One night in 2010, Roger Bong, a young photographer and design student fresh out of college and living and working in Portland, Oregon (over 2,500 miles away from Hawaii, where he grew up), heard a mix that would change his life. “DJ Muro got the ball rolling,” Roger told me in 2016 when I first interviewed him for Wax Poetics, Issue 65. Speaking to me from Honolulu, where he now lives, he continued, “That was the spark that lit this project. It wasn’t even an idea in my head until I heard that mix [Hawaiian Breaks]. I was like, ‘What the hell? I’m from Hawaii, but I had no idea. I have to do something about this.’” As a beat-hungry digger “sampling music and making beats with my friends,” Roger knew only one song from the whole mix: Mackey Freary’s “A Million Stars,” which he’d stumbled upon in a friend’s dad’s record collection years earlier. “When I heard [“A Million Stars”] on Muro’s mix, it clicked.” Soon after, Roger started his influential blog and later record label, Aloha Got Soul. “When I got home, it really flourished,” Roger said. “I met all the right people, I met these artists, and I started finding more and more records. I’m still piecing my collection together, but luckily there are a handful of people like me who are interested in this kind of music, and we often share or trade records with each other.”
Since Aloha Got Soul started in 2010, Roger’s been responsible for spreading the funkier and more soulful side of Hawaiian music to far-flung corners of the globe where curious listeners soak up the sunny sounds of the Hawaiian homegrown recording industry. The 2016 compilation Aloha Got Soul: Soul, AOR & Disco in Hawai’i 1979–1985 was the culmination of Aloha Got Soul’s partnership with London label Strut, compiling sixteen songs recorded within
the archipelago. Instead of Hawaiian music that typically evokes thoughts of ukuleles, hula skirts, Don Ho, or even Elvis, the songs Roger lovingly compiled for this release presented listeners with a very different perspective on the popular music of the fiftieth state. More than just another regional flavor within the American musical spectrum, the music showcased proves that Hawaiian music—even when it’s trying to mimic mainland styles—stands apart from its mainland competition both musically and lyrically.
“Polynesian music is very polyrhythmic and very similar to Latin rhythms, so it’s almost intuitive or innate for Hawaiian musicians to pick up on that kind of rhythm,” Roger explained. “Back then, professional studios were really established. You still have professional studios [in Hawaii] now, but at the time, you had all these artists who were looking to make it, or make something, and it just so happened that at the same time all these studios were opening their doors,” Roger said.
I caught up with Roger Bong in 2022. He now has an Aloha Got Soul store in Waikiki, which serves as a home base from which to share his manaʻo about the music from his home state.
Let’s talk again about how the label Aloha Got Soul got started.
We did [the releases for] Mike Lundy and Aura before the comp [Aloha Got Soul], and that was 2015 when we did Mike Lundy. And I had little to no experience. I never worked at a record store, never ran a record label, was never even around that, but I grew up making beats. You know, in high-school slanging CDs—“Yo, buy my CD. You got a dollar? I’ll give you a CD of beats I made.” I had drive behind me, I guess. So I launched the label in 2015, and people were more interested than I thought they would’ve been, so I just knew that there was something there.
And before the label, you had a blog?
That started in 2010, and I had actually started it in Portland because I went to University of Oregon. And then I was homesick, living in Portland, freelancing, working a regular retail job, and I heard DJ Muro’s Hawaiian Breaks mix and I was like, “Wait a second, this is all from Hawaii. I gotta find out more!” So yeah, I hopped onto [beat-diggers’ forum] Soul Strut and connected with some people there. There was this guy, Waxist from France, who was like, “I love Aura—one of my favorite records” or something, and I was like, whoa, something interesting is going on here. So that’s why I started the blog, because there was nothing online at that time about these records. So you type like “Aura” or “Mike Lundy,” and there would be almost nothing available save for like a Japanese collector’s personal blog about their trip to Hawaii and like the list of sixty-five different Hawaiian records they bought or something.
Fast-forward to 2015, and I’d done enough mixes, interviews, and record reviews on my website—connected with enough musicians—to be like, “Hey, I could reissue some of this stuff with their permission.” What I realized was, a lot of people outside of Hawaii were paying attention: crate diggers, collectors, people just looking for good music. I was just trying to put it on people’s radars who were aligned with this kind of music. For all of what you might see on the surface of Hawaii, what you might hear on the radio, there’s so many layers below that of people doing really interesting things. I’ve kind of made it my mission to help tell—or help build—a story about Hawaii’s music in our own way, centered around records. Because vinyl records reach people—like I’m on this call with you now; without vinyl, we wouldn’t be chatting about this music.
You opened the Aloha Got Soul store in Waikiki in 2021. How’s that going?
Now we have this record store. I’ve been digging for like fifteen years. I got into it making beats. So I understand the art of crate digging, right? But it’s so interesting to see young people nowadays and how they approach records and what their relationship is with them. The young people are really open to it and really curious. They understand how important it is to have that interface, something tangible. And we slide right into that. Because now we have what is going to be our seventieth release, and most of what we did was vital.
Then, in the beginning of 2021, I was like, man, I’m so sick of working from home. I’ve been doing this label from home for so many years now, like, we need a space, we need an office. So we started looking around and we found the spot that we’re in now. We got the keys on April 1, and we opened on June 12. And my wife, Lei, has always been a part of it; we met in 2013, so she’s seen the progression of AGS from the blog to where it is now, and she’s kind of the reason why the shop really came together so well.
It’s like finally come around, and this is maybe too philosophical, but because it all started with such an international interest, and now we’re doing [the reissue of the debut album of] Kalapana next year and we have a physical headquarters. It’s like we’ve covered the outside, and now we’re finally covering the inside, which is the local scene on the ground. So that’s what the shop has enabled us to do—is to really make sure that our presence is felt in Hawaii—and people kind of have access to us and therefore an understanding of what we do.
And now I’m in this place where I’m just trying to figure out how to run a label and a shop at the same time, and figure out what needs to happen next to build a team, to actually make this something more than it is now, because it’s still very much myself running the label. So it’s like, where do we go next to ensure that we can continue doing this thing?
We stock our own releases and we also carry new music from around the world with an emphasis on independent artists and labels and used music, which is kind of across the board, but I do want to say that we put more of an emphasis on Black music. It’s small, it’s a boutique, it’s highly curated, it’s very representative of our tastes as label owners, as DJs, as radio show hosts, curators. It’s an opportunity to share so much more story behind music.
Your latest release is the reissue of the debut LP from Kalapana. They seem to be one of the more popular groups, judging by the ability to find their records in the bins in Hawaii or the mainland. Are they still popular and what’s their reputation? Do just the old folks know about them, or does everyone know about Kalapana?
Everybody knows about Kalapana. It’s crazy. I mean, we just opened this record store [six] months ago, and young kids—like late teenagers to early to mid-twenties—every week [are] asking to buy the Kalapana records off of our record wall. Yeah, everybody knows Kalapana. They grew up with it. Their parents were listening to it. It’s on the radio all the time, it’s in the Foodland grocery stores, at the airport—they’re just like local heroes. They were like the first—not only did they create this very unique mixture of AOR, soul, jazz, rock, pop contemporary sound, but they set the bar so high with their first record. That, I think, is why their music enjoys such a legacy.
Kalapana was not for tourists. Kalapana was for locals. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s very much what I’m trying to do with our releases—is to not appeal to tourists or people who don’t necessarily understand Hawaii in a way that maybe marketers behind the tourism economy want you to understand, like palm trees and beaches and hula girls—other people already have that ground covered. We want to put out music so that people can understand what locals are doing, and Kalapana, at its core, was just purely about Hawaii.
We’re gonna do their second and their third album, and then we’re gonna do a 7-inch box set. It’s gonna be our favorite selections across their first three albums. It’s gonna be five 7-inches. It’s kinda self-indulgent, because we wanna be able to play some tracks out if, and when, we DJ, you know?
The Kalapana records are not crazy rare and you didn’t include them on the Aloha Got Soul compilation. Were you initially hesitant to reissue their records because maybe it was too obvious?
Oh, that’s a great question. So I’ve always been down with them. We have been trying to get to this point. I have been trying to get to this maybe since the beginning. This is Hawaii; this is what it sounds like.
I think that Aloha Got Soul is still very much in its early stages. I can’t wait to see how people continue to respond to what we’re doing as more and more people find their way to our label and now our shop. It’s just our way of connecting with people, this 12-inch black plastic disc with grooves cut into it, it’s just the perfect way to communicate a story. And there’s this word in the Hawaiian language: manaʻo, which is like your story or your reflection. It’s our way to share our manaʻo with people about music from this place. In my mind, Aloha Got Soul still has a lot of room to grow locally, a lot more people to reach for them to understand what it is we’re trying to do.