Makana is a singer, composer, and master of the indigenous Hawaiian slack-key guitar tradition. The focus of Makana’s art is to celebrate the beauty of tradition while exploring new, relevant perceptions, sounds and themes.
Typically, when I interview a musician, I like to start off exploring their latest recording, or finding out how their current tour is going, but I quickly learned that Makana is not your typical recording artist. I caught up with him in Los Angeles, where he and his team are working on several new projects including two upcoming shows at the Kahilu Theatre on March 7 and 8. (info below)
Would you like to talk about your current single, “See You on The Mauna”?
In terms of singles and albums, it’s all archaic thought. It’s confusing for people because of the commodification of music. But aside from what I do for what you might consider my day job, which is my passion for creating music that supports the earth and humanity and culture and wellness and balance. So, this is like one in a long line of songs. I’ve done it for a long time. I haven’t been to Hawaii for a while. Some of my friends are saying that it’s getting a lot of airplay on a few island stations, but songs like “We Are The Many” and the anthem I wrote for Bernie Sanders, they’re not the focus of my music and career. They’re kind of just like statements. It’s like for exposure so people can associate and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what he does.’ But it’s actually not. It’s like if some people make a Facebook post and say, ‘Hey, this is what I believe, or did you read this?’ I make songs about it. But in my show, it’s not a big part of my show. My show is pure art. In these (upcoming) Kahilu concerts, I’m going to go through, my gosh, I can’t even say how many genres.
I’ll skip the question I had about your album Venus.
That’s kind of my point. I don’t want to frame what you may have heard on Spotify or on the radio because that’s only 1 percent of what I’m doing, and I’m not exaggerating. I’ve produced over 200 songs in the last two years, but I haven’t released them yet.
Well, let’s talk about the other 99% of what you’re doing.
I just want to be clear that my whole paradigm for art is so different than any other artist you’ve talked to. The first thing is I’m not selling any products. I’m giving away everything for free. We don’t make albums anymore. We don’t do singles. And none of that framework is applicable to my process. What I’m doing now is I’ve been just kind of taking a break from touring for a while and working in the studio for the past two years and intensely exploring many genres, but specifically what I’m going to be featuring at the Kahilu shows, is what I call my ‘banyan tree’ approach to Hawaiian music. I’ve been going deeper and deeper into public domain, more obscure materials that are like over 100 years old and reanimating those through new arrangements, and I’ll be performing a number of those traditional Hawaiian songs that are rarely heard at my show. So, that’s pretty exciting for me. At the same time, I’ve been taking Hawaiian music into new contexts, including Hip-Hop and electronica, and what I call electronic folk and slack key into other contexts too. Words don’t do justice, but I’m going to be debuting a lot of that new material. I’ve never performed it. This is not going to be just what people know and have seen in the past. I will do a bunch of my classic slack key repertoire, but I’m really excited because I’m pushing boundaries really majorly here and I haven’t shown anyone what I’m doing since I started. So, this is kind of a coming-out show where it’s like, “Hey guys, this is what I’ve been working on in my laboratory for two years. Check out what I’ve discovered!”
You’re doing two shows that weekend. Will each show be different?
No, because I’m putting so much into one show. I’m going to be doing several diverse things like some classic 1920s material, like Tin Pan Alley stuff, and will be featuring a number of songs on the ukulele. I’ve been working a lot with the ukulele on original compositions and traditional songs. I’m gonna be debuting a song or two from my upcoming musical that I’ve been working on for a long time. I’m gonna be doing some new folk music that speaks to climate change and I’m gonna be debuting what I called ‘pidgin rap.’ It’s like done in local style pidgin. It’s kind of like comedy, but with hip-hop. It’s really geared for Big island audiences… songs about Big Island life. I’m also considering doing some opera. It’s going to be a pretty diverse offering!
Did you want to talk about the musical you’ve been working on?
Yes, it’s my dream project that I started 15 years ago! In the past three years, I’ve become very focused on it, and that’s why I’ve been taking a break from touring and trying to focus on finishing it this year. It’s a story of a Hawaiian family. We see them early on, their parents as children, just to kind of establish where they come from, and then we fast forward 20 years to when they’re married. They have a child who’s a teenager and they’re living in New York. Very divorced from the reality of the culture and the lifestyle in Hawaii. That’s where our story begins. The whole journey in the musical has them rediscovering themselves through their reconnection to their cultural identity and facing great challenges to that process, and great challenges to protecting Hawaii itself from existential, economic, and environmental threats too.
Wow! That’s a deep plot!
It’s a very deep plot and you know, it’s not just about that, it’s about family relationships, marriage, and teen life. One of the stars, her name is Nonie and she is this 16-year-old who is manic depressive. She is very much bullied by other kids in her school. She goes to the top prep school in New York. She’s kind of misunderstood and overlooked by both her peers and her parents. When she moves home to Hawaii, she discovers who she is and watching her unfold is just an incredibly powerful process and how she has to deal with depression and some of these challenges that a lot of young people are facing today. The story kind of happens on two levels — on the level of the adults and the parents and all the things they’re facing in their relationship, and the economic hardships. Also, on the level of the teenager and the world that she was in and the challenges she faces to be accepted and to understand who she is. We’re nearing the end of the composition phase and moving over is challenging. I’m going to be sharing a song or two from that at the Kahilu shows.
Do you have a working title for the musical?
I do, but it’s not ready for print yet. We’re looking at possibly debuting it in Hawaii in 2021.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
It’s so easy for an artist to rest on their laurels and just show up and dial in what they know the audience will appreciate. But that’s not the kind of artist I am. I always try to push the boundaries in a way that exposes more of ourselves to ourselves and what I mean in the context of Hawaiian music is, is that Hawaiian music is much broader in its potential than I think we are allowing it to be today, and this show is going to be about exploring the bounds of where Hawaiian music can be.
If you go… Have a good show!
Event: An Evening with Makana
When: Two shows – March 7, 2020, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, March 8, 2020, at 2 p.m.
Where: Kahilu Theatre
Info: Tickets can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Kamuela (Waimea).
Photo credits: Lexi Makenzi-Galisteo, Steve Roby.
For more info on Makana, please visit: http://makanamusic.com