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These former Song Contest directors now serve in leadership roles at Kamehameha Schools. Showcasing their signature song leader signals are, from left: Andrea Oka KSK’86 – Communications Manager; Ian Custino KSK’95 – Community Engagement & Resources (CE&R) Regional Project Manager; Nani Fujiwara KSK’95 – Kealapono Director; and Kekoa Kaluhiwa KSK’94 – CE&R Senior Director of Statewide Operations.

Former KS Song Contest directors share cherished memories

Mar. 18, 2020

  • AUTHOR
  • Nadine Lagaso

To celebrate a century of Kamehameha Schools song contests, we asked former Song Contest directors to share nā haliʻa aloha – cherished memories – of the choral competition. Their moving moʻolelo show how this treasured tradition helps haumāna embrace their Native Hawaiian heritage through mele.

Although the 2020 Song Contest was suspended to protect our KS ‘ohana from the coronavirus, this year’s song directors are not kaumaha (sad). Instead, they are excited about reimagining the competition and sharing their original mele in innovative ways. Their message is available at the end of this story.

ANDREA DE LA CRUZ OKA KSK’86
Women's Song Director ’85-’86

Cultivating a deeper understanding of a mele
“Our winning song, ‘Ka Mauna Oliveta,’ composed by Randie Fong KSK’78, is the name of an old Hawaiian church in Waikāne Valley, Oʻahu. This was a very special place to Randie and I’ll never forget the day he took me there. It was the church where his grandparents, John Kialoa and Rebecca Kaholokai Kialoa, were pastors and their names were woven into the lyrics. The church was named for the Mount of Olives – a hill east of Jerusalem. Randie likened the lush, green area to Canaan or Kanaʻana, the promised land of the Jews. Randie’s generous investment of time and belief in me helped my 17-year-old self believe in me, too!”

Most memorable Song Contest moment  
“It was my junior year. I was so nervous that when I finished directing our song, I turned and walked down the steps off the small stage and there was this auntie in the crowd. Her eyes were big and looking at me. She whispered loudly to me, ‘You forgot to seat your girls!’ I turned around and there was my class, still standing. That’s one for the Song Contest history book and my first big lesson in execution!”

How song contest shaped me as a leader
“My song contest experience taught me three things. How to listen, connect with others and make the choice to lead. I was in the Concert Glee Club (CGC) and had CGC section leaders in each of the voice parts. They kept me abreast of how each section was doing. Listening to them was very much a part of our success. Our senior women were connected to each other and to our song and driven to win. They also connected to me as their leader. All of these elements helped things fall into place. We were kākou. My decision to be a song leader also taught me that anyone can be a leader in different ways. You just have to choose to be one.”

IAN CUSTINO KSK’95
Co-ed Song Director ’92-’95

Musical mentors and inspiration
“Auntie Leila Kiaha KSK’44 arranged most of our mele. For me, she embodied the talent and wisdom of my great grandmother, Vickie Ii Rodrigues, and the guidance and gracious discipline of my grandmother, Lani Custino. Her presence and influence grounded me in ways that only ʻike kūpuna can. Papa Dale Noble was my rock. He was my unfading North Star; a true mentor and father figure. He was a huge stabilizing force for me, and his musical expertise and calm leadership style was foundational. Les Ceballos was my fire! His passion helped me push boundaries and take my abilities to limits I wouldn’t have dared to alone. Auntie Gussie Bento KSK’50 was the kahu of the Heritage Center when I was at Kapālama. It was a refuge for me, and she was my sage. I would sit in Pauahi’s rocking chair and talk to Auntie Gussie about the stress of song contest every year. Tears were shed, and laughs shared. She, and that place, were sources of healing for me.”

Most memorable Song Contest moment  
“Freshman year... New leader, class of 1995 debut at Song Contest. To say I was nervous is an understatement. We’re in the exhibition hall rehearsing. I’m sweating, trying to make some last minute seating chart changes, making sure each section leader has the correct pitch marked out on their pitch pipes. I’m freaking out! After our last run through of the song, the class files in to the arena. I’m called over to two lūʻau tables over in the corner by my mom and a couple of the other class parents. My mom points at the tables and says, ‘These are all for you.’ Both tables were piled high with lei. I teared up. ‘They love you,’ says one of the parents. It gave me the last bit of strength and confidence I needed to get up on that stage as a freshman director. It sealed the deal for me with my class – I was forever devoted!”

NANI KELIʻI FUJIWARA KSK’95
Senior Women Song Director ’95

Musical mentors and inspiration
“Oh how I love Auntie Liz Hansen KSK’67! To come in as a director in your senior year was very challenging. Except for the freshman director, most directors have already been leading their class their entire high school career. I just remember always feeling scared, frustrated (dealing with 200 young women), and hesitant. She would always gently tell me ‘It’s ok. Don’t give up. Come, Auntie give you hug.’ Mai haʻawipio (Don’t give up) is a motto that I use as a mother. My kids often repeat, ‘Fujiwaras don’t give up!’”

Most memorable Song Contest moment  
“When it was done! I felt such a sense of relief and accomplishment. I remember standing on the stage as the arena emptied, and it began to quiet, and as I looked out to the empty chairs, I imagined the kūpuna of Kauaʻi standing and saying, ‘Well done!’ It was such a chicken skin moment.”

The role of Hawaiian music in my life today
“Hawaiian  music is  what  carries my soul and connects me to my kūpuna and ʻāina. It speaks for me when I cannot speak or express the words myself. It is my language of choice… Music!”

KEKOA KALUHIWA KSK’94
Co-ed Song Director – ’91-’93
“I Mua Kamehameha” Director – ’94

Musical mentors and inspiration
“Directing at song contest was extremely stressful for me. I cried a lot when no one was looking. Since I couldn’t read music, I had to memorize and replicate the movements of my teachers yet add my own emotion to my directing. At the end of the day, my classmates were always supportive of me. I also had other talented classmates like Aaron Sala KSK’94 and Monte McComber KSK’94 who understand music theory and rallied to help teach me and our classmates in preparation for Song Contest. I am privileged to have had such great friends.”

Most memorable Song Contest moment
“After our winning song ‘Mele o Kaho‘olawe’ was introduced and before we start singing, there was a lull in the arena where you can just about hear a pin drop. At that moment, my godmother seated way up in the bleachers yelled ‘Go get ‘um Kekoa!’ and the audience laughed. My aunt has since passed, but she was a huge influence in ensuring I had a quality education. Every time I come upon a challenge in life, I hear her yell… and I keep going.”

The role of Hawaiian music in my life today
“Hawaiian music crosses language barriers, allowing emotions and personal reflections of Hawaiʻi’s beauty to be expressed when words may alone not be understood. As a Hawaiian musician, I have been fortunate to learn from many great musicians and have been able to travel throughout Hawaiʻi, Japan and the west coast. In some of the most contentious times in my life’s journey, music is what allowed me to connect with people. I thank Ke Akua for all that Hawaiian music has afforded me.”  



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