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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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Brotman’s own take on solo slack key is that it’s “pure and natural and uncluttered—like a window to the artist’s personality,” says Brotman. “We’re capturing the feeling of what life is like here and sharing it with people.”

Still, Kameeleihiwa takes issue with the fact that the Grammy was awarded to a non-Hawaiian producer—although seven out of the 10 artists on the album are part Hawaiian.

“Hawaiian music needs to be played by Hawaiians and have Hawaiian language,” Kameeleihiwa says. “I take offense that anyone should think that non-natives are the best Hawaiian musicians. That’s wrong.”

Those comments sadden Slack Key artist Randy Lorenzo, who is one of the album’s Hawaiian artists.

“Hawaiian music needs to be played by Hawaiians.”
— Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa

“How can people live together if they sound like that?” Lorenzo says. “I love playing jazz, it’s not just for black people. I love playing country, it’s not just for white people—music is a universal language.

“What do I tell this kid who wants to learn the ukulele, and he’s got blue eyes and blond hair? No you cannot play, because you’re not Hawaiian?’ That’s ridiculous! It sounds racist.”

Olomana member and slack key guitarist Haunani Apoliona believes the Grammy win will help raise nationwide awareness about Hawaiian music and, in turn, about Hawaiians. If the nominees helped diffuse some of the hakaka (fighting), Hawaii’s music industry could focus on the bigger picture, she says.

“If the people who didn’t win really lead by example, and say, C’mon let’s keep moving forward, let’s not get stuck,’ it becomes a whole different dynamic,” says Apoliona, who’s also the chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Beamer agrees. “Let’s not beat each other up over this,” he says. “It’s just an award.”

Is there any way to placate Hawaii’s divided music community? Yes, some artists say. Establish two separate Hawaiian music categories—one for vocal music, one for instrumental.

“When I first heard there was only going to be one category for Hawaiian music, a red flag went up in my head,” says slack key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi, one of the Islands’ most prolific Hawaiian language composers. “How are you going to lump all Hawaiian music in just one award? That angers a lot of people.”

Don’t count on the Hawaiian Grammy expanding soon, Olsen says. This year, Hawaii submitted barely enough albums for the one category, despite all the hype over the newly established award.

“The chances of this happening within the next five years is slim to none, because there were so few submissions,” Olsen says. “We can’t be like the Hokus. We have space for one. And if they don’t support it, we’ll have space for none.”

Just days before the deadline for the Hawaiian Grammy submissions, there were only eight entrants. The final tally: 20 albums. That shows that the Hawaiian music community didn’t fully support the new category, Olsen argues, adding, “the Grammys don’t operate on aloha time.”

Olsen points out NARAS could eliminate the Hawaiian Grammy category completely, if there aren’t enough entries. Latin musicians once fought for a Best Meringue Album category, but in recent years, only three to five such entrants trickled in.

“So the joke was going around, if you wanted to win a Grammy, do a Meringue album—the odds were in your favor.” says Olsen. The Meringue category was eventually combined with Tejano music.

Major categories such as the Best Female Solo Rock Performance have also disappeared, when the Cyndi Laupers and Pat Benatars of the world no longer submitted albums.

It would be a shame if the Hawaiian Music Album category followed suit, considering Hawaii’s music industry’s long campaign to recognize its work. If anything, the newly established category has taught Hawaii a lesson about playing on a national stage.

“I believe it will be rough sailing for a while, but ultimately the Grammy helps our music expand and grow,” Beamer says. “If we can increase the awareness of this beautiful art form, younger artists with meaningful musical content may have a decent chance to make a living.”

In March, Brotman and his fellow artists celebrated their Grammy win with a big luau at an oceanfront home on the Kohala Coast on the Big Island, where six of the slack key guitarists live. One of the best things about the award, Brotman told the throng of supporters, was sharing it with such talented artists. He presented each musician with a plaque.

Each artist took turns playing—the soothing, melodic sounds of slack key filling the night air. Family members of guitarists John Keawe and Sonny Lim danced the hula. Lim’s sister, Nani, sang. Just a month earlier, Lim had stood alongside Brotman as he accepted the Grammy award. For Lim, it was a humbling and spiritual experience. Overcome with emotion, Lim became the first Hawaiian to speak Hawaiian at the Grammys, thanking them for honoring Hawaiian music.

Their lives haven’t been the same since. Soaring album sales, media attention from the Mainland and Japan are all new to the group of slack key artists. But they won’t let it go to their heads, Brotman says.

He recounts what happened when he returned to his usual gig at the Maunalani Bay Hotel, right after winning the Grammy. “One of the chefs said to me, Eh brah, I saw your picture in the paper! It’s in the refrigerator right now—I got it covering up the mushrooms!’” says Brotman, laughing. “It was pretty funny. Keeps you humble.”

The ride isn’t over yet for Brotman. Or Hawaiian music’s turn on the national stage. There are always next year’s Grammy Awards.

“To think that with this Grammy, it’s come right back here to this [Kamuela] community, right back to the birthplace of ki hoalu, just like a full circle—it’s an amazing thing,” Brotman says. ““If there really is a controversy, it only exists because people were misinformed about the CD and didn’t know anything about the music, the musicians, the recording, the Grammy voting process. It really is about the music, after all.”


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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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