Johnny Kai, a contemporary Music Man battling cultural indifference, stands ready to orchestrate the promotion of all Hawaii music, only not everyone is playing in the same key.

By W. Knox Richardson

Johnny Kai stood in the lobby of a luxury beachfront hotel with microphone in hand and digital music at the ready. It was 1999 and he had just been hired as a singing barker for one of the hotel’s lavish floor shows.

Kai had taken a job that no one else in the local music scene would touch. It was a job beneath professional musicians. It was demeaning. This wasn’t a beggar’s hall, like the subways of New York; this was Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii.

Then Kai kicked off his act and his effusive form of musical salesmanship attracted crowds — nay, throngs — of tourists. Kai was doing what he loved: selling music and singing Hawaiian songs for anybody who would stop and listen. He was purposely drawing attention to himself and he didn’t care who knew it.

Kai, 50, was born on Kauai and raised in central Oahu. And he isn’t really a Hawaiian street musician, not that such exist. But he is street-schooled in the classic New York fashion, having swapped Oahu Island for Manhattan to pursue “broader career goals” in the early 1980s. While there, he created one of the most successful Hawaii music revues ever, playing for a decade up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.

“I was the most successful Hawaii entertainer in New York City in those years and financially doing very well,” Johnny Kai readily admitted. “I was being booked for all the big Hawaiian lawn parties, television work, major showrooms, MTV, Kings and Queens.”

Johnny Kai had ambition then and still does. Sometimes on Hawaii, though, ambition is measured in near Shakespearian terms where someone gets ahead by climbing over others. (Not Johnny.) And drawing attention to oneself in public? Well, that just isn’t done, not here, not if you want to keep your friends. It’s cultural kapu.

Back in 1995, upon returning home for a two-week stay to bury his father, Kai had noticed a major change had occurred in the local music industry: live music suffered from a severe lack of visibility. He called long-lost friends and music industry people. Where is everybody, and why is there so little live music after just 11 years of being away?

“I realized the local musicians were not motivated to take on such a daunting task, nor did they have the marketing skills to make it happen,” Kai said. “It was then that I decided to commit to six months out of every year to create and develop projects to turn around the current situation.”

Since then, for nearly 10 years, Kai devoted his productive life to a single effort, his personal cause celebre: The Music Foundation of Hawaii, sponsors of the annual Hawaii Music Awards. He created the non-profit, tax-exempt programs while still actively working in New York. Beside awards, the foundation distributes funds for scholarships for outstanding music students and provides venues for talent showcases. One of the first showcases was a night of Hawaiian Music at Carnegie Hall in New York City.


Room for one more?

The Hawaii Music Awards (HMAs) is often seen as competitive with another local music recognition program — the Na Hoku Hanohano awards from the member-based Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts (HARA), a peer-voted industry awards program dating back to the late 1970s. In contrast, Kai’s Hawaii Music Awards are a “people’s choice,” with the worldwide public voting for their favorite artists and music via the awards’ Web site. Last year, 30,000 HMA votes were casts, each one from a different e-mail address.

“The Internet voting is what set this award show apart from others,” said “Aloha Joe,” a global Webcaster of Hawaii music via his very popular Web site, AlohaJoe.Com. “Johnny’s vision is clear. He understands that Hawaiian music, in order to survive, must get off the islands. He knows that if island music doesn’t receive a worldwide audience, it’s just going to be forever local,” Joe concluded.

“You need to move away from Hawaii to appreciate the depth of the talent pool here,” Kai said, adding almost any band, in any club or style of music, is as good as most bands with working with major record labels on the mainland. “We don’t even know how good we all are, and it hurts me sometimes.”

Kai acknowledges he has detractors, those who would seek to put him in his proper place for being an unabashed, self-styled self-promoter.

“I agree that there are those who haven’t embraced the awards and
foundation,” reported Linda Dela Cruz, a former New Yorker who first met Johnny Kai in 1984 and worked as a Polynesian dancer in Kai’s popular Hawaiian music show. Today, Cruz lives on Oahu and works as a print and Web writer for MidWeek. She also served
on the foundation’s board of directors.

“Regardless of what the naysayers say, Johnny perseveres through it all and in the end, it’s a good show and a good time, and the people in the music industry have a great opportunity. He gets it done,” Dela Cruz declared.

“It is exciting to win either — being chosen by your peers or by the public — and I don’t know that either is better or more significant than the other,” said Keith Haugen, a well-known, local songwriter and entertainer, performing in Waikiki for more than 30 years. Haugen has won three Hawaii Music Awards and two Na Hoku awards, and once sat on the board of governors for HARA.

Although many artists and fans seem accepting of the HMAs, the most powerful local music distributors and producers generally don’t enter Kai’s awards; some of the top-rated, best-selling acts never have entered.

“The Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts does not discourage HARA members from entering or voting in the Hawaii Music Awards. In fact, many of our members have won Hawaii Music Awards and quite a few have participated in the ceremonies,” said Alan Yamamoto, current president of HARA.

The primary public criticism of the HMAs is “too many categories.” This year the awards are broken down into 31 groupings. Even with the dozens of categories, there often 10 or 15 entries in a category. (This compares with the more 100 categories in the Grammy Awards with thousands of entrants.) Each HMA entry on the voting Web site includes streaming music clips, so voters can sample songs before voting. Mechanisms are in place to ensure only one vote per e-mail address.


The Big Picture

For several years, Kai also sought the attention of government and business leaders to recognize the tangible contribution of music to the state’s economy. Kai’s anecdotal research suggests that collectively “entertainment” is the No. 1 draw for tourist dollars worldwide. Within this entertainment category, the big three attractions are gambling, pro sports and theme parks.

“And we don’t have any of the big three,” Kai lamented. “We have ecotourism and climate-related draws, but the real value we have to offer is music. It is the key, its ties together all the elements, whether a live floor show, a luau, a lounge act, or even karaoke.”

Neither the government nor the tourist industry presently tracks the economic value of music to the state coffers and private business. Kai wants the state to market Hawaiian music to vacationers and the travel industry, including vacation packagers and wholesalers.

“To most people, Hawaiian music is just hula, it is vacation music or souvenir music,” Kai suggested. He wants to see a broader acceptance of Hawaiian music in all its varieties, whether traditional, contemporary, rock, R&B, hip-hop or whatever.

Using the HMA and other visibility programs, the Music Foundation of Hawaii has two ultimate goals: a self-sustaining, popularly funded music and music business education programs for K-12 and at the university levels, and state funding for a music business program.

So why is that Johnny’s vision seems so distant?

“I think the some of the lack of respect comes from a few media reporters and industry members feeling that there isn’t a need for another awards program,” said HARA’s Yamamoto. “And another indication of respect is economic impact — retail stores are looking for, and are vocal about, increases in sales of nominated and winning product.

“It’s not just the Hawaii Music Awards that gets questioned. After each Hoku Awards show, HARA gets its share of questions, comments and complaints. A few of industry members also feel that the first-time-ever Hawaiian music album Grammy takes away from the Hoku Awards.”

Still, Kai believes he does have the answers to what ails Hawaii’s music business, what changes to make and how to implement them. Yet he presents himself more an impresario, showman and entertainer, thus making the difficult transition from show business to the people’s business all the harder. But if anyone can, Johnny can.