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'Ōpio Spotlight: Pahonu Coleman

For this week’s ʻŌpio Spotlight we are featuring musician, Pahonu Coleman. Currently 15 years-old and homeschooled by his mother, Pahonu is a founder of the non-profit, Nā Kukui o Waimānalo, an organization focused on sharing the knowledge and expertise in the Waimānalo community. They feature artisans, kūpuna, musicians, and experts in their community through informational videos, classes, and mentorship opportunities. Their first video, published on April 5, 2019, marks the “birth” of the organization, as Pahonu would say. “Our goal is to really inspire Native Hawaiian youth through mele, moʻolelo, and manaʻo of our alakaʻi, specifically of our kaiaulu of Waimānalo,” he says. Pahonu mentions that he was shocked by how challenging directing a video was. “I thought it was film, kay go, but then it was like, ugh! You actually need a lot of organization.” Itʻs a good thing Pahonu is a musician rather than a director. But Nā Kukui o Waimānalo is more than just a band. In fact, Pahonu says he and Kamanaʻo Sarsona, the son of Waiʻaleʻale Sarsona and good friend of Pahonu thanks to their shared stomping grounds in Waimānalo, are not even a band at all. “We are just offered these opportunities and we are really just taking it as an opportunity to get our name out there,” he says, “We are musicians, we can play, but our focus is really to inspire our youth.” Pahonu hopes that his peers can tune into Instagram or Facebook live, see the duo playing Hawaiian music, and feel inspired to learn.

Nā Kukui o Waimānalo is supposed to be the bridge connecting youth to the musicians in their community. Pahonu recalls when he first started learning music. “I didnʻt have any kumu and only, now, recently, Iʻve been discovering more of these musicians who have roots in Waimānalo,” he says. He hopes that Nā Kukui o Waimānalo will make it easier for people who want to become musicians, or enter the music community in some other way, by providing mentors to help along the way, at an individualʻs pace. “Itʻs really a broad organization. We do all kinds.”

But where does someone come up with the idea to start a program like this? One day, says Pahonu, “I was sitting at the bus stop and it was right out of Blanche Pope Elementary. I was sitting down and I brought out my guitar and I was playing slack-key. An uncle came over, he was also catching the bus, and he told me, he sat down and said ʻOh, pretty good.ʻ… He started telling his moʻolelo about how his papa kind of mentored Gabby Pahinui and, right there, a light bulb went off! I was like, ʻWhy donʻt we hear this moʻolelo, you know?!”

Many people are familiar with Mana Maoli and Project Kuleana, but Pahonu feels that there should be more space for people like this uncle waiting for his bus. Thereʻs a lot of attention to some of the more “famous” members of the lāhui, but Pahonu feels that “itʻs those people in the small communities who mentored these great musicians and made them who they are... we should give them recognition.” Youth are constantly influenced by other cultures, especially when listening to musical genres like rap or reggae. Itʻs difficult to expect the youth to be the “next generation leading Hawaii” if they are more familiar with cultures other than their own.

Leaders are diverse. There are different ways to be a leader and different means of leading. In the upcoming year, Nā Kukui o Waimānalo is planning a new series called Hana Noʻeau, which captures artists within the community – lauhala weavers, lei makers, all sorts. “We canʻt all become musicians because we canʻt sing our way through life. We are going to need artists. We are going to need engineers. We are going to need mathematicians. But itʻs a matter of us making that accessible to people”. Social media is perceived as a bad thing, but Pahonu believes that when used in a pono way, it can be used in incredible ways. We live in the era of social media activism. “Look at Mauna Kea,” he says, “I donʻt think people in Canada or Russia or all over the world would know about these causes without social media”. Pahonuʻs organization chooses to use social media as a platform because itʻs easily accessible to a diverse audience. Itʻs easy to search up a profile and watch a video.

The biggest challenge for such a young organization is getting people involved. “We have already had a couple of classes and a couple of mentorships [but] itʻs quite difficult to work with teenagers and people my own age.” ʻIke kūpuna helps Nā Kukui o Waimānalo overcome some of these challenges. “Our koko once was in someone elseʻs kino and that was our kūpuna,” says Pahonu, reaffirming the importance of ʻike kūpuna for their organization. He uses his namesake, pahonu, the lagoon in Waimānalo, as an example. The pohaku being moved from the lagoon are kūpuna. “They hold knowledge and they will continue to further that knowledge. They may not speak to you but in [their] existence…[they] become kupuna.”

This philosophy makes mele the best course of action. “One of the ways our kūpuna passed down this ʻike was through mele, was through oli, and was through haku mele and I really believe that we have to start at our kahua,” Pahonu exclaims. Stories about Hiʻiakaikapoliopele are all passed down through oli. The introduction of written language to Hawaiians filled the nupepa with even more stories. For Pahonu, the practice of mele is the practice of storytelling. “We have these music bloodlines in our ʻohana. Itʻs about reclaiming it, reclaiming what our kūpuna did before us. Itʻs not about introducing something new. Itʻs about just opening it up again.”

His aunt bought Pahonu his first ukulele. “I didnʻt know anything, I couldnʻt even strum for my life,” he says. Pahonu would listen to his parents singing – “ and stuff, like Puamana” – and would want to learn them. “I wanted to reclaim it,” he says. “My great-grandpa (called Papa Joe) was still alive when I got my first ukulele. I remember going into his room and he was a little maʻi and he could talk a little but he would just sit in his room or lay in his room. I would just go inside his room and just play, just strum. I wouldnʻt know any chords. I just went inside with my ukulele and expected something to happen.” Something did happen. Pahonu recalls entering Papa Joeʻs room one night and sitting down with his aunts and uncles. “I remember them bringing out a guitar, like a guitar from the closet. It was one of those kupuna closets, not everyone is allowed to go in. I remember them playing something and I swear I saw these cords on the guitar, D7, G7, C. Thatʻs the first vamp you ever learn in Hawaiian music.” Pahonu firmly believes it’s that connection with his kūpuna that allowed him to learn so quickly. “Boom, I started going and started picking up double strums and playing all kinds and just from that single was like one morning I just woke up and I could play. Itʻs like woah, like woah!”

Pahonuʻs first inspiration is his Papa Joe. “I never heard him play before but he really does inspire me to learn. I really do believe he is constantly walking right beside me and guiding me and opening all these doors.” Pahonu is also inspired by his grandparents. His grandpa, passed long before Pahonu was born, lives on only through the moʻolelo. “My grandma and grandpa had this [entertainment] business. I heard all these moʻolelo on how talented he was. He inspired me… One day when I do meet him, I will be able to talk with him and kanikapila with him so Iʻm just waiting until that day.” His parents are another source of inspiration for the mele that he writes. “They inspire the way that I think. They inspire a lot of melodies in ways they donʻt know.” Pahonu feels that his kūpuna communicate through the mele that he plays. “I donʻt know what happened but [my mom and dad] canʻt really sing,” he admits. “They canʻt stay on pitch but they swag with us when we sing and thatʻs all that matters. They may not be musically inclined but they do inspire my music that I write and that I say.” Pahonu is grateful for the influence his parents have had on his musical journey, despite lacking their own.

Pahonu is a songwriter in the habit of never writing down his songs. “All my songs are stuck in here (points to head).” Whether writing quickly or over a long period of time, Pahonu says that his kūpuna are what facilitate the creative process. About his most recent song, “Hale Mauna”, he says “I am releasing my single soon and that was the first time I ever wrote down my song...I am constantly writing multiple mele at the same time.” Hale Mauna is a mele about the mountains of Waimānalo. Pahonu says there arenʻt a lot of mele about his home but “I canʻt just complain about not having a lot of mele”, he claims. “My kūpuna gave me that kuleana to write mele about Waimānalo… and be passed down so people are able to name that mountain or are able to name that wahi”. As mentioned before, itʻs all about making it easier for musicians and people to understand their history.

“Hale Mauna is a very beautiful mele,” Pahonu sheepishly admits. “If you look at the mountains in Waimānalo...thereʻs these hale. They look like hale on top of the mauna. It literally looks like a triangle and they drop and itʻs so beautiful...I asked a lot of kūpuna like, ‘what is the name of this, this beauty?’ They were like, ‘I donʻt know. You gotta give it a name.’” Thus, the mele Hale Mauna was born, a song about the beauty of the scaffolding of the Waimānalo mountains, about the ao that forms a lei that dresses these mountains that invites the public to gaze upon it with awe.

Even though Pahonu is constantly composing, he feels that the program requires a haku mele to be brought in if he wants to teach people. He mentions his first kumu hula, Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, and her expertise as a haku mele. “It’s amazing some of the poetry, like the saying in her mele, I can never see me being able to. And she talks like her mele. When sheʻs talking to you itʻs very poetic.” Pahonu is really inspired by Kumu Hina, and her mastery of her craft. Having attended haku mele workshops with big names like Kainani Kahaunahele, Kīhei Nahale-a, Manaia from the Big Island, and many others who have influenced his song writing, Pahonu still feels that his style of writing is courtesy of his kūpuna. “Half the time itʻs probably my kūpuna going ʻOk, here, you can have it.’… I can wake up and I just had a dream and itʻs like, ʻOh letʻs write a mele.ʻ”

Nā Kukui o Waimānalo is actually under a larger organization called Ke Kula Nui o Waimānalo (KKNOW), University of Waimānalo, who helped fund the launch of Pahonuʻs program. Pahonu shouts out his Aunty ʻIlima Ho-Lastimosa, advisor for KKNOW, and thanks her for her example of good leadership. Pahonu emphasizes that having strong, mentor-like relationships with people, especially people and organizations that align with your own values, can only benefit you and the community around you. “If you want to be a musician who works at a bar then you do it,” he says, “As long as you are happy and your ʻohana is supporting you in your decisions then you are all maikaʻi”. That community support allows Pahonu, and other ʻōpio like him, to pursue the things they are passionate about. Community support is the reason Nā Kukui o Waimānalo exists, and at the same time, Nā Kukui o Waimānalo exists to reciprocate that support for its community.

Community and ʻohana - these are the values that Pahonu chooses to emphasize. Coming together, despite the differing opinions and ideas of each individual, and living by these values can only benefit kanaka in the long run. Pahonuʻs concluding statement is simple: “come together and be pono”.

For more information about Nā Kukui o Waimānalo visit @na_kukui_o_waimanalo on Instagram. To get involved with Ke Kula Nui o Waimānalo visit Listen to “Pua Hihiu”, the latest single from, at

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