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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 18, 2007

Vocalists feeling left out of Grammys

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Richard Ho'opi'i Sr. led a song at last week's Grammy Awards. Some in local music say Hawai'i's oral culture is not fully appreciated.

MARK J. TERRILL | Associated Press

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Musicians Lezlee Kaaihue, left, and Henry Kapono arrive at last week's Grammy Awards. Slack-key's defenders say Hawaiian guitarists have a large Mainland following because they've worked hard to get it.

MATT SAYLES | Associated Press

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A third straight year at the Grammy podium for ki ho'alu. A third straight year of heated debate about slack-key guitar's growing grip on the best Hawaiian music album category.

"Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Live from Maui" brought Grammy glory last week to yet another ki ho'alu-based compilation. It also raised recurring rancor about why an all Hawaiian-language vocal album has yet to win music's most prestigious and potentially lucrative prize.

Perhaps more seriously, slack-key's Grammy domination has a few Hawai'i-based voters considering a petition to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to eliminate the category, which took local music industry players two decades of lobbying to achieve.

Local music industry peers upset with Grammy voters' continued selection of ki ho'alu cite ignorance of the importance of vocals to Hawaiian music traditions as their main concern.

In 2005, when the Hawaiian Grammy debuted, the all-instrumental "Slack Key Guitar, Vol. 2" won the award. At the time, nominee Keali'i Reichel said the win might set a precedence.

"It's going to be difficult for nonslack-key artists the next time," Reichel predicted. And he was right.

Hawaiian-language vocal albums by Reichel, the Brothers Cazimero, Ho'okena and Amy Hanaiali'i & Willie K claimed four of five nominations in 2005. The next year, only one vocal-dominated disc Raiatea Helm's "Sweet & Lovely" was nominated.

In the current year, every nominated disc features Hawaiian-language vocal tracks and three including the winner are dominated by vocals.

"Basically, the bottom line (is) that the majority of the vote is coming from out of Hawai'i. And so they have absolutely no idea what's going on culturally here," Reichel said last week.

"Yes, slack key is important culturally. But in this day and age, we are focusing in on our language and the way we look at the universe through our language and our living culture. Slack key is a part of it. But bottom line, we are an oral culture. And so the words and the lyrics and the lyrical content of the music is more important than the musical content of the music."


Keola Donaghy, an assistant professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo and voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, offered a bold prediction regarding the category: Criteria for eligibility will be redefined, or the category will be eliminated altogether, over the next two years.

Donaghy based his predictions on discussions with industry people, cultural practitioners and educators he believed influential enough to force the recording academy's hand.

He believes the category's elimination is the more likely end result.

"I do not believe that NARAS will acquiesce to the desire of those of us who are dissatisfied with the way the award was established and the way it is being handled by the academy," said Donaghy, who's also founder of the Hawaiian music and industry news blog Nahenahe.net.

"I wouldn't say that there is a campaign under way to see that the award be eliminated," he said. "But there are certainly a significant number of people who are extremely dissatisfied and who would rather see it eliminated than have it continue as it has for three years."

The recording academy's only official word on the category's eligibility requirements is that it is "intended for recordings of a more traditional nature, but allowing contemporary recordings containing substantial traditional elements. Hawaiian language must be used in a predominance of the vocal tracks."

Donaghy favors a push by Hawai'i musicians, educators and cultural practitioners to redefine the final criteria for eligibility, with a more specific Hawaiian language requirement.

Despite Donaghy's prediction, though, it's by no means clear that Grammy is going to turn its back on Hawaiian music.

Though disappointed that a Hawaiian language-based CD has yet to win the Grammy, Reichel said he doesn't want the category eliminated.

"We do realize that this is a business, and that this is a living for many, many musicians. And so anything that will bring attention sales-wise and PR-wise to our music so that musicians can focus on their music and derive income from this, I think, is a good thing," said Reichel. "Most musicians work two or three jobs on top of their regular gigs. And so, if this will help musicians to make a better living at this, then why not?"

Long starved for radio airplay and regular gigs in their own backyard, slack-key musicians feel national recognition for their work is not only deserved, but a long time coming.


Milton Lau, who co-produced and played on "Hawaiian Slack Key Kings," a multiartist compilation nominated this year, said that the barrage of criticism from some peers has stung.

"We feel passion for what we do, and these (Grammy) wins validate what we do," said Lau. "It gets a bit upsetting when they won't accept us as they would some of these other (musicians)." (Several musicians The Advertiser called to comment on the debate declined.)

Lau credited the popularity of ki ho'alu to more than three decades of nationwide touring by the genre's most legendary Hawai'i-based players, who often found their music virtually ignored here at home.

"We considered ourselves kind of the stepchild, as far as the (local) music industry people," said Lau. "(But) we established a presence with a lot of musicians that are well known in the music industry guys like Steve Vai, Santana and a lot of these guitar guys."

In other words, a large group of influential Grammy voters.

"They all know about what we do, and they all love slack key. And with guys like that pushing us, they've become kind of like our missionaries."

Two-time best Hawaiian music album Grammy nominee Ledward Ka'apana is a longtime East-to-West-Coast road warrior, who fills theaters and often does workshops wherever he goes. And he's hardly alone.

"It's really not so much about your music. It's about having a presence out there," said Lau, of Grammy recognition. "If you're going to be content with just staying in Hawai'i and touring once a year on the West coast, then you're going to have to be content with the end result.

"We know that here in Hawai'i, there's really nowhere for us slack-key guys to go. But we know there's a market out there. So that's what we do."

Reach Derek Paiva at dpaiva@honoluluadvertiser.com.