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Ku’uipo Kumukahi appears at the Southern California Slack Key Festival

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Ku’uipo Kumukahi performs Sunday at the Southern California Slack Key Festival at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.


The annual Southern California Slack Key Festival features Grammy-winning slack key guitarists, the best hula dancers in the world and an Island Marketplace.

by Jenni Passaro

In Hawaii, kings, and queens composed songs for the people. Centuries later mele, Hawaiian songs, are given back to the people each time they are sung.

“In this connection to the elders there is a spirit that is essential to a song,” says Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning musician and singer Ku’uipo Kumukahi.

“It is about breath. It is about breathing something within, something you cannot measure. You can hear it and feel it. When you can hear it, see it, feel it, smell it. When all of your senses are conjured up by a song…I don’t ever want our young people to lose [that],” Kumukahi says.

Performing for the first time at the 11th Annual Southern California Slack Key Festival at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday, January 14th, Ku’uipo Kumukahi will join Jeff Peterson, Stephen Inglis, Jim “Kimo” West, Ho’okena, Ikaika Marzo, Weldon Kekauoha, and Alan Akaka on stage for a celebration of Hawaiian music.


Kumukahi will be performing for the first time at the 11th Annual Southern California Slack Key Festival at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday, January 14. She will be joined by Jeff Peterson, Stephen Inglis, Jim “Kimo” West, Ho’okena, Ikaika Marzo, Weldon Kekauoha, and Alan Akaka in this unique festival, the biggest annual mainland gathering of Hawaiian traditional musicians. 

“I have been focusing on artists who have longevity in their musical and cultural background. On someone who can bring their heritage to the table,” festival founder Mitch Chang says. “Ku’uipo is a great representative.”

Ku’uipo Kumukahi has performed at Aloha Festivals, the Merrie Monarch Festival, the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Concert, and the Honolulu Festival. She has also created her own recording label and production/performance company. Kumukahi grew up seven miles north of Hilo on the big island.

“Let me put it this way: it was heaven,” says Kumukahi in her rich, declarative voice. “It still is.”

“I grew up in a place that had been in our family for four generations. Twenty-five acres worth of family land. We have fruit bearing trees on the land. We have flowers. Growing up there really were no neighbors. Things were really quiet, really dark at night. You heard the Hawaiian owls. And during the day the Hawaiian hawks. All of these things show up in our songs. That is the kind of life I had. I went to school in town, my mother sent me to a private school. After school, I just wanted to go home. Home was safe. Home was peace. I had a sense of great belonging,” says Kumukahi.

Kumukahi’s father was a manaleo, or a native Hawaiian speaker. Around the age of 10, Kumukahi began to join her aunties singing Hawaiian songs under the mango trees in the evenings after they got off work. They called it pau hana or after work time.

“We just enjoyed ourselves. It is very common that Hawaiian families sing. We sing our prayers. We don’t recite them. By the time I was 10, I wanted to be able to sing with [my aunties]. The elders will see the kids trying to emulate them. I was loved on by my aunties and all the elders in the room. It brought good feelings of love and protection. You can remember this [feeling] by the songs.”

Kumukahi’s father encouraged her to sing her words correctly. Her mother bought old vinyl records. It was Kumukahi’s duty to listen to the old music.

“It was my parent’s way of teaching me the language, a way to have the Hawaiian words in my mouth. I had to say it clearly, to say it with meaning.”


Kumukahi mother’s great-grandfather was a kahu o ka mahiʻai, a caretaker of farming. If people in the community didn’t have land, he would give them a space to farm.

“My mother was a nurse. She cared for people with mental illness. She was an advocate for people who were less fortunate than ourselves. When you have, you give. And you don’t ask for anything back. This comes out in the music. [My mother would say,] ‘Whatever you do you put a lot of love in [it] because otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.’ My father would say ‘Where’s your ukulele, your guitar? You see those old people over there? You go sing for them. Make them happy.’”

Kumukahi continues the caretaking work of her family as Manager of Hawaiian Culture and Community Relations for the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa in Honolulu.  

“I teach employees about the sense of place. I do blessings for different departments. I do community outreach to bring more of our community to the Hyatt because there is contention between native people and tourism. I am trying to bridge that. For lack of better words, I am trying to take that back to the community by creating a synergy between the community and the Hyatt. We are partners… to bring to the visitor the true Hawaii.”

“It begins in Waikiki,” Kumukahi says, “It is the hub of the tourism drive. It has been marketed over generations. To undo the market is a big task.”

“There is an understanding among the employees that they are the real Hawaii beneath the concrete. All the royalty that lived in Waikiki, all the songs that were written by them. [We are] melding that energy. Waikiki and tourism are not separate from the truth of Hawaii.”

“Even on an island you can have many different songs. But it is a shared experience. Because everyone is bound together by the love of the land,” Chang says.  

“When you write about a place, you have to have a connection. Not from visiting it once. Maybe your family is from there or you lived there,” Kumukahi says, “The other part of that [story] is the delivery of the song. You can create a mele about a place you visited…maybe you had an aha! moment. But are you really connected? Are you singing with a spirit that is completely connected?”

To hear the meles of Hawaii join in the festival fun this Sunday, January 14 at 2 p.m. at the Redondo Performing Arts Center. The Island Marketplace is open to the public from 11 a.m.– 5 p.m. Plus ‘ono Hawaiian food, authentic island-style shave ice and outdoor entertainment. Tickets and information for performances available Kalakoa.com/slackkey.


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