Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Olivier Koning
We now live in an age when music comes in gigabytes, played on lipstick-size gizmos, heard on microscopic earplugs. But tonight it’s different. Tonight the music is live. I’m by the ocean in Waikiki, watching a slim dart of energy blaze through a sprawling musical repertoire. He opens with slack key guitar, or ki ho‘alu. In between numbers, he improvises with his band: The drummer and percussionist strike out into Afro-Cuban rhythms, the bass player unleashes searing Hendrix-like licks. By midset they’ve left slack key and morphed into ballads that evoke Dylan as done by Cat Stevens. But just when I think we’re far from Hawai‘i, next comes a Portuguese fado, a haunting lament of the kind cowboys from the Iberian Peninsula brought to the Hawaiian Islands over one hundred years ago. It’s drop-dead hypnotic. And it’s all Makana.
Like his famed musical brethren Madonna and Prince, who also forgo the baggage of a surname, Makana is a born entertainer. He has a phenomenal capacity to connect with large live audiences, which is why Sting, Elvis Costello, Foreigner and Santana among others have chosen him to open their shows on stages around the world. Jimmy Buffett and Elton John have caught his act in Island nightclubs and called to offer career advice. Makana, it’s safe to say, is a bona fide star. But he has his own ideas about what that stardom should involve, forged at the feet of some of Hawai‘i’s most venerated musicians—Sonny Chillingworth, Raymond Kane and other masters of the unique Hawaiian music known as slack key. Makana is possessed by slack key, and his whole life is a quest to take it as far and wide in the world as he can.