Hawaiian Music Lilts Into the Spotlight

Times Staff Writer

Before the television cameras go on tonight at the 47th annual Grammy Awards, trophies will be handed out to all the artists who didn’t quite achieve the glitz quotient required for prime time. Seated among the polka kings, Christian rockers and banjo pickers will be Robert Cazimero, a Hawaiian pop star who will arrive at Staples Center with a pikake lei around his tuxedoed shoulders and centuries of history at his back.

“In our culture the elders, the kupuna, hold a special place,” said Cazimero, who with his brother, Roland, is nominated in the first-time category of Hawaiian music for their album “Some Call It Aloha ... Don’t Tell.” “This is for them. I always feel thousands of them standing behind me.”

Or could that crowded feeling be coming from Cazimero’s fellow nominees? In the thick of the Hollywood awards season, there’s no suspense about one thing: If they gave an award for the awards show with the most awards, the name in the envelope would be this year’s Grammys. With 107 categories up for grabs, the nominee list fills 63 pages.


Who knew you could win a Grammy for best surround-sound CD or best packaging of a boxed set? And pity the presenter who needs to keep a dignified tone announcing the best comedy album award if it goes to “Come Poop With Me,” a CD by the potty-mouth puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

It’s safe to say that Triumph will not be sharing any TV time with the likes of Kanye West, Alicia Keys, U2 and Green Day; awards in only 11 categories are scheduled to be given out on camera during the three-hour broadcast on CBS.

Still, even the big categories seem overpopulated this year. The stage may not be big enough to handle the crush of winners if Usher’s “Confessions” CD gets the best album award; its entry lists no fewer than 40 producers, mixers and engineers, all of whom will take home hardware if “Confessions” wins.

The sheer number of categories may strike some as further proof of the hyperinflation of celebrity accolades that has given American television so many awards shows that the format feels like a traveling circus that never leaves town. The Grammys’ total trophy count -- though not the televised presentations -- easily outnumbers the Emmys’ (89 awards, 27 of them given on air) and absolutely dwarfs the Oscars’ (39 awards, including technical honors, and 25 handed out on air).

There were 28 Grammy categories at the first ceremony in 1959. By 1981 there were 60, and the awards cruised into the triple digits in 2001.

It’s easy to scoff at the value of trophies delivered by the ton, but don’t try to tell Cazimero that the newest Grammy field, Category No. 69, is anything less than a marquee race. And don’t ask him whether he will be sad if he loses. “Man, I don’t care about winning,” he said giddily. “Just getting a chance to lose is great.”


That’s because whoever does accept the first Hawaiian-music Grammy will be finishing a long and frustrating journey that began with some half-steps two decades ago. That’s when the push to present a Grammy in the genre began. And just as the category’s arrival is a personal victory for many, the years of setback were taken equally to heart.

“Lawrence Welk is dead -- do we need a polka category?” asked Leah Bernstein, an executive at the most powerful Honolulu label, Mountain Apple Records, which has current or past connections to all five nominees in the category. “It was very disappointing when the Native American category was added a few years ago. Nothing against that music or those artists, but that was pretty hard to take.”

When the announcement was made that this year’s show would have a Hawaiian category, it was big news in the island press, and politicians hailed it as a long-overdue civic victory.

The Hawaii recording community had a number of challenges in getting the category established, among them the fact that the leadership of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which sponsors the Grammys, is conscious of the perception that it already hands out too many gramophone statuettes. Although they disagree with that view, they are reluctant to add more envelopes to the stack.

Neil Portnow, president of the academy, said a committee reviews the proposals for new categories each year and sizes up the viability of existing fields. (For example, this year the category of solo female rock vocal performance was judged too shallow, so it was consolidated with its male counterpart.) The allure of a Grammy category is so strong that the committee’s membership is kept confidential to prevent lobbying and backlash from affecting the process.

There are some missteps in the Grammy past that make it a challenge for any new category to break in. In 1987, the show created a heavy-metal category to acknowledge the “hair bands” that were making noise then.


If Grammy chiefs were hoping for edginess, they got only embarrassment when the award was handed out. By not tapping a new membership within the subgenre, they left the decision up to the general voting body, which gave the trophy to Jethro Tull, a band that may have sounded heavy but was certainly not metal.

That may be why the Hawaiian music bid repeatedly fell short, as the Grammy brass looked for a cohesive scene and a reliable academy membership in the state and subgenre. The islands now have 90 voting members in the 17,000-member academy, which grants that status based on recording credits. Portnow said a major consideration is also ensuring that a genre’s ranks, which determine the nominees within their category, have the expertise to make credible judgments.

One thing Hawaii had all along was music; music that could be as rich and hypnotic as a Maui sunset but also was treated like the flowered leis given to tourists -- something admired during a trip but rarely brought back home to the mainland.

The hope in Hawaiian music circles is that the Grammy category will focus consumer interest as well as industry attention and resources. But to what extent is unclear. The Native American category was added in 2001, but the artists who have won have gained more cachet than commercial success. Last year’s winner in that category, “Flying Free” by Black Eagle, has sold fewer than 100 copies at the nation’s major retailers, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Bernstein points out that Hawaiian music already has a greater reach, and much potential in the 7 million tourists who visit the state annually, hearing the local music “from the moment the plane touches down to the moment they take off.” A CD with a “Grammy winner” or “Grammy nominee” sticker could help artists reach consumers who want a slack-key reminder of their trip to Waikiki but don’t know where to start.

The hope in the artist ranks, too, is that the Grammy imprimatur will move the Hawaiian CDs a bit further from the novelty music bins at record stores.


Some worry that the mainstreaming of Hawaiian music will water down its traditions and spiritual imperatives.

But others see this as a call for Hawaii’s music scene to swing back toward its roots and away from the reggae and Caribbean sounds that have laced its rhythms in recent decades.

“We are all waiting and wondering when that will go away,” said Charles Michael Brotman, a nominee as producer of the album “Slack Key Guitar, Vol. 2.” “I don’t how to explain how it took over here, but it has dominated local radio, and it’s very frustrating for a lot of musicians.”

Brotman’s CD is a collection of unadorned performances by 10 guitarists who hail from different islands and have different musical styles and degrees of modernity in their approach to one of Hawaiian music’s most familiar sounds. Brotman, who moved to Hawaii in 1976, is the only nonnative nominee on the list. The other nominees are the Brothers Cazimero; the duo of Willie K and Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom for “Amy & Willie Live”; Keali’i Reichel for “Ke’alaokamaile”; and Ho’okena for “Cool Elevation.”

The list provides some interesting history lessons. Robert and Roland Cazimero became key players in the renaissance of Hawaiian music in the 1970s by melding that era’s pop stylings and signatures into songs that had high craft and Hawaiian-language lyrics. Reichel carried that tradition forward in recent years.

“If someone somewhere in the world realizes that Hawaiian music has progressed beyond elevator music, ‘Sweet Leilani’ and ‘Tiny Bubbles’ -- which all had their value -- then the Grammys will have done a wonderful, wonderful service,” Robert Cazimero said last week. “If people hear that the music is as rich and deep and moving as any other kind, then we have all won.”