An estimated twenty-five-thousand Big Island music fans attended KWXX’s Hoʻolauleʻa concert event in downtown Hilo last Saturday. This year’s 25th Anniversary festival featured four-stages including the Palace Theatre, along with 40 food and craft booths. Hoʻolauleʻa is the largest one-day music crowd-drawing event on the island.
The celebrated festival was originated in 1993 by the late concert promoter John Leonard, who also founded Records Hawaii after moving to Honolulu in 1968. A year later Leonard started JFL Concerts that brought many big-name acts to Hawaii, including The Jacksons, Rod Stewart, and Aerosmith during the 1970s. Leonard later helped a group of struggling Hilo radio stations back from oblivion.
Aloha Festivals, a nonprofit corporation, approached Leonard about doing an annual festival in Hilo, and offered funding. In 1946, Aloha Festivals began as “Aloha Week,” a cultural celebration of Hawaii’s music, dance, and history. The concept grew from there, and Leonard’s son, Chris, now carries on the Hoʻolauleʻa tradition.
“There’s probably no other large music festival in the state that has a line-up as big as ours,” explained Leonard at KWXX’s studio. “Sure, you’ll find top names playing at the Waikiki Shell on Oahu, but they can only hold 8,000 people. We put 20,000 people in downtown Hilo on a Saturday night. It went from being a signature event for KWXX to a signature event for this island!”
Chris Leonard is now the President and General Manager of New West Broadcasting, which is locally owned and operates five Big Island radio stations. Before his father passed away in 1996, Chris had the opportunity to work on three Hoʻolauleʻa festivals. Hoʻolauleʻa translates as a Hawaiian festival or celebration where people dance, sing and celebrate the Hawaiian culture.
“I was twenty-six-years-old, with a six-and-a-half-year-old, and a two-week-old daughter,” said Leonard about taking over the festival in 1997. “I told my wife, ‘I need to do this. This is just something that I have to do.’” His tenacity paid off. Hoʻolauleʻa is the top annual concert event on the Big Island’s calendar, and the largest one-night event in downtown Hilo. Leonard adds, “Without fail, just about every year, I’ll have somebody come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Leonard, I want to say thank you for doing this. This is the one time a year that I can see all of these bands, and I can bring out my family, too. Normally they’re playing at a bar and I can’t bring my kids or tickets are too expensive especially for a family of four!’”
Band selections for this year’s Hoʻolauleʻa ramped up in May, and a variety of popular contemporary Hawaiian bands plus a stage dedicated to Big Island rock and blues favs like Tomi Isobe and Larry Dupio was the result. And if six hours of non-stop music wasn’t enough for fans, an official KWXX after-party at the Grand Naniloa Hotel with Ekulu and Maooli was also in the mix.
“We used to have to beg bands to play,” remarked Leonard of past shows, “but now the event has become so big that we have more bands that want to play than we have room to accommodate.” Artists that fit KWXX’s Hawaiian music format or are in on-air rotation is now the now for the selection process. “There’s a vibe on this event that’s unlike any other event that these bands play, notes Leonard. “It’s especially true if you lived on the Big Island and grew up as a kid watching these shows over the years… Coming back and playing this event is a really cool thing for them.”
During this year’s festivities, Leonard and his family received a proclamation from Senator Kaiali’i Kahele and Councilwoman Lokelani Lee Loy for twenty-five years of the KWXX Ho’olaule’a.
During the 2018 event planning stages, Leonard’s longtime morning radio personality and MC for Hoʻolauleʻa, Ke‘ala Kawa‘auhau, passed away. Kawa‘auhau was also a member of the seminal Hawaiian rap group Sudden Rush, who often played the music festival. This year marked Sudden Rush’s 25th anniversary, and surviving band members paid tribute as the closing act on the main stage.
Chris Leonard wrote on his Facebook page the day after the festival, “It was hard not to see Ke’ala on stage with Sudden Rush, or doing his usual MC duties for the station. I found myself feeling sad at times, but also smiling as I know that my father and Ke’ala loved this event and would have loved last night’s show… [We] miss Ke’ala every day, but will continue to smile and laugh when we think of him. His legacy is permanently intertwined with all of us.”
After the music ended, and the crowd started to leave, all that remained on stage was Ke’ala’s microphone, standing alone with his sunglasses, and a Hawaiian state flag draped respectfully over it. Some said it symbolized that Ke’ala was the last to leave the stage.
Photo credits: Featured image: Gerald Besson. Slide show: Gerald Besson and Steve Roby.
Steve Roby is a music journalist and best-selling author originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.