When I was young, I grew up listening to Hawaiian music. Back then there was only KCCN 1420 AM, and that was the only venue for all Hawaiian music. Times have changed, and now Hawaiian music has evolved to include a contemporary style as well as Island Music. While these styles seem to dominate the airwaves, Traditional Hawaiian music remains a steady force that takes us back to the glory days of Auntie Genoa Keawe and Lena Machado. Darlene Ahuna is one of today's artists who perpetuates the Traditional Style of Hawaiian Music. In her latest CD, Classic Hula, Darlene sings the standards learned by halaus throughout Hawaii.
On a trip to Honolulu, Darlene and JJ Ahuna managed to fit Hawaii411 into their busy schedule and
give us a peek into their world - allowing this writer to rediscover a love of Traditional Hawaiian music.
Hawaii411: How did
you start with your singing career?
Darlene: I always enjoyed music. I guess my first introduction was my uncle. My mom's younger brother was a professional musician. I always enjoyed watching him perform. Then in school I learned to play ukulele. When I moved to Hilo, I didn't know anyone there, so I joined the Hawaiian Club and everybody played music. I figured, 'I better play music." Everybody played ukulele, so I started playing the guitar.
Hawaii411: Did you teach yourself to play guitar?
Darlene: I learned the basics from a good friend, Sherry Estibillio, and Kuuipo Kumukahi was also a mentor. The rest was just listening and trying to find my own way.
Hawaii411: Did you have formal voice training?
Darlene: No, just a love of the music.
Hawaii411: You sing a more traditional style of Hawaiian music. Is that what you grew up listening to?
Darlene: Yes. I listened to Lena Machado, Auntie Genoa (Keawe), and Leinaala Heine - they were probably the three biggest female influences. There was also the Hui Ohana, Dennis (Pavao) and his beautiful falsetto.
Hawaii411: Did you listen with your family, or was it just you?
Darlene: Basically, I listened to it on my own. I look back, and all my friends were listening to Rock and Roll, but I was the only one listening to Hawaiian music. That was what I enjoyed listening to.
Check out Darlene's
Album, Classic Hula - Awesome Sounds!
Hawaii411: You have a very beautiful voice.
Darlene: Thank you.
Hawaii411: With such a strong voice, I think you would also be great singing other styles, like Jazz, or R & B. Have you ever thought of changing things up a little?
Darlene: The thought has crossed my mind, but I guess because I never listened to that music,
I never took the time to explore.
Hawaii411: Whose music do you listen to now?
Darlene: I listen to Auntie Genoa, Makaha Sons, Theresa Bright, and Amy (Hanaialii).
Hawaii411: Did you ever get to meet Lena Machado or Auntie Genoa?
Darlene: I never got to meet Lena Machado, but I did meet Auntie Genoa. We became very close.
Hawaii411: That's nice when you get to meet your mentors.
Hawaii411: You've been compared to Lena Machado in your voice and style. How does it make you fell when people make that comparison?
Darlene: It's an awesome compliment. I think it's one of the highest compliments you can get. In fact, we were just talking to Gary Aiko last night, and he's been compared with Alfred Apaka. His statement was, 'If you're gonna be compared with somebody, it's good to be compared to the best.' I feel very strongly about that.
Hawaii411: Do you think listening to Lena Machado caused you to emulate her, or do you just happen to sound like her?
Darlene: I think it's more that I happen to sound like her rather than me trying to sound like her. Another influence I had was Bill Lincoln and his falsetto style. I admired Auntie Lena's songs - whatever would pop up on the radio. As I played with other halaus, I would find that this
song and that song was written by Auntie Lena. The more I got exposed to her music; I gained a greater appreciation for her.
Hawaii411: I know your latest album (Classic Hula) focuses on songs by other artist, but do you write your own songs?
Darlene: I really haven't sat down to put the effort into writing. I've written a few things, but nothing life-changing. Eventually I'd like to try it. I think it's always a good thing, to challenge yourself and set new goals. Maybe I'll try to write in Hawaiian. That would be a big challenge.
Hawaii411: Hawaiian music played on the radio has changed from the traditional style to more of an "Island" sound. How do you feel about that?
Darlene: I appreciate all kinds of music, whether it be reggae or rap. It's not that I listen to it, but I can appreciate anybody who can get out and put out whatever comes from their heart. For me, traditional Hawaiian music is stable- it's something steady that's always there. Music goes through a circle, where the popular style of music changes, but Hawaiian music is always there. I guess Flip (McDiarmid - President of Hula Records) and I agreed, when we put out the traditional music, it wasn't something that was going to hit the charts and go crazy, but it was something that would be constant and steady, and not just here-today-gone-tomorrow. That was the frame of mind we went in with.
Hawaii411: You mentioned Flip McDiarmid of Hula Records. Hula Records is one of the labels that has always supported traditional Hawaiian music, but do you think other labels need to support traditional Hawaiian music to the same extent?
Darlene: Sure. I believe that there is a lot more people who listen to traditional Hawaiian music than people think. The media has you believe that this and that is popular now, but I know that there are a lot of people out there who love traditional Hawaiian music. Since the media doesn't say it's the popular thing, it's not as available. I think if other labels would jump on and support traditional music to that extent, then who knows, it may become the popular style again. There's
a lot of young groups coming out who play traditional music, and that's awesome.
Hawaii411: You make a good point, because Oahu only has two radio stations that play traditional music, but you have all these people who take hula and learn to sing and dance to these songs. They don't get enough chance to
hear traditional music, so when they hear you sing it, they go nuts.
Darlene: I know it's still in people's hearts and minds, but the media would have you believe that it's not the hot thing, so they don't play it. They play the same songs by the same artist in the same style over and over again, so you get brainwashed. I believe if they did that with traditional music, the same would happen.
Hawaii411: It's funny you mention that, because there are people who know all the words to Brittney Spears and don't even like her music, but that's all they hear. If the radio stations chose to perpetuate Hawaiian music, then we would hear it more.
Darlene: It's sad that people, who come to visit Hawaii, jump in their car, turn on the radio. and can't find Hawaiian music. There's one station on the Big Island who's trying to bring Hawaiian music back, and I wish them all the love.
Hawaii411: I think KPOA on Maui plays traditional music also.
Hawaii411: Is there good opportunity for musicians in Hawaii?
Darlene: The opportunity is there in everything. It's what you
as a person and an artist is willing to put out to achieve whatever goal you set for
Hawaii411: Are you strictly a musician, or do you work another job as well?
Darlene: I'm in the process of getting licensed in personal finance. I got sick this year, and I realized that if anything happens, I have nothing to fall back on, so I'm just trying to broaden my abilities.
Hawaii411: How did you get started as a professional musician?
Darlene: I started playing with Kuuipo (Kumukahi). We had a group and played at private parties. Then I started playing with Dr. George Naope, and we would do a steady show at the Waiakea Villas. Then I went on sabbatical for awhile. JJ and I got married, and I changed my focus to being a wife and mother. It was about eight years later when I really started missing music, so I went back. I started playing at Uncle Billy's (Hotel) nightly Hula show. From there me and JJ played with Gary Haleamao. He exposed us to a different side of the music, doing specialty events, rather than just luaus.
Hawaii411: Do you sing too, JJ?
JJ: I started out carrying her guitar, and now I play bass for her.
Darlene: He's bass player, security, manager...
Hawaii411: Any duets in the future for you two?
JJ: Definitely. There's a lot of songs in my heart to write. There's a couple of songs on the first two CDs that I wrote.
Darlene: JJ's the songwriter.
Hawaii411: What are some of the highlights of your career?
Darlene: Oh my goodness, we have been so blessed. Playing with JJ and Gary. We also played with my father-in-law - he's a wonderful steel guitar player. When I signed with Hula Records, I traveled with the Makaha Sons... that was a great experience. In 1998, I
performed at Carnegie Hall.
Hawaii411: What was that like?
Darlene: I performed with Auntie Genoa. It was funny, because of all the travelling we had done up to that, it was like doing just another venue. The prestige was there, but I think the thing that sticks out the most was the time I spent with Auntie. Growing up listening to her, and admiring her, and then getting to know her... and then having the opportunity to spend time with her - just her and I rooming together, that was awesome.
Hawaii411: Were you picking the mind of a master?
Darlene: Oh yeah, you know Auntie is so willing to share. Old Hawaiian style is, I'm not going to tell you anything, unless I know how badly it is you want to know, but Auntie is so open, and so willing to share. In fact, it was that trip where she taught me her trick to holding the note on a certain song.
We've also gone to Japan, and shared the music there. It's funny that traditional Hawaiian music is thriving there. With the younger generation, the Island music is coming up as well.
Hawaii411: You are gaining your celebrity status here on Oahu, but on the
Big Island, everybody knows you!
Yeah. It's funny because, just within the last year, I do normal things like everyone else, shopping for food and taking my kids to school and I may be standing in Wal-Mart, and there are people who freeze and point. I see myself as just like everybody else, but it's just like, I happen to be able to sing.
Hawaii411: Did you ever expect that to happen when you started sing professionally?
In the back of your mind, I guess the hope to have that recognition is there, but in reality I'm just an everyday person doing everyday things.
Hawaii411: What was the focus on your latest CD (Classic Hula) as compared to previous CDs?
Darlene: I guess the focus was on the halaus. If you notice, when people start up with traditional music, there's always an instrumental that breaks up the song in the middle of the song. We decided not to do that, so it's easier for them to dance, without trying to have to create something to do in that break of the song.
JJ: It was also to project her style. In the first two CDs, we experimented a little, and it didn't sound like her when she sings live. We recorded the song, and then learned how to sing the song from the recording. We wanted to record it more like her regular style when she sings live.
Hawaii411: Where do you want to see Hawaiian music go?
Darlene: I want traditional music to be more available to the public - when you get into your car, walk into a restaurant, step into a club, there's Hawaiian music
JJ: There's not enough places to hear live Hawaiian music. Waikiki has, 'Tourist Hawaiian' music, but not enough for the locals.
Hawaii411: JJ, do you write your songs in the Traditional Style?
JJ: I guess I try to gather all the different type of Hawaiian style music that I here, and I try to find a common denominator that links it. I think of how it sounds
when Darlene sings it. I try to write it in English, and then my Mom helps me translate it to Hawaiian. All the songs I wrote on our CDs, we ran it that way. One time, I had a tune that I wanted Darlene to sing to. I took it to my Mom, and she said, 'I have the song just for that.' She put together the idea and the words, and the next thing you know we had a song.
Hawaii411: You got a Captain and Tenielle thing going on here with the singer and the composer.
JJ: (Laughs with Darlene) We have our referee, Kyle.
Darlene: He's out guitarist
JJ: He's been through a lot with us.
Hawaii411: A lot of your songs are in Hawaiian, and I'd like to say that it's nice to have a translation on your CD liner notes.
Darlene: That's all Cindy's (Lance of Hula Records) work. She does the research. She does the translations. If the writer is still alive, she'll call them up to and talk story with them to get a better insight on the song. She's a wonderful part of the team that puts together the CDs
Hawaii411: You've won Hoku awards before, now I want you to imagine yourself onstage receiving a Grammy for World Music. What do you say?
Darlene: I never really put myself in that scenario. Basically I would thank Heavenly Father for the love and the talent, and my family. JJ is such a great support, as well as my children and my mom. They allow me to do what I need to do in order to do my business, and my love. They allow me to grow and share the music I love with people near and far. That's who I would thank.
Hawaii411 Conclusion: Darlene Ahuna has a wonderful voice and Traditional Hawaiian music has a great ambassador in her. You can really see her genuine love of her music and her dedication to the perpetuation of it as well. More
apparent is the love and support that she receives from her husband, JJ, and her family,
which gives Darlene the inspiration that she pours into her songs. Hawaii411.com gives her CD, "Classic Hula" a Shaka (our version of the thumbs up) and give a big Mahalo to Darlene and JJ for a thoroughly enjoyable interview.