A Sweet Return

After a one-year break, the Ka Himeni Ana song contest is back.
22nd Annual Ka Himeni Ana Hawaiian Song Contest
Saturday, Aug. 12, 7 p.m.
Hawai‘i Theatre
Tickets ($6 to $20, plus a $2 restoration fee) available at the Hawai‘i Theatre Box Office (528-0506, www.hawaiitheatre.com)

Last year, Hawaiian music lovers suffered from a serious case of disappointment when the annual Ka Himeni Ana Hawaiian Song Contest was cancelled for lack of contestants, the first time in its more than 20-year history. This year, fans can rest easy. Ka Himeni Ana returns to the Hawai‘i Theatre this month, with a lineup of at least a dozen acts hoping to become the next Ho‘okena, ‘A‘lea or Holunape—all top names in Hawaiian music who got their big breaks through the contest.

Founded by kama‘aina business exec Richard Towill in 1983, the competition sets itself apart by requiring that competing groups sing traditional nahenahe (soft, sweet) Hawaiian-language songs without microphones or electrical amplifiers—a tribute to the elegant, old style of Hawaiian entertainment that could once be found in hotels throughout Waikiki.

“Nowadays, you rarely see acoustic Hawaiian musicians in this kind of setting; unless you’re at a small family party, most musicians are amplified,” says promoter Ellen Hollinger-Martinez. “All of the musicians participating in Ka Himeni Ana are making sure that traditional Hawaiian music lives on.”

Other contest rules allow musicians to play only ‘ukulele, guitar, acoustic bass, autoharp, steel guitar (the only instrument that can be amplified) and any instruments used by Hawaiians before 1778.

Live and unplugged: 2004 Ka Himena Ana winner Holunape performs at this year’s event. photo: Ulu Art

The judges’ criteria are just as stringent, evaluating each group in at least 10 different categories, from pitch, projection and harmony to enunciation, expression and charm—all of which can be tough to convey in a venue as formidable as the Hawai‘i Theatre.

“It really is the truest form of Hawaiian music,” says Kekoa Kaluhiwa, bass player for 2004 winner Holunape, more recently named Group of the Year at this year’s Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. “There’s a huge difference in playing unplugged. You can’t rely on digital effects, reverb; you have to be more conscious about your natural vocal and instrumental volume and balance. It’s a whole different ballgame.”

Holunape and Mahi Beamer will perform at this month’s competition, but with so many other esteemed musicians in attendance—judges include Bill Kaiwa and Nina Keali‘iwahamana, and Marlene Sai will emcee—audience members may be treated to a few other surprise performances, as well.