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A night of Na Hoku Hanohano

Hawaii's most prestigious music awards have grown and evolved along with the industry

By John Berger

LAST UPDATED: 4:16 a.m. HST, May 22, 2011

When legendary radio host and program director Krash Kealoha created the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 1977, it was for a radio station promotion presented in conjunction with a major advertiser. The winners were determined by public vote.

Compact discs, the Internet, music downloads and the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts were all in the future.

HARA came into the picture in 1982. That was the year the Hokus were made over as a local equivalent of the Grammys, with the awards determined by the votes of industry professionals rather than the public at large.

The winners of the 2011 Hoku Awards will be announced at the Hawai‘i Convention Center next Sunday, and almost all of them will have been determined by the HARA membership, which includes recording industry pros, radio disc jockeys and record reviewers. Two — Haku Mele and Hawaiian Language Performance — will have been adjudicated by panels of Hawaiian language specialists; a third, "for best technical achievement in a sound recording and mix-down," by members of that profession.

One — favorite entertainer — will be determined by public vote.

Hardly a year goes by without controversy of some kind, but in the 29 years since HARA assumed responsibility for the Hokus they have become firmly established as Hawaii's most prestigious music awards. And with the elimination of the short-lived Best Hawaiian Music Album category in a major restructuring of Grammy categories by the national Recording Academy this year that pushed Hawaiian music into the same group with polka, zydeco and other regional genres, the Hokus are once again as big as it gets in terms of record industry recognition for island recording artists.

What that means is a matter of opinion.

Kenneth Makuakane, HARA board member and a Hoku Award-winner, says that "the elimination of the Hawaiian (album Grammy) does shift the focus back home … Other awards may come and go, but local folks know that when all else fails, they can always come home," he said.

Eric Lee, a member of the Hoku Award-winning group Na Kama who is also active as a solo recording artist, saw the Grammy category as "a great opportunity for Hawaiian artists to be recognized" nationally. He added that winning a Grammy award "weighs more on your promoting efforts than your quality of product."


When: May 29, no-host cocktails at 4 p.m., dinner at 5:15 p.m., pre-awards show at 5:30 p.m., main show at 7 p.m.

Where: Hawaii Convention Center

Cost: $150 general admission, $135 kamaaina, $125 Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts members




Hawaiis top music stars will shine at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards dinner next Sunday at the Hawaii Convention Center, and you can join them with the help of a dream prize package.

Just tell us, in 250 words or less, why its your dream to go to the Na Hoku Hanohanos. Entries will be judged by officials from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts.

Prizes include two tickets to the event, one night at the Ala Moana Hotel, limo service from Platinum Limousine Hawaii, a formal dress for her from Calista, a complimentary tuxedo rental for him from Celebrity Tuxedos, a couples package from Hoala Salon & Spa, a collection of 12 CDs from some of the Na Hoku Hanohano nominees, a morning-after breakfast at Il Lupino Trattoria & Wine Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Center and a one-of-a-kind KoAloha ukulele.

You must be a Hawaii resident age 21 or older to enter. Tomorrow is the deadline to email your entry to

Include your name, address and contact info. The winner will be notified Wednesday. The judges decision is final.


LIKE THE national Recording Academy, sponsors of the Grammys, HARA has often seemed to move slowly in responding to changes in the music industry. Based on its own rules for opening new categories, HARA could have had an award category for reggae/Jawaiian as early as 1992, but it didn't happen until 1999.

Johnny Kai's Hawaii Music Awards gained traction in the mid-'90s among musicians, record producers and record label executives who felt they were being excluded by HARA and the Hoku awards.

To them, it often seemed that HARA was more about Hawaiian music than recognizing excellence in the local recording industry as a whole. HARA board member Gaylord Holomalia, a Hoku Award-winning studio engineer and recording artist, argues that boycotting the academy is not the way to improve it.

"When I found out that the (HARA) ruling was that all it took to get a new category was to get five artists and submit their albums into whatever new category they wanted to have, I kept telling people about it … then all those other categories got added."

Na Hoku Hanohano categories for jazz and rock were added in 1998, and for R&B/hip-hop and music video DVD in 2007. The Hokus honor 27 categories; the number of categories recognized by Kai, a former entertainer, vary from year to year depending on the type of albums submitted for consideration. This year there were 31 categories including ska, new age, Latin and film score.

HARA board member Keola Donaghy is open to creating new categories but adds, "I don't think we could do what (Johnny Kai) does and establish a category with one release for that genre and have it win by default. What we really need is greater participation by artists in those categories and genres, and not just in years when they have product up for that award."

Veteran record producer and slack-key guitar promoter Milton Lau sees it as a matter of evolution: "Adapt, change and evolve or become a dinosaur," he said. "Change has come much slower (than with Johnny Kai's awards) but change is coming. There are new and younger board members who want change and are pushing in that direction."

HARA HAS BEEN revising its residency and distribution requirements. For many years eligibility was limited to Hawaii residents and to records that were "primarily distributed in Hawaii." The latter rule kept the Society of Seven, a popular Waikiki showroom act, off the Hoku ballot in the '80s when they were recording for a national label, and would have excluded Hawaii music legends Alfred Apaka, Mahi Beamer and Don Ho if the Hokus had existed in the '50s and '60s. In fact, HARA has paid little more than lip service to the "primarily distributed" clause for years and is increasing the number of categories open to nonresidents.

Keith Haugen, an active member of the Hawaii recording scene for several decades, has "mixed emotions … but have always felt that anyone producing Hawaiian music recordings should be able to enter their product in the Hawaiian music category whether they are living here or in Oregon or Los Angeles, Michigan or Canada. If (the award) is to honor the best in ‘Hawaiian music recordings,' it should be inclusive."

Donaghy notes that several categories that relate to native Hawaiian music are now open to nonresidents because "there is no other awards program that honors them specifically."

Should nonresidents who record here — Kanye West and Steely Dan, to name two — also be eligible?

"Maybe," he says. "I think any move in that direction needs to be taken cautiously and with consultation of our membership."

HARA HAS ALSO responded to the unquenchable popularity of legal downloads and music files, reversing its controversial decision to eliminate the "single of the year" category and just this year activating a new category for hard-copy releases that have more than two songs but not enough songs or playing time to qualify as a full-length "album."

Makuakane and Lau agree that electronic distribution of music is the future of the record business. Makuakane's last four projects — all of them on this year's final Hoku ballot — were distributed almost exclusively online and are not available at traditional outlets.

Lau describes it as "a commercial miracle for independent artists, musicians and record labels" such as his Rhythm & Roots label.

Record producer Michael Cord, president of Cord International/HanaOla Records, hails the Internet as "the best thing that has ever happened to music." Artists no longer have to produce an entire album, he said; they can test the market with a single song.

"You can just put it up in the digital domain without manufacturing (costs) and spending thousands until you know (as a label) that you have something that will return the investment," he said.

And with a digital release, Donaghy says, "You don't have to beg a distributor to carry your product or go down to Borders and hope that they'll put it on the shelf for you."

Video by Jason Genegabus /

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