Empowering Puna Through Music

Empowering Puna Through Music

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Photo Credit: Jessica Scranton

How does a community change its reputation? Transform negative perceptions into a renewed sense of appreciation and value? This is a question that faces many communities around the world, including the most economically-challenged region in Hawaii, the District of Puna.

Located on Hawaiʻi Island, Puna has been isolated by its geography, Kilauea’s recent lava flows - and by negative perceptions of the region. However, while Puna’s remoteness keeps it under the radar of many Hawaiians and travelers, alike, it is quickly becoming a haven for sustainable, off-the-grid living and cutting-edge permaculture practices.

Home to the newest land on the planet, Puna has a powerful energetic presence personified by volcano goddess, Pele, and has been compared to Sedona, Arizona, and other power spots around the world. This secluded district has drawn eco-conscious, forward-thinking residents and visitors to its affordable shores, and has given birth to the Yoga Coast, a stretch of coastline with the highest density of yoga teachers in the United States. Puna also contains many sacred Hawaiian cultural sites, is where the sun first rises on the Hawaiian Islands, and has been made famous through Hawaiian chants and stories.

Although changing the perception of a district seems like a daunting task, a group of community leaders from KAPONO (the Kalapana-Pohoiki Neighborhood Organization) and Kalani, Hawaii’s largest retreat center, have set out to do just that. Their innovation tool? Festivals.

Puna’s annual festivals have created a sense of purpose in the community, and have presented an opportunity to invite the world to join in celebrating the Puna’s rich cultural gifts. Creatively rich, agriculturally profound, and visually stunning, it turns out there are many gifts to share. And so, with founding support from the County of Hawaii and the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, the district now celebrates three major festivals annually: the Puna Music Festival, the Puna Culinary Festival, and the Hawaii Yoga Festival.

The first of these in 2014, the Fourth Annual Puna Music Festival, is just around the corner, from May 4th through May 11th. This nonprofit event draws thousands of people to Pohoiki, the local surf beach, and to the streets of the town of Pahoa, where the Kanikapila (jam session) brings live music to balconies, windows, and storefronts around town.

Throughout the festival, keiki (Hawaiian children) can be seen playing to the sounds of local musical artists, while others enjoy sampling some of the region’s fresh, local street food. Brilliant green foliage hangs over the stark black cliffs, effortlessly enduring the pulse of the mighty Pacific waves, while the festivities roll on. However, this rugged and pristine Hawaiian landscape is just a bonus. The real magic to life in Puna happens when this colorful community joins together.

Each year, the Puna Music Festival has attracted more and more visitors and performers. The attention the region has received is steadily growing, and the innovative, out-of-the-box approach the festival has taken is helping Puna get the widespread positive recognition it deserves. The festival has quickly grown to become the second largest multi-day festival in East Hawaiʻi, a respected event on the island’s cultural calendar.

Exactly how do Puna’s festivals like the Puna Music Festival empower the people of Puna? Attracting visitors to one of Hawaii’s best kept secrets boosts spending and economic growth; however, the true hope of the festival is to showcase the people who live here in their true light – as vibrant, beautiful, and culturally rich individuals, building community pride and connectedness.

Puna is home to some of the most creative and renowned talent in Hawaii. Local musicians and artists enjoy the opportunity to share with the community their unique and diverse talents. The diversity of music ranges from the stirring sounds of Hawaiian music, to the deeply soulful music from the Sacred Music Festival, which brings kirtan and other forms of sacred music to the forefront.

In addition to showcasing musical talent, the week has incorporated opportunities for educational and cultural immersion, in order to deepen the connection with Hawaiian culture. Artists step forward to share their gifts, teaching song-writing, slack key guitar, drum making, hula, and how to make and play the ohe hano ihu, the Hawaiian nose flute.

Hawaiian elders and kumu (teachers) have highlighted how important the festival has become within the community. They recognize that when the community joins together to honor each other and this ever-changing land, the power felt amidst the celebration is indescribable.

Visitors looking for a truly magical cultural and sacred experience - without the traffic, giant resorts and big businesses - increasingly find it in Puna. Those lucky enough to find themselves in this inspiring district have access to a deeply authentic, meaningful and life-changing experience – and when they leave, they know that their presence has helped to transform and empower this beautiful community.

For more information about the Puna Music Festival, visit

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