Darlene, Bruddah Iz, and Hawaiian Music

HibiscusThe Hawaiian music world is different from what we know on the Mainland. The biggest difference is that to be successful, Hawaiian singers must actually know how to sing, and musicians must know how to play an instrument. They must know it really well.  Being a beautiful person with dazzling moves and having elaborate staging, gyrating backup dancers, and an earsplitting heavy beat are not a substitute for musical craftsmanship. In other words, the music is the main point of the performance. This may seem an odd concept, but somehow it seems entrenched on the distant Islands.

There are other differences. Some years back we visited the Big Island with friends. I told my friend that I was especially fond of the singing of Darlene Ahuna, who had at that time produced several albums and was a rising star in the Hawaiian music world. He was intrigued and wondered if she was performing while we were on the Island. I remember that before she started a recording career she had sung regularly at a hotel in Hilo, on the other side of the Island. My friend called the hotel, but they didn't know if she was performing. they promised to call back if they heard of anything. Too bad. Later in the evening, his hotel phone rang:  "Hello, this is Darlene ... you called?"  Try that with your favorite pop star.

She happened to be performing a few days later at the annual benefit show for the Palace Theater in Hilo. Hilo doesn't get many tourists. It rains a lot so there is nothing there but stunning tropical spendor, which is no substitute for beach volleyball. The benefit show was designed for locals and not publicized over on the tourist side of the Island.

We attended the show and were treated to some outstanding performances by local artists. Jake Shimabukuro performed, and he has since gone on to break out of the bounds of the Islands, landing a contract with Sony records. Jake's talent is the ability to play a ukelele in such a way that it sounds like a full-fledged musical instrument (video), rather than rubber bands stretched over a cigar box. It is amazing. Also at the show a young fellow, probably in his teens, whose name I have forgotten, sang beautifully in falsetto. There is a Hawaiian tradition of male falsetto singing, which when done well does not sound strained. Women, like Darlene, also sing in falsetto, in a traditional style called ha'i. The effect is to add tremendous range to the music.  Hawaiian music concerts are never short.  Audiences take it seriously. We had to leave after about two and a half hours to make the long drive back.

Another important thing to know about Hawaiian music is the story of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, known on the Islands as Bruddah Iz. Bruddah Iz was the most popular and most beloved of Hawaiian singers. When he died in 1997 at the age of 38, flags were flown at half mast and he was afforded only the third state funeral in the history of Hawaii. Iz died from complications of a disorder that kept his weight over 600 pounds. His brother had died earlier from the same affliction. Iz kept a sweet dispostion despite the likelihood of a tragic fate. His singing reflected optimism.

The full spectrum of Hawaiian music includes pop, rock, jazz, and even reggae, although I admit being partial to the more traditional styles. There is an excellent Hawaiian music station on the Internet, Aloha Joe.  I like Aloha Joe's selections better than any radio station on the Islands.  To complete the picture, here are videos of Iz and of Darlene:

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole ~ Somewhere over the Rainbow

Darlene Ahuna ~ Akaka Falls