Award-winning artist Raiatea Helm has been called Hawaii’s Songbird for our generation. Once you experience her fabulous falsetto voice and elegant charm, you’ll understand why.
This interview took place before her March 19 show at the Kahilu Theatre. We got to talk about a variety of topics including her passion for Hawaiian history.
Let’s start with a brief overview of your career. How did you get started? What was your inspiration, that kind of thing, and where are you today?
I’m originally from the island of Molokai and growing up there was just the best. I grew up in a musical family. My father sang Hawaiian. Hapa Haole. I mean, everything, jazz, funk, all of it. I was very blessed to grow up with that influence because of Molokai. We didn’t have music programs, which was unfortunate. My dad helped me get a jump start in learning to play the ukulele. I saw an artist named Nina Kealiiwahamana, who was a part of a famous radio show called Hawaii Calls that goes back to the 1940s. That’s what attracted many visitors to Hawaii when they watched these beautiful hula dancers and the amazing singers. Auntie Nina was a beautiful Hawaiian soprano voice.
I grew up like any other kid in the nineties and listened to whatever was playing on MTV, but because of Aunty Nina, I said to myself, “Wow, how come I didn’t know about this music?” It was in 1999, at the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest, and that year they honored Hawaii Calls. And from there, everything was history for me.
What do you love about visiting our island, Hawaii?
I love the entire island and reconnecting. It’s just something about the essence and maybe the openness. And you easily think of ancient Hawaii and, of course, Kamehameha.
Tell me about your Kahilu Theatre show today.
I tend to go into traditional Hawaiian music and contemporary Hawaiian music. I’ll be featuring a five-piece band. There’s Garin Poliahu (drums) and Bryan Kessler (guitar) from the Hawaiian Style Band, along with Casey Olsen (steel guitar), Dean Taba (bass), and Bryan Tolentino (`ukulele).
I’ve always wanted to collaborate with different styles, and you’ll be hearing a few new songs. And some older Hawaiian melodies that complement hula. I want to give the audience and my fans more than they would typically expect from me.
And there are some hula dancers in the show.
We are very grateful to have Kumu hula Michael Pili Pang. He founded Hālau Hula Ka No’eau and brought seven of his students.
Do you have any recording plans or touring plans this year?
It’s been an interesting two years, but I’ve been very fortunate not to go outside of the box as an artist. Being in the industry for 20 years, I wanted to see how I could contribute in other ways. I have a project that I’m working with that was through a grant through the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. This organization is in Portland, Oregon, and supports Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiian artists. So, there’s this program called Shift, and I’m working with the Center for Pacific Strings, where we are taking this deep dive into this untold history of the influence of our Hawaiian ancestors starting in the late 19th century.
I’ve always been passionate about history, and I wanted to take a personal journey. So, it would be an album and an academic journal to showcase this history. So, it’s a two-year project.
And then I have my day job. I am a youth development outreach specialist at the Liliʻuokalani Trust. Our last monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani, started it in 1909. She wanted to support destitute Native Hawaiian children. It grew from an endowment to programs, and it’s now building music programs. So that’s kind of what I do.
How would you describe the Hawaiian music industry today?
I think we’re living in an interesting time. And perhaps COVID gave us some time to restart and perhaps analyze things, that you could change in the way we perceive culture and the way we perceive intention in what we do.
I would love to see a future where Hawaiian kids can learn many instruments and perform many genres. They can write their songs, explore their creative passion, be proud, and not be put in a box. Just go out and do it.
Photos: Steve Roby
About the author: Steve Roby is the editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Check out our concert review for Raiatea Helm’s appearance in the Three Maui Divas performance.