Honolulu teen rock band EMKE on the rise

Photo: Courtesy Marc Orbito

Read the following quote and take a guess how old the speaker is.

“Nowadays, you don’t have many different textures in music. It’s just one sound.”

Although they sound like the words of a 40-something bitter rocker, they’re actually from 13-year-old Mid-Pacific Institute student Ezri Santos. She plays bass and keyboard in EMKE, a Hawaii band of teeny boppers with a brawny rock sound influenced less by the bleeps and sirens of today’s pop dance, and more by the arenas of the 1980s, or even the garages of the 1990s.

Photo: Mark Ramelb

Together for eight years, EMKE consists of Ezri, (performing since she was 4), her older sister Kira Santos, 17 (guitar, vocals, songwriter); Mari Arakawa, 18 (guitar vocals, keyboard); and lone male Payton Sekigawa, 17 (drums). Despite their millennial ages, they all dig the kind of music that came out in the days when musical expression stemmed from the artist’s musicality and personality, and not from a synthesizer.

After releasing a six-song EP last year (“Promises and Expectations”) and playing several high-profile gigs (the National Association of Music Merchants shows, the most recent Waikiki Spam Jam and opening for Kansas at Schofield Barracks), EMKE is in talks with Sony Music Japan for future projects.

For now, their regular gig is on Sundays at noon at Hard Rock Café in Waikiki. And, they’re recording dozens of anime show theme songs, many of which have a similar metal-rock vibe. The songs won’t be used for any particular show, but are meant as a trial run for honing EMKE’s sound.

“They’re in Japanese, and the Sony folks want to see how they like it,” says Kira. “They think our original sound is different from the anime themes, but we really think it’s pretty similar. But they said they want us to be ready for any type of change.”

Photo: Courtesy Marc Orbito

Their original material hearkens back to the ‘90s era of music, with punkish drums, heavy riffs, soaring guitar solos and different band members handling vocals for different songs, ala The Beatles. Their covers are crowd pleasers, ranging from Journey to Bon Jovi to One Direction. YouTube users praise their breezy rock cover of “What Makes You Beautiful” as the best rendition of the song on the Internet, a characterization with which this writer agrees. And yes, it even has a great guitar solo.

All except Mari are still in school. Ezri is still in eighth grade. Rock band life hasn’t really affected their social or academic lives at school. “Everyone always asks us how we manage our time, but we’ve been doing it for such a long time, it’s just become routine,” older sister Kira says. Ezri chimes in, “We started when I was still in preschool.”

The band is managed by Kira and Ezri’s father, Mark Santos, owner of Hawaii MusicWorks at Pearlridge Center, where the band does all of its recording.

“These two are my kids,” he says pointing to his daughters. “But I’ve known all of them since they were little. I just want to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, and have good heads on their shoulders with their attitude.”

Perhaps that’s what makes them beautiful.