Travel to North Kohala, Hawaii

Waves pound the beach at Pololu Valley, as seen from the trail at road's end on Hawaii's Big Island. (Brian J. Cantwell, Seattle Times, MCT / November 19, 2012)

"I asked him how it comes so naturally that he can sing like that," Rosalind tells me. "And he told the story of when we were young kids and climbing on vines and he said he wanted to try to be Tarzan."

Today, their music regularly entertains visitors at the Big Island's Waikoloa Beach Resort, a 45-minute drive south of Hawi. But mostly the couple, now grandparents, trill songs such as "Magic Island" at small community events around North Kohala (see this story online for a video performance).

"For us it's passionate, because it's about us and our heritage," Rosalind says. "It's not a show, it's a life story - of our upbringing, the kind of songs that were in our upbringing."

Wood sculptor Greg Pontius was born in Seattle and grew up in Eastern Washington. But he's lived in North Kohala long enough to raise a 15-year-old son who gives a sweet Hawaiian-style hug when introduced to a female visitor from the mainland.

Pontius and his family live on the edge of Halawa Gulch, one of many little streambed ravines the road elbows its way around on its way to Pololu. Each gulch is an organic riot of banana trees, giant ferns, palms, breadfruit and more. From his home's second-story deck, Pontius can pluck papayas.

He shows me a gleaming native-wood sculpture he's just completed of a green sea-turtle in a swimming pose. His artistic visions come from real experiences, of marine life he's seen while diving or kayaking. He recounts an early experience in his artistic career.

"We were a mile or so offshore in a kayak and a humpback whale came up right beside us, and it was so inspiring, we chased that humpback for an hour or so!" From that, he started one of his first wood projects.

He rarely buys wood. Around Kohala and the Big Island he can find fallen logs or driftwood for his art. A chunk from the dusty woodpile outside his workshop can become a thing of beauty.

"One of my jobs is to help people see," Pontius says. "That's what artists do - I help people get the same joy and fulfillment I get. And turning nothing into something is a wonderful thing."

That the community and beauty of the place inspired John Keawe, a born-and-bred Kohala musician, is plain in the name of the first song he ever wrote: "Kohala, I Love You."

Keawe is a talent in slack-key guitar, another Hawaiian music style that evolved from the time of the vaqueros, who brought guitars to Hawaii. Keawe, who has recorded 10 CDs and has toured the United States, contributed to a collection of slack-key music that won a Grammy in 2005. With tuning adapted to the rhythms of Hawaiian dancing and the structures of Hawaiian music, slack-key delivers a warm and lilting sound.

I first hear Keawe during his weekly performance at a shopping plaza at the Waikoloa Beach Resort. A silver mane of hair and salty beard frame his walnut-tan face, pinched in concentration as he plays beneath a grass roof in a courtyard between Tiffany's and Crazy Shirts. His lyrics are simple ("the grass is green, the beaches clean"); it's the rich, twangy guitar that astonishes. From one instrument, he seems to coax the music of a small orchestra.

Keawe tells a gathering of tourists about the origins of slack-key, or what locals call "taro-patch tuning," which he demonstrates when I visit him at his modern home high on a slope above Hawi. The view is of Maui's peak, Haleakala, beyond corduroy-ridged waves.

Right next to the house he built in 2000 is the simple tin-roofed cabin where he grew up, which he has preserved along with the ti leaf and hibiscus garden his late mother planted, so Keawe isn't far from his modest roots.

Though visits to the fancy resort help pay the bills, he intimates that he's just as happy that most tourists stay at the beaches farther south. "North Kohala is still a beautiful place, it still has no traffic lights, you don't have to stop and wait - I hope that never changes."

It's a happy seclusion. But occasionally a lucky traveler, maybe thanks to a wrong turn, gets to share in the inspiration.



Hear and see the work of North Kohala musicians and artists at these Big Island locations:

David Gomes plays classical guitar most Sundays at the Lighthouse Delicatessen (( ) in the Kohala Trade Center, Hawi. To arrange a visit to his workshop:

Matthew and Rosalind Kupuka'a perform for free 5-6 p.m. most Saturdays at the Queens' MarketPlace and 4:30-6:30 p.m. most Thursdays at the Hilton Grand Vacations Kings Land time-share, both part of the Big Island's Waikoloa Beach Resort:

See the work of wood sculptor Greg Pontius at Isaacs Art Center in Waimea (( ) or the L. Zeidman Gallery in Hawi. His website:

John Keawe performs for free 7-8 p.m. most Tuesdays at Kings' Shops mall at Waikoloa Beach Resort: His website: