked up, that it’s hard to get into those venues,” he says. Sugahdaddy often plays gigs for $300, but has played for as little as $75.

Even with the dearth of steady gigs, the members of Sugahdaddy are making fans and impressing critics. (Their album Under a Native Moon won a Na Hoku Hanohano award last year for best rock album.) They just have to rock while holding down day jobs.

For those musicians with dollar signs in their eyes, the lure of the potentially lucrative Mainland market is ever-present—bands such as Olivia and Pepper have packed up for California with hopes of hitting the big time. But it’s hard to leave paradise.

Ska band Go Jimmy Go has managed the best of both worlds by adopting the strategy of successful Hawaiian groups such as The Makaha Sons: live in Hawai‘i, tour the rest of the world. Since 2004, the band has played all over the West Coast, the East Coast and the South, and traveled to Canada and Japan, and will be in Europe this fall. Eric White, the group’s sax player, says he prefers the constant traveling to giving up his home permanently: “It’s expensive to [tour], but we’re Island boys, born and raised in Hawai‘i.”

White’s willingness to sacrifice exemplifies the spirit of music-making here in Hawai‘i. It’s a lot of work for not much money, but when Go Jimmy Go returns home to play for a packed crowd of friends at Anna Bannana’s—it’s all worth it. “We’ve been able to quit our day jobs,” White says. “I don’t know what everybody else’s idea of success is. We’re really lucky.”

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