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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“When you think about the Grammy Award, who’s voting, it isn’t Hawaii,” says nominee Robert Cazimero. “You have a majority of people who really don’t know our music.”

Many in the Island music industry expected the Grammy category to function as an extension of Hawaii’s own Hoku Awards, in which local artists, producers and other music professionals determine the winners. Instead, the Grammy win reminded them that Hawaii had entered an entirely different playing field.

“I feel that you should win a Hawaiian award first, like a Hoku Award, before even being considered for a Grammy nomination,” Gilliom says, herself a winner of at least a half-dozen Hokus. “When you win a Hoku, it’s taken very seriously by our Hawaiian people.”

To some extent, those disappointed with Brotman’s win may have brought it upon themselves. Only members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) can vote for the Grammys. To become a voting member, a person must have creative or technical credits on at least six commercially released songs, either as an engineer, producer, artist, writer, musician or singer.

Of the 1,000 members of the Hawaii Academy of Recordings Arts, which votes on the Hokus each year, perhaps 600 to 700 were eligible to join NARAS.

If all of them had joined, it may have changed the outcome of the award. But most of them didn’t. Only 76 people from Hawaii signed up, even after the NARAS offered them a $25 discount off the usual $100 dues.

Even some of the nominees failed to register in time to vote this year. Most members of Hookena, for instance, didn’t join NARAS until after they were nominated for the Grammy, Boyd says. By then, it was too late for them to vote this year.

There are more than 100 Grammy categories, broken into 26 fields. Members are allowed to vote in eight fields and asked to vote only in fields about which they’re knowledgeable. The Best Hawaiian Music Album falls under the folk field, which also includes contemporary folk, traditional folk and Native American music.

A couple thousand NARAS members voted in the folk field this year, according to Grammy trustee Keith Olsen, who lives on Kauai. Of course, most of them were based on the Mainland—a proportion that probably gave Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 an edge over its competitors.

The compilation, with its acoustic guitar stylings, probably sounded a lot more familiar to voters than any of the Hawaiian language albums, which Brotman himself acknowledges.

George Winston, founder of California-based Dancing Cat Records, is largely credited for putting slack key on the map. Since 1988, Winston has produced albums and promoted tours for such slack key greats as Keola Beamer, Cyril Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana, developing an audience for slack key music across the country.

That’s why Olsen, who has worked with such groups as Fleetwood Mac and The Grateful Dead, wasn’t quite as surprised as other local musicians by Brotman’s win. “The common thread that goes all through folk music is guitar, so it made sense,” he says.

In all the excitement over Hawaiian music’s first-ever Grammy winner, many forget how difficult it was for the industry to establish the category in the first place. The 20-year effort was nearly thwarted by a furious debate among local musicians and producers over what the category’s requirements should be. The center of the controversy? How much of the album had to be in the Hawaiian language.

Many wanted to limit the category to only Hawaiian artists who sing only in the Hawaiian language. Some wanted a 75 percent Hawaiian language requirement—just like the Hawaiian Album of the Year category in the Hokus—while others felt there was no need for a language requirement at all.

Nalani Choy of Na Leo Pilimehana supported the process, even though her group sings mostly English songs that wouldn’t fit the criteria.

“If there’s only one Hawaiian Grammy category, then we’d like the criteria to be more inclusive in the future,” says Choy, pointing out that the Hoku category for Album of the Year is open to English and Hawaiian vocals, as well as instrumental music.

“This has been an age-old debate in our industry: What is Hawaiian music?” Choy says. “You get the traditionalists and the contemporary artists with different views on this. The debate is: Where do we draw the line? And we’re still debating that.”

For four years, Deborah Semer, the former executive director of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of NARAS, oversaw Hawaii’s campaign for the Grammy category. The chapter now serves as the official home of Hawaii’s NARAS members.

“I feel that you should win a Hawaiian award first, like a Hoku Award, before even being considered for a Grammy nomination.”
— Amy Gilliom

“I felt that I wanted to give up at times,” Semer says. “Some might have thought of me as the haole from the Mainland coming in to tell them what to do, but I was there to educate and guide them through the process. They needed to own it and take responsibility. Complaining gets you nowhere—that’s why it took so long to get this category.”

Olsen drafted the proposal for the new Best Hawaiian Music Album category, which was approved by NARAS. The final result?

No requirement the musicians be Hawaiian. “We don’t discriminate at the Grammys,” Olsen says, “so we defined it like this—for vocal and instrumental albums that contain a substantial amount of traditional elements, with the predominance of vocal tracks in the Hawaiian language.”

During the long, often heated debates over percentages and language requirements, it apparently occured to no one that an entirely instrumental album might win.

Naturally, many musicians, including the winning artists, argue that slack key is just as important to Hawaiian music as the language. Slack key originated in the early 1800s, with the paniolos in Kamuela on the Big Island. Probably its most famous champion was the late Gabby Pahinui, considered the father of modern slack key guitar.

“From a musician’s perspective, instrumental music can have a beautiful depth and coloration all its own—it is a language,” says Hawaiian songwriter and slack key guitarist Keola Beamer.

John Cruz, who played on the winning album, agrees. “Hawaiian slack key guitar is just as Hawaiian as Hawaiian language,” Cruz says. “It’s indigenous to Hawaii. And it’s still evolving.”


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