So the Grammy music awards were handed out yesterday and for the first time, there was one for Hawaiian music. The newly created Category 69, which comes under Field 14 – Folk, included five nominated Hawaiian music albums: “Some Call It Aloha Don’t Tell” by the Brothers Cazimero, “Amy & Willie Live” by Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom & Willie K, “Cool Elevation” by Ho’okena, “Ke’alaokamaile” by Keali’i Reichel, and “Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2,” an instrumental compilation.
I really appreciate the coverage both the Los Angeles (front page) and New York Times gave to the category. But Hawaiian music is such a diverse category that having but one award to give was bound to cause some bit of controversy.
The first controversy is defining Best Hawaiian music album as being 51 percent Hawaiian. I guess that means that if you sing anything on the album, 51 percent of it must be in Hawaiian. For some, this was too little. These purist wanted 100 percent Hawaiian language and nothing else. Others, thought that any percentage was too high because Hawaiian music can be sung in English and be just as rich, they say, in meaning as 100 percent Hawaiian.
The second controversy is combining instrumental and vocal music into one category. Four of the five nominees were vocal, or mostly vocal. The lone instrumental was a compilation of several solo musicians playing what is known as ki ho’alu (slack-key tuned guitar).
The third controversy, and perhaps the biggest in the short-term, is Grammy members from across the nation being eligible to vote for the best Hawaiian album. Open voting for all members tends to skew things towards the middle of the road. That is, if you aren’t familiar with a type of music, but you have to vote on one as being the best, people tend to choose the one that is the most familiar to them or, at least, least foreign to them.
I can imagine a voter in Massachusetts hearing, for the first time, a Hawaiian chant by Keali’i Reichel and wondering what the heck is going on and why does he sound the way he does (his voice would not be considered very musical by western standards). This is indeed unfortunate as Mr. Reichel is considered by many Hawaiian people to be a living treasure. An embodiment of hundreds of years of Hawaiian chant. Perhaps his soul doesn’t translate very well across the miles.
My personal favorite, Ho’okena is a good example of contemporary Hawaiian music. By contemporary I mean the use of western music theory in the creation of new music as well as modernization of old Hawaiian chants.
The Brothers Cazimero were in the forefront of what is now called the Hawaiian renaissance. This period, centering on the 1970s, found Hawaiians gaining an appreciation of the many great accomplishments of their ancestors. This resulted in a renewed interest in canoe building and racing, hula dance, Hawaiian language (the idea of Hawaiian language only schools got their start during this period), and Hawaiian music.
But, in fact, none of the four albums with any Hawaiian words won. Instead, the instrumental compilation won the first Grammy for Hawaiian music. This is not to take anything away from the great solo musicians who played on this quiet and reflective album but what is Hawaiian music without the power of the Hawaiian language?
I can only hope that having a Hawaiian album category Grammy will open the world to the best of Hawaiian music, both the instrumental as well as language and that, in the future, there will be two Hawaiian music categories.