Rohnert Park singer Faith Ako brings Hawaii to Sonoma County
Award-winning singer/songwriter Faith Ako does more than entertain audiences with her sultry voice and ukulele skills. She shares the stories and culture of her beloved Hawaiian homeland and spreads the aloha spirit that’s always in her heart.
Although Ako, 62, moved to the mainland in 1985, the islands are never far away. As the Bay Area’s premier female artist in traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music for more than two decades, the Rohnert Park resident sings of the beauty and paradise of Hawaii - the beaches, mountains, flowers, plants and volcanoes, and of the traditions, warriors and spiritual powers central to Polynesian culture.
Whether recording, performing or going about her daily life, she thinks about Hawaii, where many family members live, “all the time, every day,” she said. “Every day, nonstop.”
Her long-anticipated fourth album, “Ku’u ’Aina Aloha” (“The Love of My Homeland”) takes listeners to Hawaii - without the airfare and travel. Scheduled for release in March, she spent four years working on the project.
“My job is to share the stories behind the music and the hula,” she said. “I know that’s my purpose and the reason I’ve been given that gift. It’s like going to the islands. My voice transcends that vibe.”
Ako visits Hawaii at least twice a year, sometimes four or five times. “I need to get grounded in the ocean. The ocean could run all the psychologists and therapists out of business.” She heads there for her “Big Island Reunion Tour” in May, following her “Hawaii Live Tour” across the Pacific Northwest in March. Locally, she performs at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts on April 3.
She recorded “Ku’u ’Aina Aloha” in Honolulu, working with top musicians and Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Tucciarone, “a tall Italian guy” who moved to the islands from New York. She said she learned more about music and singing working with him “than I have in my whole life.”
The album features 11 songs, including three written by Ako, one a “pretty cool” Christian song celebrating “my brother, Jesus, and what he’s done.” The arrangement of Hawaiian melodies also features Hawaiian classics and hula songs.
“I love hula and have to keep my hula people happy. If they hear music they love, they feel it when they dance,” she said. The album “has a nice Hawaiian vibe to it.”
Ako began singing, dancing hula and learning piano and ukulele in her childhood. She has fond memories of growing up as the youngest of 15 children in a talented Mormon family in the small town of La’ie, on the north shore of Oahu, home to the Polynesian Cultural Center. Her maternal grandparents laid roots there as missionaries from Samoa, and it’s where her father, serving in the Navy, courted her mother, “with my grandma in the back seat of the car.”
The family was musically inclined, with everyone singing and at least half of Ako’s siblings playing instruments. They include, with 24 years from oldest to youngest, Audrey, Arthur, Yolanthy, Norman, Clyde, Noel, Earl, Helen, Eldon, Angus, Hope, Gill, Timmie, Kerry and Faith, 10 brothers and five sisters. (Ako’s parents and seven siblings have died.)
Her grandparents, who lived close by, often sang in their native Samoan. “I loved how they sang harmony and melody and they were right on key,” Ako said.
May Day was a big celebration in her town, with public and private schools hosting performances for the community. Students trained in music and dance (and Hawaiian dance implements) and were taught the stories behind the lyrics, instruments and movements before performing in costumes crafted by family members.
Ako took piano lessons, but is self-taught in voice. “I was 6 or 7 before I discovered my voice,” she said. She recalls singing her first songs, 1960s standards “Silence is Golden” and “Love is Blue,” and “I figured it all out by ear.”
Music was central at home and church. Ako sang in choirs, and grew up like mainland kids - watching “The Beatles” make their black-and-white TV debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and listening to rock ’n’ roll, soul and rhythm and blues.
Her influences include Linda Ronstadt, Karen Carpenter, Diana Ross and Eva Cassidy. Ako spent countless hours carrying around a transistor radio - at school, the beach and church - tuning in and singing along to pop music from the States, preferring Jimi Hendrix, The Supremes and The Monkees to Hawaiian music.
“I’m really a rhythm and blues girl,” Ako said. “My voice is unique in that way. I can sound Hawaiian, but it’s different from other Hawaiian singers and doesn’t sound as original. I can sing high, but I can’t sing falsetto.”