Gregg Porter's Music Reviews
Music writer Gregg Porter is a programmer of Hawaiian music for Muzak as well as for radio, and a musician with a local hula halau; he is also a voting member of both NARAS (presenters of the Grammys) and HARA (presenters of the Hokus.) Here, he speculates a little about the first Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Album:
Why did the slack-key album win over the bigger-name (and more established) artists?
One theory is best described by thinking about the people who vote for the Grammys, and the voting structure. There are about 17,000 voting members of NARAS, and fewer than 100 of them come from Hawai`i. Voters choose which fields they will vote in, based on their personal knowledge of most of the music in that field. Fields range from Pop to Rap, from Country to Classical, from Folk to Jazz, from World to New Age. Within each “field,” there are anywhere from one to several individual “categories” – each of them representing an individual award to be presented. So, if someone familiar with Folk music chooses to vote in that field, they can vote on four categories: Best Traditional Folk Album, Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best Native American Music Album, and the new Best Hawaiian Music Album. If a voter chose that field in order to vote on one or more of those categories, but didn’t know Hawaiian music that well, they might have left that category blank – or they might have looked at the nominees and thought “oh, I know what slack-key music is, I’ll vote for that one.” In a pool of 17,000 potential voters, but with a limited number choosing to vote in the Folk field, it doesn’t take that many people thinking along those lines to translate into a win.
What can people do to make changes in the process?
Don’t expect much to change; NARAS has not been known for being an accurate reflection of the record-buying public’s tastes (remember the first time they gave an award for Best Heavy Metal Album --- to Jethro Tull?) It took about twenty years of lobbying to get the Academy to even add this award – maybe it would have fit better in the World field than in Folk – but at least the Hawaiian music scene has shown that it is unique and large enough to garner some attention from the Academy. However, there are several hundred members in HARA (the Hawai`i Academy of Recording Arts); so why are there only about 90 Island-based voters in NARAS? HARA has begun a push to encourage their members to join NARAS, which could lead to more knowledgeable voters making the decision in this category.
Is this really that big a deal? Why is everybody up-in-arms about who won?
It is to the winning artists – a Grammy win can equal a huge leap in sales, though not necessarily, especially in a category with a small fan base. The cachet of a win, of course, is very special. But you have to keep a sense of perspective – those who follow a specialized area of music, like Hawaiian, tend to be very informed and passionate about it; they know who all the nominees are as well as the history of those musicians, so of course, they have their favorites. But when you step back to see how few of the Grammy voters know about Hawaiian music, you realize that they likely don’t know about Reichel’s popularity, or the Cazimeros’ longevity, for example.
So, did the slack-key album deserve to win?
Of course – every one of the nominees deserved to win, as they were all strong representatives of the scene. But before anyone disses the slack-key album, be sure you know about the musicians involved – look at their backgrounds, and recognize that these are players with deep roots in Hawaiian music. Some people have trouble looking past Charles Michael Brotman, who is the public face of the project as the album’s producer, the owner of the label it’s on, and one of the players on the disc. Even though he’s been in Hawai`i since the mid-70s, some people will always view him as an outsider, a bias that is hard to battle.
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