Review: Makana Visits Hawaiian Music’s Past, Present, and Future with Exclusive Kahilu Concerts

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Over the past two years, Makana has written and recorded over two hundred songs, but none of them have been officially released to the public. As a special treat for Big Island concertgoers, Makana gave several of his new tunes a world debut this past weekend at the Kahilu Theatre. His two-hour Sunday matinee featured a diverse repertoire of folk, traditional Hawaiian, classical, opera, classic rock, slack key, and even rap.

Makana switched instruments for nearly every song in his sets and kept his guitar tech quite busy. Makana mainly used a Takamine acoustic guitar, a ukulele, and a Spanish tipple – a ten-stringed guitar that’s slightly smaller than a standard guitar. For “Poli Pumehana,” he played both the tipple and a guitar that was on a stand.

Makana switches between the tipple and guitar

Makana has always been a risk-taker when it comes to the manner in which he plays his music. He cited a time when he was only 19 and performed a large festival on Kauai. After his set, someone grabbed him by his ear and chided him for trying to change the traditional music and art form that Sonny Chillingworth taught him. “The reason I dedicated my life to playing our music of Hawaii is that it’s so broad and diverse,” Makana explained to the audience. “Hawaiian music is so special because it includes music from around the world – the vaqueros, the whaling ships, and the missionaries’ hymns.” In a recent interview I did with the 36-year-old musician, he said that he always tries to push the boundaries and “expose more of ourselves to ourselves.” If there was a take-away message for Makana’s concerts it was exploring where Hawaiian music might be headed.

Makana began his musical journey when he joined the Honolulu Boys’ Choir at the age of 7. He picked up the ukulele the following year and was taught by Roy Sakuma, Hawaii’s premiere ukulele teacher. Makana said Jake Shimabukuro was in his teenage band and he was proud of how Jake has taken the ukulele to the world. Honoring Shimabukuro’s style, Makana played his own composition “Dancing in the Rain.”

Makana and Pōmaikai Brown

For most of the show, Makana played solo, but a few songs were enhanced with pre-recorded tracks and vocal harmonies. For the tune “On the Beach at Waikiki,” a song made popular by Canadian Hank Snow in 1967, Makana put on an old-timey handlebar mustache and horn-rimmed glasses to simulate a New York swing- jazz bandleader from the 1920s playing “traditional Hawaiian music.” He was joined by lap-steel guitarist Pōmaikai Brown. The song was done in jest to give an example of how some people may have interpreted what were thought to be traditional Hawaiian songs. Making his point further, Makana transitioned to a classic Hawaiian song called “Ua Like No A Like” by Kalama’s Quartet, one of Hawaii’s greatest pre-World War II bands.

Makana sings “Nussun Dorma”

Just before his first set concluded, a mid-stage curtain lifted to expose a trio of string players. While Makana made a wardrobe change, they played a version of the “Spring Concerto” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Makana then returned to the stage with his guitar and performed “Cuore” and “Nussun Dorma,” the latter an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, one of the best-known tenor arias in all opera.

After a brief intermission, Makana returned barefooted with a harmonica holder around his neck and an acoustic guitar – picture Bob Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival sans the busy hair.  Makena delved into one of his newer politically themed songs titled “Dearth of Earth Blues.” The seven-minute simple cords song about the environment offers a rather harsh message, “If you want to save the earth/kill yourself and don’t have kids.” Although Makana joked he hoped the song would offend the listener, the audience applauded loudly in approval.

One of the more complex pieces performed, and there were plenty to choose from, was a song from Makana’s yet-untitled musical, a project that’s been in the works for the past 15 years. The story involves a family from Hawaii who moves to New York and becomes financially successful. Along the way, they rediscover the value of being connected to their cultural identity and want to return. “Somewhere on the Ocean Floor” was a slice out of the musical, complete with multiple characters’ dialogue all acted by Makana. The singer says he’s nearing the end of the composition phase and will possibly debut it in Hawaii next year.

Switching musical genres once again, Makana presented “Da Game Plan.” It’s sort of a ‘pidgin rap’ with a hip-hop beat all about life on the Big Island. With bass parts that you might hear booming out of a passing Ford F150, Makana mentioned many of the Big Island’s locations. He said his goal with the song is to have local kids bumpin’ to Hawaiian culture in hip-hop and to be proud of their own lifestyle. “The game plan is not to lose that,” Makana added.

After performing James Taylor’s classic “Fire and Rain,” the audience brought Makana back for a two-song hana hou. The most touching moment was a heartfelt tune about his late mother called “A Song in the Wind.” On a screen behind him was a childhood photo with his mom. Through a series of detective-like clues, Makana connected the dots and concluded that the wind was a message (or song) from his mother.

One of the unique items found on Makana’s merch table was a $20 audio download of Sunday’s concert. The popular concept has been around for at least ten years, especially on the mainland, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it offered on the Big Island.

To dive deeper into the Makana songbook, and find out when his new musical will debut, I suggest heading over to his website.

Set I
Soilmate | Poli Pumehana | Dancing in the Rain | Napo’o Ka La | Wai (Cool Water) | Pu’uanahulu | On the Beach at Waikiki** | Ua Like No A Like| Koi | Spring Concerto*  | Cuore* | Nessun Dorma |

Set II
Dearth of Earth Blues | Going to California | Somewhere on the Ocean Floor | Deep in a Ancient Hawaiian Forest | Da Game Plan | See You On The Mauna | Fire and Rain |

Hana Hou
Kauka ‘Iii** | A Song in the Wind |

*String Section: Joanie Collins, Jessica Salerno Woodbury, and Ray Broggini
**Lap Steel Guitar: Pomaika’i Brown (Nephi)


Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. 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: Steve Roby

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