Born and raised in Hawai’i, internationally acclaimed guitarist, singer and composer Makanalives and breathes through the music that he creates. During the “Occupy” movement that occurred during 2011, Makana’s song “We Are The Many” went viral, and was coined the “Occupy Anthem” by Rolling Stone Magazine. Growing up on the shores of Waikiki, Makana- whose name means “a gift given freely”- began singing when he was seven years-old, took up ‘ukulele at nine and began learning the ancient art of slack key at eleven.
In 2014 Makana will be visiting Australia for the first time, and playing during the Womadelaide festival in Adelaide. We caught up with Makana to talk about his music and how he changes the world a little everyday.
Hi Makana how are you?
I’m good thank you how about yourself? I just got back from Los Angeles then heading your way in about a week. It’s incredibly muggy over here, it feels like I’m in a sauna spa!
We’re great thanks and it’s okay, the weather isn’t that fantastic over here either! So first of all, how do you feel you connect emotionally with your music?
Music is complete and pure emotion to me. Everything I do, whether it’s singing, writing or playing to a group of people, music is the language of emotion. With my approach to guitar I use over 100 tunings, and I can change the guitar to suit whatever emotion I want to express. Having control over all those elements on the guitar really brings through my personality. A guitarist I know said to me that he’s content with what he knows on guitar and he’s happy with the one or two tunings. I almost felt insulted, that’s like saying you’ve explored the Pacific Ocean. There are endless sounds and emotions you can create through playing guitar and I feel more comfortable expressing myself with music than with words, and that’s pretty powerful.
Thinking back to 2011, you played at an APEC conference with the Obama’s in the room, and around 18 other world leaders. You opened your shirt and it had ‘Occupy With Aloha’ on it. Describe to us the thoughts that were going through your head at the time just before you started playing.
To be completely honest my heart was racing a million miles an hour and I was actually serenading myself for an hour and a half to calm me down. I mean, I was playing in front of these people whom I’ve never met, the President of the United States was sitting in the same room, and I suddenly had an epiphany and realised I was scared to play something that I had written (“We Are The Many”).
When you were standing in that room playing, at what point did you realise that you were doing something right and you were sending a message with your music?
I was terrified. The thoughts going through my head about the Occupy Movement and all of these things that had happened in the months leading up to it, kept pushing at me to play it. The New York Times said the (Occupy) movement lacked a melody, it lacked something to drive it. When I got that call from the White House asking me to go and play at the conference I realised I could really make something out of it. The difference was, I wasn’t going about it in a negative way, I was doing it through my music. It was peaceful, I mean what was the worst that could have happened? They could’ve shot me, arrested me, ended my career? I was born to play at that conference, there was some higher power urging me to play and I was going to surrender to it.
I was thinking to myself on that day, that I really love humanity and I needed to sing this song, the world needs to hear this. That feeling I experienced whilst playing “We Are The Many” in front of those people, was the most incredible feeling I have ever experienced. Speaking truth to power, that comes from my heart. This is who I am, at that single moment I was the voice of the people. That changed my life and it gave me purpose.
Streaming away from a less political perspective, what do you enjoy most about performing and how do you prepare yourself mentally to perform on a stage in front of the world?
I’m more at home on stage than off stage. The best way that I prepare is that I really take care of my body. I eat really well and I’m always mentally ready to share, always ready to create; it’s like breathing for me. It’s natural, as soon as I have the opportunity to sing a song, I light up, it’s my true purpose to keep doing what I do. I don’t have to get into a state of mind to play or write music, I love what I do and music is how I express who I am from deep inside.
What I really am passionate about is song writing. Being able to articulate a really deep emotion or sentiment that is hard to put into words. I’m not special, I go into myself and I’m not afraid to be honest with and about humanity or my weaknesses. Delving down deep within my soul and expressing who I am through music is what it is about.
What are you looking forward to most about playing at Womadelaide in 2014?
I want to come to Australia, I’m so excited, I have actually never been. I have a huge amount of listeners and friends and they’re all beautiful people. A few of my friends come over here and I play at their weddings and they’re always so full of life, and I am looking forward to being immersed in the culture that is Australia.
What is your view on American politics at the moment and how do you think you help change the world?
I would like to see a huge shift in orientation to be honest. Until we start to take leadership roles in our own lives and not leave decisions to people whom we’ve never even met, we’re going to keep experiencing major imbalances. I think that America is a corporate state. The idea of America is beautiful, but the reality has gone very far from what it should be. There’s going to be a rude awakening sometime soon.
In my own life I realised that the only way we are going to see any change is to start creating actual, ground up value. A few years ago I realised this and I started by simply growing my own food. How does this help to change things? By starting to create my own food I was creating value. If everyone did this and began to learn to trade, go back to the basics, building communities and ground up change, we would all start to make a difference in the community. Music is also a big part of it. “We Are The Many” became that song that helped to drive me. Every time someone says “You shouldn’t play that song, it’s too political,” it fuels my fire even more. I would go stand on a rooftop and shout to the world my song.