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.”