A pale man with spiky brown hair, glasses and a thick German accent is talking with a young, tall Hawaiian man in a baseball cap standing by the front desk. The Hawaiian tells the German to clear it with “Lukela.”
The German man and his companion, both carrying large black bags with wires spilling out, walk down the expansive hallway of the Q103 radio station, past even younger musicians talking and plucking an occasional ‘ukulele. The two men enter a smaller room containing a couch, a couple chairs and a DJ manning a computerized soundboard.
“Excuse me,” asks the German. “We are students from Munich, working on our final project for film school. Would it be alright if we filmed you as part of our documentary on Maui?”
Lukela Keala is sitting on a stool next to the soundboard and “Shaggy,” one of the station’s DJ’s and the host of this evening’s Underground Island program. Keala listens to the filmmaker and nods his head. He then turns to two men holding guitars on the couch.
“It’s okay by me,” he says. “Is it alright with you guys?”
The guys smile and nod. The young filmmakers immediately outfit the men with small black boxes—wireless microphones—while the musicians tune their instruments and Keala discusses the night’s program with Shaggy.
Keala, along with the men on the couch—Akoni Dellomes and Makapu Hoopii—make up Ekolu, a popular Hawaiian band based on Maui. Ekolu is best known for their island-style lovers’ rock and infectious contemporary Hawaiian reggae hits, also known as “Jawaiian,” on the albums Down in the Valley and Shores of Waiehu. Their third album, Back to the Valley: The 3rilogy won a Na Hoku Hanohano award in 2004 for best contemporary album. And now, they’re getting ready to appear on Shaggy’s radio show to promote their latest album, Ekolu Music, which has spent the past six weeks on the Billboard’s world music charts.
“It’s [been there] the longest of all our albums,” says Keala.
They’re also here to play a few songs live in the studio, and introduce a couple of bands—No Boundaries and Kohomua—that they’ve recently signed on to their indie label, Waiehu Records.
Shaggy makes sure the studio mics are placed properly on the floor in front of the couch and chairs for optimum sound when the bands play live on the air. He puts his headphones on and checks his monitor. A photographer darts in to take a few shots of the band. Darnelle—Keala’s wife and the band’s manager who’s also known as “Dar”—takes a quick shot with her disposable camera. Meanwhile, the guys in Ekolu begin an impromptu, off-the-air warm-up.
“You’re mine…. For eternity,” croons Keala. “Your lips belong to only me.”
The two men have stopped playing their instruments and are now harmonizing with Keala, as he strums a ‘ukulele and sings the refrain. Eyes shut, all three men lean forward, tapping their feet and gently swaying to the smooth, silky ballad. When they’re done, Keala shifts in his seat, gently tugs at his neck and looks over at his band mates.
“Dry, yeah?” he says. The other two nod, smile and clear their throats.
Keala, Dellomes and Hoopii formed Ekolu back in 1995, while attending Baldwin High School. They jammed together in music class and gave their first performance at Brown Bags to Stardom, a televised youth talent contest in Hawai’i. Although they took second place that year to ballerina dancers, Ekolu went on to become one of Hawai’i’s most popular and successful bands with their first hit, “Down in the Valley,” just four years later.
Now Dellomes begins playing an acoustic guitar melody that the other two then follow—Keala on ‘uke, Hoopii on bass.
“About five more minutes,” Shaggy says, indicating to the band members the impending airtime.
The band stops playing to shake hands with the photographer, then do a brief rundown with Shaggy before going on air. One of the filmmakers tells Dellomes to flip his long hair—it’s covering the wireless mic. The musicians resume harmonizing a different tune.
“Sixty seconds,” says Shaggy.
The music stops, as the filmmakers erupt in flurried German with each other in the doorway, then one rushes into the room to make an adjustment with Dellomes’ microphone. Dellomes smiles as they go on the air.
“This is Q103—I’m your host, Shaggy, and this is Underground Island,” says Shaggy into the mic. “Right now in the studio, we have EKOLU! Yayyyy!!!”
After the band members introduce themselves, Shaggy cuts to one of their new tracks, “Mistah Offisah.” Once off the air, Keala and Shaggy talk about fishing earlier in the day and the “huge tako” they caught that morning. Talk turns to food, Shaggy’s desire for grits and the food they consumed while camping over the weekend.
“Next time you gotta make that oyster stew, like I was telling you about,” says Keala.
Then Keala and Shaggy go over what they will talk about on air next, and Dar leans in from the hallway to suggest mentioning the new CD, which is currently being nominated for Best Reggae Album in the 9th Annual Hawai’i Music Awards.
“So you just released Ekolu Music on Dec. 20 of last year,” says Shaggy, now back on the air. “And it’s doing well in sales…”
“Yeah, the first week it was number nine [on the Billboards],” says Keala. “This week it’s number six in the world music charts.”
“Wow, isn’t that the largest number of any band in Hawai’i? Besides Iz?” says Shaggy. “How long did it take you to do the album?”
“Eighty percent of the songs were already written before we got to the studio,” says Keala. “So not that long.”
“Let’s go back to the first CD,” says Shaggy. “Tell me about [The Everly Brothers cover] ‘Bye Bye Love.’”
“We used to hear that one all the time at our aunties’ and uncles’ backyards,” says Keala. “So aunties, uncles—thank you!”
Shaggy cues the song and talk again resumes off-air.
“That’s old-school, hunh?” says Keala. “We did this back in ’99. Sound so young, yeah?”
Dellomes and Hoopii laugh.
Shaggy says that when they get back on the air he wants to talk about the group’s 10-year anniversary and their history. Whenever they’re ready to play live, he’ll stop the recorded tracks.
“So we’ll play a song, talk, play a song, talk,” says Keala. “Then we’ll talk about the record label stuff.”
They chat easily on the air.
“Let’s play another song off the new CD, called ‘Dim the Lights,’” says Shaggy.
“This is old-school reggae,” says Keala. “Another favorite of mine.”
“How many originals you doing on this album?”
“Ten originals, three covers,” says Keala. “Check it out online…”
Off the air, the guys continue talking about camping, birthdays and Ekolu’s upcoming weeklong stint in Tahiti in March.
“Ah, Tahitian dancing girls!” says Shaggy.
The band nods approvingly. Dar leans in and gives her husband a smile.
“Eh, don’t get me in trouble, huh?” says Keala. Everyone laughs.
“So you’re hugely popular worldwide,” says Shaggy, back on air. “But how many bands have you seen fizzle out before they reached the top?”
“Not too much,” says Keala.
“When we go off island,” says Dellomes, “a lot of people say there are so many talented people from Maui. We push each other. Even the younger bands, you know, we’re always willing to share or open up with them. Malino, No Boundaries, Kohomua, Versatile, Conscious Healing—a lot of our friends are in good bands.”
Shaggy cuts to a Sassaman track, and the boys are once again off the air.
“This is a cool song,” says Shaggy.
“Never heard this one,” says Dellomes. “Got stuck there, sorry.”
“Look tired, Mike!” says Keala. “Got school tomorrow?”
A young guy standing in the doorway answers him. Later, he will play ‘uke in an impressive, finger-flying solo on the air with his band, No Boundaries.
“No, only a couple periods,” he says. “I can sleep through them.”
“One minute…” says Shaggy.
Catch Ekolu live Feb. 11 at Waikiki Shell on Oahu, and Feb. 19 at the Lahaina Civic Amphitheater. To vote for Ekolu Music in the 9th Annual Hawaii Music Awards, visit hawaiianmusicawards.com. For more info, visit ekolulive.com. MTW