By Brendan O’Colmain
It’s 11pm when I get out of my car and start to wander, trying to find this rehearsal studio in the Kahului industrial area. It’s not where I usually find myself on a Thursday night, but I’m out to jam and hang out with Goldawn Won and his band, The Universe, who are rehearsing for their Mar. 10 show at Wai Bar.
I’m rescued from my aimless wandering by a friendly face, who turns out to be Chris Dack, the drummer. He greets me, we talk story and he eventually leads me up to their rehearsal studio. Dack is a California native and Maui High graduate. He and the rest of The Universe are professional studio-recording musicians.
Along with Dack and Won, The Universe is comprised of lead guitarist Forrest Yashaharala, bassist Jonathan Cua and singer/lyricist Larue Mayo. This year, they were nominated for a Na Hoku Hanohano award, and though they applied in the reggae category, the judges put them in the R&B genre. This is a testament to their genre-defying style.
Their rehearsal space is a former dance studio transformed into the type of after-hours spot you’d stumble upon in New York City at 2am. DJ Lij, who runs the Free Runnin’s shop below, is spinning heavy dub reggae on his Numark decks when I arrive. They welcome me in as they would a friend. Soon after, Goldawn Won arrives, quiet and casual, and greets me like we haven’t seen each other in years. We just met. I realize that in this digital age, everyone is struggling to connect. Won is a reminder that music always helps people do that.
“We’re kind of hip hop hippies,” says Won. “If we were back in the fifties and sixties, we’d be a jam band doing jazz, reggae, hip hop and rock. On our album, every song is a different genre.” Won says he drew inspiration from bands like Roots. Two years ago, the band got serious about rehearsing and performing, though all of the band have been serious about music for a long time.
“Fifteen years ago, we were like, how do we bring hiphop to Maui?” Won says. “We figured out that we have to be the ones we’re looking for.” That’s when they started inviting artists like Hieroglyphics and Beat Junkies to Maui.
“We always get the crowd involved,” says Won. Their show at Casanova on Feb. 24 featured DJ Lij and a crew of amazing hip hop lyricists. Especially Atlas, who started his set off with an amazing spoken word poem right in the middle of the dance floor. I’ve seldom seen that at any show on Maui.
Won was born in Honolulu and raised on Maui. He’s lived in Virginia, Maryland, New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle. All his travels have influenced his sound, but his soul has always been in Hawaii. It is the undeniable source of his music.
Won is a serious hip hop lyricist with island roots in his style and voice. On Won’s YouTube channel, among his live performances and music videos–one of which is with Buju Banton–there are jam sessions with strangers, one of which takes place on a Greyhound bus to the music festival Reggae on the River. An island boy at heart, he’s got his ukulele in hand, beat boxing, rhyming, singing and inspiring others around him to do the same. “What’s the point of pursuing this if I am not bringing my people up with me?” he says.
The roots music Universe produces is grounded and connected. The message is powerful and globally impactful because of the strong community it has created worldwide, much as hip hop has done. The Universe channels both genres to create music that is both universal and yet very Hawaii.
Goldawn Won and The Universe are everything good about Maui’s music scene–honest, open, versatile and real, with serious hustle and talent. Goldawn is a guy who has been around, and gone through enough to know what is important in music and life. “I want my mom to see that the Casio keyboard she bought me when I was a kid actually paid off,” says Won.
The Universe will be at Wai Bar on Mar. 10. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.
Lantana Hoke contributed to this story.
Photo courtesy Goldawn Won