If you’ve never been to ʻĀina Fest, the annual Big Island music and environmentally-themed agriculture event, you’re missing out. It’s one of the most unique festivals that we have on the island. The husband and wife team, Dash and Erika Kuhr, came up with the concept ten years ago, and it’s blossomed (pun intended) into a family-friendly fun experience. The Kuhr’s formed the non-profit Hawai‘i Institute of Pacific Agriculture (HIP Ag), and, in part, this is their way to both celebrate with the island on its progress and educate us on how to become more sustainable.
As I entered the festival grounds, ready to endure the 10-hour event, Dash Kuhr was gathering his staff and volunteers into a giant circle. “Ten years of planting! Ten years of teaching!” shouted Kuhr to about fifty people who were now holding hands. “It’s really because of you that we’ve come this far.” Kuhr asked everyone to bring the circle in tighter. The group began cheering loudly when they were only inches away from each other. They yelled toward the sky, “One, two, three — ʻĀina Fest!” and then set out to cover their various assignments. The festival then officially started.
ʻĀina Fest takes place on an acre of land behind the Kohala Village HUB in central Hawi. There is a lot to do and see, and everything was spaced out nicely. Besides the almost continuous live music, there were Hawaiian cultural activities, keiki activities, yoga, arts & crafts vendors, and an abundance of organically grown, farm-fresh food. Scattered throughout the property were hand-painted signs – “I Believe In The Good Things Coming,” and a reminder to “Leave only your footprints.” To the right of the stage, Pedal Power Hawaii set up several stationary bikes connected to a generator. A sign read, “Ride me to power this event!” The grassroots organization is known for offering alternative energy to power public events.
The opening ceremony included a blessing followed by a few words in support for the Protectors on Mauna Kea. This theme was woven throughout the day – in between songs, at the Food Sovereignty panel, and especially during Ruth Aloua’s brilliant slam poetry before Nahko took the stage. (Press play to listen to Ruth Aloua’s slam poetry at Aina Fest.)
The music line-up featured headliner Nahko, Trevor Hall, Amber Lily, Tubby Love, Paul Izak, Paniolo Prince, and his Queen Maile, Hāwane Rios, the Drew Daniels Band, Ocean Grown, Ydine and AnOther Revolution, Tiana Malone and Mila Polevia. Concert sets alternated between the Barn Stage and ʻĀina Stage. In between the music, there was a Hula performance by Hula Hālau O Kukui Aloha O Kohala (led by Kumu Leia Lawrence), and an aerial silks show featuring Cirque Hale.
I had the opportunity to speak to several musicians backstage, like Puna singer-songwriter Tiana Malone Jennings, who performed with violinist virtuoso Hawk Devi during an afternoon set. Jennings started her musical journey in Seaside, Oregon, at age 14, after losing a bet with a friend that forced her to join the choir. She now plays an eclectic blend of island reggae, folk and pop music, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for a collaboration with Maui musician Kaleo Phillips. “Both sides of my family were very musical,” said Jennings, “And I’m honored to be walking in that path serving the greater good for the frequency of change.” Jennings’ music has a politically charged message. “Musicians are like story carriers. Everywhere I go, I sing about Standing Rock, Maunakea, or whatever needs highlighting and prayer focused on it. When I’m on tour, we hold space in our concerts for peace in the world. Every single show is like a prayer for us.” Jennings is finishing a live album of Hawaiian music and will be appearing with her full band at the Hilo County Fair on September 22.
Ydine is a soulful songstress based on the Big Island. She performs throughout the islands as a solo artist and with her band anOtherEvolution, an ever-evolving ensemble of musicians. I caught up with her after her commanding set and she was thrilled to talk about her upcoming release Belly of the Whale. “[the album]is a philosophical study of life, and where we are at in the world,” said Ydine. “I went old-school on this album. There’s even a lyric booklet with liner notes. You’ll find Latin, reggae, and rock and roll on this 12-track CD.” Although the album hasn’t been officially released, Ydine was offering a pre-sale of the recording for her fans at ʻĀina Fest. Ydine will be appearing at Queen’s Rising in October, a two-part concert event at the Hilo Town Tavern and My Bar in Kona with dates to be announced shortly. Before we parted ways, Ydine wanted to stress an important message: “We live in really critical pivotal times and we got to pull together to appreciate the beauty on this planet and be sustainable.”
By the time Trevor Hall took the stage, it seemed the crowd size doubled. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Hall’s fan base, mostly in their 20s and 30s, proudly sang along to his music, a mix of roots, folk and reggae. He told the audience he was working without a set list for the show, and “going with the flow.” He hoped they didn’t mind. They approved, and the only disappointment was when a brief but heavy downpour pelted the crowd. Hall took the time to talk to the crowd about music and personal journeys, expressing that a heavy weight that had been bothering him for a while parted once his plane landed on the Big Island.
Headliner Nahko Bear closed out the 10-hour ʻĀina Fest with heartfelt songs and powerful music – you could feel his energy moving the crowd especially when he spoke of Mauna Kea. Many made the symbol for the mountain using both hands while others sang along, knowing every word. Trevor Hall then joined Nahko for a fifteen-minute set, and a closing blessing ended the event.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine
Photos/video: Steve Roby