Musicians reminisce at WCC ʻTalk Story'
Distinguished Hawaiian musicians Jerry Santos, Tony Conjugacion, Nina Keali'iwahamana and her brother, Boyce Rodrigues, visited Palikū Theatre last month for WCC's "Talk Story" series by Ke Kumu Pali.
The Windward community had the opportunity to get to know these artists and the stories that inspired their award-winning music. It was a time to get acquainted over memories and mele (songs) that influenced Hawaiian music as we know it today.
In his March 3 visit, Santos recalled, as he put it, "the land of my childhood." He sang familiar songs such as "Kane'ohe" and his own "O Mali'e." These songs reflected life growing up on the windward side pre-Kahekili Highway.
"I thought I died and went to heaven when we moved to Kahalu'u," Santos recalled. He said of his family home, "Oh my god, the thing was all broken, but the best swimming hole anywhere was right outside our back door.
"If my mother wanted to punish me, she'd go, 'You not go'en in da riva today!' and I would sit on the river bank and put my toe inside then my foot inside. I was one of those children," he said laughing.
About growing up on the river in Kahalu'u, Santos said, "Water is my comfort place." Ironically, he would later become a spokesperson for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.
After returning home from what turned out to be an "extended vacation," playing street music in San Francisco, Santos got together with Robert Beaumont and the group "Olomana" was born. This was during the Hawaiian renaissance, and their work together helped to influence the sound of Hawaiian music today.
Santos said he finally realized he needed to come home "after walking in the cold rain, four blocks, uphill, then four flights of stairs to arrive at a little studio in San Francisco. I thought to myself, 'What I am doing here? I belong at home, on an island, where it's warm.'" Then he sang his song "Ku'u Home O Kahalu'u," a song about returning home to the windward side.
On March 10, Nina and her brother, Boyce, regaled audience members with tales that began with the birth of their mother, "Aunty" Vicki I'i Rodrigues, who was also an icon in the world of Hawaiian entertainment.
"She came from an old Hawaiian family and had the gift of remembering things. Thousands and thousands of chants, songs, and meles. You name it; volumes and volumes were all in her head. The Hawaiians had no written language, and she was the last to learn that way," said an emotional Boyce.
They talked about childhood memories and shared humorous anecdotes of their younger days in Waikīkī before the Ala Wai Canal was built.
The journey continued through songs such as "Makee 'ailana" and "Mom," honoring the legacy of their mother, an accomplished composer, musician, entertainer and kumu hula, who greatly influenced the world of hula and Hawaiian music.
Conjugacion recalled his first encounter at the Rodrigues' home. "I did an oli (ceremonial introduction chant) from the street," he said. A much older Aunty Vicky suffering from emphysema "removed her mask, pushed the screen door open and chanted back. That was the old way of doing things," said Conjugacion.
"Tony is such a great help because he is a native speaker (of Hawaiian language)," Nina said. Rodrigues had penned over 2,000 songs. "The beauty of it all is we have the poetry, but the music is lost. We're searching for the composers to get the melodies back. Get these things all written and translated to have music available to everyone, anyone who is interested in the music of old. We're on a journey. We're on our way," said Nina.
WCC professor and Talk Story coordinator Ron Loo said these sessions can help perpetuate valuable island history. "It's important to witness this kind of talk story. We need to learn what we can from these great artists."