Honoka‘a—surrounded by lush, rolling ranch lands and fallow sugar fields—is these days little more than a vintage postage stamp off the Big Island’s Mamalahoa Highway. When the Hamakua Sugar Company closed in 1994, the tiny plantation town all but dried up. Workers who remained either toiled on nearby ranches or commuted to resorts on the island’s sunnier coast.
Ryan Hiraoka, descendant of a Honoka‘a plantation family, typified Washburn’s students: Before he traveled to Honolulu with the Honoka‘a Jazz Band, he’d never been off the island. Things are different for him these days.
“I never dreamed I’d be where I am now,” says Hiraoka, an award-winning songwriter and producer who graduated from Honoka‘a High twelve years ago. Shortly after, he started his own recording company, Rubbah Slippah Productions, and he’s written, performed and produced four solo albums—the most recent of which won a Na Hoku, the top award for music in Hawai‘i.
When he joined band class as a seventhgrader, “I didn’t consider myself musical,” Hiraoka says. But, he stresses, “If you have an ounce of musicality in you, Mr. Washburn will pull it out and encourage you to build on it.” On the first day of class, Washburn asks his future songsters to choose their weapon: which instrument they want to pursue. Hiraoka picked electric bass. His friend Kamakoa Asing couldn’t decide and raised his hand for every instrument before ultimately settling on the drums.
Jazz band quickly became more than just an easy grade for Hiraoka and his friends. They formed a band, Strange Groove, and performed regularly at local clubs—often alongside their teacher, because Washburn moonlights as a keyboardist as often as five nights a week. And when big-name musicians visit the Big Island he plays backup for them. He introduced the wide-eyed members of Strange Groove to Bonnie Raitt, Steely Dan and Joe Cocker, to name a few.
The stream of musical celebrities passing through the Big Island increased in 1994, when Honoka‘a’s lovingly restored People’s Theatre—the community’s hub of entertainment since 1930—began hosting the Hamakua Music Festival. Diverse acts such as Kenny Loggins, Rita Coolidge and Big Brother & the Holding Company played to packed houses. Waiting backstage was an enterprising high school teacher who made sure to usher the artists across the street to talk with his students.
“Washburn invited all these legends to our classroom to give us tips,” says Hiraoka. “He’d introduce them all nonchalant. We didn’t realize how lucky we were.”
Recently the Broadway star Ben Vereen stopped by the band room. He asked for volunteers to perform for him. A girl approached the mike and sang “Stormy Weather,” the classic about a failed relationship. After she finished, Vereen asked the girl, “Why did you pick this song? What is it about?” He told her to summon the feelings she’d have if someone close to her were hurt. He stood two feet from her and asked her to sing it again. This time the song’s sultry, sorrowful depth came through. Washburn’s eyes well up as he remembers watching his student transform into a bona fide performer. “It was so good,” he says. “The quality of her singing doubled that day.”