Interview: ʻĀina’s Howard Shapiro Leads Us to “Your Light”, Spirituality, and Life In Hawaii

There is only one world and one race upon this earth. We all are children of the light knowing within our hearts that love will bring us all together again. To all of you who are sharing with us and seeking the light, I send you all the love in my heart and spirit.

This is an excerpt of Howard Shapiro’s introduction to the liner notes printed on the inner sleeve of the 1980 LP, Lead Me To The Garden, by the group known as ʻĀina.

Aloha ʻĀina, love the land
Aloha ʻĀina, your fellow man
Aloha ʻĀina, share as one
And love beneath the sun

Howard Shapiro moved to Hawaii at the age of 18. He came here for the surf. At the time, he resided on the west side of O‘ahu. He was studying at University of Hawaii Manoa in expressive writing, a poetry degree, when someone gave him a guitar. He put a few chords together with words he had written and was amazed. This is how he started writing songs.

“[I remember] pulling over on the road in Waianae on my way to UH and writing a song; maybe [I’d] finish it on the way home if I wasn’t surfing,” Howard recalled during a phone conversation with me in 2015.

His music career thus began in 1975 when he started writing about the struggles of the Native Hawaiian people, their land and their cultural rights. In 1977, he and Michael Joao formed ʻĀina around the same time they recorded a single for Greenpeace — an opportunity that came when Howard was out on the water at Makaha.

“I was just a surfer guy, out on the water, and I met a guy who worked for Greenpeace. He said, ‘Why don’t you write a song for Greenpeace?'” They did, and the single sold with Greenpeace’s help throughout the US and the world.

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The Greenpeace single ʻĀina recorded in 1979. The band was then also known as Earth. The word ʻĀina in the Hawaiian language means “land”.

“It was a fervent time for these issues, ripe for a message in the music,” Howard told me during our phone call from his home in Volcano. “That was a great time to be involved in the Hawaii music scene.”

By 1980, Howard and Michael found themselves ready to record a full length album.

“At the time we were writing a lot of music that focused on social and environmental issues, but we were also getting more into the spiritual journey that we all share,” Howard told me in an interview by email earlier this year. “I got involved with meditation and studying spiritual works became very important to Mike and me. At this time in our lives it seemed natural to record an album that talked about spirituality.”

They recorded Lead Me To The Garden with the help of engineer Jim Linkner, entering both Audissey Sound and Broad Recording Studio (where Aura, Mike Lundy, and Lemuria had recorded) to lay down tracks. The album features the keyboard arrangements of Dennis Graue, then-husband of Nohelani Cypriano, well known for her hit “Lihue”. Nohelani sings backing vocals on two of the tracks on ʻĀina’s LP: “Lead Me To The Garden” and “Your Light”.

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Front cover of Lead Me To The Garden.

I first got in touch with Howard in November 2014 after finding his website, Earth Patriot Productions. I sent him an email, but his prompt reply got lost somewhere on its way back to me, so our first real conversation didn’t happen until four months later, in February 2015.

At this point, I had just begun working with Quinton Scott at Strut Records in putting together a compilation of 1970s and 1980s Hawaiian rare grooves — the first of its kind. I already had a few key tracks in mind for the project.

“Your Light” sat at the top of my list.

The song’s uplifting sound and mellow groove embodied the feeling and spirit I felt was an excellent representation of this creative era of Hawaii’s contemporary music scene. I get chicken skin every time I listen to it.

(My friend Junji at James After Beach Club later pointed out that “Your Light” resembles Hall & Oates’ “Las Vegas Turnaround“. But I must say that “Your Light” is by far my favorite of the two tunes. Hall & Oates is smooth, but ʻĀina reaches much deeper into the soul in my opinion.)

When I approached Howard with the idea of including “Your Light” on the Strut release, he was more than happy to be a part of the project. I’m so glad, because the song is one of the standout tracks on the release. It gets repeated spins in our household, and it should be a part of everyone’s playlist.

Below is an interview Howard and I did over email in June 2016. Mahalo Howard for your time and contributions!

You came to Hawaii when you were 18 years old. Where are you originally from, and what attracted you to move here? 

I was born in Brooklyn, New York and when I was very young my family moved to Oceanside, Long Island. We were about 30 miles from New York City. Oceanside at that time was a small, quiet community. Growing up, my friends and I had a great time riding our bikes and playing sports. During the summer we’d go to the beach and spend all day there. We’d also play outside until dark and there never was any concern about our safety. In fact I don’t remember us locking our doors at night.

My father was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the WWII and was out at sea on December 7, 1941. He told us stories about how beautiful Hawai`i was and he once shared with me that if his life had been different he would have lived there after the war. I never thought I’d get to the Islands, but as fate would have it, after enlisting in the Navy in 1965, I received orders to be stationed at the Naval Air Station at Barber’s Point. That was in 1966.

I remember landing at Hickam Air Force Base and walking around the base I could smell these wondrous scents of the flowers there. I also heard Hawaiian music playing on the radio. From Hickam we drove through Pearl City, Waipahu and Ewa to the base. What a sight to see acres and acres of sugar cane.

When I lived in Oceanside I loved swimming in the ocean when school was out in the summer. The water was really cold and not very clean, but as kids we enjoyed it. A little while after arriving at NAS Barber’s Point, I went with some friends to Waikiki. The water was so beautiful and so warm and I remember watching people way outside riding on the waves.

There was a place at the beach where they rented surfboards and I decided to give it a try. I went out to the inside break because I was afraid to go too far out. I had so much trouble even catching a wave, but after many failed attempts I finally caught a wave and stood up. I remember there was a little girl in the water who was watching me and when I stood up and rode the wave she began to clap her hands. All I know is that I was hooked from that first ride in 1966 and for almost 25 years surfing was my passion.

Did you find a home in the islands quickly, or was it difficult to fit in as someone who moved here from elsewhere? 

From the day I arrived in Hawai`i I felt at home. Many of my friends at NAS Barbers Point would only go to Honolulu or Waikiki and drink at the bars. I was interested in meeting the local people and getting in the ocean to go surfing. Someone mentioned a facility on the leeward side where those in the military could go. This was Wai`anae Rest Camp.

I started hitchhiking there on my days off and renting a surfboard for the day. Eventually I bought a car and surfboard and was able to go surfing more often in Wai`anae. I also would surf at the beach on base.

When I got out of the Navy in 1968, the first house I rented was in Makaha. It was a dream come true to be only a mile from Makaha Beach. Although I wasn’t that good, I began surfing at Makaha. I learned very quickly surf etiquette. The local surfers didn’t look too kindly on a haole surfer who didn’t know the rules.

Makaha. Photo by Jai Mansson on Flickr.

Makaha. Photo by Jai Mansson on Flickr.

Somehow I survived my first year there and started making friends. A really great friend was Rella Sunn. She taught me so much about the aloha spirit. Another was Glen Davis whose family treated me as a hanai member of their `ohana. Glen would later be one of the people who would go to Kaho`olawe to stop the bombing of the island.

I went to U. H. Manoa and through my courses in Hawaiian history and culture, I learned about what happened to the Native Hawaiian people after the arrival of Capt. Cook. I learned about the illegal overthrow of the monarchy and about the many abuses that the Native Hawaiians endured. This moved me to support those Native Hawaiians fighting for their political, cultural, and spiritual rights.

How did you start playing music and writing songs? 

At U.H .Manoa, I majored in writing. My main focus was poetry. I remember one of my professors telling me my poetry was very lyrical. So it seemed natural that I would later adapt my poems into a structure that became songs. The thing was I didn’t play an instrument so it was hard to imagine writing songs.

However, one day a friend brought me an old beat up guitar and let me play it. I didn’t feel very comfortable with it, so I didn’t play it again for a while, but a few months later when I picked it up again I felt a great desire to learn to play. I remember learning a few chords and seeing that I could compose a song with those simple chords. Eventually I began singing some of my poems and was amazed that by adding a chorus I could create ‘real’ songs. Like surfing, songwriting became a big part of my life. I wrote my first song in 1975 and continue to write today.

My first songs were about the islands. I also wrote some love songs, but within a short time I was addressing different social and environmental issues. Quite a few songs were about the struggle of the Native Hawaiian people.

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Who was Michael Joao? What kind of person was he like, and how did you meet? Is he still around today?

Mike was a very talented songwriter and singer. He was born in Hawai`i and was of Native Hawaiian and Portuguese ancestry, but he grew up on the mainland. He returned to Hawai`i when he was in his early 20’s. He lived with his family in Ma`ili and through mutual friends we met. He had heard that there was this songwriter from Makaha who was writing about different issues and he was interested in meeting me.

I was blown away by how talented he was and what a great voice he had. In all honesty I was a bit intimidated because I had only been writing songs, singing and playing guitar for less than two years and Mike had been playing since he was a young child, but we bonded really well mainly because we wanted to speak out about different issues that we cared about.

Mike was a very creative, sensitive and caring person. Sorry to say that he passed on at a very young age. It would have been really nice to see where his music would have evolved to today.

Tell me about your first musical venture in Hawaii: the single for Greenpeace. How did you strike that opportunity?

This is an interesting story. I was out surfing at Makaha one day and I got into a conversation with another surfer who lived in Honolulu. In our talk he mentioned that he worked for Greenpeace Hawai`i and was involved with helping end the slaughter of the whales around the world. I was moved by what he told me and I mentioned that I was a songwriter. He asked if I would consider writing a song for Greenpeace. I told him I’d think about it and get back to him.

Within a couple of days I had written the song “Greenpeace: To Save the Whales.” We met in Honolulu and I played the song for him and he really liked it. He asked if I’d like to play at a benefit concert for Greenpeace on the Falls of Clyde, an historic sailing ship that is now a maritime museum that is moored in Honolulu Harbor.

I let him know that Mike Joao and I had just put a group together and would he want us to play. He said that would be great. At the time we were calling ourselves “Earth” and had only started playing together for a few months. I remember how nervous I was playing for Greenpeace Hawai`i. I’d only performed live once at a luau and this was our group’s first performance. We were also playing on the bill with Jon & Randy who were really popular then.

So we get on stage and of course the sound system is all messed up and there we are sitting there for what seemed like a very long time, but was probably really a few minutes, until the problems were fixed. The performance was a big blur to me and to this day I don’t know if we were any good, but the audience seemed to like our music especially the song I wrote for Greenpeace.

Was ‘Āina a fully formed band by the time you recorded the Greenpeace single? What was the band’s background up to that point?

I eventually decided to record Greenpeace: To Save the Whales. I didn’t have much money or any experience recording or arranging music, but Jim Linkner the audio engineer at Audissey Sound where we did the recording was very patient with us and really helped us get through our first recording experience. Jim and Sam Holt, who owned Audissey Sound, also gave us a great deal on studio time so we were able to complete the recording. By the way, the b side of the 45 was the song “A Shift in the Wind”. This was a song that I wrote to address the issue of hunger and poverty and supported the work of The Hunger Project.

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B side of the Greenpeace single.

What was so great at the time was that we were able to get airplay on KCCN. They played the song and we did interviews with Skylark and Kimo Kahoano.

Our band at the time consisted of Mike, myself and our friend Chris who played lead guitar. We would eventually add another guitar player from Makaha and the four of us began to perform as ‘Āina.

We played at a few luau in the area, but our first big experience after the performance we did for Greenpeace in Honolulu was at the first Buffalo Big Board Contest. That was a really great experience, playing for our friends and family who lived along the Wai`anae Coast. I felt very comfortable performing there because I used to bring my guitar to the beach almost every day and jam with friends and then go surfing if the surf was up.

You mentioned to me once that you recorded a song called “Hale Mohalu” to support people with Hansen’s Disease who were being evicted from their care center, their home, in Pearl City.

We became aware of a situation where the residents of Hale Mohalu, who were people who had Hansen’s Disease, were going to be evicted from their ‘home.’ We visited Hale Mohalu and talked with the people there and became supporters of their right to stay at the facility.

Through our conversations with them, I was moved to write a song for them. Mike and I then shared our music at their home and played at a number of rallies supporting their cause. Eventually I told Mike that I felt that we should record the Hale Mohalu song. We again worked with Jim Linkner at Audissey Sound.

What was really cool about this project was that Bernard Punikaia, who was a spokesperson for the residents at Hale Mohalu, was a songwriter and singer. So on the B side of the 45 Bernard recorded the song Kaulaupapa that he wrote.

What other singles did you record as ‘Āina , if any?

Although I have recorded a number of solo single releases such as the songs Island in the Sea, Listen to the Forest and The American Indian, ‘Āina only recorded Greenpeace: to Save the Whales and Hale Mohalu. We recorded these in 1977 -78. Then we recorded Lead Me to the Garden in 1980.

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Side one label from the Lead Me To The Garden LP.

In 2015, you told me that the 1970s “was a great time to be involved in the Hawaii music scene”. Can you tell our readers why that is?

There was so much creative energy during the 1970’s in music, art and Hawaiian culture. And the bands back then were playing and recording all different genres of music from Hawaiian to jazz and rock. There was also a camaraderie in the music scene that isn’t around today. There was competition for sure, but there was much more a feeling of `ohana and there was a lot of respect for what other artists were doing.

Tell me about the band’s vision—its mission, the music, and its connection to the social, cultural and political issues happening in Hawaii during the 1970s. 

Before forming our music group, I was already involved with issues pertaining to political and cultural rights for the Native Hawaiian people. I heard personal stories from my friends in Makaha and Wai`anae about the pain their families experienced for many years. These were people who had shared so much aloha with me and in a way the pain that they spoke about became a part of my life. When I began writing songs, I saw that I had a ’vehicle’ to express this pain that my Native Hawaiian friends had experienced and continued to live with. These songs were my way of thanking them for all the kindness that they had shared with me.

When I met Mike Joao, he didn’t know much about what was happening with the Native Hawaiian community since he lived on the mainland. I shared with him what I had learned and he became very motivated to help his people through his music.

We were honored to be part of the ‘Hawaiian Renaissance’. The feeling at the rallies and festivals where we performed was very uplifting. We felt this wave of awareness and dedication to the cause of Native Hawaiian rights as a very tangible thing. The mana was so strong at that time and we were a part of the energy that all of us believed would right the wrongs of the past.

As far as the music we wrote and performed, much of it was folk rock and contemporary Hawaiian genres. We also tried to incorporate hula into some of our performances. I still remember vividly a song ‘Āina performed at a festival to support the efforts to end the bombing of Kaho`olawe. It was a song Mike wrote about the island and a friend of ours danced hula. It was one of the most moving moments I remember having onstage and it showed me how powerful incorporating hula into our presentations could be.

How did the opportunity to record a full length album come about? 

By 1980 ‘Āina had been performing around O`ahu for different causes for a few years and we had recorded 2 singles, so the next step was to record an album. At the time we were writing a lot of music that focused on social and environmental issues, but we were also getting more into the spiritual journey that we all share. I got involved with meditation and studying spiritual works became very important to Mike and me. At this time in our lives it seemed natural to record an album that talked about spirituality.

The interesting think about the album we recorded ‘Lead Me to the Garden’ was that although it was spiritual in nature, the music itself had the elements of folk, rock and pop genres incorporated in it. Now that I look back and think about that recording, it may have been one of the first ‘New Age’ albums recorded in Hawai`i. However it wasn’t your typical laid back, mellow recordings associated with that genre. It had a lot of power to it and a lot of upbeat music.

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Gatefold of Lead Me To The Garden.

What can you tell me about the song “Your Light”, which is featured on the Aloha Got Soul compilation?

I don’t remember much about individual songs that Mike wrote. I do know that at the time Mike wrote “Your Light” we were studying a number of spiritual books. The song itself was a devotional song to the Creator.

How was the album received upon release? 

Shortly after the release of the album, ‘Āina disbanded. There were some personal and professional differences Mike and I had and we were both young and immature so we couldn’t work out these differences. It was pretty sad because at the time people who heard the album really liked it. It was actually nominated for a Hoku award for best engineer (Jim Linkner).

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What would you change about the album, looking back after so many years (and so many solo albums you’ve released along the way)?

Even after recording a couple of single releases, when we went in the studio to record “Lead Me to the Garden” I wasn’t very aware of the technical aspects of recording or of arranging music. We were blessed to work with Jim Linkner on the album and he really did a great job helping us out. We were also really lucky to have Dennis Graue do a lot of the arrangements and to have great musicians from other bands record with us. We were especially pleased to have Nohelani Cypriano record some of the background vocals on a number of our songs.

After producing and recording many albums of my music over the years, I can now hear changes that I would make to the structure of some of the songs and things I would change in some of the arrangements. I would also add some contemporary Hawaiian songs that Mike and I wrote that we didn’t include on the album. I think if we did that we would have gotten much more airplay on the radio.

‘Āina shared the stage with groups like Brothers Cazimero and Olomana. What was it like to share a stage with those guys and to be a part of that movement, the Hawaiian Renaissance? 

We were quite overwhelmed to perform on the same stage with such great performers as the Brothers Cazimero, Olomana and others. We were really just a ‘grassroots’ band. We weren’t great musically, but the feedback that we got at the time was that people thought our songs were very meaningful and that we were really dedicated to the causes that we sang about.

What would you like to share with listeners today about ‘Āina and its music?

Our group ‘Āina was created to use our music as a means to address issues that we cared greatly about such as Native Hawaiian rights, environmental protection and peace. Although we wanted to make the best sounding music, that was not our major goal. At that time in Hawai`i there were so many really good groups playing at a level way beyond us. They were mostly singing love songs or songs about the beauty of Hawai`i. And that was fine with us. However, we decided right after we formed ‘Āina that we would always focus on the issues that we believed in. We, like many people during the 1970’s, were also on a personal spiritual journey and our music reflected that.

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Inner sleeve to the LP, Lead Me To The Garden.

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Lyrics on the inner sleeve to the LP, Lead Me To The Garden.

You lived on Kauai and now the Big Island, how has each island differed? How are each the same, connected?

I’ve been truly blessed to have lived on three island; O`ahu, Kaua`i and Hawai`i Island.

Each island is very unique and beautiful in its own way. Since I lived in Makaha and Wai`anae from 1968-85, the island was so different then today. Imagine driving along the Wai`anae Coast and only seeing one traffic light. And there was only a two lane highway. Also at night it was really dark because there were no lights on the road. I can remember driving along Farrington Highway and seeing a friend and pulling over to talk story and find out how the surf was that day. And hardly any cars passed by us.

At that time there were many acres of cane and pineapple being grown on the island and there was no H1 highway so from Makaha you had to drive through Waipahu, Pearl City and the Salt Lake area to get to town. We used to complain how long it took to get to Honolulu. Imagine having to drive a whole 45 minutes to an hour.

I lived on Kaua`i from 1985-94. The island was and is incredibly beautiful. I wrote so many songs about Kaua`i and a number of those were recorded on my Ka‘Āina album that I released in 1987.

Living on a sparsely populated, small island like Kaua`i, people got to know you really fast. In 1986, after years of writing and singing about different issues, I created the non-profit organization Performing and Fine Artists for World Peace. The Kauai community was very supportive of our work and we sponsored a number of programs on the island and put on concerts, festivals, art exhibits and workshops. Our organization got involved with the United National International Year of Peace in 1986 and for the programs we created that year, we were designated as a United Nations Peace Messenger. Through this recognition, we were invited to attend the first Peace Messenger Conference at the UN in New York City.

What an experience that was for me. Meeting and interacting with really dedicated people who worked for peace every day.

I later attended a Peace Messenger Conference in the Soviet Union (Russia) and played some of my music for the people who attended the conference. This later led to invitations to perform in Madrid, Spain, across the United Kingdom and Ireland and also New Zealand. I always just saw myself as this surfer/songwriter from Makaha so traveling and performing in other countries was quite amazing to me.

After Hurricane Iniki devastated Kaua`i, my wife Marsha and I rented a house in Lihu’e. Because the rent was so high we began to look at houses to buy, but they were way beyond our budget. We had family on Hawai`i Island who lived in Volcano and we had visited them a number of times. We learned that prices in that area were very affordable and we decided to move to Hawai`i Island in 1994.

Since we were familiar with Volcano, we decided to live there while we looked for a house to buy. But we never thought we’d live in Volcano because it was so cold and wet and being a surfer I wanted to be near the ocean. However, we both learned to love the rain forest in Volcano and we bought a house there in 1995. There’s a great community there with so many talented and creative people. Also living only three miles from Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park is a gift. I go on the trails a lot and have been inspired to write many songs and poems about the island.

There’s so many diverse communities on the island, as well as such a diversity in natural scenery and climate. It’s also a really big island so we can take day trips from Volcano to places like Kona and Waimea and either return home or stay overnight. It’s almost like driving on the mainland. The island is also very much alive and earthquakes rattle our house once in a while. It’s also quite an experience to see new earth being born very near where we live.

The three islands are all very different yet they are very similar in their natural beauty. There also is a way of life and of sharing that we call the aloha spirit. And many people across these islands still share this way of living with friends, family and others that they meet. I truly thank the Native Hawaiian people for sharing the aloha spirit with me. I also will ever be so thankful to these islands for sharing their beauty and mana with me.

Howard Shapiro today. Photo from his ‘Random Notes’ CD release.

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Howard and Michael circa 1980. Photo from the inner sleeve of Lead Me To The Garden.

————————————————————————————————————–

Greenpeace – To Save the Whales
O great creatures you flow so gracefully
With your children by your side
You live in harmony

Why must they slaughter you
What is the need
Is it Man’s lust or his greed
What is the need

And they hunt you down just for the slaughter
You race for your freedom
But there’s blood upon the water

We will fight to save your race
So that our children may see
Your gentle power and your beauty

You have lived with Man throughout the ages
But now your time runs short
As the battle rages

Will we destroy your kind
With our need for gain
Will only a legend remain
To honor your name

But we will save you brothers of the sea
For there are some who understand
And fight for decency

For if you leave this earth
Because of uncaring hearts
Then Man will lose as love departs

Please let them live in peace

© Kumanu Music 1977

Listen to ʻĀina on the Aloha Got Soul compilation released on Strut Records: 

One thought on “Interview: ʻĀina’s Howard Shapiro Leads Us to “Your Light”, Spirituality, and Life In Hawaii

  1. Jody Schooley says:

    My brother Mike Joao was an interesting and talented young man. He was a man of peace. He had strong faith and he was centered in God’s Love. His music reflects his core values. I am grateful to Howard for releasing his music and for Howard’s vital role in the album’s production. It was a wish of the Joao Family that these songs one day could be heard by people again. Thank you for making them public. Mahalo nui loa.
    Jody Schooley

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