KWXX-FM, a Hilo-based 51,000-watt radio station, has been organizing their Hoʻolauleʻa music festival for the past twenty-six years. In 1993, concert promoter John Leonard started the annual festival, and today Leonard’s son Chris carries on the Hoʻolauleʻa tradition. “Sure, you’ll find top names playing at the Waikiki Shell on Oahu, but they can only hold 8,000 people,” said Chris Leonard. “There’s probably no other large music festival in the State that has a line-up as big as ours! We put 20,000 people in downtown Hilo on a Saturday night. It went from being a signature event for KWXX to a signature event for this island!”
ʻAnakē Irene Midel, or “Aunty Irene,” as most fondly call her, arrived early to the Haili (main) stage to plant and position herself front and center. The ninety-year-old has been faithfully attending the free annual Hoʻolauleʻa music festival since it started twenty-six years ago. This year she’s brought a folding chair and a large umbrella. Rain was on the way.
Reverend Billie Keawekane-Beere, from the Ka Uhane Hemolele O Ka Malamalama Church in Keaukaha, offered prayers for a successful Hoʻolauleʻa. As the Reverend continued, it started to sprinkle and then turned rain. Usually, by this time, people start to grab a choice spot along the steel barrier that flanks the stage, but I could see only a few contemplating if standing for the next five hours was such a good idea. A dozen or so young men, sporting light blue Security t-shirts, just got a pep talk from their chief. I asked one, “Do you think this rain is going to affect turn-out?” He laughed and said, “No, Hilo people are used to the rain! It doesn’t bother them. They’ll come.” He was right.
KWXX’s morning crew, Pomai and Loeka, the sister-brother music duo, acted as MCs on the festival’s main stage. Darrin “DC” Carlson, the morning host on KWXX’s sister station (KMWB), also filled in while the stage crew set up for the next band. Lokea Longakit is also a Hoku award winner and performed later with the group Media.
THE BROWN BOYS
The first group on the Haili stage was The Brown Boys, a five-man band from the Big Island. The band normally features Karl Zinsman Jr. (vocals/guitar), Leki Ma’ave- (vocals/’ukulele), Chadd Akamine (vocals/bass) Rodney Kekaualua- (percussion), and Damon Williams (vocals/keys). However, Zinsman explained that Williams missed the plane and didn’t make it to the festival. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” he joked.
The Brown Boys formed in 2006 and play Island Contemporary and Hawaiian music. They are currently based in Puna. Their single “Riding the World”, written by Zinsman, was featured on an episode of Hawaii Five-0. The band has been a staple of the Big Island music scene for over 8 years, performing at all major events, concerts and club venues; even sharing the stage with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend Neil Young at his home in Puako. Their single “You’re All I Need” charted on several radio stations across the Hawaiian Islands and earned the #1 spot in August 2015.
LOEKA LONGAKIT, BRUDDAH WALTAH & MEDIA
Lokea Longakit, in addition to working in radio, comes from a musical family. His father, Lloyd Longakit is a songwriter, singer and guitarist, and his mother is a singer and hula dancer. Coincidently, Lloyd Longakit played guitar during his son’s set and Loeka later acknowledged that it was his father’s birthday, and invited the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Bruddah Waltah is a 30-year music sensation, and sometimes called “the father of Hawaiian reggae.” Walter was born in Keaukaha, lived there until he was four, before moving to O’ahu. Walter Aipolani, better known as Bruddah Waltah, has deep roots in Keaukaha, in the Hilo district where he was born.
As the sun began to set, the rain continued, and the wind blew water on stage. Just before Maui-born singer Anuhea began her set, one of her band members used a towel to soak up the puddles so she wouldn’t slip.
Anuhea (Rylee Anuheake’alaokalokelani Jenkins) is a self-taught singer/songwriter and showed an interest in music while boarding at Hawaii’s famous Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu. Today she continues this passion while writing and recording new music. Anuhea’s third album Butterflies: Anuhea Live was released on Mailboat Records, a label started by Jimmy Buffett.
During her set last Saturday, Anuhea spoke about a brand new video and remix of “I Just Want your Around.” “I just posted it on my Instagram page,” Anuhea said. Another highlight came when she brought up her six-year-old son Ikena Jack. “He was in my belly six years ago tonight, and now he’s in the new music video,” said the singer. While Anuhea sang, the young boy patiently waited for his cue to dance. He didn’t mind the spotlight and cut loose with several well-executed moves.
Anuhea mentioned she has a new best-of album coming out in November and her fan base of mostly young girls shrieked in appreciation. She also said she will be doing a 10th Anniversary Concert on November 9 at the Honokaa People’s Theatre.
Ka’ikena Scanlan, a Hawaiian language professor at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, has a viral reggae song called “Smoke All Day,” which he says is simply about smoked meat. While he performed the tune, a fog machine spewed out a rolling cloud over the first few rows of the audience, mixing with a haze of vape exhaust and pot smoke.
During his smoking hot set, Scanlan played another crowd-pleaser called “Utu Bang Bang.” An Oahu music station recently asked its Facebook followers what they thought the song title meant while posting a photo of a cream-filled pastry with a hole in the center.
On a more serious note, Scanlan did a chant with the crowd in solidarity with those standing vigil on Maunakea to oppose the construction of a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope on the mountain. The crowd echoed their support and made the symbol for Maunakea with their raised hands. The rain stopped and Aunty Irene was on her feet enjoying the music.
Ekolu has been a part of the Island Reggae music scene for almost 20 years. The group released their debut album back in 1999, titled Down In The Valley, and since then have created their own style of music.
Ekolu is still one of Hawai’i’s top favorite Island Reggae Music artists, and during their 20-year career, Ekolu have earned twenty #1 hits and six Hoku awards. Their talent and spectacular performance at this year’s Hoʻolauleʻa festival demonstrated that this band will be around for a long time.
After Party at The Crown Room
As I waited for the last shuttle back to the After Party at the Grand Naniloa’s Crown Room, I could hear Girl’s Night Out doing a marvelous rendition of Journey’s big hit “Lights.” With lyrics about the sun shining on the bay and city lights, the song adapted well for Hilo.
As the Shuttle pulled up to the hotel, it felt like being in busy Waikiki. Valets hustled to park cars, there was a long line of people waiting to check in, and it was 10:30 p.m. – time for the action to start!
Natural Vibrations was the core band for the evening and various band members from the festival came to sit in and jam. I saw a bride in a long white wedding dress followed by others from the wedding party joining in the post-concert festivities. The event was scheduled to conclude at 4:00 a.m., but my head hit the pillow long before that.
As I drove out of town the next day (around 9 a.m.) there was no trace that the Hoʻolauleʻa music festival ever took place. The towering stages that consumed a chunk of the parking areas – gone! All of the plastic bottles and cans that littered the streets – gone! Billy Kervick, the Senior Accounts Manager at KWXX, told me the radio station’s crew finished clean-up by 2:30 a.m.
This was the second time I’ve covered the music festival, and I still have that odd feeling that something was missing – reporting by the local newspaper(s) either before or after the event. It’s been that way for some time I’ve heard. Our two Big Island Oahu-owned newspapers recently went through major staff cuts, and the entertainment staff was eliminated, and music coverage was reduced. It’s part of an on-going trend in the print media. Music aside, the event is still newsworthy if only a mention that there would be road closures and delays. I couldn’t find anything in the weekend entertainment guides, the Community section, or even a column called “Big Isle History.” When 20k people, roughly half the population of Hilo, pack the streets and Palace Theatre for an annual event, wouldn’t you think that would deserve a mention – a photo?
Editor’s note: West Hawaii Today’s editor Tom Hasslinger responded to my email, “If it’s a Hilo event, we don’t cover them, we stick just to west side doings.” The Hawaii Tribune Herald’s editor, David Block, never replied to my query.
According to Sergeant Jason Grouns of the Hilo Police Department, this year’s estimated crowd size was 10,000, and there were no arrests made.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling 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