Can’t Afford a Trip to Hawaii? Here’s Some Aloha Right Here in D.C.

Families preserving the old ways in the young keep Hawaiian culture blooming in DC area

The Aloha Boys bring island sound to the East Coast.
The Aloha Boys bring island sound to the East Coast. Feedloader (Limelight Networks)

A warm thought for a cold Spring Day. Aloha reigns in Washington, DC!

For decades thousands of Hawaiian transplants and local natives of the islands’ ancestry have transplanted their cultural roots into the city’s hard clay soil. The result has been a flowering of ethnic education, dance schools and music, cultural exhibitions and slack key guitar concerts that have now created the area’s first Slack Key Guitar Festival at the Birchmere, and the rise of troubadors like the Aloha Boys.

The Aloha Boys, Hawaiian transplants, met 20-years ago at Halau O’ Aulani, a Hawaiian cultural school in Arlington, VA., where their children were studying. The “dads” formed a group to provide much needed Hula music to the school. The rest, as they say, is history. DC cultural history.

Since then the Aloha Boys have performed everywhere from school functions and backyard picnics to the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum and its American History Museum, and the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. They have even represented Arlington County heritage events in Rheims, France. In May, they perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

Guitarist Glen Hirabayashi, a founding member of the group, said the catalyst for the group’s founding was their wives. One wife was reared in Hawaii. Another is a native of McLean, VA. “My wife was a military brat who grew up most of her life in Arkansas,” Hirabayashi said. Yet each of the women held dear their cultural roots and insisted that their daughters, then two and three-years old, learn Hula. Hirabayashi says the children grew up enmeshed in Hawaiian culture and learned to seamlessly meld their East Coast identities with their Hawaiian enculturation.

“We go back (to Hawaii) once a year,” Hirabayashi said of his family. “And you couldn’t tell that they weren’t local kids. They do everything that everyone else does. It’s wonderful seeing my kids appreciate the things I kind of took for granted.”

His youngest daughter, Amy Melenani (her name means “beautiful song”) is now a junior at Virginia Tech and a notable Hula dancer. She will be a featured performer at the 2013 National Cherry Blossom Festival. His oldest daughter, Ashley Hokunani (her name means “beautfil star”) is married and relocated in North Carolina. Yet. she still talks about her favorite song, Koke’e, and “her best memories ever” being when the legendary Slack Key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi “played and sang that song in our basement.”

Hirabayashi says Hawaiian music has a solid following in the Washington area, with concerts at Wolf Trap and Birchmere, selling out. Ukelele music is experiencing a renaissance, he says, with the popularity of artists like jazz ukelele player Benny Chong, and music industry leaders like NAMM offering more than 50 ukelele exhibitors at its recent show.

But its Slack Key guitar and artists like Kamakahi that he would like to see more widely exposed, to preserve the music’s rich heritage and cowboy culture, Hawaiian style. According to history, King Kamehameha III imported Spanish and Mexican cowboys to the Big island of Hawaii in the 1830s to help control a cattle boom that had overpopulated the island and become a nuisance. The cowboys brought their guitars and played music with the Hawaiian locals, known as Paniolo. Eventually the Paniolo adopted the guitar for their own ancient chants and songs. Unfamiliar with or unlearned in how the Spanish tuned the guitar, the Hawaiian cowboys developed their own tuning style that became known as Slack Key.

Tuning styles became so secretive “That families have their own tunings,” said Hirabayashi. “It wasn’t until recently that it (tuning) was shared. Legend was that the Spanish cowboys didn’t teach Hawaiians how to tune them. So they (Hawaiians) came up with their own tuning.”

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.