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EKOLU winning the world over, one fan at a time

April 10, 2008
By JON WOODHOUSE, Contributing Writer
It’s the coolest, surprising opening. Two young guys from the East European nation of Slovakia are hanging out by the River Danube in the capital city of Bratislava. They’re smiling for the camera and excitedly describing their love for the music of Maui’s Ekolu. After a couple of minutes they break into one of their favorite songs, the band’s popular “Shores of Waiehu.”

It’s just one of the fascinating clips sent in from fans around the globe featured on Ekolu’s recently released first DVD “To The World: From Ekolu.” Best known for their irresistible, island style reggae hits, the band’s DVD blends fan videos with concert footage shot at the Lahaina Civic Center and the ‘Ulalena Maui Myth and Magic Theatre.

So how did two guys from Slovakia end up on a DVD about a Maui band?

“We had a plan to do a DVD, and I was wondering how I could structure our music around something,” explains Ekolu’s primary songwriter and vocalist Lukela Keala. “We’ve been getting fans sending e-mails from all over, and so I asked for videos. There were like 50 different countries including Paraguay, Greenland, Iceland and Ukraine.”

In conjunction with the DVD the band also released the 18-track CD compilation “The Best of Ekolu,” which just won Anthology of the Year at the 2008 Hawaii Music Awards. One more award to add to a collection that includes two Na Hoku wins.

It’s quite an achievement for a band that started off taking second place at a Brown Bags to Stardom contest, losing to a dance group.

“It was devastating, we lost to ballerinas,” says Lukela laughing.

Akoni Dellomes, Makapu Hoopii and Lukela formed Ekolu back in 1995, while attending Baldwin High School. They all studied Hawaiian slack key guitar in a class taught by Lukela’s uncle, Kevin Brown.

“We were friends and we all played with each other’s crews, and one day we just looked at each other and gave each other the nod and huied up and it felt right,” he recalls.

“Back then it was the Waiehu Sons, Kapena, Braddah Walter,” he says about the music that inspired them. “What really stuck out was one day I was watching the Hokus and Sean Na‘auao was on and I told my mom, I want to be like those guys and she said, ‘No, be yourself, create your own, do your own style.’ That’s what I did.”

The trio’s debut album, “Down in The Valley,” earned them a Na Hoku nomination for Most Promising Artist. Released in 1999, it included a number of covers, such as the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” Bread’s “Everything I Own,” and Freddie Fender’s country classic “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.”

“That was what my dad and aunties listened to,” he notes. “At first it was all covers, but we had to get our own identity so we started doing originals.”

Their follow-up “Shores of Waiehu” signaled a major creative leap. Earning a spot on Billboard’s world music chart, it featured nine original compositions, including the title track that became one of the group’s most loved songs.

“We played on Oahu last week and everyone was saying, ‘play the Maui anthem,’ ” Lukela reports. “I was like what’s the Maui anthem? It’s ‘Shores of Waiehu’ and ‘Down in The Valley’ which we combine as a medley.”

Then came their third release, “Back to the Valley,” and their first Hoku for Reggae Album of the Year. “When they said our name, I had flash backs of all the hard work,” he says. “We were the first Maui band to win Reggae Album of the Year.”

“They were really overwhelmed and humbled by it,” adds Lukela’s wife, Darnelle, who helps manage the band. “Our way of celebrating was buying Zippy’s and going back to the hotel room and soaking it in. Then the next year they won another Hoku.”

That was their second consecutive Hoku for Best Reggae Album for “Ekolu Music” in 2006. Another winning collection of sweet romantic ballads and catchy island reggae, the album included the love song “Armonia De Amor,” sung in Spanish. “Back to the Valley” also featured a Spanish song, “Antonia.”

“One day I purchased a DVD and it had a Spanish reggae song,” Lukela explains. “I wanted to learn it.”

“He sat and played it over and over,” adds Darnelle. “Even if it was 5 o’clock in the morning, he would get up and watch the DVD. It’s by a reggae band from Chile, Gondwana. When he performs it live now people start trying to speak Spanish to him.”

“Oh brah, they’re like deh dehe deh, and I don’t speak Spanish, I just sing it,” laughs Lukela. “It’s so funny.”

Like all their albums, “Ekolu Music” contains a song that addresses the musician’s fervent religious faith.

“We do shows and people are like, ‘I was messed up doing drugs and heard your song and was saved,’ ” Lukela reveals. “A pastor said, ‘Your song ‘Come Back Home to God’ (featured on “The Best of Ekolu”) is bringing a lot of people to God.’ That’s what they’re for.”

“Closer to Jesus,” which closes “Ekolu Music” came to Lukela complete in a vivid dream.

“The night before the last day of recording, I prayed that I needed a song,” he reports. “I had a dream that I was in an auditorium and a guy playing piano said, ‘Sing the song you wrote.’ I sang a song in the dream I never had words before. I woke up and heard a voice, ‘There’s your song.’ I don’t cry at all, but that morning I cried from that moment all the way to the studio in Lahaina.”

The album also features another significant composition, “Mistah Offisah,” that makes a bold statement that and not everyone who loves reggae is a stoner. The composer in fact declares — “I haven’t smoked a spliff in my life.” It was inspired by an unfortunate confrontation with the law.

“One day we were at her (Darnelle) mama’s house and her whole family is church people,” Lukela recalls. “A neighbor smelt pakalolo and called the police. I said, nobody smokes, they’re all church members, and the cop said, ‘church members, they’re the . . . worst ones.’ I was so angry. We hopped in the car and in 20 minutes I wrote the song. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t do drugs, I never did drugs in my life.”

Making music together for more than 10 years, the members of Ekolu are genuinely humbled by the success they have enjoyed. Who could imagine that three Baldwin High graduates would find fans all over the world loving their music?

“It blows my mind to the fullest,” says Lukela. “We have fans in the weirdest places. If you could see the place in Kapuna Valley (by Waihee Valley) where I was raised, very humble beginnings. A shack with outside bathroom, a hose for a shower, we didn’t have electricity, and we washed clothes in a big bucket.”

Looking ahead, they’ve just heard Ekolu made the final ballot for Na Hoku nominations for Music Video DVD and Anthology Album of the Year.

Maybe in June they will be able to add more trophies to their awards shelf. Having just opened for reggae star Sean Kingston at the MACC, they’re heading out for a West Coast tour and planning a Maui club gig in May.

And they’re looking forward to compiling material for two new studio albums probably ready for release early next year — a reggae-flavored recording and a traditional Hawaiian one.

“We’re looking forward to doing both,” Lukela concludes. “We’re planning to do regular Ekolu stuff, and a Hawaiian album, to give back, let all the aunties and uncles know we never forget about them. Traditional stuff, bringing it back to the roots.”

• Contact Jon Woodhouse at

Article Photos

Back to school:?Ekolu’s Makapu Hoopii (from left), Lukela Keala and Akoni Dellomes are pictured above at their former Baldwin High School stomping grounds. The trio met and started the band while attending the Wailuku school in 1995.




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