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Bound by love for Molokai, student musicians pay tribute to home island

Album of original compositions available today

Molokai student musicians Po‘okela Napoleon (front row, from left), Keakaokalani Kaiama, Daniel Pelekai Jr., Institute for Hawaiian Music Director Keola Donaghy, Kaui Kapuni Manera and Shaye Lauifi pose for a photo with Natalie Sambajon (back row, from left), Kelly Kaawa Richardson, Lehiwahiwa Ritte and Valerie Temahaga. The first cohort of Institute for Hawaiian Music students on Molokai recently released an album honoring their home island. INSTITUTE FOR HAWAIIAN MUSIC photos

When the Institute for Hawaiian Music at the University of Hawaii Maui College first started recruiting students on Molokai, only four initially signed up.

“We questioned whether we could pull it off,” said Keola Donaghy, assistant professor of music and faculty coordinator for the Institute of Hawaiian Music and Music Studies at UH-MC.

So he was pleasant surprised when “we flew over and there were 13 people sitting waiting for us.

“What the heck? They were like, ‘We didn’t think you were actually going to come, so we were waiting to see if you would show up before we signed up,’ “ Donaghy recalled. “All 13 signed up, and that was August in 2019, and eight students have made it all the way through.”

Nearly two years later, the first cohort of students from Molokai has released an album, “Awaiaulu ‘Ia E Ke Aloha No Moloka’i” (Bound Together By Love For Molokai), which features original Hawaiian compositions and pays tribute to the students’ home island, with memorable songs about special people and references to loved places and specific winds and rain. The album is available online starting today.

Institute for Hawaiian Music students on Molokai pay tribute to their home island with original compositions in their newly released album, “Awaiaulu ‘Ia E Ke Aloha No Moloka‘i” (Bound Together By Love For Molokai), which is available online today.

“This is like a destiny with a group of people coming together for two years and the end result is this beautiful music,” enthused Kaui Kapuni Manera, one of the participating students. “It’s pretty awesome. Opportunities like this don’t come that easily, especially on Molokai. To be able to record a song in a state-of-the-art facility was a highlight. The whole journey and process of creating your mele and putting it to music, it’s epic. We’ve all grown spiritually and become a hui of musicians.”

Other musicians on the album include Natalie Sambajon, Kelly Kaawa Richardson, Lehiwahiwa Ritte, Po’okela Napoleon, Keakaokalani Kaiama, Daniel Pelekai Jr. and Shaye Lauifi.

“We brought all eight of them to Maui to record in our studio,” Donaghy explained. “The CD is the result of two years working with them.”

The seeds of the project go back five years when the institute received a federal grant to create a commercial-quality recording studio on the Maui campus, with a proviso that the grant required outreach to Molokai.

“We wanted to go over and offer our program to students there,” Donaghy said.

But not long after the 13 students signed up in August 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing Donaghy and the students to learn and rehearse from a distance.

“The students recorded their own stuff first and then we supplemented that,” said Donaghy, who served as a police officer for a year on Molokai in the 1980s. “The bass on there is mostly John Kolivas, and Zanuck (Lindsey) is one of the finest guitarists in the state. They were also mentors for the students, so they would join us through Zoom. We really pushed the limits of what you can do with music education with distance technology.”

Helping embellish the songs on “Awaiaulu ‘Ia E Ke Aloha No Moloka’i” are a distinguished ensemble of musicians including Zanuck Lindsey, Wailau Ryder, Honolulu Symphony bassist John Kolivas and Les Ceballos, who was in charge of the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest for more than 20 years, and assisted with vocal arrangements and vocal coaching.

The album begins with a powerful prayer, “Ho’onani,” which was captured one day before the students ate lunch.

“When we brought the students over, we had lunch brought in,” Donaghy recalled. “We were in the atrium of the Ka’a’ike building and the students did doxology to bless the food. The acoustics are incredible and it sounded amazing. So I ran to the studio, ran 200 foot cables and brought mics out, and I recorded them live. That’s what ended up on the CD.”

Opening with the haunting sound of an ‘ohe flute by Pelekai, Manera’s moving song Lu’ukia was composed for a dear friend and celebrates the power of love.

“She’s a kupuna from Molokai and it’s a love story really,” Manera explained. “She was married and within two years it was over. He was killed in a hunting accident. This mele reminds her of that love.”

The one non-original on the album, “Kamehameha Nui,” was composed by Kumu Hula Kawaikapuokalani Hewett.

“It’s an old story of Molokai, of the son of King Kekaulike who was sent to Molokai,” said Donaghy. “It’s sung by Walter Ritte’s granddaughter.”

The album cover art is by Mele McPherson, who was born and raised on Molokai, and won a Graphic Design Hoku for Raiatea Helm’s album “Sweet & Lovely.”

“We are incredibly proud of this accomplishment by our Molokai students,” said Donaghy. “Their dedication and perseverance during trying times was incredible. We were a semester and a half into teaching when COVID struck, so we had to go from flying over every week to doing everything online, which was really difficult for a class based on performances and us playing together.

“So we hired Ikaika Blackburn and Wailau Ryder to record guitar and ‘ukulele tracks for all of the songs, and we were able to do simulated rehearsals. Travel opened up in October and we were able to go back again.”

Manera praised Donaghy for his efforts.

“I’m so, so grateful that he had this vision for Molokai,” she said.

Looking to the future, she hopes that the project inspires “the young musicians to continue to sing and create music, and to perpetuate that love for Hawaiian mele, and continue composing more songs.”

Since the establishment of the Institute for Hawaiian Music, graduating students have released two Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning compilations.

“Aloha ‘Ia No ‘O Maui” won the Compilation category in 2015, and “He Lani Ko Luna, He Honua Ko Lalo” won Hawaiian EP of the Year in 2019.

With the latest impressive release of “Awaiaulu ‘Ia E Ke Aloha No Moloka’i,” more Hoku success is likely.

The album will be available online at Mele.com starting today. Proceeds from this release will go to provide scholarships for the institute’s students and support future projects.

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