The invention of amplification, headphones and finally earbuds have conditioned us to piped-in, pumped-up sound. The Ka Himeni Ana Music Contest would like to re-introduce you to music as it once was: acoustic and au naturel.
"The only instrument that’s allowed to be electrically enhanced is the steel guitar," said Rick Towill, a member of the organizing committee and the son of the original organizer, Richard Towill. "It has to be in Hawaiian and it has to follow the nahenahe style of Hawaiian music."
Nahenahe roughly translates as "legato" in musical terminology, but also implies consonant harmonies and a clear vocal style. The groups who will compete promise to fulfill that style with everything from four-part harmonies by the Ho’opi Ohana to two father-son duos, the Sour Poi Band and Kaimana Kono. They will be among 10 groups competing for prizes ranging from $200 to $1,200 at the Hawaii Theatre tonight.
Tradition is the emphasis of the contest, whether it be in the history or the style of the performance.
"We used to have a rule that the music had to be composed prior to World War II, but then it came about where folks wanted to do their own compositions, which were in Hawaiian," Towill said.
Now, "I’d say a quarter to a third of the songs that are performed in a given year are (newer) self-compositions," he said.
CONCERT GOERS don’t have to speak Hawaiian to understand the songs, Towill said. "We have a bit of a blurb about the history of the song and what it’s all about."
Ka Himeni Ana Music Contest
Traditional Hawaiian music performed in traditional style
Where: Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel St.
This is the 27th year for the contest, which has proven to be a launching pad for many local artists.
The 1986 winners, now known as Ho’okena, have gone on to earn two Grammy nominations and recently received the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for group of the year. Ho’okena leader and ukulele player Manu Boyd will emcee this year’s event, filling the shoes of the late Cleighton "Uncle Keola" Beamer, longtime emcee of the event, who passed away in March.
"Uncle Keola loved life to the fullest and did not shy away from having a good time," Boyd said in an e-mail. "His sense of humor was legendary, and his love for his family, friends and associates was/is without equal."
Beamer, scion of the legendary musical family, played a key role in the development of the contest, Towill said, working with several other kupuna to create the judging criteria for the contest. "They actually came up with different criteria, pitch, appearance, how they projected themselves. They gave it a numerical value, a numerical grade, and those are added up at the end of the contest. … Whoever gets the most points is the winner."
Towill said his father came up with the idea for the contest after remembering his younger days growing up in Kauai, when informal groups would visit communities during the holiday to play. "Folks would get out and play this really sweet nahenahe music around the neighborhood," Towill said.
"Groups began bringing amplifiers and it would be so loud that it would be hard for folks to carry out a conversation," Towill said. "He thought in order to get a group to come and not have their amplifiers and stuff, he would have this song contest. The beauty of it was it morphed into this wonderful opportunity for groups to come out and perform."
Though the sound will not be amplified, the contest itself is "kind of electrifying," said Eric Keawe, a member of the organizing committee for the contest and a director of the Hawaii Music Hall of Fame, which is sponsoring the event. "Some of them, it’s the first time performing in front of audience. And for some of them, it’s numerous times. They haven’t quite made it to the top yet, but they’re up to the challenge.
"There’s always someone or some group who will stand out from the rest," Keawe said. "Last year’s winner, Kaiholu, was very outstanding in comparison to the other contestants. They are very creative and some have background in music and connections to other groups."
Keawe said contest organizers make a special effort to get family and friends of the groups to come, creating a lively and yet intimate environment for other concert goers.
"It’s like being at someone’s home, like your next-door neighbor," he said. "Someone sits down and starts to play, and you say ‘Hey, where’s that music coming from?’"
The evening will also include a tribute to ukulele legend Eddie Kamae, who at age 83 still drops in frequently on Sundays to jam at Honey’s at Ko’olau Restaurant at the Ko’olau Golf Club.