If it's possible for someone to be humble and proud at the same time, Karen Keawehawai'i is that person. Whether seated in the garage that doubles as her rehearsal room surrounded by drying laundry or on stage at a Waikiki Hotel spilling out homespun humor, the Hawai'i-born entertainer boasts a commanding, almost stately presence. But it's a demeanor that, once understood, is as common a paradox as the watchful serenity of an owl. Karen Keawehawai'i is a mom, a grandma a proud Hawaiian, and also, a talented entertainer. It's the pride in the first two identities that fuel the humility in the third. "I would have performed no matter what" says Karen, when recalling the upward spiral that marks her musical career. "It allowed me to stay home with my children and to set my own trend."
Calling herself a trendsetter is about as far as the affable mother-of-four will go at selecting adjectives for herself. Not that she has to; this Kalihi-girl's accomplishments speak for them. Strung together, they make a list that's as long as most people's resumes. She won her first major music title in 1980 capturing Most Promising Artist at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. Three years after her "Rhythms of the Island's" album earned her the designation of Female Vocalist of the Year by the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts, an honor that re-visited her in 1984. In 1993, she won the Entertainer of the Year award from Honolulu Magazine.
Beginning with The Kaleos during her senior year at Farrington High School and the Laughing Kahunas her freshman year at the University of Hawai'i, Karen's career has flourished. In 1976, her uniquely versatile voice and charismatic personality charmed veteran entertainer Al Harrington, who asked her to join his show as the featured female vocalist. It was not until she could secure a contract for her group where they performed that Karen began the rigorous three-year, two-show-a-night commitment at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Dome.
Although inspired by her parents, Winona Kahaleohu Holokai and John Ka'onohiokala Keawehawai'i, who were part-time professional entertainers, Karen's passion for music first took shape in her early years as a member of her church choir.
For nearly a decade the Kahunas wowed the local music scene, they played casual gigs at first, then appearing at Yokos, the C'est Si Bon at the Pagoda Hotel, then finally at the Kahala Hilton's Hala Terrace. There Karen sang to the tune of rave reviews.
"The stage becomes livelier when Karen Keawehawai'i comes on," wrote Ben Wood in The Honolulu Star-Bulletin. That's because Karen's repartee is as witty, and sometimes raucous (although G-rated), as any contemporary Hawaiian Entertainer. "The comedy all starts with me laughing at myself," says Karen, who is known for performing off-script.
In 1970, Karen married Jackie Farias, and settled into her role of wife and mother. Tracie Ka'onohilani (1971), Staci Kalanikuho'okahi (1974), Winona Kaweheonalani (1980), and Melody Kaleolani (1983) are the names of Karen and Jackie's daughters.
In 1974 Karen's mother died. She was devastated and quit performing. Jackie helped her to return to her music; put together a trio called Kaleolani and had Karen trade in her tears for laughter at the Buccaneer Restaurant. Soon after, she began her stint with Al Harrington.
In 1978 she recorded her first solo album, "Karen" that included her father singing his composition "My Yellow Ginger Lei." The album, dedicated to her mother was changed to include her father too who passed away on Christmas Eve that year. The album was released in 1979.
"It was my mom and dad's own signature tunes so I put my heart and soul into it," she says. "At the time I didn't think I'd have an opportunity to do another one." Under her Kaleolani Record label five albums followed. Then, in 1990, she released seven cassettes featuring 81 songs of hapa haole favorites with her singing on side A and karaoke sound tracks on side B. Wayne Harada, reviewing "Songs of Old Hawai'i" in The Honolulu Advertiser, said, "This is Keawehawai'i at her classic best. Booming, belting, romping voice, contrasting with heady, zesty falsetto tones; romantic one moment, and a seductress the next..." All this style from a woman whose Farrington High School music teacher described as "modest and shy"
But growing up, Karen watched closely as her parents played regularly at any establishment that wanted Hawaiian Music. By the time she was 18 she had paid her dues in local talent contests as well as weddings, lu'au's, graduations, parties of "any kine," singing with the Kaleos, an all-male group who watched over Karen like their own sister, (with her fathers approval- he was very protective of Karen's evening engagements). Since then, Karen has developed her vocal styles to include Hawaiian, Pop, Country, Jazz, Classical and Rhythm 'N. Blues.
Today, Karen's face, as well as her voice, is recognized throughout Hawai'i as William Conrad's secretary on "Jake and the Fat man" and as the former co-host of the Island's own Jackpot Bingo show, aired back in 1986 on KGMB TV. She was the co-host of the Miss Hawai'i Pageant for ten years and had co-hosted the Children's Miracle Network Telethon. She has appeared in over 20 public service announcements for various charities and has appeared on television numerous times in paid product advertisements. "Eh! You somebody...!" a line used in a commercial for Wendy's is still a popular phrase today.
Much to her delight, Karen has also had the honor of performing over 70 community concerts with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Believing that one should give back to the community what it gives to you, Karen has volunteered her time and her talent to a host of local charitable organizations including Goodwill Industries, North Kona Community Hospital, Aloha United Way, Hawai'i Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), to name just a few.
Karen shared the stage with Jim Nabors "Christmas with Friends and Nabors." for ten years at the Hawai'i Theatre.
Karen also shares her talents with The Royal Hawaiian Band.
Through all the fuss, pomp and glamour of show business, Karen's convictions about life and family have nonetheless remained unshakable. Known by both family and friends as a person of high personal and professional standards, the ebullient entertainer is like a beacon in the night in an industry whose dark side can overwhelm even the strong.
From where does she draw such virtue? Karen claims that it comes from her mom and dad. But listen closer and you'll find that it's really the music and the limelight. "For me, the stage is my psychiatric couch," she laughs. "It works when I need to get rejuvenated or if I need some comfort. Up there in front of an audience, I can be Karen and I get the chance to make people laugh."
Despite her celebrity status, her accomplishments, and all her awards, Karen still sees herself as Karen, local girl, and a good friend "Before I can feel good about an award I need to feel happy about what I've done," she declares. "To get the award is just icing on the cake, because, if there is anything that would be my legacy - it has to be my children first and then my music.