The Uncharted Soul of Hawaii


The Uncharted Soul of Hawaii

Like a crate-digging beachcomber, Roger Bong founded Aloha Got Soul in 2010 to scour golden musical nuggets from the islands of Hawaii. Not the obvious finds, but unexpected gems: funk, jazz, disco, AOR, and more ‘Non-Hawaiian’ music that signifies the spirit of Aloha.


Danny Veekens


August 13, 2020

Aside from running Aloha Got Soul, do you make any music yourself?

I grew up making beats myself. That’s how I got into records. I would like to do that more; I need to get back into it. That’s always the goal. Like, ‘This is gonna be the year I’m getting back into producing.’ But that still needs to happen [Laughs] My biggest influence is Madlib. The first record that really blew my mind was Madvillainy. And J Dilla’s approach to sampling also really blew my mind. Madlib digs really deep, and then there’s J Dilla who gives a whole new life to a song. No matter how he chops it up.

Did Madlib’s digging also inspire how you wanted to set up Aloha Got Soul? Unearthing hidden regional gems, just like he did for his Beat Konducta series?

In a way, yes. When I first started thinking of launching the label, I reached out to Egon, his longtime partner with Now-Again Records. He was kind enough to answer a bunch of questions. And we maintained that relationship since, which has been really nice.

I guess there’s also a parallel between Aloha Got Soul’s diverse catalog and that of Stones Throw Records.

Definitely. They were obviously first focused on hip-hop but eventually branched into jazz, post-punk, and new wave type of stuff. Think of Gary Wilson, to name one. A bit of everything. In a way, I also wanted to get to a point that I could do a bit of everything, too.

But there’s no hip-hop on Aloha Got Soul. Or not yet?

We’re trying to get there for sure. We’re working on something that represents hip-hop from Hawaii, which is planned to be released early next year. There’s just so much ground to cover with every style of music… My goal is now that I’m getting a lot of licenses for the label, we can actually branch out to legitimately licensed sample-based beats, too.

roger bong

DJ Muro’s ‘Hawaiian Breaks’ mix back in 2009 inspired you to start Aloha Got Soul. Did that spark your love for music from Hawaii, or were you already fascinated by music from the islands?

DJ Muro’s mix was definitely a starting point for me. But I should add that before then, I was sampling Hawaiian music unknowingly. When I look back at some of my earliest beats that I made in high school with friends, we sampled an acoustic Hawaiian album. Purely because it was in the collection of my friend’s parents. We thought it sounded cool but never stopped to take the time to think of where it came from. And then 10+ years later, I’m in this Aloha Got Soul thing, blogging, digging up music online and whatnot… And eventually found the music we sampled back then! It was Peralta by Ray Peralta. I’m actually going to reissue that record next year.

DJ Muro’s Hawaiian Breaks also made me realize the scope of how much amazing funk, soul, jazz, R&B, and whatnot from Hawaii there is. So much more than you think there is. If I ask someone from the other side of the world what Hawaiian music sounds like, that person is likely gonna mention hula, ukeleles… This is true, but there are a million people living on the island of Oahu alone. All kinds of people with all many different influences. Electronic music, house, EDM, funk, straight jazz, reggae… You name it. There are people out there making every type of something.

That’s what I love about the label’s description: ‘Non-Hawaiian music’ from Hawaii.

Exactly. Hawaiian music is more traditional; folk music. Or music in the native Hawaiian language. I try to make that distinction. But it’s all connected here.

So how is it connected exactly? Or what’s the common thread through the “every type of something” you just mentioned? I mean, if I listen to Mike Lundy, for example, or Aloha Got Soul latest ‘Disco Island Edits’... If I wouldn’t know better, as a listener I don’t necessarily think of Hawaii as the region it’s from.

Good question… I get asked that question many times, but it’s getting harder and harder to find that common thread. Because the deeper we dig, the wider the spectrum grows. Maybe the common thread is something you can almost hear in the music: a love for the place. A love for nature, and the energy out here. People from Hawaii have a lot of respect for places. It permeates all aspects of life here: what high school did you go to? Which part of the island did you grow up in? That’s the common thread. The spirit of “Aloha”: a feeling of respect and love.

"The common thread is something you can almost hear in the music: the spirit of 'Aloha,' a feeling of respect and love."

—Roger Bong (founder of Aloha Got Soul)

Usually, genres evolve heavily influenced by city life, nightlife, (sub)cultures, or countercultures. How do you feel like music progressed and evolved on the islands of Hawaii?

I think I can speak for others out there, that there’s always a sense that we’re trying to play catch-up. We’re trying to prove to other places in the world that we can do it, too. What makes it really difficult to be a progressive artist here—whether you’re making hip-hop or jazz—is the physical distance that separates us from everybody else.

Some time ago, a bad-ass jazz trumpet player from Brooklyn called Brownman came into town. He was like, I can count the players I want to play with on one hand. That’s because those five people are the ones who worked hard enough to catch up with the rest of the world. What I want to say with this example, is that when an artist of that level comes here—whether it’s on vacation or for work—those progressive musicians here just gravitate to it and try to enjoy it as much as possible, and to make the most of it. Because we don’t get those kinds of interactions on a regular basis. Just like you do in, say, New York.

What’s kind of cool, too, is that when artists come here, they are kind of in vacation-mode. A little more laid back and open.

Does that also translate into the way people record music over there?

There are studios here set up for that purpose. To have a beautiful forest view, or studios tucked away in the valley… Kanye West did that, at Avex Honolulu Studio in Oahu, to create parts of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That’s a really nice studio: on the marina, in this massive house… I think that studio was set up by a wealthy Japanese guy who envisioned a studio in Hawaii where all his artists and so-and-so can come for vacation. Jetskis on the waters and all... [Laughs]

Judged off his album, that certainly worked out for ‘Ye! To get back to musicians playing catch-up there: is there also a sentiment of local musicians feeling underrated compared to, say, US musicians?

No, I don’t think so. There’s a sense of modesty here. As in, you might not even know your cousin is this phenomenal singer. Or that a neighbor is an amazing guitar player. Music in Hawaii is everywhere. So many people play or sing and are so talented. But at the same time, they are also so modest and don’t go out of their way to get their music out as far as possible.

“Tracklib creates an equal playing field: a bedroom producer can be just as good of a producer as someone in a million-dollar studio”

—Roger Bong (founder of Aloha Got Soul)

In a previous feature, you mentioned you hoped people would sample more music from Hawaii.

Yeah, that's when I started a Spotify playlist called ‘Sampling Aloha Got Soul’, featuring tracks using Tracklib samples. It's really cool to hear all those tracks sampling our releases.

Are there any gems from Aloha Got Soul on Tracklib you think are amazing, but that haven’t been sampled yet?

What’s funny, is that the stuff sampled most from our catalog, is the music of Aiko. That’s beautiful music, so that makes sense. Aside from that, there’s this artist I’m working with named Kit Ebersbach who has been making music since the 60s. He was part of jazz/funk outfits, he’s done punk and new wave… And in the late 90s/early 2000s he made exotica. He was in a band called Don Tiki. That’s a treasure chest of sample-worthy material. Nicely in line with Tracklib’s recent addition of Les Baxter.

How do you think Tracklib can change the way people sample?

First of all, I wish I had Tracklib when I was in high school making beats. Tracklib is finally going to legitimize sampling as not only an art form, but also a commendable way of creating music.

It’s going to finally bring everybody to the same level. You got bedroom producers who are in love with a sound. Messing around with their MPC just for the love of it. Back in the days, I used to burn CDs to have my beats heard. Today, you’re gonna have to upload music to digital platforms. And to legitimately do that when you use samples, you need a service like Tracklib.

On the other side of that, you have heavyweight producers who have all the resources to clear samples. You finally have those two coming together to create music again on the same level. Tracklib creates an equal playing field where everybody can participate legitimately. That makes real creativity come back to life: a bedroom producer can be just as good of a producer as someone in a million-dollar studio making beats for so-and-so.

Agreed! By the way, to wrap up this interview: after chasing all the music from DJ Muro’s ‘Hawaiian Breaks’ mix, did you ever get in touch with him about it?

We became friends a couple of years ago, and last year I actually DJ’ed this party with him and DJ Nori in Shibuya, Tokyo. That was full-circle for me! His Hawaiian Breaks mix inspired me to dig for all these records, and there I was, playing all these crazy records from Hawaii at his party in Shibuya… We just released an Aloha Got Soul edition of Hawaiian Breaks by him, dubbed Hawaiian Breaks 2020. A new mix and selection from the Aloha Got Soul catalog. I guess that’s it. We can close shop now. [Laughs]

Browse all tracks from Aloha Got Soul.

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