What Happened At The Grammys?

Hawaiian Grammy Winners

First Hawaiian Grammy winners, from L to R: Sonny Lim, Ken Emerson, Randy Lorenzo,
Charlie Recaido, John Keawe, Keoki Kahumoku, Charles Brotman, Jeff Peterson.
(Not pictured: John Cruz and Bryan Kessler) Photo © Sarah Anderson

What Happened at the Grammys?
The Grammys finally gave their first award for a Hawaiian Music Album. So why are so many Island musicians unhappy?

Honolulu Magazine, May 2005
By Heidi Chang

Click here to view on Honolulu Magazine

It felt like nothing short of a victory for Hawaii when the Grammy Awards announced the creation of a Best Hawaiian Music Album category last year. After nearly 20 years of fighting for a place in the national spotlight, Hawaiian music would get the recognition it deserved at the 2005 Grammy Awards. Finally.

Local newspapers and TV stations covered the competition among the five nominees extensively. Island superstars Kealii Reichel and The Brothers Cazimero were the consensus favorites. Hookena’s latest album and another by Amy Hanaialii Gilliom and Willie K seemed like close contenders.

No matter who took home the prize, everyone in the industry insisted, the Grammy would be a win for all Hawaiian music.

That tune changed dramatically on Feb. 13, when the winner of the first-ever Hawaiian Music Album category was announced at a pre-telecast ceremony in Los Angeles. The Grammy went to producer Charles Michael Brotman’s Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2. The compilation featuring 10 guitarists, including Brotman, was the only instrumental album in the category.

In the Hawaiian music community, there was shock and dismay. Produced by Brotman’s small, independent label on the Big Island, Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 was the last album many industry insiders expected to win. Many were surprised that it was even nominated. “Charles Who?” some kamaaina asked when news of the winner hit the Islands.

Even the nominees couldn’t hide their disbelief.

“I was surprised. All the surveys and polls that were taken in Hawaii indicated Kealii was the winner, with the other vocal groups in contention,” says Jim Linkner, who co-produced Reichel’s Grammy-nominated album, Kealaokamaile, which had swept the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 2004.

Hookena’s group leader, Manu Boyd, says Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 was not “as strong a contender” as the other nominees.

Gilliom didn’t expect her own album to come out on top, but “for The Brothers Cazimero not to win was mind boggling,” she says. “They have been my mentors.”

The inaugural Grammy Award for Hawaiian music set off a wave of controversy back home, among some members of the music industry as well as the Hawaiian community. Many argued that the Grammy should have gone to a Hawaiian-language album, rather than an instrumental.

“When something like that wins the first award, it hurts me,” says Kahauanu Lake, who is as widely respected for his commitment to preserving the Hawaiian culture as he is for his musical accomplishments. “The most important thing is the language—vocalized, like chanting or singing. That’s more important than slack key will ever be, to me. It takes Hawaiian judges to judge it, not Mainland people, who don’t know Hawaiian music.”

The artists featured on Slack Key may not be as well known as the other nominees, with the exception of John Cruz, who scored a big hit in 1997 with “Island Style” from his Hoku Award-winning album Acoustic Soul. Most play low-profile gigs and at family luau, but they have had an influence on contemporary Hawaiian music.

Randy Lorenzo played with Gabby Pahinui in the ’70s and was a member of Country Comfort and The Peter Moon Band. Bryan Kessler co-founded the hit ’90s group Hawaiian Style Band. John Keawe is a recipient of the Hoku’s prestigious Ki Hoalu (slack key) award in 2002, and Sonny Lim is a member of the talented Lim family.

Brotman has lived in Hawaii since the ’70s. After teaching at the University of Hawaii Music Department, he co-founded Palm Records with his sister Jody in 1997 in Kamuela.

Despite the group’s credentials, the controversy continued, even as Slack Key’s sales skyrocketed to No. 1 on both Billboard’s World Music and New Age charts. A far cry from its debut in 2003. It had sold well for an instrumental album at Borders, but hardly soared up the local music charts, receiving scant airplay on Island radio stations.

Lilikala Kameeleihiwa, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, dismisses the win as a result of “non-natives voting for non-natives.”

“The sound of slack key, drumming, ipu and ukulele is beautiful by itself, but it’s missing what’s most important, which is olelo Hawaii, (Hawaiian language), the voice of our ancestors,” says Kameeleihiwa. “To have a group win with no [Hawaiian] words, was astounding and ridiculous, because the word is what is important here. The poetry makes the music.”

The Hawaiian music industry wanted the national recognition a Grammy would bring, but it apparently didn’t want a bunch of Mainlanders—presumably with much less knowledge of Hawaiian culture—to vote on who should receive the award.

“When you think about the Grammy Award, who’s voting, it isn’t Hawaii,” says nominee Robert Cazimero. “You have a majority of people who really don’t know our music.”

Many in the Island music industry expected the Grammy category to function as an extension of Hawaii’s own Hoku Awards, in which local artists, producers and other music professionals determine the winners. Instead, the Grammy win reminded them that Hawaii had entered an entirely different playing field.

“I feel that you should win a Hawaiian award first, like a Hoku Award, before even being considered for a Grammy nomination,” Gilliom says, herself a winner of at least a half-dozen Hokus. “When you win a Hoku, it’s taken very seriously by our Hawaiian people.”

To some extent, those disappointed with Brotman’s win may have brought it upon themselves. Only members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) can vote for the Grammys. To become a voting member, a person must have creative or technical credits on at least six commercially released songs, either as an engineer, producer, artist, writer, musician or singer.

Of the 1,000 members of the Hawaii Academy of Recordings Arts, which votes on the Hokus each year, perhaps 600 to 700 were eligible to join NARAS.

If all of them had joined, it may have changed the outcome of the award. But most of them didn’t. Only 76 people from Hawaii signed up, even after the NARAS offered them a $25 discount off the usual $100 dues.

Even some of the nominees failed to register in time to vote this year. Most members of Hookena, for instance, didn’t join NARAS until after they were nominated for the Grammy, Boyd says. By then, it was too late for them to vote this year.

There are more than 100 Grammy categories, broken into 26 fields. Members are allowed to vote in eight fields and asked to vote only in fields about which they’re knowledgeable. The Best Hawaiian Music Album falls under the folk field, which also includes contemporary folk, traditional folk and Native American music.

A couple thousand NARAS members voted in the folk field this year, according to Grammy trustee Keith Olsen, who lives on Kauai. Of course, most of them were based on the Mainland—a proportion that probably gave Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 an edge over its competitors.

The compilation, with its acoustic guitar stylings, probably sounded a lot more familiar to voters than any of the Hawaiian language albums, which Brotman himself acknowledges.

George Winston, founder of California-based Dancing Cat Records, is largely credited for putting slack key on the map. Since 1988, Winston has produced albums and promoted tours for such slack key greats as Keola Beamer, Cyril Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana, developing an audience for slack key music across the country.

That’s why Olsen, who has worked with such groups as Fleetwood Mac and The Grateful Dead, wasn’t quite as surprised as other local musicians by Brotman’s win. “The common thread that goes all through folk music is guitar, so it made sense,” he says.

In all the excitement over Hawaiian music’s first-ever Grammy winner, many forget how difficult it was for the industry to establish the category in the first place. The 20-year effort was nearly thwarted by a furious debate among local musicians and producers over what the category’s requirements should be. The center of the controversy? How much of the album had to be in the Hawaiian language.

Many wanted to limit the category to only Hawaiian artists who sing only in the Hawaiian language. Some wanted a 75 percent Hawaiian language requirement—just like the Hawaiian Album of the Year category in the Hokus—while others felt there was no need for a language requirement at all.

Nalani Choy of Na Leo Pilimehana supported the process, even though her group sings mostly English songs that wouldn’t fit the criteria.

“If there’s only one Hawaiian Grammy category, then we’d like the criteria to be more inclusive in the future,” says Choy, pointing out that the Hoku category for Album of the Year is open to English and Hawaiian vocals, as well as instrumental music.

“This has been an age-old debate in our industry: What is Hawaiian music?” Choy says. “You get the traditionalists and the contemporary artists with different views on this. The debate is: Where do we draw the line? And we’re still debating that.”

For four years, Deborah Semer, the former executive director of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of NARAS, oversaw Hawaii’s campaign for the Grammy category. The chapter now serves as the official home of Hawaii’s NARAS members.

“I felt that I wanted to give up at times,” Semer says. “Some might have thought of me as the haole from the Mainland coming in to tell them what to do, but I was there to educate and guide them through the process. They needed to own it and take responsibility. Complaining gets you nowhere—that’s why it took so long to get this category.”

Olsen drafted the proposal for the new Best Hawaiian Music Album category, which was approved by NARAS. The final result?

No requirement the musicians be Hawaiian. “We don’t discriminate at the Grammys,” Olsen says, “so we defined it like this—for vocal and instrumental albums that contain a substantial amount of traditional elements, with the predominance of vocal tracks in the Hawaiian language.”

During the long, often heated debates over percentages and language requirements, it apparently occured to no one that an entirely instrumental album might win.

Naturally, many musicians, including the winning artists, argue that slack key is just as important to Hawaiian music as the language. Slack key originated in the early 1800s, with the paniolos in Kamuela on the Big Island. Probably its most famous champion was the late Gabby Pahinui, considered the father of modern slack key guitar.

“From a musician’s perspective, instrumental music can have a beautiful depth and coloration all its own—it is a language,” says Hawaiian songwriter and slack key guitarist Keola Beamer.

John Cruz, who played on the winning album, agrees. “Hawaiian slack key guitar is just as Hawaiian as Hawaiian language,” Cruz says. “It’s indigenous to Hawaii. And it’s still evolving.”

Brotman’s own take on solo slack key is that it’s “pure and natural and uncluttered—like a window to the artist’s personality,” says Brotman. “We’re capturing the feeling of what life is like here and sharing it with people.”

Still, Kameeleihiwa takes issue with the fact that the Grammy was awarded to a non-Hawaiian producer—although seven out of the 10 artists on the album are part Hawaiian.

“Hawaiian music needs to be played by Hawaiians and have Hawaiian language,” Kameeleihiwa says. “I take offense that anyone should think that non-natives are the best Hawaiian musicians. That’s wrong.”

Those comments sadden Slack Key artist Randy Lorenzo, who is one of the album’s Hawaiian artists.

“How can people live together if they sound like that?” Lorenzo says. “I love playing jazz, it’s not just for black people. I love playing country, it’s not just for white people—music is a universal language.

“What do I tell this kid who wants to learn the ukulele, and he’s got blue eyes and blond hair? No you cannot play, because you’re not Hawaiian?’ That’s ridiculous! It sounds racist.”

Olomana member and slack key guitarist Haunani Apoliona believes the Grammy win will help raise nationwide awareness about Hawaiian music and, in turn, about Hawaiians. If the nominees helped diffuse some of the hakaka (fighting), Hawaii’s music industry could focus on the bigger picture, she says.

“If the people who didn’t win really lead by example, and say, C’mon let’s keep moving forward, let’s not get stuck,’ it becomes a whole different dynamic,” says Apoliona, who’s also the chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Beamer agrees. “Let’s not beat each other up over this,” he says. “It’s just an award.”

Is there any way to placate Hawaii’s divided music community? Yes, some artists say. Establish two separate Hawaiian music categories—one for vocal music, one for instrumental.

“When I first heard there was only going to be one category for Hawaiian music, a red flag went up in my head,” says slack key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi, one of the Islands’ most prolific Hawaiian language composers. “How are you going to lump all Hawaiian music in just one award? That angers a lot of people.”

Don’t count on the Hawaiian Grammy expanding soon, Olsen says. This year, Hawaii submitted barely enough albums for the one category, despite all the hype over the newly established award.

“The chances of this happening within the next five years is slim to none, because there were so few submissions,” Olsen says. “We can’t be like the Hokus. We have space for one. And if they don’t support it, we’ll have space for none.”

Just days before the deadline for the Hawaiian Grammy submissions, there were only eight entrants. The final tally: 20 albums. That shows that the Hawaiian music community didn’t fully support the new category, Olsen argues, adding, “the Grammys don’t operate on aloha time.”

Olsen points out NARAS could eliminate the Hawaiian Grammy category completely, if there aren’t enough entries. Latin musicians once fought for a Best Meringue Album category, but in recent years, only three to five such entrants trickled in.

“So the joke was going around, if you wanted to win a Grammy, do a Meringue album—the odds were in your favor.” says Olsen. The Meringue category was eventually combined with Tejano music.

Major categories such as the Best Female Solo Rock Performance have also disappeared, when the Cyndi Laupers and Pat Benatars of the world no longer submitted albums.

It would be a shame if the Hawaiian Music Album category followed suit, considering Hawaii’s music industry’s long campaign to recognize its work. If anything, the newly established category has taught Hawaii a lesson about playing on a national stage.

“I believe it will be rough sailing for a while, but ultimately the Grammy helps our music expand and grow,” Beamer says. “If we can increase the awareness of this beautiful art form, younger artists with meaningful musical content may have a decent chance to make a living.”

In March, Brotman and his fellow artists celebrated their Grammy win with a big luau at an oceanfront home on the Kohala Coast on the Big Island, where six of the slack key guitarists live. One of the best things about the award, Brotman told the throng of supporters, was sharing it with such talented artists. He presented each musician with a plaque.

Each artist took turns playing—the soothing, melodic sounds of slack key filling the night air. Family members of guitarists John Keawe and Sonny Lim danced the hula. Lim’s sister, Nani, sang. Just a month earlier, Lim had stood alongside Brotman as he accepted the Grammy award. For Lim, it was a humbling and spiritual experience. Overcome with emotion, Lim became the first Hawaiian to speak Hawaiian at the Grammys, thanking them for honoring Hawaiian music.

Their lives haven’t been the same since. Soaring album sales, media attention from the Mainland and Japan are all new to the group of slack key artists. But they won’t let it go to their heads, Brotman says.

He recounts what happened when he returned to his usual gig at the Maunalani Bay Hotel, right after winning the Grammy. “One of the chefs said to me, Eh brah, I saw your picture in the paper! It’s in the refrigerator right now—I got it covering up the mushrooms!’” says Brotman, laughing. “It was pretty funny. Keeps you humble.”

The ride isn’t over yet for Brotman. Or Hawaiian music’s turn on the national stage. There are always next year’s Grammy Awards.

“To think that with this Grammy, it’s come right back here to this [Kamuela] community, right back to the birthplace of ki hoalu, just like a full circle—it’s an amazing thing,” Brotman says. ““If there really is a controversy, it only exists because people were misinformed about the CD and didn’t know anything about the music, the musicians, the recording, the Grammy voting process. It really is about the music, after all.”

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