Musician and activist Makana has been in love with music for as long as he can remember. Born Matthew Swalinkavish to a father from Minnesota and Hawaiian mother, he sang as in a Honolulu boy’s choir at age seven, started playing the ukulele at age nine, and at 11 was taught to play the Hawaiian Slack-key guitar.
“I was very blessed to be taught by masters,” he recalls. He describes the Slack-key guitar as a three-part guitar with three distinctive compartments, the base, rhythm and melody.
At age 14, he was renamed Makana, which means “a gift given freely” by a Hawaiian elder who has since passed away. “When my name changed, my whole life started to change, and I quickly realized that my life was about serving others through my art,” he says. “You know what your calling is and you know when you have to do certain things.”
Activism took root in Makana’s life at an early age. The first song he wrote around 20 years ago was for a cause to save a little beach he grew up on. He remembers loving that beach so much that he even went as far as picking up cigarettes butts for its upkeep. Makana stated that many people showed up to an event to support his cause to save the beach, including the mayor at that time. Twenty years later, politicians are still trying to develop that beach and the Hawaiian people are still fighting for it.
Makana’s causes have since become bigger and more visible. He is now backing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and has released a new song and video entitled “Fire is Ours” dedicated to his campaign. “I am an independent thinker. I don’t belong to a party,” he contends, but likes what he sees in Sanders. “Back in 2011 when Occupy Wall Street was in effect, I wrote a song called ‘We Are The Many.’ Bernie Sanders represents all the themes I wrote in that song. I have never put my name behind a politician before, but his integrity is clear. He is building a campaign for the people’s class not the corporate class.”
In 2011, the First Lady invited Makana to perform at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation dinner in Honolulu, attended by President Barack Obama and the leaders of 18 other nations. Makana was filled with gratitude by the invitation but says he had “nerves and fear” about the performance. “I was wearing this ‘Occupy with Aloha’ T-shirt a fan had given me under by jacket, and I had to be brave enough to unbutton my jacket and show this T-shirt in front of world leaders.” Makana eventually got over his fear, opened his suit jacket wearing his shirt on display and instead of providing the expected instrumental background music, he sang variations of his song “We Are The Many” for 45 minutes.
Look for Makana to share his passion for music, culture and history when he visits the Dakota this Wednesday, along with Paula Fuga, a powerhouse soul singer from Hawaii. As for what Makana does in his free time when he is not performing and making big political statements, he states, “A lot of what I do now is voter registration, getting people to know how to register.” He adds, “I have also done a lot of environmental work, I love gardening and I am big into food.”
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