Native Intelligence: O‘ahu & Kaua‘i

Music on Wheels

Story by James Charisma. Photos by Logan Mock-Bunting.

Students who use the Mana Mele recording studio might learn how to set up microphones and work a mixing board. They might lay down their own musical tracks or record oral histories of their elders. They might work on instructional videos, public service announcements or a variety of other audiovisual projects. One thing they won’t do is travel far to get to the studio. That’s because the studio comes to them.

The Mana Mele Mobile Studio is a solar-powered production facility on wheels, featuring sound-mixing capability, video equipment and a soundproof recording booth. Built into a sleek silver trailer, the studio is the centerpiece of a music and multimedia education program run by non-
profit Hawaiian cultural group Mana Maoli in conjunction with Honolulu Community College’s MELE (Music and Entertainment Learning Experience) program. Aimed at the students of ten charter schools on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, Mana Mele’s goal “is to teach our youth how to tap into their creative abilities through music and multimedia, rather than just be consumers,” says Kelli Cruz, the lead engineer and instructor.

Outside of school, the rolling AV facility is used for commercial and community projects such as concerts and music videos. Mana Mele’s premier music video features forty Hawaiian recording artists and a thousand charter school students performing “Hawai‘i Aloha.” The singers and musicians, recorded at twenty-seven locations on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, were united by editing to create a single rendition of the song.

The traveling studio first appeared on Hawai‘i’s roadways in 2015, but the idea was hatched fifteen years earlier. The members of Mana Maoli originally envisioned a mobile studio and radio station to be run as a “community co-op” where students, musicians and kūpuna would be invited to “tell your story from your place.” Years of fundraising ensued, and a variety of used vehicles—including an ambulance, a bus and a refrigerator truck—were considered before a thirty-one-foot-long 1976 Airstream trailer was ultimately selected.

Taimane Gardner, who is part of the network of musicians and technicians who volunteer with the Mana Mele program, says traditional recording studios can intimidate young artists. “With this mobile studio,” she says, “new musicians can feel comfortable in their surroundings and even record in their sacred spaces to share and express their music authentically.”