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Ekolu and its lead vocalist come away with Hoku wins

Longtime reggae band among several Maui musicians honored

Longtime Maui reggae band Ekolu won Group of the Year and Reggae Album of the Year for their album “2020.” Co-founder and lead vocalist Lukela Keala also won Male Vocalist of the Year and Island Music Album of the Year for his self-titled debut album. — Photo courtesy of Ekolu

Maui’s Ekolu once again triumphed at the annual Na Hoku Hanohano awards, winning Group of the Year and Reggae Album of the Year for their album “2020,” while the group’s co-founder and lead vocalist Lukela Keala also earned Male Vocalist of the Year and Island Music Album of the Year for his self-titled debut album.

The 2021 ceremony was broadcast on Thursday night on K5, without an audience, due to the pandemic.

“I was already super grateful for the nominations, but to get the win for these categories was just mind-blowing,” Keala enthused Friday. “I’m still excited. I am very proud to represent Maui. This is my home. This is where my inspiration comes from. It’s in the mountains when I look outside my window. It’s in the air as I step outside my door. I am humbled that I get to represent this island.”

Especially pleased to win Group of the Year, he said, “that’s an award that we’ve been chasing for years but never got. Reggae bands just don’t get to touch that award, but finally, here we are in 2021. We are honored to bring it home to Maui.”

His first Hawaiian language recording, “Lukela Keala,” is a project he has contemplated for more than 20 years.

Kalani Miles, a musician and Maui police officer, won Hawaiian EP of the Year for “He Mele No Papa,” an album of songs paying tribute to his late father. — Photo courtesy of Kalani Miles

“It’s been a goal of mine from the very beginning,” the Maui-born musician explained. “But I could never get to it because I was always recording Ekolu albums.”

Ekolu previously won Hoku awards in 2020 for Anthology of the Year for “20-Year Anniversary Timeless” and Single of the Year for their powerful song “Desecration,” about the Mauna Kea protests. One of Maui’s most popular bands, their hits include “Stuck on You,” “Just Like That” and “Someone Loves You Honey.”

Ekolu will next play on Maui at 8 p.m. Oct. 15 and at 5 and 8 p.m. Oct. 16 at Da Playground in Maalaea. Tickets are $40, available at www.daplaygroundmaui.com.

Other 2021 Maui Hoku winners include Kaleo Phillips, who won Contemporary Acoustic Album of the Year for “First Dance.”

“I feel very blessed,” Phillips reported. “It’s a long time coming, and I’m very happy and proud. We have so many talented musicians and engineers who come from our beautiful island, so it’s really special.”

Kalani Pe‘a earned Christmas Single of the Year for his unique version of “O Holy Night.” — Photo courtesy of Kalani Pe‘a

Nominated for his last two albums, Phillips’ “First Dance” captured this versatile Maui musician across a spectrum of styles from soulful pop and island reggae to traditional Hawaiian. As a highlight, it featured a new song with the late, great Willie K.

“It was really special to have a little ode to Uncle Willie,” he said.

Two-time Grammy winner Kalani Pe’a earned Christmas Single of the Year for his unique version of “O Holy Night.” Pe’a said he was in tears watching the awards on Thursday evening, as his recording of “O Holy Night” featured Uncle Aiau Koa, who just passed.

“I cried so much because of Uncle Aiau,” he said. “He was one of my mentors and best friends and my guitarist. I did my version of ‘O Holy Night’ with Damon Williams to acknowledge the pandemic we’re affected by.

“Michael Casil, who won a Hoku, engineered this track, and he will play cajon for me at my CD release concert at ProArts. And Kalani Miles, who won Hawaiian EP of the Year, will play guitar.”

Kaleo Phillips won Contemporary Acoustic Album of the Year for “First Dance.” — Photo courtesy of Kaleo Phillips

Pe’a will present two shows at ProArts Playhouse in Kihei at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 and 17 as a CD release show for his latest recording “Kau Ka Pe’a. Seating is limited and attendance is by vaccination or negative COVID test. Tickets are $50, available at www.ProArtsMaui.com.

“It will be an acoustic night full of Hawaiian contemporary soul music, and a night to honor Uncle Aiau Koa,” he said.

Maui was also represented by Miles, who won Hawaiian EP (Extended Play) for his debut recording “He Mele No Papa,” (Songs for Dad) which he released as a tribute to his late father. And Casil won the Hawaiian Engineering Award for his work on Makamae Auwae’s “Lei Makamae.”

Miles, an officer with the Maui Police Department for 20 years, said he spent Thursday night at the office because he was too nervous to watch the awards show.

“I worked so hard on the project, and I didn’t want to let my dad down,” he said Friday after getting a barrage of phone calls and texts congratulating him on his first Hoku.

Miles grew up listening to his dad play Hawaiian music on the radio or on his guitar or ukulele, and he’d hope to do a recording with him before he passed away. While they weren’t able to, Miles said he found a video of his dad singing in the background and was able to take the audio to use on his album.

“If you listen to the first track on my album, I actually have my dad’s voice singing as the song starts,” Miles said.

“I put songs on the project that I know he’d love, or that he’d love if he were still here.”

Miles, who dedicated his Hoku win to his father and to Uncle Aiau Koa, recently joined forces with a young Maui musician, Kason Gomes, to release a CD two weeks ago and said he’s also working on another EP follow-up.

Presented by the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts, the 44th annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards show was broadcast on Thursday. It featured 12 live performances and 40 award categories, celebrated virtually with the theme of “Ho’ala Hou — A New Awakening.”

“It’s been almost two years since the world shut down and many of our beloved HARA members were left to navigate their careers after having gigs and concerts canceled,” reported HARA President Amy Hanaiali’i. “To recognize the resiliency, grace, creativity and innovation of our recording artists, we chose the theme of ‘Ho’ala Hou — A New Awakening’ as a rebirth for the industry.”

The awards show will be rebroadcast at 7 p.m. tonight on KGMB and at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30 on KHNL.

* Managing Editor Colleen Uechi contributed to this report.

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