By Gayle Kaleilehua Greco
The sound of her voice is unmistakable, a resounding ha‘i (falsetto) spun with the grace of serenity. You are in the presence of Darlene Ahuna, a Hawaiian traditionalist singer and musician who has been playing music since she was a teenager. Gifted with her natural talent and feeling the pull to music as early as three years old, Darlene has evolved to one of our most talented and honored Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award winners of classic Hawaiian songs.
“Back in the day” says Darlene, “you could get on a plane and know that you’d be delivered to your mom on another island.” This was a special time for Darlene, when as a child she would frequently visit her mother, Lucille Green, who worked for Unitours Hawai‘i. At her last tour stop on Kaua‘i, her mother would pick up Darlene from the airport and visit Darlene’s Uncle John who played music at the Old Hanalei Plantation.
“That was my first introduction to Hawaiian music,” Darlene reminisces. “There were no microphones or amplifiers then. Those were the days of the strolling musicians.” Darlene would sit with her mother in the dining area, and watch with pride as her uncle strolled through the restaurant, table to table, with his group, the Holo Holo Trio. Darlene daydreamed of becoming a musician, and “when you want something bad enough, it will come to fruition”, a wiser Darlene says today.
Born and raised in Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu, Darlene listened to the famous Hawaiian singers—Lena Machado, Genoa Keawe, Leina‘ala Haili, Hui ‘Ohana—and found her spirit lifted with each mele (song) played. At 14 years old, Darlene was enrolled in a hula class. After the second day, Darlene could only focus on the music and was in awe when the musicians would come to play for class.
“I knew then I wasn’t a hula dancer, I was only interested in the music,” Darlene says with insight, “and today, even though I don’t have the direct hula foundation, I know what the dancers are doing and how to play for them.”
When Darlene was in junior high, her father, Fred Green Jr., bought a business in Hilo and moved the family to Hawai‘i Island where he had been raised. Being unfamiliar with the area and people, Darlene joined the Hawaiian Club. She thought, “I better play music. Everybody played ‘ukulele, so I started playing the guitar.” Darlene was also a star third baseman on the girls’ softball team and her classmates would wonder, is she off to play music or play softball? Everywhere Darlene went, her guitar was always in hand.
Sound check, the early days
One December day, Lloyd Akiona, Darlene’s softball coach and also the manager of Hawaiian Discovery Tours, announced they were having a Christmas party and invited some of the softball players to be the entertainment. “That meant seven of us,” Darlene remembers. “We had three hula dancers and four musicians. We practiced at Shirley and Albert Estabilio’s house where Mrs. Estabilio set up the sound system in their living room.”
Darlene had never heard herself over a sound system before. “I was so scared, I started to cry,” says Darlene. “Mrs. Estabilio started scolding me and said ‘you just open your mouth and let that voice out.’” Laughing at the memory of it all, Darlene shakes her head, “Those words rang in my head, and now, today, you cannot shut me up!”
During her time at Hilo Intermediate School, Darlene and others started their own Hawaiian Club outside of the school parameters. “There were too many club rules to follow through school,” said Darlene. They had a mentor who gave them the protocol for the new club and oversaw their meetings at Waiākea Villas. That spring, Waiākea Villas was holding a May Day festival and Darlene was chosen as the May Day Queen. The main entertainment was Ku‘uipo Kumukahi. Darlene was asked to step out of the court to perform, which is when Ku‘uipo heard Darlene sing for the first time.
Later, when Darlene was at Hilo High School, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi asked Darlene to join her playing music. Darlene reflects, “It was awesome. I started playing with her at all kinds of events, lū‘au parties, graduations, and then at Uncle Billy’s Hotel in Hilo.” All the while, Darlene was still in high school—quite an experience for a teenager who always dreamed of being a musician. A cherished friendship began between Ku‘uipo Kumukahi and Darlene. “It is a bond that will last forever,” says Darlene in deep appreciation for her mentor and friend.
The summer after high school graduation, Darlene received another phone call: “This is George Naope,” said the iconic kumu hula and musician. “I want you to come play music with me.” Full of excitement, Darlene started playing with Uncle George at Waiākea Villas. Darlene recalls, “Uncle would come up and do the first two songs with us and then go to the tables and visit with the audience. Then the last two songs, he’d come back up on stage.” With that kind of kuleana (responsibility) to keep the show going, Darlene says, “that let the genie out of the bottle for me.” She was hooked on being an entertainer.
On the road
Darlene’s music caught the attention of promoters and in 1998, Darlene performed the national anthem for the opening day at the Oakland (California) Coliseum for the Oakland A’s baseball team. Quite an accomplishment!
As part of her music connections, Darlene had the good fortune to perform at Carnegie Hall with Aunty Genoa Keawe. While there was a prestige about playing Carnegie Hall, what Darlene remembers most was the personal time she spent with Aunty Genoa. “Growing up listening to her and admiring her, then being with and getting to know her, we would room together, just her and I, it was awesome.” Darlene and Aunty Genoa traveled to Japan as well, and another deep friendship emerged that would imprint Darlene for all time to come.
While promoting her album, All the Best of Darlene Ahuna, Darlene was doing a live interview on KCCN and they played her version of “‘Akaka Falls.” Kata Maduli, a prominent producer of Hawaiian music, called in and said, ‘you need a manager, call me.’ Once again, history paved its way for this homegrown musician. Darlene hired Kata as her manager and soon after began touring with The Mākaha Sons. Darlene is grateful to her mother, sister, and brother-in-law, who helped take care of her three sons so that she could be on the road.
Back home, Hawai‘i Island
Traveling with The Mākaha Sons for seven years, Darlene made her way home to Hawai‘i Island, this time settling in Waimea with her youngest son. Playing at various resorts and many events around the island, along with a day job, Darlene has the benefit of her long-time partner, Lani Alvarez, supporting her in her music and life. This support is as important now as it was then, as Darlene goes back into the studio this August with the legendary Dave Tucciarone, a Grammy and multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano award-winning producer/engineer.
Darlene shares her thoughts about preparing for her new CD, “I’ve always been a traditionalist, that’s my first love.” She expresses her desire to stay current and yet remembers a profound statement from Aunty Nona Beamer, which Darlene summarizes, “There’s no way for a people to move forward if the language doesn’t move forward. That applies to music, too. We can’t stay stuck in a certain type of music one way, we have to move forward.” Darlene hopes to display the new and traditional styles in her upcoming CD.
Asking one of Hawai‘i’s most foremost female singers if she has a favorite song, Darlene replies, “It has to be “‘Akaka Falls.” It is my family legacy, [composer] Helen Lindsey Parker was my great aunt, my great grandmother’s sister.” Listening to her familiar and powerful rendition of “‘Akaka Falls,” Darlene’s voice is so clear you can imagine the strength of the falls and the beauty of the surrounding area. Midway through the recording, Darlene recites, “The words of this song, “Wailele ‘O ‘Akaka,” were written by the late Aunty Helen Lindsey Parker. Aunty Helen so loved this beautiful waterfall and plantation village of Honomū, just outside of Hilo. Today, many enjoy its gracious beauty and it is here that Aunty Helen will remain embraced by the beauty of ‘Akaka Falls.”
Darlene’s falsetto voice resonates in the air as she continues the song. A natural born talent, Darlene is dedicated to the tradition of classic Hawaiian music. Her recording of “‘Akaka Falls” boasts one of Hawaiian music’s most recognizable melodies and while other singers have recorded this song, Darlene Ahuna remains a purist giving homage to her family lineage. ❖
You can see Darlene Ahuna weekly at:
Fridays: Hilo Hawaiian Hotel
Saturdays: Nāpua Restaurant, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel
Upcoming Special Events
Hilo Slack Key Festival
July 8 & 9, Kress Theater, Downtown Hilo
He Hali‘a Aloha No Lili‘uokalani Festival
September 9, Lili‘uokalani Gardens, Hilo