Issue 17.4: August/September 2014

Hawaii Unplugged

Story by Lynn Cook

Photo by James Anshutz


When Richard M. Towill was growing up in Kapa‘a, Kaua‘i, the neighbors would all pile into an open touring car and ride around the neighborhood singing nahenahe music —no boombox, no amplification. Only sweet voices and a guitar or two.

Fast-forward to the mid-1980s. Towill has returned home from a stint in the Air Force to join his dad’s engineering firm, working on projects like Honolulu Airport’s reef runway. But he misses the soft nahenahe music of his youth, so he starts Ka Himeni ‘Ana, a singing contest unlike any other in Hawai‘i. The criteria: Two to five singing members in a group, at least half playing unamplified guitars, ‘ukulele or bass (the exception being a small amplifier for steel guitar).


It is safe to say that in the thirty years since its inception, dozens of careers have been launched by Ka Himeni ‘Ana. The music comes from backyard parties, students aiming to turn their passion for nahenahe into a recording career, even fathers and sons who just play ‘ukulele together in the garage. Past winners include Hawaiian music luminaries Holunape, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi and Ho‘okena.


The thirtieth Ka Himeni ‘Ana Music Competition, now organized by Towill’s son Rick and the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, takes place on August 23rd at the Hawaii Theatre. Rick will dedicate the anniversary contest to his father, who died last January, and continue his dad’s tradition of filling the theater with five hundred stalks of fragrant white ginger picked from the valley behind his home.


The list of judges reads like a who’s who of Hawaiian music: Nina Keali‘iwahamana, star of Hawaii Calls; Nola Nahulu, choral director and winner of the first Ka Himeni ‘Ana contest; Mahi Beamer, falsetto singer and grandson of composer Helen Desha Beamer. Beamer will open the show with a rare treat: playing the theater’s 1922 organ, once used to accompany silent films.


Musician, kumu hula and cultural specialist Manu Boyd emcees the show, making it a bit like listening in on a very local conversation about Hawaiian music. At the end of the show, Boyd invites the audience up to collect the traditional Ka Himeni ‘Ana souvenir. “Come on up and take ginger blossoms home,” he smiles, “along with the sound of nahenahe singing.”