By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Music is often relegated to the margins of our lives, accompanying our drives to and from work, backgrounds to soon-forgotten conversations over coffee or something stronger.
There are, however, musicians who challenge our deeply-held beliefs, who express a fundamental truth which forbids us to marginalize them or their work. Makana is such an artist.
Known for both traditional slack-key guitar music and a hybrid he calls “slack rock,” Makana exploded onto the national stage in November 2011 when, invited by President and Mrs. Obama, he sang an original folk song titled “We Are the Many” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Honolulu.
A protest song in the spirit of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, “We Are the Many” became the anthem of the “Occupy” movement, and various videos of the song on YouTube received more than a half-million hits.
“I’ve always been involved in cultural activism and land issues, but now more people know me for that than for my Hawaiian music background,” Makana told the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday. “It’s wonderful, because I’ve never wanted my music to be just entertainment. I want it to be something that affects people’s lives in a positive way, something that shapes their perspective and helps strengthen their resolve. And that song inspires many, many people, much more than we see on YouTube. I’ve gotten thousands and thousands of letters from all around the world. … That song definitely ignited a fire in a lot of people’s lives, and in my own, too.”
Makana will perform the song, and other selections from his upcoming album “Manic,” Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Palace Theater in downtown Hilo. Tickets are $20 advance, $25 door, available at the Palace box office. Call 934-7010 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. today for a credit card order.
The album has multiple producers and arrangers, including Ron Nevison, who’s worked with Led Zeppelin and The Who, Jeff Bova, who’s played with Herbie Hancock and has produced and arranged Celine Dion, and Mitchell Froom, who’s worked with Richard Thompson.
“Ron and the guys are great mixers, and that’s one of the things people are going to notice, that it’s bigger,” Makana said. “He did (The Who’s) ‘Quadrophenia’, which is considered one of the greatest sonic achievements ever. It’s amazing to take songs that sound good and then hear them just exploding out of the speakers. On ‘We Are the Many’, my friend and I did this Pink Floyd-like cinematic, theatrical introduction that leads into the song, and Jeff Bova did these orchestral string arrangements. Then at the end, we had a bunch of people sing on it, so it’s kind of exponentiated as an anthem.”
On the title track, “Manic,” Makana plays piano, something he says he’ll be doing more of in the future.
“The album is very diverse,” he said. “It definitely has my roots stuff on it, and it also takes me into a whole new realm, opening up. The title track has an Elton John, Beatles vibe to it, maybe even a little Queen. It’s very big, huge harmonies and big harmonies. There’s also some solo acoustic stuff on the record. It’s mostly original, but there are two covers, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’ and ‘Hi‘ilawe.’ I did ‘Hi‘ilawe’ in analog, you know, the old reel-to-reel tape, and I did it as a homage to ‘Pure Gabby.’ It was done with old tube compressors and tape and it sounds like it was recorded in the ’50s. It’s the finest recording of my voice singing Hawaiian music that I’ve been able to achieve.”
Makana is in the process of building an analog studio in his Oahu home.
“I’m convinced that Hawaiian music, especially, must be recorded analog,” he said. “I don’t care about other people’s taste; I know Hawaiian music as well as anyone. I’ve spent my entire life loving Hawaiian music and perpetuating it. There’s something about the warmth in an analog recording. As soon as I heard my voice recorded on the tape, I started crying, and saying to myself, ‘This is it.’ The Hawaiian musicians of today are great musicians. But there has to be a revolution back to this medium to honor the magic of our art form.
“There’s a mentality that we need to have all these fancy computers and programs and it’s a lie, just like it’s a lie that we need to buy food instead of growing it ourselves. It’s all about paying a lot of money to the middleman.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.