Issue 14.5: October/November 2011

School for Sound

Story by Samson Reiny

Photos by Kyle Rothenborg


MELE's program coordinator Keala Chock in the recording booth.
A musician stands in a small booth in a Kalihi music studio, waiting to begin a recording session. When the cue comes, he launches into a Hawaiian melody, strumming and plucking at his ‘ukulele and crooning spiritedly. In the adjoining booth Eric Kelekolio sits behind the recording console; it’s a state-of-the-art, tricked-out board the length of a Cadillac. Kelekolio taps his foot to the quiet rhythm of a metronome, entranced as the musician’s creation begins to be transformed into digital readings on a jumbo-size computer screen. But it’s not long before he’s springing from his chair to work the board’s controls.


“Give him two bars into the verse,” John Vierra instructs Kelekolio. Vierra’s sitting in the back with arms crossed, forehead creased, and he wants a redo after hearing a buzz coming off the ‘ukulele. “Adjust the limiter,” he directs not a half a minute later. “He’s coming in too strong.”


The musician has his own directions. “A little more volume in the headphones,” he mutters as he flips through his sheet music during a break. He coughs. “Hand him a glass of water,” Vierra directs Kelekolio.


Hours of recording ensue, and by the time they’re done Kelekolio has probably walked a mile moving about the console and tracking back and forth from booth to booth. He’s got his reward, though: a session of clean tracks and a satisfied performer. “Good day today,” says the musician as he’s shuffling out the door. “We got a lot done.”


Kelekolio breathes a sigh of relief. “The heat was on,” he says with a smile.


The heat was on: It’s not every day you have your professor watching your every move. But that’s just what was happening in the studio. Kelekolio is a student in the University of Hawai‘i’s Music Entertainment and Learning Experience (MELE) program, and Vierra is his teacher. And MELE? It’s a new and novel program designed to train Hawai‘i’s students in all aspects of the music business, from engineering to marketing to distribution. Kelekolio was in training in this session, learning to run a real recording session by doing just that with an expert looking on. It’s opportunities like that, enthusiasts say, that set MELE apart from any other music program in the Islands. “It’s a safe place for him because this is, first and foremost, educational,” says Vierra of Kelekolio. “Sessions like this bridge the gap between here and what happens in the real world.”


Jim Ed Norman
is a man who knows exactly what it takes to lay down a good track. Norman was president of Warner Brothers Nashville for over twenty years until he retired in 2004, and in those two decades he influenced the careers of, among others, Faith Hill, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis.


In the 1990s Norman met Gavan Daws when Daws was co-authoring a book on Elektra Records with Elektra’s founder, Jac Holzman. Daws, an Australian who’s lived in Hawai‘i for more than fifty years, is a noted Island historian whose books on Hawai‘i include Shoal of Time and Land and Power in Hawaii. He’s also a music enthusiast who has long been enthralled by the beauty and diversity of Hawai‘i’s song. “The Portuguese brought the ‘ukulele,” he says, “the vaqueros [cowboys] brought the guitars, and the Hawaiians took to melody and harmony so naturally.”


In 2005 Daws called Norman with what he calls “my good idea for the decade.” Inspired both by Holzman’s entrepreneurship and by the Islands’ unique music scene—and by that scene’s potential for growth—Daws proposed establishing a music program on O‘ahu. It would be a program where local students could hone their skills in songwriting, recording, marketing, contracting and publishing without having to leave the Islands for places like Boston’s Berklee College or New York University.


Norman, who travels frequently to the Islands and once lived here, saw the potential right away: Such a program, he realized, could help to develop the same kind of entrepreneurship that brought Nashville’s country music scene to the international stage.


Within months Norman and Daws reached out to Ramsey Pederson, who was then chancellor at Honolulu Community College (HCC). Pederson, according to Daws, “bit on the idea in thirty seconds” and quickly pulled together the initial funding. In the fall of 2007, on the HCC campus in downtown Honolulu, the MELE program was born. The acronym forms the Hawaiian word for song.


The music makers: Students at the University of Hawai'i's new MELE program get a complete immersion in their field. Here, in one of MELE's studios, audio engineering student Eric Kelekolio (on piano) jams with MELE instructor Eric Lagrimas (on bass) and local musicians Glenn Lagrimas (on guitar) and Fernando Pacheco (on trombone).
“I don’t get it,”
Glenn Molina says. He’s sitting on a bench outside the MELE building, hooking his gaze in the direction of the program’s studio on the fourth floor. “This amazing program right in the middle of Kalihi, of all places. It’s the kind of setup you’d expect to see in the heart of LA.”


Molina has been involved with music for most of his life. He plays piano, bass guitar and trumpet and graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa in 2009 with degrees in music and business—but that work was, he says, largely theorybased, and he wanted more practical knowledge. And so two years ago Molina joined MELE. He has since learned the skills he needs to run his own record company: producing press kits, licensing music, negotiating contracts. He’s also sharpened his composing skills in MELE’s three-day summer songwriters’ workshop and was one of five MELE students chosen to travel to Los Angeles for this year’s Grammy Awards.


Students who enter MELE begin by choosing between two doors: One leads into audio engineering, the other into the business of music. The coursework on both tracks is comprehensive and rigorous. Audio engineering students learn sound compression and proper fading and must also tackle physics and pre-calculus. Music business majors take courses in public relations and publishing and are also required to enroll in accounting and macroeconomics classes. “We make them work,” says a smiling Keala Chock, MELE’s program coordinator and himself a local musician. “They can struggle sometimes, but some of them just blow me away. They’ll be ready to go when they leave here.”


Whichever track a student chooses, he or she can graduate with an associate’s degree in two years. MELE graduates then have the option of pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Belmont University in Nashville at the school’s acclaimed Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business.


In its few short years of existence as part of HCC, MELE has attracted a number of nontraditional students—single parents or older returnees with full-time jobs. One of them is Kelekolio, who says he is a very different person from the one who got into all sorts of trouble and dropped out of school after failing the ninth grade several times. The turnaround started while he was earning a high school diploma in his early 20s and became interested in music. “At first I wanted to make beats like Timbaland,” he says, bobbing his head and chuckling. “That’s why I initially joined MELE.” But as he learned how engineers harmonize isolated tracks of sound into polished ballads, he was smitten. “Mixing together a track is like painting,” he muses. “There are all these colors and pictures that you put together. It’s really an art.” Today he is a straight-A student.


In the spring
of 2011 the MELE program celebrated its first graduating class of two students, each of whom was awarded an associate’s degree. One landed a full-time job as an audio engineer at a new recording studio in downtown Honolulu. The other is heading off to Portland, Oregon, where he’ll apply his business skills to managing a band. Six more students, including Kelekolio and Molina, are on track to graduate in the spring of 2012.


Kelekolio hopes to begin freelancing as an audio engineer immediately. As for Molina, it’s hard to keep pace with the up-and-coming businessman. Last summer he founded the Internet-based Ignoble Records with fellow MELE student Steven Lynch, and the duo garnered a nomination for best compilation album at this year’s Na Hökü Hanohano Awards (Hawai‘i’s equivalent of the Grammys). Molina is also developing a publishing subsidiary, licensing music for an upcoming local television show and publicizing a friend’s band. And he’s considering attending law school, with a focus on intellectual property and contracts.


Daws believes MELE’s role is to nurture and spread a spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship through its graduates. It’s a process he calls “building human capital.” That, he believes, will only strengthen Hawai‘i’s ability to make and sell consistently wonderful music—for at the heart of his passion for MELE is his conviction that the music of Hawai‘i has the potential to garner the same international acclaim that, say, reggae has brought to Jamaica and bossa nova to Brazil. “But we’ve got to learn how to interact with the big world,” he says. “We’ve got to add value to the big world.”