Cover Story

“Hawaiian music doesn’t need trophies--it needs musicians to carry on the tradition.” --G.K.
Image: Velenchenko

Garrison Keillor and local musicians mix it up in a double Honolulu New Year’s Eve bash


Cover image for Dec 28, 2011

“It’s a lucky man who arrives at his three-score and ten in good health, with good friends, and still loving his work, still mystified and enchanted by life,” says Garrison Keillor, host of the venerable, beloved Minnesota Public Radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.

A sort of Midwestern variety show, it originated in Saint Paul in 1974, at a time when tickets cost a dollar and first audiences boasted a whopping 12 people. Since then, Keillor and his guests have performed around the globe, incorporating local artists and traditional sounds. This New Year’s Eve, they’re putting on two shows with Hawaii musicians at the Neal Blaisdell Center.

This won’t be the first time A Prairie Home Companion will have left the Land of 10,000 Lakes for a short stop in the Pacific. Five years ago, Keillor and his cast entranced local audiences with the show’s signature intellectual wit, on-the-spot comedy, spontaneous sound effects and improvised music.

The story most of the musicians remember from that particular performance goes like this: Before the show, then-15-year-old slack-key guitarist Danny Carvalho’s mother begged him to wear shoes on the stage. The boy submitted. Keillor, having overheard, walked out onto the stage and took his own shoes off.

“I remember they were red,” says Carvalho, laughing. “I also remember the buzz backstage was incredible. Everyone’s running around. The schedule was printed out five minutes before showtime. I like that kind of show. In fact, it might have been my favorite so far.”

Commenting on the incident, “In radio, you can do as you please,” says Keillor. “You can go barefoot, wear a tuxedo and tennis shoes, put a flowerpot on your head, and nobody has to know.”

This time around, he plans duets with the acclaimed New York jazz singer Heather Masse, and he’ll bring us The Adventures of Guy Noir, Radio Private Eye and, as usual, share the news from Lake Wobegon, a fictional town in Minnesota where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” Plus live sounds from Ledward Kaapana, Danny Carvalho, Jake Shimabukuro and Jeff Peterson.

“It’s a joy to return to Hawaii and to do not one, but two shows in one day, and send some gorgeous Island music back to the mainland,” says Keillor. “Especially on New Year’s Eve when people are looking for a little updraft.”

About his last performance here, he adds, “I remember the party after the show, which was along a beach, under palm trees, and three Hawaiian women, two sisters and their mother, sang in Hawaiian to a small guitar, in three-part harmony, the gentlest music, and I walked down to the beach and dove in and swam out and floated and listened to the singing.”

Those listening to A Prairie Home Companion from Honolulu on New Year’s Eve will be the show’s national and international fans; according to the show’s marketing director, David O’Neill, they reach approximately 4 million listeners on about 600-plus public radio stations each week. “We’re also heard on the Armed Forces Network,” he says. “And there is a one-hour version that is aired via BBC, Australia and New Zealand.” For our local musicians, this is a pretty sweet deal.

Local performers

Born on Maui, Jeff Peterson grew up on the slopes of Haleakala where his paniolo father introduced him to Hawaiian music on the Haleakala Ranch. Today he’s considered one of the slack-key masters of Hawaii, and his new album, with Nathan Aweau, called Mamo, is set to release in a few months.

“Garrison Keillor defined and has carried on traditions that have touched generations across the US and abroad,” says Peterson. “I admire his dedication to literature, music, the cultural diversity that illuminates the American spirit and his great sense of humor.”

Peterson landed five songs in The Descendants film, with the song “Hawaiian Skies” making it onto the soundtrack. Still, Peterson says that once a week, it’s Keillor who inspires him.

“I listen to the show most Saturdays when I’m driving down from Manoa to Waikiki to perform at Michel’s,” he says. “It always fills me with new ideas and inspiration. I absolutely love the The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band–that’s the house band on the show. The diversity of music, musicianship, new songs and interplay in the band always gets me charged up to perform.”

For Kaapana, who’s worked with country music giants Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and legendary guitarist Chet Atkins, performing with Keillor is nothing too new.

“I flew out to Minneapolis a few years ago and played on the show. It was great, saw some old friends, played with a few new ones,” says Kaapana.

In the tiny black sand bay village of Kalapana, Big Island, Kaapana says music was everywhere. “People played in shifts,” he says. “You’d fall asleep, wake up, music was still playing.” Kaapana says he’s been performing for audiences of all sizes for over 40 years, including a loyal corps of “Led Heads.”

For ‘ukulele master Shimabukuro, playing with Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion is a brand-new experience. “I can’t wait,” he says. His newest project, Peace Love ‘Ukulele, released last January, revolutionizes ideas about the instrument.

“The solo ‘ukulele version of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ have been working well on the set,” says Shimabukuro, who also says he can’t think of a better way to ring in the new year than being home in Hawaii. As for a New Year’s resolution?

“I’m hoping to shape up and possibly participate in the 41st Honolulu Marathon,” says Shimabukuro. “I ran it five years ago for the first time and found it to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

As if a new record, touring the globe and running a marathon aren’t enough, Shimabukuro also has a PBS documentary film coming out in March that will be featured in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. LA-based director Tad Nakamura is editing the final project after the PBS crew followed Shimabukuro around for two years.

Grammy or not?

Besides the obvious, there’s one other thing these artists have in common–they’ve all either won a Grammy, been nominated for a Grammy or played on an album nominated for a Grammy. Nominees for the 2011 Grammy Awards, which took place last February at Staples Center in LA, included winner Tia Carrere, Amy Hanaialii and Slack Key Masters of Hawaii, Daniel Ho, Ledward Kaapana and Jeff Peterson. These artists are the last to receive a nomination since the Recording Academy decided to drop the Hawaiian music category, as well as over 30 others.

Keillor, who received a Grammy Award in 1988 for his recording of Lake Wobegon Days and a nomination for Best Spoken Comedy in 1995, says, “The Grammy is, like most awards in the arts, an enormous hoax. It’s all about corporate politics and back-scratching and log-rolling and not much about music at all. Awards mean a great deal to the audience, and if someone introduces me and mentions that I won a Grammy, people perk right up. But it’s a scam. Hawaiian music doesn’t need trophies–it needs musicians to carry on the tradition.”

In 2005, at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards, Peterson and other Island artists achieved a milestone in Hawaiian music, when Slack Key Guitar Volume 2 won the first-ever Grammy award for standout Hawaiian recording.

“The Grammys get a lot of attention around the world,” Peterson says, “but Hawaiian music has a wonderful history that’s distinct on its own, and is so valuable to our culture. Some of my favorite Hawaiian music is the kind that is played in the backyard for the pure joy of sharing aloha. Experiencing this is the true reward.”

“It didn’t surprise me,” says Kaapana, who shrugs off the subject. “So many things were happening, all this commotion, everybody complaining. It’s sad.”

Shimabukuro, however, feels a bit more sentimental toward the accolade given by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

“It was truly a bummer when the Hawaiian category was dropped,” Shimabukuro says. “There are so many musicians in Hawaii who I would’ve loved to have seen win that Grammy.”

When the trustees of the Recording Academy announced last spring that they were pooling music genres such as Native American, Zydeco/Cajun, and Hawaiian into a larger field called Best Regional Roots Music Album, many artists and musicians felt insulted.

In 2011, the Gathering of Nations won the last Grammy ever presented for Best Native American Music Album, they also won the first award in the category 10 years earlier.

Melissa Sanchez, who helped organize a presentation at the Gathering of Nations this year in Albuquerque, NM, expressed the feelings of many artists and organizations regarding the loss in an interview with Marisa Demarco of []. Sanchez said, “The biggest problem with the Regional Roots generalization is that it tries to blur all those genres together. And the word ‘roots’ almost makes it sound like reggae. I don’t know where they came up with that. Plus, when nominations are announced, there’s a lot of exposure for musicians. Removing the category could mean fewer native artists get that spotlight.”

When asked if he felt a sense that these music styles are dying languages, Keillor replied candidly, “Nope.”

An edited life

A decade ago, Keillor was writing for everyone–advice columns, books, essays–and winning awards, all the while continuing to host A Prairie Home Companion. In his last column for [], written in 2001, while sitting in the hospital, he wrote: “Illness offers the chance to think long thoughts about the future (praying that we yet have one, dear God), and so I have, and so this is the last column of Mr. Blue, under my authorship, for Salon.”

Over the years, Keillor says, Mr. Blue’s strongest advice has come down on the side of freedom from crushing obligations and overwork and family expectations, the freedom to walk our own walk and be who we are.

He adds, “And some of the best letters have been addressed to younger readers trapped in jobs like steel suits, advising them to bust loose and go off and have an adventure.”

He says that some of the advisees have written back to inform Mr. Blue that the advice was taken and that the adventure changed their lives.

“This was gratifying,” says Keillor. “So now I am simply taking my own advice. Cut back on obligations, promote a certain elegant looseness in life. Simple as that. Winter and spring, I almost capsized from work, and in the summer, I had a week in St. Mary’s Hospital to sit and think, and that’s the result. Every dog has his day, and I’ve had mine and given whatever advice was mine to give, and a little more.”

That was 10 years ago, and I wondered if Keillor took his own advice and eased up a bit.

“It’s the great lesson of a person’s sixties, throwing stuff overboard. [I] shucked the Mr. Blue column. Gave up golf. Learned how to say no to invitations. Walked away from a marriage because I didn’t have time to learn how to be Danish. Dropped a couple novels-in-progress because I couldn’t see the way clear to the end.”

Seeing clearly doesn’t seem to be that big of a problem for Keillor these days. Rumor has it, he always knows what he wants, edits his shows up until the last minute and, according to O’Neill, Keillor edits scripts while the actors are still holding the pages.

“The best work is done the night before and the morning of the show,” Keillor says. “You write and write but it’s the rewriting that makes the difference, that makes the show striking and original.

“I can look at a long manuscript and whack off whole pages of it without much hesitation. It’s not hard. You look in the closet and you know instantly which clothes you’re never going to wear again. So you put them in the Goodwill bin. It feels good to discard. Otherwise you wind up living in a house with narrow passages between the piles of junk and 15 house cats wandering around and no friends.”

For Carvalho, the now 21-year-old slack-key artist who attends the University of Hawaii at Manoa majoring in Hawaiian Studies and who recently joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Keillor is a “really, really” interesting guy.

“How do I say this?” Carvalho says. “He’s one of those people who you can tell is constantly thinking about something. You’ll be talking to him, having a completely coherent conversation, yet he’ll be looking all over the place thinking about five other things at the same time. He kind of operates like I think a genius would do. Oh–and he’s really tall.”

The 69-year old, six-foot-three storyteller doesn’t hesitate to update me on the gossip of Lake Wobegon–are there any political concerns or immigration problems? Any new romances brewing?

“The new Lutheran minister, Pastor Liz, is making waves, preaching the hard gospel, and that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people,” Keillor says. “The bell tower of the Catholic church is dropping big chunks of brick and plaster, and they don’t have the money to repair it. The Whippets are losing and so are the Leonards. Mr. Berge drinks too much. Art’s Motel is a horror show. The Krebsbach’s marriage is going through a rough patch and so is the Clint and Irene Bunsen marriage. Darlene, the waitress at the Chatterbox, is desperate to find a husband. I could tell you more…”

And so he will.

Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave., Sat., 12/31 at 12:45pm (2 hr show) and 4:45pm (3 hr show), $35–$65, [], 527-5400