Web site: amyhanaialiigilliom.com
Upcoming gigs: Every Fri. & Sat. in April (except the 10 and 17) at Stella Blue’s Supper Club. Four-course dinner and show, $60. Dinner seating, 6pm; show, 7:30pm; 874-3779
Essential tracks: “Pua Hone,” “Kou Leo Nahenahe”
The morning I sit down with Amy Hanaiali‘i, she looks like the quintessential off-duty diva. With a career in Hawaiian music that’s spanned her life and with a musical heritage that goes back generations, she’s earned14 Na Hoku Hanohano awards and four Grammy nominations. And she’s just reaching the top of her game—trotting across the globe and garnering plenty of press, locally and overseas.
“I was just in San Jose the night before last,” says Hanaiali‘i of the outdoor theater where she performed for a crowd of thousands. “The Governor made me Ambassador of Music two years ago. So I work a lot with the Hawaii Visitors Bureau—traveling a lot, spreading aloha and Hawaiian music.”
Hanaiali‘i certainly embodies Hawaiian charms. When she smiles and laughs it’s a bright flash of perfect pearly whites—the kind-of agape, lean-forward grin that one might see on a model in a magazine, femininely amused by a lover’s tease (or promoting a superb shampoo). Her waist-length hair is a gloss of every autumn color, and though it’s of unmistakable Polynesian thickness it hangs with polished defiance against the relentless humidity.
She’s got the height of a rock star, and Hanaiali‘i appears even taller in the long lines of her dark athletic pant, even while wearing flats. But it’s her comfy black hoodie—the left breast embroidered with a gold Grammy emblem—that’s the most telling.
Hanaili‘i and her brother, Eric Gilliom, are the first Hawaiian performers to ever grace the stage at the Grammys, which were held January 31 at Los Angeles’s Staples Center.
“I’m 5’10”, so with heels, you know…” she laughs, recounting stories of chatting and cheek-kissing with a surprisingly short Robert Downy, Jr., a quick dressing room talk-story with Celine Dion and, of course, hanging out with buddy Jamie Foxx (who, she divulges, is a fan of Kahului’s Cupie’s diner).
The way she beams about her four-year-old daughter—who she’s raising as a single mom—is similar to the way she beams about the Grammys. Part of it’s undoubtedly due to the allure of Hollywood stardom—rubbing elbows with the rich and famous—but Hanaiali’i’s motivation goes deeper.
“Now I’m just super focused on my mind, my heart and my body—getting healthy,” she says. “I’m ready for the really big next transition in my life…I’m trying to get my mind set for that [and] I’m trying to push super hard to take my music to the next level.” She says she wants to play at more performing arts centers around the world, and with symphonies across the country (she’s already done so in Nashville, plus numerous times in Honolulu). She calls the feeling of being backed by an orchestra “indescribable.”
“I have a couple [recording] projects I’m working on that are real heavy,” adds Hanaiali’i. Every time she speaks of her forthcoming work, she looks down at her hands, which she holds, twisting as if she were cradling a precious crystal orb. “I’m always trying to reinvent myself—trying to find ideas to help younger generations understand their placement in Hawaii.”
Hanaiali‘i says imparting cultural knowledge—and, in a way, redefining the meaning of what the world perceives to be “Hawaiian”—is her driving force. “Hawai’i kind of feels like it’s slipping away—nothing is tangible anymore,” she says. “Younger generations have to be raised with their genealogy. They have to understand who the people were that were in their family to understand who they are going to be and who they are now.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, old Hawai’i is gone’,” she continues. “No, it’s still here. You just have to tap into it. You just have to ask for it. That’s why we have an aumakua, that’s why we have kupuna, that’s why we have akua. It’s those three things that always keep in you in check.”
Hanaiali‘i remembers her grandmother as one of the pioneers of Hawaiian music. “She was so far ahead of her time. Now I understand what she was trying to do. I too am always trying to help people understand Hawaiian music. You can’t get mad with people if you don’t take the time to explain Hawaiian culture to them. We all need to take care of Hawaii, and if you don’t understand [its culture], how can you take care of it?”
The first step in implementing this ideal goes back to that heavy, “very carefully thought-out project,” her hands again falling into a gentle, subconscious mime of carrying something precious. “What I’m alluding to is that I’m working on this full-blown island music album,” Hanaiali‘i says of her next album, to be produced by Fiji. “You’re going to know it’s me, it’s going to have ha‘i in it, but it’s going to let the younger generations know that you can do anything. I want younger generations to know how important their history is—because they’re the next ones to step up.” Anu Yagi, MauiTime