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What Happened at the Grammys?

The Grammys finally gave their first award for a Hawaiian Music Album. So why are so many Island musicians unhappy?


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Hawaii’s first Grammywinners, from left: Sonny Lim, Ken Emerson, Randy Lorenzo,
Charlie Recaido, John Keawe, Keoki Kahumoku, Charles Brotman, Jeff Peterson.
(Not pictured: John Cruz and Bryan Kessler)

Photo: Sarah Anderson

 It felt like nothing short of a victory for Hawaii when the Grammy Awards announced the creation of a Best Hawaiian Music Album category last year. After nearly 20 years of fighting for a place in the national spotlight, Hawaiian music would get the recognition it deserved at the 2005 Grammy Awards. Finally.

Local newspapers and TV stations covered the competition among the five nominees extensively. Island superstars Kealii Reichel and The Brothers Cazimero were the consensus favorites. Hookena’s latest album and another by Amy Hanaialii Gilliom and Willie K seemed like close contenders.

No matter who took home the prize, everyone in the industry insisted, the Grammy would be a win for all Hawaiian music.

That tune changed dramatically on Feb. 13, when the winner of the first-ever Hawaiian Music Album category was announced at a pre-telecast ceremony in Los Angeles. The Grammy went to producer Charles Michael Brotman’s Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2. The compilation featuring 10 guitarists, including Brotman, was the only instrumental album in the category.

In the Hawaiian music community, there was shock and dismay. Produced by Brotman’s small, independent label on the Big Island, Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 was the last album many industry insiders expected to win. Many were surprised that it was even nominated. “Charles Who?” some kamaaina asked when news of the winner hit the Islands.

Even the nominees couldn’t hide their disbelief.

“I was surprised. All the surveys and polls that were taken in Hawaii indicated Kealii was the winner, with the other vocal groups in contention,” says Jim Linkner, who co-produced Reichel’s Grammy-nominated album, Kealaokamaile, which had swept the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 2004.

Hookena’s group leader, Manu Boyd, says Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 was not “as strong a contender” as the other nominees.

Gilliom didn’t expect her own album to come out on top, but “for The Brothers Cazimero not to win was mind boggling,” she says. “They have been my mentors.”

The inaugural Grammy Award for Hawaiian music set off a wave of controversy back home, among some members of the music industry as well as the Hawaiian community. Many argued that the Grammy should have gone to a Hawaiian-language album, rather than an instrumental.

“When something like that wins the first award, it hurts me,” says Kahauanu Lake, who is as widely respected for his commitment to preserving the Hawaiian culture as he is for his musical accomplishments. “The most important thing is the language—vocalized, like chanting or singing. That’s more important than slack key will ever be, to me. It takes Hawaiian judges to judge it, not Mainland people, who don’t know Hawaiian music.”

The artists featured on Slack Key may not be as well known as the other nominees, with the exception of John Cruz, who scored a big hit in 1997 with “Island Style” from his Hoku Award-winning album Acoustic Soul. Most play low-profile gigs and at family luau, but they have had an influence on contemporary Hawaiian music.

Randy Lorenzo played with Gabby Pahinui in the ’70s and was a member of Country Comfort and The Peter Moon Band. Bryan Kessler co-founded the hit ’90s group Hawaiian Style Band. John Keawe is a recipient of the Hoku’s prestigious Ki Hoalu (slack key) award in 2002, and Sonny Lim is a member of the talented Lim family.

Brotman has lived in Hawaii since the ’70s. After teaching at the University of Hawaii Music Department, he co-founded Palm Records with his sister Jody in 1997 in Kamuela.

Despite the group’s credentials, the controversy continued, even as Slack Key’s sales skyrocketed to No. 1 on both Billboard’s World Music and New Age charts. A far cry from its debut in 2003. It had sold well for an instrumental album at Borders, but hardly soared up the local music charts, receiving scant airplay on Island radio stations.

Lilikala Kameeleihiwa, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, dismisses the win as a result of “non-natives voting for non-natives.”

“The sound of slack key, drumming, ipu and ukulele is beautiful by itself, but it’s missing what’s most important, which is olelo Hawaii, (Hawaiian language), the voice of our ancestors,” says Kameeleihiwa. “To have a group win with no [Hawaiian] words, was astounding and ridiculous, because the word is what is important here. The poetry makes the music.”

The Hawaiian music industry wanted the national recognition a Grammy would bring, but it apparently didn’t want a bunch of Mainlanders—presumably with much less knowledge of Hawaiian culture—to vote on who should receive the award.


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