It started the first time Howard Ahia and his band were on stage. It was seven years ago, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Lahaina during their annual Battle of the Bands. Ahia’s three-piece group had a sound unlike any other heard on the island at that time. They were doing alternative rock, highly appealing originals with breathy vocals backed by a driving electric guitar. The songs would assimilate easily with the best of mainland college radio.
And the buzz began.
Shortly after the Battle of the Bands, Ahia and his crew played regularly at the Hard Rock. They were the first local band hired for the coveted weekly spot, which has since been filled by Marty Dread. Ahia also played popular solo gigs at various clubs and restaurants around town. Talk began of a CD and mainland tour. Word spread that Ahia was destined for rockstar status.
But there was another buzz spreading throughout the island. Before and after performances, Ahia would appear at bars, drunk, wild-eyed, stumbling and barely intelligible. Club owners began questioning his reliability. Soon they stopped booking him regularly. His audience—weary and dubious of Ahia’s between-set antics—slowly dissipated. And then, so did his band.
Eventually, Ahia got married, had a daughter and made his way to rehab. During his sobriety, he began working on gaining back the respect of venue managers and his fans. And recently he produced an album, titled It’s Killing Me.
“Just being able to finish this CD after so many years of wanting to make it,” said Ahia. “It’s such a miracle. Especially after so many instances of me trying to sabotage myself.”
Although it hasn’t been officially released yet, the anticipation has resumed about Ahia. Along with vital support from Willie K and Sean Corpuel, Ahia is also slated to play the Diamond Head Crater Celebration on April 1. The Oahu concert is a big deal since it’s the first public concert to be held inside the historical landmark in three decades and will feature the Steve Miller Band, Linda Ronstadt, WAR, Honolulu Symphony with Na Leo and other well-known local performers.
But that’s next month. This month, Ahia is once again facing his internal demons. You see, seven months ago Ahia fell off the wagon and stopped taking his antidepressants.
“Publicly, I’ve humiliated myself,” he said. “I think I’m pretty moral but I know that I have an addiction for cocaine and alcohol. I lost focus. I have an inability to see what needs to be done. I’m in limbo. I feel so ready to play my music and to do it clean and sober. I’m on my way back to rehab. There’s a lot riding on this right now.”
Ahia’s father, Sam, recognizes the drive to play music. He’s been doing it professionally for as long as Ahia can remember. A proficient and acclaimed guitarist, Sam played L.A., San Francisco and the Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe casino circuits in the 1960’s. For more than 20 years, Sam has been a staple in jazz and Hawaiian music on Maui, playing resort and restaurant shows consistently.
“I’m not as disciplined or wise as he is,” said the younger Ahia. “I’m a late bloomer.”
Ahia’s mother, Rini, Sam’s high school sweetheart, disagrees.
“There was this one time when Howard was six or seven years old,” she said. “We went to this house party in Redondo Beach. I brought my kids because they wanted to go swimming. And Howard came inside and played piano—The Young and the Restless theme. We were like, ‘Where did you learn that?’ But my mother and I loved to watch soap operas.”
When the family moved back to Oahu a few years later, Ahia befriended a neighbor who was getting piano lessons. Although he didn’t yet read music, Ahia would visit his friend during his lessons then go back home and play everything he had just heard.
“I said to him, ‘You have this gift,’” said Rini. “I hired a piano teacher but my husband objected to it. His friends were all good musicians. He thought they could come and teach Howard but they were too busy.”
After high school, where he was voted “Most Likely To Have a Hit Record,” Ahia played football at Saddleback College in South Orange County. He was offered a full scholarship at Pacific University but he didn’t tell his parents.
“My coach gave it to me and I threw it in the trash can,” he said. “I regret that sometimes.”
Later on, he was injured in a game and was paralyzed from the neck down for a couple days. When he recovered, he started playing classical guitar and folk rock. He also attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
“I learned to respect the music,” he said. “Not just to be on stage to say ‘hi mom’ or to get the chicks.”
A few years later, Ahia played a cultural festival in Vienna with his father. He became so popular the organizers rearranged performers’ schedules so that Ahia could play an extended seven nights.
“That was sort of the dawn of my realizing he had something special,” said Sam. “The Austrians went crazy for him. They taped his performance and passed it around.”
“This guy, a big-time producer named Peter Wolf, sent me to Germany,” said Ahia. “While I was in the studio, I was singing and he said, ‘Push it out—I know you can hit these notes!’ I started singing with a fuller voice—rocking louder, with a higher range. It worked. But I was pretty screwed up back then. I didn’t get the gig. That was 10 years ago.”
Ahia returned to Maui after the audition. While he busied himself in various hotel music gigs, he also started listening to Jimi Hendrix and other “mellow” rock.
“It made me challenge myself to try to sing a little stronger,” he said.
“I’ve heard Howard all throughout his music, from his John Taylor [phase] in high school to his new CD,” said Sam. “He has this one ingredient, a quiet fire in his music. It’s there—not in your face—and it sort of envelops you.”
My last interview with Howard Ahia took place at Sam and Rini Ahia’s Launiupoko house. It’s where Ahia was hanging out before he went to rehab. At one point, I asked Rini what kind of influence she had over her son’s decision to return to rehab. She turned and looked at Howard.
“You’re a good kid,” she said. “I want you to get cleaned up, get your act together. Don’t look in the past—look at all the good things happening to you and live for the future, for your daughter. All good things will come, Howard. You just gotta plan for it. Don’t look back.”
Ahia says he is doing his best to take these words to heart. He is determined to “stay out of trouble.” Subsequently, he also wants to be a better father, more financially secure, and more productive musically. He says he is working with the best band he’s ever had, and wants to tour and “play rock ‘n roll the way musicians dream of playing rock.
“This is such a remote place, which can make it hard to succeed,” he said. “Nevertheless, you have to believe in the dream. And now with the band, it’s our dream, not just mine.”
After Ahia gets out of rehab, he said he plans to hold CD release parties, and supposes he’ll gain a lot more support from the powers that be when he shows that he’s focused and staying away from drinking and drugs.
“I have a strong faith in my goals,” he said, “and I believe that they can come true.” MTW