Would Raiatea Mokihanamaile Helm be a singer if her brothers hadn't been admitted to Kamehameha?
Keeping a Hawaiian
Teen falsetto singer Raiatea Helm of
Molokai does her musical clan proud,
relying on innate talent and family support
By John Berger
Music is a tradition in the Helm ohana, so maybe she would have. On the other hand, it was the music she heard at a Kamehameha Schools song contest that piqued her desire to sing.
"She surprised us," is how Zachary Helm describes the reaction the first time his daughter asked to sing at a family gathering. He'd bought Raiatea the ukulele she'd asked for, and shown her a few chords, but beyond that she'd been working things out on her own, and no one had any idea how she was doing.
"We thought she was going to sing a little kiddie song, but she threw everybody off. She busted out a beautiful Hawaiian song, and everybody started to cry because this is the next generation."
Within a year she'd entered and won the "Brown Bags to Stardom" competition at Molokai High School and continued on to the Brown Bags 2000 finals on Oahu. She ended up as one of the also-rans, but it was her first big public performance outside Molokai. The 17-year-old has been juggling school with singing and touring ever since.
She performed in Tahiti shortly after "Brown Bags," and in California, Atlantic City and Washington thereafter. It was on her first trip to Japan that she met kumu hulas Robert Cazimero and Manu Boyd and impressed them with her traditional Hawaiian falsetto style. Boyd featured her as a special guest when his group Ho'okena performed at the Kalakoa Jam in April, and she was a hit.
Ho'okena -- Boyd, William "Ama" Aarona, Horace K. Dudoit III, Chris Kamaka and Glen Smith -- will welcome her again when they play their fourth concert performance at the Hawai'i Theatre tonight. The show will also feature kumu hula Maelia Loebenstein Carter's Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa'ahila, and the Forbidden World of Don Tiki, a tribute to the "exotica" music created by Martin Denny in the mid-1950s.
"She was not really formally trained," her father said. "Wherever and whenever she sings, you always have people coming up to her who have a feeling about her music. How in the heck is that voice coming out of her?"
Ho'okena with guest vocalist Raiatea Helm, the Forbidden World of Don Tiki and Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa'ahila
Place: Hawaii Theatre
When: 8 p.m. today
"I just kept singing," said Raiatea, who counts Lena Machado, Genoa Keawe, Leina'ala Haili and Akoni among her favorite falsetto role models. (Her father gave her a Machado album for inspiration after he heard her falsetto singing.)
"Pua Tuberose" was Raiatea's first signature song, but she says her favorites these days are "Kimo Henderson Hula" and "Alika." Expect to hear both of them tonight.
Her next project is an album scheduled for release in July by Maui-based Riptide Records. Ho'okena and the Makaha Sons are helping her with it, and a young Hawaiian artist would have a hard time finding better-qualified musicians.
"I asked (Ho'okena) to be a part of my CD, and Makaha Sons -- John and Jerome Koko are my dad's cousins, so that's my family, and they take care of me, too. It's an honor."
Helm will graduate from Molokai High next month. She had been planning to go to the University of Hawaii-Manoa and major in ethnomusicology, but with her career on the upswing and an album to promote, she'll be starting her higher education at Maui Community College instead.
"If I didn't record I would go to UH, but I didn't want to commit to full-time school when I'll have to travel. And I love Maui, so I want to start slow."
As for her name, no, she wasn't named for the island. It came to her mother in a series of dreams before Raiatea was born.
"Every day when I getting closer to her birth day, I would have this dream," Henrietta Helm said. "There was this lady sitting under a tree that overlooked this ocean area. You could see the ocean, it was azure, green and different shades of blue, and there was a little girl with long brown hair that was laying down on top this lady, and this lady -- I didn't see her face or anything like that -- this lady was stroking the little girl's hair and she kept on repeating the name 'Raiatea, oh my Raiatea.'"
Henrietta says that it wasn't until her brother, who lives in Tahiti, introduced her to some Tahitian kupuna that she and her husband learned the full significance of their daughter's name and the kaona within it. A woman from the island told Raiatea and her mother, "You're not going to become famous from your dancing, but through your music."
"She predicted several different things and it all came true," Henrietta said.
Zachary Helm, a lifetime musician, sees in his daughter's blossoming career a link to that of his brother, falsetto singer and Hawaiian activist and martyr George Helm, who died during the struggle to end the desecration of Kahoolawe seven years before Raiatea was born.
"Raiatea never met her Uncle George, but somehow the spirit lives on. Her uncle would be so proud."
"He is," Raiatea said.
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