American Roots Music Takes Hold in Honolulu

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Hawaii has been a melting pot of cultures since the early days of whaling and the plantation ere of the 19th century. Hawaiian pidgin English and the broad spectrum of ethnic cuisines found here are fine examples of this. So is Hawaii music, and not just Hawaiian music.

Hawaiian music itself has a handful of subgenres: traditional, contemporary, falsetto, slack key, Jawaiian, and so on. But Hawaii music comprises a variety of genres that can be considered as such by simple virtue of the fact that it’s made in Hawaii by people that live here. Jazz, metal, punk, blues, and reggae all enjoy tight knit communities with regular shows at supportive venues.

In the past couple of years the American folk/roots rock movement has taken hold in Honolulu, and it’s growing quickly. There are quite a few venues that have embraced the music and the musicians that are making it. Downbeat Lounge and Mark’s Garage in Chinatown have welcomed the American roots rock community (Downbeat features a monthly “Old Time Revival” event featuring only roots music), as have Anna O’Brien’s near the University of Hawaii, and Crossroads at Hawaiian Brian’s and OnStage Hawaii on the outskirts of Waikiki.

It’s no longer unusual to hear acoustic, folk instruments like the mandolin, fiddle, or banjo wafting out of the clubs that have taken the ever-growing number of Honolulu roots rock bands under their wing. Indeed, on most nights in Honolulu, it’s not difficult to find a group of bearded men with stylish hats and suspenders playing their original folk songs and American classics.

There is a growing number of bands performing original music. The themes are common to American roots music: love, struggle, the working man, and, of course, whiskey. This mini-proliferation of new bands is partly the result of the popularity of roots music among Honolulu musicians, and partly because the pool of musicians who play folk instruments is relatively small. This means that groups in Honolulu’s roots music scene share bands and venues, and that most American roots shows in Honolulu are showcase events featuring multiple bands.

The growth of the American roots music community can also be attributed to an increase of singer/songwriter showcases in Honolulu. Some venues have moved away from “open mic night” formats, where musicians turn up and sign in for their slot and anything can happen, to these singer/songwriter showcases that feature individuals or small groups that were booked specifically in advance and perform original music.

This has the effect of attracting other musicians keen to see where the genre is going in Honolulu, which in turn fosters new relationships and connections among likeminded players interested in exploring the roots music tradition.

There are about a dozen noteworthy American roots outfits working in Honolulu right now, each worthy of a night out. Often, a handful will be share billing and members. The Infamous Bourbon Boys is a large outfit worth seeing perform, as are veteran Mark Prados & His Enablers, Dischord & Rye, Good Foot, and the Prospectors among others.

That is what makes the American roots community in Honolulu so interesting: it’s self-sustaining. Bands attend their colleagues’ performances, collaborate, and produce shows together. When there is a roots showcase event happening in Honolulu, the most if not all of that community will turn up support it.


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