Born in Moloka’i, raised on the island of Hawai’i, Hualalai Keaweoluna Keohuloa has a strong passion for music that was passed down from his mother, Lynda Bertelmann. He’s not the type of musician you’ll find playing local bars or white table-cloth restaurants, yet his music, and especially his Eddie Vedder-like vocals, have a wide appeal and sound like something you heard played on an alt-rock station in the ‘90’s. I’ve only seen Hualalai perform three times, but there was something about his stage presence and lyrics that caught my attention.
Besides his music, he builds canoes for the community, and is a strong defender against negative impacts to the ʻAina and Hawaiian people. In a 2014 public hearing about whether the Federal Government should reestablish a relationship with the native Hawaiian community, Hualalai stood up for his core beliefs: “Don’t build TMT, stop the bombing of Pohakuloa, and stop using Hamakua as a geothermal testing site… We can teach our kids, teach people… and we can show you how to build a nation.”
I had a chance to speak with Hualalai about a variety of subjects, music being the core of our discussion. He was working with a teacher and his students on a farm-to-table program at Kohala High in Hawi.
Tell me about your music roots and inspirations.
My grandmother sang a lot of religious Mormon hymns. I watched her write hymns in English and Hawaiian. She revised the hymn books in the church to include the Hawaiian translation. We all had to sing in the choir. Singing always felt good. It was a great way to communicate and bring people together.
When it comes to writing original music, my mom is my biggest hero in the world. She came from a very strict environment, and eventually broke out of it. She wrote songs about taking care of the land, and about all the resort hotels going up at a time when contemporary Hawaiian musicians were singing about rainbows and white sand beaches. Her music is very emotional. She listened to Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, which opened me up to following alternative rock music. My music takes a great deal of inspiration from my mother and her beliefs.
What did you listen to?
Growing up I listened to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and Bob Marley. It wasn’t really the music, it was their message that moved me. In high school we had a rock band that played a lot of Slipknot, Korn, and Tool. There were some raging house parties we performed at!
What do you like to write about?
The older I get the more I realize how music is the best processing tool I’ve ever had. I like to write inspirational songs that talk about struggles, but end with a solution.
What are some of your song titles?
“Knowledge of the Stone,” “Break Me,” and “As If I’m.” I guess they fall into a rock-reggae-hip-hop genre. There’s also “Bleeds Through,” which you can check out online.
I’ve worked with some school kids from Kona that were doing hip-hop and got hooked on that style of music. I wish I made my own beats. I’m always looking for a beat-maker.
I do some yelling in my songs. I noticed in Hawaii, when I’m connecting to a younger audience, it’s like chanting. It’s how we pull our ancestral energy out. In the old days, that’s how we were led.
I don’t see much rap or hip-hop performed here on the Big Island. Am I missing it?
Yeah! There’s a huge hip-hop community here in Hawaii. They’re on the mountain (Mauna Kea) as we speak. Check out Leilani Wolfgramm. She’s is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist with Tongan roots. She’s coming in June.
I’ve seen you collaborate with Brad Bordessa and Higgs. Who else have you worked with?
Ka’ahele. She’s from Hawi, and I’m on her new album. We do a song called “The Breakdown.”
What are some of the challenges musicians face here on the Big Island?
If your music openly talks about anything liberating, freedom, sovereignty, yeah, it’s really hard. Those musicians are out there, but don’t get paid for it. For me it’s having a family with five kids and playing music at the same time. I’m older now and can’t play free for everybody, but I do as much as I can.
Are you working on your own album?
I should. I’m sitting on over a hundred songs. I used to carry around Cubase and record a load of songs, but it’s harder to do that now.
Why is music important?
It dissolves, gender, race, and problems. We intuitively connect to it. Whether they’re talented or not, if people try to sing or perform, the self-reflectiveness that happens can heal the planet in the process.
Concert photo by Steve Roby. Family photo courtesey of Hualalai.