LIHUE, Kauai — To hear Matt Morelock tell it, the upcoming Kauai Folk Festival at the Grove Farm Museum here on Sept. 28 and 29 might seem a throwback to the reign of King Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch who ruled Hawaii from 1874 to 1891.
Morelock is the organizer of the festival, which will bring together 34 different acts from Hawaii and the mainland, with a focus on Hawaiian, country, bluegrass, blues and other indigenous forms.
It will be Kauai’s first large folk music festival, with five stages and artists as varied as the blues icon Taj Majal, who Moreland said lived on Kauai for nearly 20 years, and bluegrass legend Peter Rowan, whose favorite instrument, like Kalakaua, is the ukulele.
There will be a square dance-hula mashup and a communal sing of gospel and related music. Country artists Jonny Fritz, Tim O’Brien, Blaine Sprouse and Reeb Willms & Caleb Klauder will also perform.
Taj Majal will appear with the Hula Blues Band and Rowan with the My Aloha Bluegrass Band.
One stage will feature a Latin-Hawaiian dance genre called kachi kachi, and performances by Wally Rita y Los Kauaianos, reggae star Sashamon and old fashioned Hawaiian country songs by Uncle Isaac Kamaile Jr.
“I have a sickness where I love to throw big expensive parties for other people,” Morelock joked a few days ago. “My degree is in ethnomusicology, and I’m coming from a traditional music background, studying music from where I’m from in the southern Appalachians, as well as African music.”
He has produced numerous festivals across the country.
Morelock lives on Kauai, but the breadth of his background crosses the lines of country, gospel, reggae and local forms and styles.
“I have noticed here anecdotally that Hawaiian music, and really Hawaiian culture, is so similar to the rural cultures that I come from and studied. They aren’t really discussed that much,” Morelock said.
“Hawaiian music and culture exist in a bit of a bubble. Geographic isolation has a lot to do with it. Historical, political and cultural upheaval has a lot to do with it. There has been some serious, intentional obfuscation of history here and that is going to be accompanied by obfuscation of culture and everything.”
It’s clear Morelock wants to replicate what he sees as King Kalakaua’s contribution to Hawaiian music and that he sees the Kauai Folk Festival as an event the king would probably have enjoyed.
While Kalakaua’s reputation as a monarch is decidedly mixed — he held office at the time of the so-called Bayonet Constitution, for example — it’s clear his cultural contribution to the kingdom was substantial.
“He was a controversial monarch, to say the least,” Moreland said. “He loved to party and he was a worldly man, and a world traveler. He invited dignitaries, artists, dancers and harlots from all over the world to the Iolani Palace in Honolulu and participated in those types of musical activities all over the world.
“While he was king, the Hawaiian Kingdom sponsored this insane program of music, dance and language to take post-missionary Hawaiian children, musicians and dancers out into the world and show what Hawaii really is. He hired teachers from all over the world to come and live in Honolulu and teach Hawaiians composition. He commissioned instrument companies to build unprecedented instruments for these Hawaiian bands.
“So what we’re doing with this event is trying to reconnect these diverse, really unusual, marginally hidden musical communities from the continent with as diverse a group of musicians as we can find from Hawaii and put it into one event over the course of two days.”
The Bluegrass Spirit In Hawaii
“The idea for this festival has been developing over 25 years of me working in the music industry,” Morelock said. “The opportunity to actually do it came up after I had finally lived here long enough to meet the right people and to find the right venue.”
The venue is the site of the headquarters of one of the original Kauai sugar plantations, which has been preserved as a historic site complete with headquarters buildings, living quarters and even a preserved railroad originally built to transport sugar cane.
For Rowan, whose performing career spans more than 50 years, Hawaii was originally a place that he came to kick back and relax. But he also recorded an album called “My Aloha!” that was, he said, “based on a long ago connection with my Uncle Jimmy, who came back from World War II with a ukulele and grass skirts. He was a free spirit.”
As the years passed, Rowan performed in Hawaii on tour on several occasions but it wasn’t until he made a decision to hang out in the islands for a while that he started to think about performing here in a festival setting.
“I’d been coming to Hawaii without a lot of paid work,” Rowan said. “But, somehow, Hawaii afforded me the ability to be able to hear music a little differently, relaxing in the open space.
“Somewhere along the line, all of this acousticity got swallowed up in the slack key work of the masters of Hawaii. Hearing these folks play their guitars put me in a different frame of mind. Being in Hawaii, I met a lot of people drawing the connections between Hawaiian music and mainland music.
“But the big thing I discovered was the Hawaiian players are so aware of the roots of their music. The Hawaiian spirit is so strong and, to hear Hawaiian musicians talking knowledgably and playing stuff that comes from Mexico and gospel music, in a way it was just like discovering bluegrass.
“It’s reinvigorated my whole feeling for bluegrass, especially how the Hawaiian musicians look at bluegrass. They really appreciate the details. The tradition of music in Hawaii has kind of reaffirmed my love of the roots of what I do, so must a few days hanging out with the musicians of Hawaii sets my head straight.”
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