Amy Hanaiali‘i: ‘It’s all good’
LAHAINA – Most of us have a favorite expression we use and overuse all the time. For singer-composer Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom the expression of the month apparently is “it’s all good.”
The three-time Grammy nominee used the expression at least five times at Hui o Wa’a Kaulua’s first annual Wa’alaulea festival at Kamehameha Iki Beach Park on Front Street, where she sang at sunset to commemorate the near completion of the long underway Mo’okiha o Pi’ilani voyaging canoe.
Amy is so good, it is only a matter of time before a Grammy is hers. She even says “it’s all good” when mentioning her Grammy losses, because she may think it is only a matter of time.
In more ways than one, Amy isn’t like most singers of Hawaiian mele (songs). Talking story at the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce sometime back, Amy spun a tale offering insights into Hawaiian music, past and present.
The native of Molokai is the product of an unlikely meeting in New York City – of all places! – between a talented hula dancer and a steel guitar player.
As Amy tells it, “everybody in New York was so fascinated (back in the 1940s) by Hawaiian girls telling some kind of stories with their hands. They didn’t know what it was. Back in that day, it was so cool to be Hawaiian.
“Dancing in New York, my grandmother got a very rare blood disease. My grandfather – and that is on the Caucasian side of my family – wanted to meet my grandmother. He played steel guitar and first trumpet for swinging Sammy Kaye and all the big bands that were coming out at that time,” she continued.
“Walter Winchell, the famous columnist, wrote a story about my grandmother needing a blood transfusion. So my grandfather said, ‘Ah! That is how I will hook up with her.’ He went down to the hospital, donated his blood and two weeks later they were married.
“I don’t know what it was about my tutu, but she had a thing for steel guitar players… she married five steel guitar players.”
Amy didn’t grow up wanting to sing Hawaiian music.
“When I was in school in San Diego, I was studying to be an opera singer and maybe go into musical theater. I went to L.A. I auditioned for ‘Les Miserables.’ My number was 7392. I finally got in after two days of camping out. I didn’t even open my mouth, and they said, ‘next.’ So that was it,” she said.
“My grandmother, Jennie, was one of the original Royal Hawaiian hula dancers. She had me meet (Lahaina’s legendary) Aunty Irmgard Farden, and I found myself learning to sing female falsetto. I had really deep moments with her singing in the old style the kind that makes people cry; the kind that makes kupuna cry. I decided that it’s what I wanted to do… so I started writing my own songs and started writing my albums.
“Then I met up with a wonderful person, Willie K, who helped me find my sound. We sat for hours and hours and hours and wrote music. Willie is very Hawaiian but is very much a showman. That is what sets him apart from everybody else that is what he taught me. Make them laugh, make them cry,” Amy recalled.
“When I came home, I knew I wanted to do pop music. Grandmother asked if I could possibly start singing Hawaiian, and I said, ‘Well, I will be totally open to it.’ I decided to form this umbrella of businesses around me. I’ve got a really good merchandising manager who takes care of my albums. I have 11 of them.
“I have Hanaiali’i Records, which is my publishing company. As a Hawaiian musician, I try to teach my fellow entertainers that it can’t be just about the music. We have to find other ways to merchandise our talent, whether it is through merchandise media, social media… We have to use the social media. We did a concert. We raised $1.6 million for Japan. (Henry Kapono), my cousin, John Cruz, and I were all back stage Twittering.”
Life’s all good for Amy Gilliom – singer, composer, businesswomen and mom. A next generation of Gillioms is coming, too. As Amy sang at Kamehameha Iki, daughter Madeline, 6, showed her prowess with hula as well as affection for her mom when she bounded on stage to give her a hug. Life is good.
Columnists Note: This column is adapted from my new book, “Maui for Millions: Tales of a Remarkable People,” coming out as an e-book soon.