BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
She still lives in the home in Papakolea where she and many of her cousins grew up, and where her famous tutu (grandmother), Genoa Keawe, lived for many decades. She goes by the Hawaiian name her tutu bestowed on her: Pomaika’i (“blessed”). And of all the many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that have blossomed on Auntie Genoa’s family tree, which has included numerous musicians, she is the one who is most faithfully and consciously carrying on her tutu’s legacy. That’s because Pomaika’i was “blessed” with a voice like her grandmother’s, and she shares Auntie Genoa’s deep love of Hawaiian music, language, and hula. Though she has yet to record an album of her own, she has been something of a fixture on the Island music scene for many years, and has also expanded her horizons beyond music, as an educational administrator, teacher, youth mentor, and event producer.
“Almost my entire ‘ohana [family] has some connection or affiliation to music,” Pomaika’i tells me in a phone interview from the Papakolea house. “There’s a handful of us that actually pursued a professional music career; then there are those family members who love to do the backyard jam at family parties—they’re perfectly content with that kind of music engagement. Then there are those who don’t sing or play, but appreciate and dance hula. Everyone in the family is drawn to music in some way.
“It was not a big house at all,” she says of growing up there. With so many aunts, uncles, and cousins, plus her own four siblings, the place was packed to overflowing much of the time. “There were three bedrooms in the actual house and one real bathroom, and a second makeshift one. You could have an entire family sleeping in one bedroom—that was my family when I was growing up, and a lot of my cousins had their turn living there, too.
“The room that I live in now was my tutu’s bedroom, and my bedroom was right across the hall, so I heard all of her practicing, her phone calls with people when they wanted to learn a song or when she wanted to learn a song that they knew or wrote. I’d also hear her singing to people who weren’t feeling well. When I was growing up [in the ’80s and ’90s], we didn’t have Facetime or live video or even the ability to record a video and send it to someone; it was all telephone. It was: Answer the phone, talk for a little bit, put the phone down on the bed so she had her two hands free to sing and play the ukulele for the person. She would also go to their houses and visit them when she could.”
Asked when she first grasped what a big local star her grandmother was, Pomaika’i says, “Probably not really until my middle school years, when I realized that my classmates all knew Hawaiian music—especially because that was a time when the ukulele got popular with the Ka’au Crater Boys: especially Troy Fernandez. He showed everyone a different way it could be played; not just for traditional
Hawaiian music, but also to accompany contemporary-style music. Once all my friends started listening to the Ka’au Crater Boys, they started listening more to other Hawaiian music, too, and they began to realize that Genoa Keawe was a big icon in the Hawaiian music world who was still living and playing. Some people would see my grandma come to some of my school functions, or I’d run into friends at some of my grandmother’s performances. For me it was just a regular thing to tag along.”
It was in middle school, too, that Pomaika’i and her friends started an ukulele club that met during lunch periods: “We’d all bring our ukuleles to school [hers was one of her grandmother’s Kamakas] and it was a time to kanikapila—friends sitting around playing. We’d also invite special guests and watch videos, so of course one of those guests was my grandma.”
Though she loved playing the ukulele and singing, Pomaika’i was initially more drawn to hula, which she’d been dancing since she was four or five. In fact, when she got to her freshman year of high school and the big spring Holoku Pageant celebrating Hawaiian music and culture in a program directed by and featuring students rolled around, she had hoped to be the hula director. Instead, it was her Hawaiian Studies teacher, Dave Ka’iana Eldridge, who encouraged her to be a musician instead. “At first I was hesitant. I said, ‘I don’t think I can . . .’ He said, ‘You’re the granddaughter of Auntie Genoa Keawe. This is your kuleana [responsibility]. So I did. The song I auditioned with was the Pandanas Club’s ‘E Wai’anae.’”
Pomaika’i’s father, Eric Keawe (Genoa’s youngest son), recalls, “Pomai brought the songs home and my mom would hear her rehearse and tell her, ‘You’re not doing this right; you need to do it this way.’ So that’s when 15 minutes of rehearsing would turn into two or three hours of sitting down with tutu to learn a song. She learned the ha’i [high falsetto] from her.”
“I started off singing in lower keys,” Pomaika’i says. “As teenagers, we don’t like to push ourselves too far out of our comfort zones. My grandma had to encourage me to keep modulating: ‘Take the key up! No, higher! Go Higher!’ and I was like ‘No, I can’t!’ Even though I could sing soprano in choir. I don’t think I ever really sounded like her until after I became a mother. Up until then I thought it was just intriguing and exciting for people to see that someone in the ‘ohana was singing her style.”
After high school, Pomaika’i attended Brigham Young University in Utah (her dad had gone to Brigham Young’s Hawaii campus), where she earned a degree in economics. Still, music remained a central part of her life. She took the Kamaka ukulele her dad had given her as a high school graduation present (modeled after the one her tutu played) to college, and it traveled with her back to Hawaii on her visits. She was also part of an indigenous cultures dance group at BYU called the Living Legends, comprised of Native American, African American, Latin American, and Polynesian dancers. “We were a performing/touring group and we did two major tours; one was stateside, the other was international,” she says. “We were invited to participate as part of the opening ceremonies and also at the medals plaza during the [2002 Salt Lake City] Olympics.”
She was happy to return to Honolulu after college and to spend more time with her tutu, who would pass away at the age of 89 in early 2008. Pomaika’i always had an open invitation to join her tutu onstage until the end; indeed, she even filled in for her at a benefit concert just days before Auntie Genoa died.
“Basically, every time she had a performance and I was home, I was invited to come,” Pomaika’i says. “I wasn’t able to make every one, but every chance she got, she made it a point to bring me along. She’d often ask them, ‘Is it OK that I bring my granddaughter? She sings just like me.’ That was her way of giving me experience and encouraging me, to push me and motivate me. So that made me want to practice, which was so important. I understood then that as her granddaughter, there was a certain level of respect for TuTu that allowed for acceptance of anything she proposed, so they always said, ‘Oh, sure, Auntie, bring her!’” she adds with a laugh.
In the years since Genoa Keawe’s death, Pomaika’i has raised four children, all of them interested in music to some degree. Her oldest, Malie, plays pedal steel guitar but aspires to be a recording engineer. Her brother Iosepa plays the bass. Ziona finds her passion in dancing hula. Her younger son, Enosa, also plays the steel guitar. “All can dance the hula and know how to play their Kamaka concert and
soprano ukuleles,” Pomaika’i says. The circle is unbroken.
Our interview concludes with me asking, “What are your aspirations? Are you happy going through life partially as the living embodiment of your grandmother’s spirit?”
“I’ve been very blessed to be able to literally follow in her footsteps and pick up where she left off,” Pomaika’i says. “I will never fit the shoe perfectly. I’ve been reminded and I remind myself that I am not Genoa Keawe. I am Pomaika’i. So in that journey I’ve had to figure out what kind of shoe it is that I like to wear. That I don’t necessarily need to fit into my grandma’s shoes to do my walk. However, I have been blessed to walk the path she has paved, and use it as a guide to find my own.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to experience life as a performer and as an active member of the Hawaiian music industry because of that—not because I’ve made a recording, but because I carry her name, her style of singing, and her legacy. That’s afforded me a lot of good opportunities, including the chance to provide for my family, the chance to travel the world, the chance to walk and talk with important people in the industry and be part of important efforts to further not just Hawaiian music, but perpetuate Hawaiian culture and tradition, and our language. It’s given me the opportunity to go in any direction I want to go: if I want to own a business; if I want to be more on the production side; if I want to perform; if I want to be more of a mentor to children and youth, or an educator; if I want to do community work.
“My tutu has opened the door to a horizon of possibilities for me and I’m so grateful. And it is because of her reputation as a woman, a mother, an entertainer, a businesswoman, and manager, that people are more trusting of working with me, also.
“It’s a blessing, but it also comes with very heavy kuleana, or ‘responsibility.’ Most people would say that is the meaning of that word, but there’s another definition that refers to kuleana as a ‘privilege.’ So the kuleana I have is not just an obligation or a burden, but a privilege, and an opportunity to take care of something that’s very important.”