Driving Lessons on the Big Island

Can a song played at rush hour over the Islands of Hawaii cause car crashes? Can a song make you suddenly sob and shake and weep and completely lose control of your automobile while you are driving from Honoka’a to Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii? Can a song be banned from the radio on the mainland because it is too powerful, too moving, too compelling? Perhaps. I’m not sure. I’m still trying to find out the facts.

Let me begin at Sam’s Hideway in Kona. It’s a little karaoke place where working people go after their day’s over. My friend Charles Colman took me there on a Friday night. It’s in the Kona Marketplace just off 75 – 5725 Ali’I Drive, down the block from Uncle Billy’s Kona Inn. Charles said we had to go on Friday night, when Kimberly sings. I’ll give you the number, so you can check the next time you’re in Kona. It’s 808 326 7267.

Sam is Sam Kekaula. He’s Hawaiian. Robert Kekaula, his son, does sports on Honolulu TV. Kimberly is his daughter. On Fridays, you’ll see her pouring drinks at the bar while people line up for the free hot dogs. It was the third time I saw her sing, when things began to happen. Two of her cousins were there. Both Hawaiian. Kimberly sings in Spanish, English, Portuguese and Hawaiian. That night, pouring drinks, people coming and going, she sang one of her Hawaiian standards. She’s a very beautiful woman in the way that only Hawaiian women can be. Two kids have only made her more beautiful. As she got into her song, which was more of a prayer than music, tears came to my eyes. Like most Haole’s (whites), I am only partially aware of what Hawaii really is and what it really was. The longer you stay, the more you feel it. I was there for six months…

Kona, like Hilo, has many Hawaiian-speaking Hawaiians. Many at Sam’s Hideaway. The room grew quiet as Kimberly came to the end of her song. There was great applause. There was a wonderful mixture of races and cultures present. Kimberly’s cousins were sitting next to me. I may have sobbed just a bit. Kimberly went on pouring and singing. Sam’s Hideaway filled up the way it does on a Friday night. Full of Aloha.

“Wow,” I said to one of Kimberly’s cousins, “that’s an amazing song.”

They told me they were both Hawaiian. They loved the way Kimberly sang their songs. I was just learning. I was just getting my feet on the ground. I had leased a condo on Kuikini Highway with the help of C. J. Kimberly Realty in Kona. Best little realty office in Hawaii!

“So that song was about?”

They smiled. “Just a pretty song about the beauty of the Islands.”

“Hawaii Nei.” I’d gotten that expression the year before from Uncle Billy himself.

Uncle Billy Kimi is the ONLY Hawaiian owner of hotels in the Hawaiian Islands. “Actually in the world,” he told me. I’d met him a year before when I ‘d stayed at his Kona Inn a week He was in his eighties and rode around in a little cart, while his son-in-law worked on new plants and flowers. “All indigenous. Like me,” he said.

“I’m here Monday and Tuesday and sometimes Wednesday,” he told me. “The rest of the week I’m at my hotel on Banyan Drive in Hilo. You should visit us there.”

He was very approachable. He was very sharp. Everyone in Kona knew him. He told me, when I wrote out the expression Hawaii Nei on my registration form, that those words could not really be translated into English.

Uncle Billy and Kimberly Kekaula. Could I ever have had more good fortune? They are all around you on the Big Island, the Hawaiian people!

And it was Kimberly’s cousins who told me about the song “Kaulana Na Pua.” I’d pushed ahead with my questions the way I did with Bukowski and John Fante. Find the heart of what you are looking for. Be bold and great forces will come to your aid. (From “Almost Famous”).

“The music has kept the language alive,” I said in not quite a questioning tone.

“For us, some songs are just too painful to hear,” said the younger cousin.

That was where I paused. Took a deep breath. Maybe a million Hawaiian Natives had died of disease and war! Not my story, but…I had to ask.

“Give me the names of the two strongest songs you’ve ever heard in Hawaiian.” I don’t know why they even listened to me. They’d seen Haole tears before. “We have sooooo much respect for……” And then came the development of the entire north shore of the Big Island from Keoho to Kohola. The destruction of sacred grounds. But I do have the look of King Lear’s Fool. Bukowski told me that.

The cousins were young, beautiful people. They knew I wasn’t a developer.

“OK. The two most powerful songs for me, ” said the younger one, “are ‘Ho’ola’I,’ which the queen wrote when she was imprisoned in the palace, and ‘Kaulana Na Pua.’” She wrote each name on a napkin which I still have in my possession.

Later my friend Jolyne from Dollar Rent A Car, gave me a CD with “Kualana Na Pua” on it. She’s another beautiful Hawaiian. Kind and beautiful and funny.

I listened to both songs. I was moved by what they said, but it was impossible for me to understand what the words and music of those songs mean to the Hawaiian People.

That was in 2009.

In November of that year, I spent Thanksgiving at Uncle Billy’s Hotel on Banyon Drive in Hilo. A lovely place right on Hilo Bay with koi ponds and Uncle Billy’s family working there. I met his grandchildren swimming in the pool. The Kekei speaking their language. Thanksgiving in Hilo. Most of the guests were Japanese. The dinner was delightful. Turkey and everything, filled with Hawaiian touches. Mango and orchids.

There was a fine Hawaiian group who sang songs through the entire evening. I asked the singer if he could play “Ho’ola’i.” He said it was in the song book, but it was rarely requested. He sang it with great feeling and spoke about the pain it caused. It was an odd thing. All these Japanese people from Japan who did not speak English and me and my wife Paula, who’s Canadian.

The next day we spent most of the morning in Queen Liliuokalani’s Japanese garden, which is just steps from Uncle Billy’s Hotel. The Queen had built the garden for Japanese royalty, in a vain hope that a marriage between Japan and Hawaii could save her country from US annexation. It’s a very beautiful place. The rains come every day there like tears. Japanese couples often come there on their honeymoons.

The experience filled me with great sadness, but I still had almost no understanding of what I was experiencing. I did not understand the meaning of Hawaii Nei.

After six months in Kona, I came back with a box filled with CD’s and a box filled with books about the Hawaiian people. I had a Hawaiian flag and a complete language kit I bought at the university in Hilo. I had the books my friends David and Christine Reed had published out of love for the Hawaiian People in their spectacular shop Basically Books right out there on the waterfront. I loved the books they had done on Kona Legends and Kahuna’s most. Petroglyph Press. A perfect name. More later on this fabulous book store and two people who truly love and celebrate the Hawaiian people.

Writers must write.

I wanted to write a little about the Hawaiian People who live on the Big Island. The full-blooded Hawaiian who showed me his papers to prove that he was one hundred per cent Hawaiian. “I was in prison for five years,” he told me. “Now I’m in college.” I had met many Hawaiians who were so helpful, so proud of their great King Kamehameha The Great and their lovely Queen, Liluiokalani, full of grace.

I wanted to do something.

I was clueless. When I returned to the mainland, I felt empty. I played “Sea Bird” on my Hi Fi I was not finished with Hawaii. I wanted to go back.

When, in 2010, my wife, Paula, started sanding down and painting our house, I decided to return to Kona for a month to get away from the disorder.

When I returned, much had changed. It had only been six months. The recession had thrown more and more people out of work. Two more condos in the building I’d lived in in Kona had gone into foreclosure . Fewer passenger ships were sailing around the Big Island . Coffee prices were down and many shops that were open in 2009 were now closed forever. Mike’s Hideaway was still going strong!

As usual, I retreated to the one place I knew I could find peace, the county library in Kona. All my friends were still there behind the counter and at the reference desk. Their hours had been shortened, but they were busy doing their work with an ever increasing group of patrons. Many out of work people end up in the library.

I was beginning to wonder why I came back.

I felt depressed.

I drove to the other side of the island, to my favorite town on the Hamakua Coast, Honoka’a. I stopped at the library on Mamane Street, just on the edge of town where the road runs down and around on its way to Hilo town. This was the first library I’d ever issued me my first library card and trusted me with a local masterwork, Waipi’o Moi, a two- volume jeroboam of a work and a sociological study of the people who had lived in that mythical valley up the road from the early 1900’s on.

On this June day in 2010, still feeling depressed, I asked the same librarian, “Are there any writers living in Honoka’a?” I guess I was looking for a little camaraderie. In the depths of what looks to me like a full Depression I was beginning to think The Sugar Coast of Hawaii was the perfect place to live in the Hawaiian Islands.

“There’s one.” Said the librarian, now in the flower of motherhood.

She handed me Hawaii: Perpectives on Hamakua History, by P. Quentin Tomich. I’d expected a novel or a book on myths. What she gave me was filled with maps, geology and flora and fauna. It was a magnificent work. A full text on the area and published in the last year.

I asked if the author lived nearby. She wrote out his address and phone number.

She said she thought that book was important, because they had started with two copies a few months back and one copy was already missing. The word stolen is used very carefully in Hawaii. I knew why.

On the way back to Kona , I was listening to a Hawaii radio station, I’m not sure which. I always listen to Hawaiian music when I’m in Hawaii. I like to keep up with Hawaiian songs. They are gentle and relaxing and they help me to realize that what is left of the Hawaiian language was probably saved by songs.

It was a quiet day, slightly overcast. I drove to Waimea and got gas. The radio was turned off. As I drove out onto the highway, I put it back on.

The first words I heard from the music were :

“Could you just imagine they came back
And saw traffic lights and railroad tracks
How would they feel about this modern city life?

Tears would come from each others eyes
As they would stop to realize
That OUR land was in great, great danger now.

It was hypnotic. Soft, prayer-like, with a voice I should have recognized. I drove


The highway was beginning to disappear.

All the fighting that the king has done
To conquer all these islands, now there’s condominiums
How would he feel if he saw Hawaii Nei?

I started to lose it.

“How would he feel?
Would his smile be content then cry?”

Then came the chorus.

“Cry for the gods, cry for the people,
Cry for the land that was taken away
And then, yet you’ll find Hawaii.”

I drove onto the shoulder of the highway, across from the fence where wild goats scope out the landscape. I stopped the car and began to sob. I listened to the rest of the song.

“Could you just imagine if they were around
And saw highways on their sacred ground….”

My jaw dropped. Why had I never heard this song before? Never once? What was the title? Who sang it?

I drove straight to the Kona library and asked my Hawaiian friend at the desk if she could help. She always wears funny things on her head for the children. Kekei. “If just for a day our king and queen…” That was the song. I told her how I’d driven off the road when I heard it.

She knew it immediately and began to sing the opening section in Hawaiian. But the title? The singer? You have no idea how important the library is for Hawaiians! Special Collections. Special treasures that are their history!

“It was so powerful, it made me weep. I couldn’t see to drive!”

“That song.” In two minutes the other two women behind the desk joined in the conversation.. One called the local radio station in Kona. KAPA. Big Island Radio.

“You won’t believe it,” said the librarian on the phone. “It’s Iz.”

That amazed me. I had all his albums. Iz Kamakawiwo’ole. The local radio DJ said it could be found on two albums: Honolulu Magazines Greatest Fifty Songs. It was number two on the list and Facing Future, Iz’s album that begins on track one with his comments about his father’s death.

“The song is titled ‘Hawaii ’78,’ she said.“The last track, titled ‘Hawaii ’78’ is purely the song. Complete and uninterrupted.”

The library had both CDs and the Hawaiian librarian at the desk let me check them both out. I have a five year card!

When I asked her why the title “Hawaii ’78,” she said it was a very bad year for Hawaiians. I took the two CD’s back to my condo and played them on my machine. This time I was weeping without stopping. I don’t cry very often.

I called a friend who is in Honolulu commercial radio. I asked him about the song. “Hawaiii ’78.”

”That song? I think it’s banned during rush hour. It’s so powerful, it causes accidents.”

“I never heard it on the mainland,” I said.

He laughed. “You think they’re gonna play a song on American radio that says ‘Cry for the gods, cry for the people, cry for the land that was taken away?’ Come on.”

“Are you saying there’s a gentleman’s agreement not to play that song? ‘Hawaii ’78?’”

“I’m saying it’s very bad for tourism, gentlemen or not.”

That made me laugh. That made me feel better. “Cry for the land that was taken away.” It hit me with a blast of bright light. It’s what I had been waiting for.

I drove off to Hilo the next day, playing the song over and over.

It still made me shudder. When I got to “Hawaii Nei,” I lost it. EVERY TIME. I knew that was a sacred term for Hawaiians.

I began to think what the words said. The King had to be Kamehameha, but who was the queen? Every Hawaiian I ever met usually spoke the word QUEEN only with respect to Queen Liliuokalani. I had read The Betrayal of Lkluiokalani by Helena Allen and left my copy on a United flight back to LA in 2009.

I wanted to know more about the song. How come I’d never heard Iz sing it on Mainland radio? I did my interview with P. Quentin Tomich. An amazing story. For another piece. All his kids grew up on the Big Island and were still there. He worked for the Department of Health in Hawaii, first studying bats then rats.

There’s much, much more. My next piece after Basically Books.

But the song. Here it is on YouTube.

There are many versions. I prefer this one.

Iz didn’t write it. Iz sang it out for his father who had died of depression. Died of sorrow for the land he had lost. He sang it for Kimberly and Jolynne and all the other Hawaiians who know what justice is and what is right and what is Aloha.

Here are the words. They helped me to get there. This sacred place, Hawaii Nei. To understand. Here are the words. Play the song, but don’t play it while you’ re driving. Then ask your mainland station to play it. See if they will, or if they are really gentlemen in a gentlemen’s agreement. Either way, you can use those two words. Say them with the Hawaiian people. Hawaii Nei.

Here are the lyrics to “Hawaii ‘78” and here’s the explanation from the composer Mickey Ioane, who was truly inspired when he wrote them:

Ua mau, ea o ka aina, I ka pono, o Hawai’i
Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, I ka pono, o Hawai’i

If just for a day our king and queen
Would visit all these islands and saw everything
How would they feel about the changes of our land

Tears would come from each others eyes
As they would stop to realize
That our people are in great, great danger now
How would they feel could their smiles be content, then cry


Cry for the gods, cry for the people
Cry for the land that was taken away
And the yet you’ll find Hawaii.

Could you just imagine they came back
And saw traffic lights and railroad tracks
How would they feel about this modern city life

All the fighting that the king has done
To conquer all these islands now there’s condominiums
How would he feel if he saw Hawai’i Nei
How would he feel, would his smile be content, then cry


Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, I ka poni, o Hawai’
Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, I ka pono, o Hawai’i

BEN PLEASANTS is a poet, playwrite, essayist and novelist who lives with his wife Paula in California.

This essay was originally published by This Can’t Be Happening.