Music and Mai Tais: Mokihana Festival

Songwriters in Hawaii test their tunes every year, the Mokihana Festival on Kaua,i.

The event has been ongoing for more than 30 years and each year, organizers choose a theme and those who enter any of the competitions during the festival. Entries are awarded points for sticking to the specific theme.

I wrote about the event in the following article in the year 2015. That’s been a while ago, but the festival has only had to take a break because of COVID-19 restrictions. Check the Maile Foundation’s website for info on this year’s festival. It’s worth keeping in mind if you’re traveling to the island in the fall, or if you’re a music lover.

In 2015, the festival’s theme was Na Wai ‘Ola, or Living Waters. Darryl Gonzales performed at the Mokihana Festival Composers’ Contest in 2015 and received first place in the professional division. In fact, he has swept the professional category two years in a row. But in 2016, he decided to let someone else to take the trophy home.

“I’m sure there’s more talented writers out there that want to try their writing and music skills in the competition,” Gonzales said.

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Gonzales, who plays the slack key guitar and sings, currently plays music six days a week across the island and said he didn’t have time to enter the contest this year and defend his titles.

Those who are interested, however, competed in a concert-type setting at the Kauai Veterans Memorial Hall in Lihue during the 31st annual Mokihana Festival, which is a program of the Malie Foundation.

“We have 11 entrants right now,” said Carol Bain, vice president of the Malie Foundation, before the event. “We want to encourage people who live on Hawaii and compose music so that everyone can hear it.”

The composers competition debuted with the festival itself as a way to motivate composers to write traditional Hawaiian music with a contemporary twist.

“We go back in time to traditional songs and look at how the composers saw a person, or place, or event,” said Maka Herrod, executive director of the Malie Foundation. “It was created to encourage others to write music now so that when future generations become our age, they can look at the music and see what was happening in our time.”


Every year, the Mokihana Festival organizers choose a theme and those who enter any of the competitions during the festival are awarded points for sticking to the specific theme. This year the theme is Na Wai ‘Ola, or Living Waters.

The event kicks off on Sunday, Sept. 20 with a Hawaiian church service at Kapaa First Hawaiian Church. The following week is full of cultural events like a youth music competition and hula competitions, as well as educational lectures.

“It’s a contemporary Hawaiian festival because we’re living in our days now,” Herrod said, “but it’s with a flair of music in the traditional fashion.”

Gonzales winning song last year was a tribute to Mary Kawena Pukui, who helped create the Hawaiian dictionary.

And while he’s not competing this year, plenty of other talent will, while Gonzales is working on different projects.

“I’m currently learning the Hawaiian language, so I applied what I was learning to the song,” Gonzales said. “Mary is responsible for revising the Hawaiian language through the making of the Hawaiian dictionary and I honor her for making the dictionary. That was the subject of my song.”

Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, publsihed on Sept. 18, 2015. Photos taken by Jessica Else. 

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Jessica Else is an award-winning journalist and author, currently living in the Pacific Northwest. While she's dabbled in many subjects during her writing career, Jess enjoys writing about agriculture and sustainability projects, endangered animals, health and wellness, festivals and food, and outdoor adventuring.

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