The Big Island's remote North Kohala district, separated from resort zones by an extinct volcano, is a haven for Hawaiian musicians and artists.
HAWI, Hawaii — You don’t get to North Kohala unless you mean to, or you’ve made a wrong turn.
All the better for local musicians and artists to hide away and find their Polynesian muses.
This lush district at the Big Island of Hawaii’s north shore is isolated from the busy Kona Coast by the ranch-dotted, horse-heaven hill that is Kohala, an extinct volcano. On its windward side, it squeezes up like an accordion into deep and wild valleys navigated only by ancient trails.
A two-lane road transits the frozen-in-time, tin-roof towns of Hawi and Kapa’au and ends at an overlook and trailhead above the kiwi-green Pololu Valley.
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Nearby, on a windswept point looking toward Maui, King Kamehameha I was born in the 1750s. To protect him from chiefs jealous of his royal destiny, protectors fled with the infant to raise him in the remote backcountry beyond Pololu.
To this day, North Kohala cradles island culture and intact native families, and this road less traveled nurtures the souls of musicians and artists whose work is emblematic of Hawaii.
You need a reason
“The important thing about Kohala is it’s a dead-end road and you have to have a reason to come up here,” says David Gomes, a musician whose Portuguese great-grandparents came from the Azores to work a now-defunct sugar plantation that was Kohala’s economic lifeblood for 100 years. “That makes the community a little tight place. They’re sweet, tolerant, forgiving people. Kohala is literally and figuratively the end of the road for some.”
Gomes, who grew up with the remote valleys as his playground and who still loves to hike them, spends peaceful days crafting masterful guitars and ukuleles in a cluttered workshop off a quiet lane above Hawi (say “Huh-vee”). He has a dual cultural connection to the ukulele: Before being popularized in Hawaii in the 1800s, ukuleles came from Portugal.
Visitors can hear him play one of his instruments at a local cafe or a gallery opening. Make an appointment to visit his workshop and he might show off his pride and joy, a koa-wood guitar with an inlaid maile-vine lei of New Zealand abalone braided up the neck. When I visited he showed how he assembles a bass ukulele, his own invention (see video, linked to this story). His instruments can be found in the hands of musicians from Tokyo to New York.
At the head of each guitar he builds, Gomes carves a deep notch, a little trademark representing the Kohala valleys he loves.
Before saying goodbye, he takes me on a quick hike down into Pololu Valley, where we find the last decaying remains of a World War II landing craft just off the beach, and an ancient burial ground from a long-ago village.
As we hike back up the well-trodden trail, Gomes points at a distant ridge on the valley’s far side.
“See that lone pine? That’s where there was a still back in the Prohibition era… They made okolehao moonshine, from ti leaf root. And the high trees on the ridge there? That’s Awini, where Kamehameha was taken as a baby when fleeing the chiefs.”
In North Kohala, Hawaiian history can crop up on every horizon.
Hawaii is known as the Pacific melting pot, with several musical traditions evolving from other cultures. One is the falsetto style of singing once heard at every luau.
“My understanding is it came from vaqueros and the cowboy yodeling tradition, but the Hawaiians took that and tweaked it and made it something very sweet,” says Matthew Kupuka’a, a falsetto singer and guitarist who performs with his wife, hula dancer, singer and ukulele player Rosalind Kupuka’a. They come from native Hawaiian families and grew up as friends in the North Kohala village of Niulii, where they still live.
Vaqueros were Mexican cowboys brought to the Big Island in the 1800s to help manage cattle that were a gift to Kamehameha from explorer Capt. George Vancouver.
As a young singer, Matthew was mentored by a neighbor, the late Clyde “Kindy” Sproat, a famed Hawaiian falsetto singer honored in 1988 with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We’d go to sing at his place for a couple hours, and it would end up four or five hours,” Matthew recalls of his youth, in a time and place where if kids misbehaved in town “our parents or grandparents would know before we got home!”
“I asked him how it comes so naturally that he can sing like that,” Rosalind tells me. “And he told the story of when we were young kids and climbing on vines and he said he wanted to try to be Tarzan.”
Today, their music regularly entertains visitors at the Big Island’s Waikoloa Beach Resort, a 45-minute drive south of Hawi. But mostly the couple, now grandparents, trill songs such as “Magic Island” at small community events around North Kohala (see video performance, linked to this story).
“For us it’s passionate, because it’s about us and our heritage,” Rosalind says. “It’s not a show, it’s a life story — of our upbringing, the kind of songs that were in our upbringing.”
Helping people see
Wood sculptor Greg Pontius was born in Seattle and grew up in Eastern Washington. But he’s lived in North Kohala long enough to raise a 15-year-old son who gives a sweet Hawaiian-style hug when introduced to a female visitor from the mainland.
Pontius and his family live on the edge of Halawa Gulch, one of many little streambed ravines the road elbows its way around on its way to Pololu. Each gulch is an organic riot of banana trees, giant ferns, palms, breadfruit and more. From his home’s second-story deck, Pontius can pluck papayas.
He shows me a gleaming native-wood sculpture he’s just completed of a green sea-turtle in a swimming pose (see video interview, linked to this story). His artistic visions come from real experiences, of marine life he’s seen while diving or kayaking. He recounts an early experience in his artistic career.
“We were a mile or so offshore in a kayak and a humpback whale came up right beside us, and it was so inspiring, we chased that humpback for an hour or so!” From that, he started one of his first wood projects.
He rarely buys wood. Around Kohala and the Big Island he can find fallen logs or driftwood for his art. A chunk from the dusty woodpile outside his workshop can become a thing of beauty.
“One of my jobs is to help people see,” Pontius says. “That’s what artists do — I help people get the same joy and fulfillment I get. And turning nothing into something is a wonderful thing.”
That the community and beauty of the place inspired John Keawe, a born-and-bred Kohala musician, is plain in the name of the first song he ever wrote: “Kohala, I Love You” (see video performance, linked to this story).
Keawe is a talent in slack-key guitar, another Hawaiian music style that evolved from the time of the vaqueros, who brought guitars to Hawaii. Keawe, who has recorded 10 CDs and has toured the United States, contributed to a collection of slack-key music that won a Grammy in 2005. With tuning adapted to the rhythms of Hawaiian dancing and the structures of Hawaiian music, slack-key delivers a warm and lilting sound.
I first hear Keawe during his weekly performance at a shopping plaza at the Waikoloa Beach Resort. A silver mane of hair and salty beard frame his walnut-tan face, pinched in concentration as he plays beneath a grass roof in a courtyard between Tiffany’s and Crazy Shirts. His lyrics are simple (“the grass is green, the beaches clean”); it’s the rich, twangy guitar that astonishes. From one instrument, he seems to coax the music of a small orchestra.
Keawe tells a gathering of tourists about the origins of slack-key, or what locals call “taro-patch tuning,” which he demonstrates when I visit him at his modern home high on a slope above Hawi. The view is of Maui’s peak, Haleakala, beyond corduroy-ridged waves.
Right next to the house he built in 2000 is the simple tin-roofed cabin where he grew up, which he has preserved along with the ti leaf and hibiscus garden his late mother planted, so Keawe isn’t far from his modest roots.
Though visits to the fancy resort help pay the bills, he intimates that he’s just as happy that most tourists stay at the beaches farther south. “North Kohala is still a beautiful place, it still has no traffic lights, you don’t have to stop and wait — I hope that never changes.”
It’s a happy seclusion. But occasionally a lucky traveler, maybe thanks to a wrong turn, gets to share in the inspiration.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org