Upon arriving in Hawai’i as a young child, my family first lived on the beach at ‘Ohai’ula on the shores of Kawaihae which borders the ahupua’a of ‘Ouli, where Waimea resides. It is here that my family, consisting of my Mom, Dad, older brother, and two younger sisters lived for some six weeks as we adjusted to life on the island. At the time there were a number of families living on the beach that was more commonly known as Spencer Beach. There was a small community made up of recent transplants from the mainland and local families as well. Everyone watched out for each other, there were small gatherings at night, and at times large parties in the pavilion in which everyone who lived at the beach were invited to.
Living on a beach without running water, hot showers, or refrigeration with my five other family members was very different than the life I had previously known on the mainland. But I was young enough to not really be aware of this. The beach was a place where I could explore, adventure, and chase my endless curiosities. There were tidepools, an ocean, rocks, sand, and anything else an adventurous five year old would need to entertain themselves.
More than anything, there was the great heiau of Pu’u Koholā. At first I was very intimidated by this large hill with the massive stone altar at its top. It looked and felt eerie. I didn’t know anything about its history or meaning, but I knew it demanded and deserved my respect. One day while doing my usual adventuring I moved closer and closer towards the heiau and was drawn towards it with the intention of examining this big structure up close. As I moved closer I could feel the energy of the heiau grow stronger. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first interaction with mana. Eventually the power I was feeling became too much and I turned around.
It wasn’t until years later when I would return to this place that I was able to interact with this force and understand and embrace its power because shortly thereafter my family left the beach at Kawaihae and moved to the district of Kona. There my family found a small coffee shack for rent “up mauka” near the border between the ahupua’a of Kealakekua and Ke’ei. While we may have upgraded to running water, refrigerator, and an actual shower (if you can call a raised spigot underneath some avocado trees a shower), the amenities were still quite simple. Water came from a catchment tank, there was no TV, there was an outhouse as a bathroom, the shower had no hot water, and blackouts were frequent. Nonetheless, we were a happy family and I had endless acres of land to explore.
This was a magical time and place to grow up. Days felt longer, people felt friendlier, and the possibilities seemed endless. At a young age my mom could leave me at the beach alone and I could play all day with my friends and the families that we knew. We would run barefoot through the lush hills with the scent of ginger wafting in the air. We could climb the kukui trees overlooking the ravine and watch the water rush down the mountainside.
I am so grateful that I was able to spend all of my childhood in an environment like this. It was here that I learned to appreciate the simple ways of living. And it was here that I was able to learn about that very important Hawaiian value of aloha. And in the time since then, as I have grown and seen many changes here in Hawai’i, I have held onto these simpler times of my life. I have become to know that above all it is the Aloha Freely Given and Returned that is most important in life.
As I grew up out of my adolescent years, my family made a move that would change my life forever. My Dad got a job in the small ranching town of Waimea which forced us to move out of our humble little shack. Coincidentally, where we moved to was right up the road from Kawaihae and the beach where we had originally lived upon moving to Hawai’i. I didn’t spend much time in Waimea before moving here, save for the occasional soccer or little league tournament. At first I wasn’t too happy about this move. The terrain was very different. It was at a much higher elevation, it was cold, I was farther away from the beach, and it wasn’t nearly as lush. And I found it odd that all the trees grew diagonally from the ground because of the constantly blowing wind.
But after a while there was one thing that I recognized and found familiar. That was the familiar refrain of The Paniolo Yodel. While Honaunau may be far removed from the high plains of Waimea where the paniolo are famous for roping the wild pipi that once roamed wild throughout the foothills of Mauna Kea, it was actually in Honaunau where the very first cattle were released after they were gifted to Kamehameha by Captain Vancouver. Honaunau is also well known for its own paniolo culture, as they have their own rodeo grounds where many popular rodeo events are held throughout the year.
So as I began to adjust to life in Waimea many things did feel and seem familiar. The trucks with horse trailers attached, the men in blue jeans with chaps, and the boots adorned with spurs were all things that I had seen around the rodeo grounds of Honaunau during many long days spent at and around Pu’uhonua o Honaunau and Ke’ei Beach. And along with those familiar sights were the familiar sounds of the shared musical repertoire of the paniolo often played with ‘ukulele and slack-key tuned guitars. And maybe it was this familiarity that eased my transition into this new place.
Over time I most certainly developed a deep love for my new home. Those lush tropical forests were traded for wide open grassy hills, and the deep rushing ravines were replaced with meandering streams. And of course the rainbows, ahhh the rainbows. These phenomena became so constant that they just became a normal part of life in Waimea. I soon feel in love with this place, and I knew that no matter how far I may roam and no matter where life may take me, I always had a home here in Waimea. I began to sense that feeling of serenity that in my heart I always had a Song for Waimea.
And so my new life began to take shape in my new home. I grew up and developed a love for all the subtle beauties that life in Hawai’i provided. And it was this love of the land that shaped everything I did. I became attuned to the scents of the pīkake flower, the gentle feel of the ocean mist on my skin, and the calming beauty of the moonlight shimmering on the ocean at night. All of this was translated into my own connection with music and with music making, which gave me the most precious gift of anything I had ever know and will ever know since. This gift of music gave me the endless benefaction of being able to spend my evenings Serenading Under Starlight whenever I so chose, whether this was along the shoreline at Hāpuna Beach or under the kiawe trees at my favorite hidden nook at Waialea Bay, music became my constant companion.
And soon music moved from just being something I enjoyed doing in the privacy of my own space and time, but something I could share with my friends at parties and gatherings. And so over many years of playing, practicing, watching, listening, and learning, I familiarized myself with the repertoire and style of the backyard Hawaiian jam or kanikapila. Soon this led to the opportunity to sit in on some open jams at restaurants with a person that soon became my mentor, Uncle Braddah Smitty. What at first started as casual sit-ins at his legendary jam sessions, soon led to invitations to his private functions to play with him in his band. There was never a formal initiation into his band, but rather a simple request of, “hey boy, you Got Palaka?”.
And so I guess after that I was playing ‘ukulele in his band. In case you didn’t know, Braddah Smitty is a descendant of the great Gabby Pahinui, one time member of the Sons of Hawai’i, the famous group started by Eddie Kamae and Pahinui in the 1960s. The palaka shirt became their signature stage uniform, and over time has become a clear signifier for musicians who have learned to play in the specific style that Kamae and Pahinui championed. That style being the difficult mix of disciplined and relaxed performance that allows the musician to be totally at ease and free in their playing, yet also extremely precise and complex in their strumming, picking, vocals, and variety of styles. It also involves a shared repertoire that is very carefully curated and protected.
These years were invaluable to my growth and development. While often challenging and at times full of discouragement and frustration, over time I learned to push myself, take risks, and put myself into new territory that I never thought I’d be able to play music in. Whether that was on stage at a festival with over a thousand people, sitting in at a late night jam with an all-star cast of Hawaiian musicians, or my favorite, those late late night jam sessions deep into the night in which the most obscurest of obscure songs would be played, shared, and discussed. I will never forget those times, and I will never forget my Uncle Smitty. Every time I play, I think of him and I value his guidance and support. His motto to “always play from the heart” will always stay with me.
Over time my identity as a true lover of the music of Hawaii’i and the diverse style of Hawaiian acoustic music has come into being. And through these experiences, what truly became clear to me, is that these paniolo that were the tie that had bound my early time in Honaunau with my later years in Waimea, had a very important role. It was the paniolo who were as the constant purveyors of the land. And it became my life’s duty to sing the praises of these paniolo. I realized that I had so many thanks to give to these hard working men and women, for the preservation of the language, to the stewardship of the land, to the passing down of stories, and songs, and of course to the slack-key guitar. And so I had to sing Ha’aheo Nā Kanaka Paniolo! Praise and celebrate the paniolo!
So today my deep love for my home here in Hawai’i is clear. From my humble beginnings on the beach at ‘Ohai’ula along the shores of Kawaihae, to my home today in the hills of Waimea, Hawai’i is truly the flower of my heart. My music is an expression of my love for my island home. It is Hawai’i that shall always hold me in her bosom, and caress me in her arms, and reveal to me her secrets of her magic island charms. I love you, I need you, ‘O Hawai’i Nei.