the better for local musicians and artists to hide away
and find their Polynesian muses.
lush district at the Big Island of Hawaii’s north shore
is isolated from the busy Kona Coast by the ranch-dotted,
horse-heaven hill that is Kohala, an extinct volcano. On
its windward side, it squeezes up like an accordion into
deep and wild valleys navigated only by ancient trails.
two-lane road transits the frozen-in-time, tin-roof towns
of Hawi and Kapa’au and ends at an overlook and
trailhead above the kiwi-green Pololu Valley.
on a windswept point looking toward Maui, King Kamehameha
I was born in the 1750s. To protect him from chiefs
jealous of his royal destiny, protectors fled with the
infant to raise him in the remote backcountry beyond
this day, North Kohala cradles island culture and intact
native families, and this road less traveled nurtures the
souls of musicians and artists whose work is emblematic of
important thing about Kohala is it’s a dead-end road and
you have to have a reason to come up here," says
David Gomes, a musician whose Portuguese
great-grandparents came from the Azores to work a
now-defunct sugar plantation that was Kohala’s economic
lifeblood for 100 years. "That makes the community a
little tight place. They’re sweet, tolerant, forgiving
people. Kohala is literally and figuratively the end of
the road for some."
who grew up with the remote valleys as his playground and
who still loves to hike them, spends peaceful days
crafting masterful guitars and ukuleles in a cluttered
workshop off a quiet lane above Hawi (say "Huh-vee").
He has a dual cultural connection to the ukulele: Before
being popularized in Hawaii in the 1800s, ukuleles came
can hear him play one of his instruments at a local cafe
or a gallery opening. Make an appointment to visit his
workshop and he might show off his pride and joy, a koa-wood
guitar with an inlaid maile-vine lei of New Zealand
abalone braided up the neck. When I visited he showed how
he assembles a bass ukulele, his own invention (see this
story online for video). His instruments can be found in
the hands of musicians from Tokyo to New York.
the head of each guitar he builds, Gomes carves a deep
notch, a little trademark representing the Kohala valleys
saying goodbye, he takes me on a quick hike down into
Pololu Valley, where we find the last decaying remains of
a World War II landing craft just off the beach, and an
ancient burial ground from a long-ago village.
we hike back up the well-trodden trail, Gomes points at a
distant ridge on the valley’s far side.
that lone pine? That’s where there was a still back in
the Prohibition era ... They made okolehao moonshine, from
ti leaf root. And the high trees on the ridge there? That’s
Awini, where Kamehameha was taken as a baby when fleeing
North Kohala, Hawaiian history can crop up on every
is known as the Pacific melting pot, with several musical
traditions evolving from other cultures. One is the
falsetto style of singing once heard at every luau.
understanding is it came from vaqueros and the cowboy
yodeling tradition, but the Hawaiians took that and
tweaked it and made it something very sweet," says
Matthew Kupuka’a, a falsetto singer and guitarist who
performs with his wife, hula dancer, singer and ukulele
player Rosalind Kupuka’a. They come from native Hawaiian
families and grew up as friends in the North Kohala
village of Niulii, where they still live.
were Mexican cowboys brought to the Big Island in the
1800s to help manage cattle that were a gift to Kamehameha
from explorer Capt. George Vancouver.
young singer, Matthew was mentored by a neighbor, the late
Clyde "Kindy" Sproat, a famed Hawaiian falsetto
singer honored in 1988 with a National Heritage Fellowship
from the National Endowment for the Arts.
go to sing at his place for a couple hours, and it would
end up four or five hours," Matthew recalls of his
youth, in a time and place where if kids misbehaved in
town "our parents or grandparents would know before
we got home!"
asked him how it comes so naturally that he can sing like
that," Rosalind tells me. "And he told the story
of when we were young kids and climbing on vines and he
said he wanted to try to be Tarzan."
their music regularly entertains visitors at the Big
Island’s Waikoloa Beach Resort, a 45-minute drive south
of Hawi. But mostly the couple, now grandparents, trill
songs such as "Magic Island" at small community
events around North Kohala (see this story online for a
us it’s passionate, because it’s about us and our
heritage," Rosalind says. "It’s not a show, it’s
a life story — of our upbringing, the kind of songs that
were in our upbringing."
sculptor Greg Pontius was born in Seattle and grew up in
Eastern Washington. But he’s lived in North Kohala long
enough to raise a 15-year-old son who gives a sweet
Hawaiian-style hug when introduced to a female visitor
from the mainland.
and his family live on the edge of Halawa Gulch, one of
many little streambed ravines the road elbows its way
around on its way to Pololu. Each gulch is an organic riot
of banana trees, giant ferns, palms, breadfruit and more.
From his home’s second-story deck, Pontius can pluck
shows me a gleaming native-wood sculpture he’s just
completed of a green sea-turtle in a swimming pose. His
artistic visions come from real experiences, of marine
life he’s seen while diving or kayaking. He recounts an
early experience in his artistic career.
were a mile or so offshore in a kayak and a humpback whale
came up right beside us, and it was so inspiring, we
chased that humpback for an hour or so!" From that,
he started one of his first wood projects.
rarely buys wood. Around Kohala and the Big Island he can
find fallen logs or driftwood for his art. A chunk from
the dusty woodpile outside his workshop can become a thing
of my jobs is to help people see," Pontius says.
"That’s what artists do — I help people get the
same joy and fulfillment I get. And turning nothing into
something is a wonderful thing."
the community and beauty of the place inspired John Keawe,
a born-and-bred Kohala musician, is plain in the name of
the first song he ever wrote: "Kohala, I Love
is a talent in slack-key guitar, another Hawaiian music
style that evolved from the time of the vaqueros, who
brought guitars to Hawaii. Keawe, who has recorded 10 CDs
and has toured the United States, contributed to a
collection of slack-key music that won a Grammy in 2005.
With tuning adapted to the rhythms of Hawaiian dancing and
the structures of Hawaiian music, slack-key delivers a
warm and lilting sound.
first hear Keawe during his weekly performance at a
shopping plaza at the Waikoloa Beach Resort. A silver mane
of hair and salty beard frame his walnut-tan face, pinched
in concentration as he plays beneath a grass roof in a
courtyard between Tiffany’s and Crazy Shirts. His lyrics
are simple ("the grass is green, the beaches
clean"); it’s the rich, twangy guitar that
astonishes. From one instrument, he seems to coax the
music of a small orchestra.
tells a gathering of tourists about the origins of
slack-key, or what locals call "taro-patch
tuning," which he demonstrates when I visit him at
his modern home high on a slope above Hawi. The view is of
Maui’s peak, Haleakala, beyond corduroy-ridged waves.
next to the house he built in 2000 is the simple
tin-roofed cabin where he grew up, which he has preserved
along with the ti leaf and hibiscus garden his late mother
planted, so Keawe isn’t far from his modest roots.
visits to the fancy resort help pay the bills, he
intimates that he’s just as happy that most tourists
stay at the beaches farther south. "North Kohala is
still a beautiful place, it still has no traffic lights,
you don’t have to stop and wait — I hope that never
a happy seclusion. But occasionally a lucky traveler,
maybe thanks to a wrong turn, gets to share in the
and see the work of North Kohala musicians and artists at
these Big Island locations:
Gomes plays classical guitar most Sundays at the
Lighthouse Delicatessen ((