Aunty Genoa – “Woodstock” Hawaiian Style

On August 16, 1970, in the remote town of Hana (anyone who has ever been knows how difficult it is to get there) on the island of Maui, Hawaiian music offered up its first large-scale music festival. Featuring such popular artists of the moment as Gabby Pahinui, Eddie Kamae, and the Sons of Hawai`i, Sonny Chillingworth, Palani Vaughan, Kihei Brown, the Farden sisters, Leina`ala Haili, hula master `Iolani Luahine and chanter Ka`upena Wong, and – of course – Genoa Keawe, the Ho`olaule`a O Hana (or Hana Music Festival) was captured for posterity in the PBS documentary film Hawai`i Pono`i. It was a sight to behold – hundreds of appreciative fans making the trek to this remote town to hear the artists they rarely have an opportunity to hear (because the musicians were based on O`ahu and played the clubs in and around Honolulu). It looked like a sunnier, happier Woodstock, and both were held in the most unlikely of locations. But surely the Hana event lacked the scale of the New York state event that brought so many artists to rock-and-roll stardom. 

A more Woodstock-like concert event would take place nearly four years later on May 19, 1974 at Paniolo Park in Waimea on the island of Hawai`i. The event still could not match the scale of the sheer numbers of Woodstock, but the location was easier to access than Hana, and so the event drew thousands. It was even more like Woodstock still in that music fans had to contend with winds, rains, and mud as the price of admission to hear Hawaiian music legends and for the glory of saying “I was there.” The Waimea Music Festival featured some of the same artists as the previous event in Hana including Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, and Genoa Keawe, but with the addition of then up-and-comers Dennis Kamakahi and a group that raised as many eyebrows as it garnered new fans to the Hawaiian music genre: The Sunday Manoa. 

Even the name of the group was unlike anything that had come before it – a seemingly meaningless combination of English and Hawaiian words but which clearly had meaning to these young men (paving the way to similarly confusing group names as Kipapa Rush Band). But it was their music that set them apart. Multi-instrumentalist Peter Moon – a young master of the slack key guitar and `ukulele, but who brought to the Hawaiian music palate such interesting new sounds as the tiple and requinta – had been looking for a sound for many years with a number of different combinations of musicians. But he found pure magic – and similarly forward-thinking blokes equally interested in revolutionizing Hawaiian music – in a pair of brothers – Robert and Roland Cazimero. Together the irreconcilable force of The Sunday Manoa was a blessing in disguise which most conspicuously gifted Hawaiian music to a new generation of fans who may have lost interest in their history and culture – by cleverly and tastefully combining past and present, tradition and radical innovation – and almost single-handedly (or six-handedly) lit the spark that would become the inferno that has since come to be known as the “Hawaiian Music Renaissance.” They did it by combining every influence they had ever heard – from Hawaiian chant to chamber classical to the Rolling Stones – into a uniquely Hawaiian idiom. But while it all seems so tame now 40 years later, The Sunday Manoa were controversial in their time. Like the Richard Kauhis and Kahauanu Lakes that came before them, The Sunday Manoa deliberately experimented within the boundaries of tradition (and some would argue stepping over the line, and others still might say altogether erasing it), and the young men took heat for it both publicly and privately – publicly from the critics of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser, and privately from such guiding forces as Hawaiian cultural expert Alice Namakelua who supported the boys while trying to reign them in at the same time. You might say the group weathered the criticism like your typical fan weathered the Waimea Music Festival – the mud forever in their minds as they trudged forth with their next innovation, even after the untimely demise of the all-too-short-lived Sunday Manoa and their too few three albums, even as they split into the two new aggregations which with exponentially greater force would continue to rattle the foundations of Hawaiian music – The Peter Moon Band and The Brothers Cazimero. 

What does any of this matter in the scheme of our story about Genoa Keawe? Aunty Genoa would not take her working group of that period to Hawai`i island with her for the festival in Waimea – perhaps because they could not get away from home for so long, perhaps because of the expense, or perhaps because there was a bounty of fine musicians awaiting her on her arrival. Instead, she would perform with whatever groups might already be there. Who knows if this was prearranged or if – in the Hawaiian style – she got off the plane, made the drive to Paniolo Park, got out of the car, and exclaimed, “Who’s going to back me up now, boys?” Either way, she ended up with a backing group that would create a whole new sound for and with her, the past and the future meeting literally and figuratively on stage for a brief shining moment and making magic. And fortunately for the Hawaiian music loving world, that magic would be captured on tape by Panini Records (the record label home of many of the festival’s artists), and so we can forever enjoy the unlikely pairing of Genoa Keawe with The Sunday Manoa. 

When Ho`olohe Hou was a radio program, I featured an occasional segment I called “Precious Meetings.” In my mind, this moniker is appropriate for those rare moments on stage or in a recording studio when two artists that would seldom (perhaps never before or since) be captured together on tape and a historically important moment resulted. I think of such pairings as Nina Keali`iwahamana and Bill Kaiwa or Marlene Sai with Buddy Fo and The Invitations. The last time this blog offered such a pairing was January 2013 when Maunalua (a group which in its time should be considered as earth-shatteringly innovative as The Sunday Manoa) took their mentor Leina`ala Haili into the studio. The pairing of Aunty Genoa with Robert, Roland, and Peter prompts me to revive this segment for this unlikely combination of artists did result – like the unlikely combination of chocolate and peanut butter (mahalo e H.B. Reese) – in the quintessential “Precious Meeting.” 

In this segment you hear Robert on bass, Roland on guitar, Peter on slack key guitar (although he had a barrage of instruments on hand that day in Waimea, including a banjo), and – a bonus “Precious Meeting” within a “Precious Meeting” – a little boost from Atta Isaacs on a second slack key guitar – all in the service of lifting Aunty Genoa to even greater heights and potentially (albeit unintentionally) presenting the then already 30-year veteran of the Hawaiian music scene to a new generation of listeners. Here this unlikely combination offers up the lengthy medley of “Pauoa Liko Ka Lehua” and “Mauna Loa.” It is not merely one of my favorite musical moments on record. It is in this writer’s opinion one of the most historically important moments in the history of Hawaiian music. 

The Waimea Music Festival would spawn numerous large-scale festivals like it or even bigger, better ones – including festivals dedicated to each native instrument of Hawai`i (an `ukulele festival has been running for nearly 40 years, steel guitar festivals have sprung up – everywhere from Honolulu to Joliet, Illinois to Winchester, Indiana to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and more recently Maui and – as recently as this week – Denver, Colorado – sponsored by the steel guitar preservation associations, and long-running annual slack key festivals including one on Maui and another on O`ahu named in honor of Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs) as well as festivals anchored by a particular artist or record label (Tropical Music’s “Tropical Bash” became the Makaha Sons’ “Take A Walk In The Country,” there was Peter Moon’s wildly successful “Kanikapila” series named for the record label he started in the post-Sunday Manoa era, and now a new festival every August in Waimanalo organized primarily by Gabby’s, son Cyril). But one can argue that none of these would have been possible if not for the Waimea Music Festival just over 40 years ago, and one might unravel the tradition even further to a muddy day in Hana in 1970.

Next time: Aunty Genoa inexplicably makes a temporary departure from the record label she owns and operates to wax an album for a competitor label…


Direct download: 03_Genoa_Keawe_-_Fall_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Precious Meetings -- posted at: 6:58pm EDT