The Green on New Album 'Marching Orders' & Hawaii's Unique Reggae Scene

Jason Ko
The Green

"Shout out to the 808 state! We're just some guys from the island of Oahu and this is about as far away from Hawaii as it gets, but New York City is one of our favorite places to play, and we want to thank you for the love and for supporting reggae music," Caleb Keolanui, lead singer of Hawaiian reggae band The Green, told a cheering audience at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom on a Wednesday night in late January.  

The members of The Green (Keolanui; Ikaika Antone, keys/vocals; Jordan Espinoza, drums; JP Kennedy, guitar/vocals; Zion Thompson, guitar/vocals; Brad Watanabe, bass) arrived at the Highline following sold out dates in several cities across the U.S., including Columbus, Ohio, a gig the band happily described as "crazy, outta control," as part of their winter tour. Marching Orders (Easy Star Records), The Green's latest album, was released Oct. 20, 2017 and debuted at No. 1 on the Reggae Album chart, reached No. 15 on the Independent Release and No. 62 on the Billboard 200. Marching Orders returned to top spot on the Reggae Album tally twice last month (for the weeks ending Jan. 11 and Jan. 25) and in its 17 weeks on the chart, it has never dipped below No. 8 (currently, it sits at No. 2).

"We try to keep our music authentic, organic, that's why our fans are so stoked for Marching Orders because it shows our natural growth from 22 year olds when we started out (in 2009) to the 30 year olds we are now," JP Kennedy told Billboard in an interview at the Highline. "Being on the road can be rough but this run has been so fulfilling. We have a lot of new tunes in the set and people are singing along to all of the songs, they love the album, and the whole vibe has been very exciting."

The Green's recent performance in New York City demonstrates a dramatic maturation in their musical journey. Intertwining dub-heavy roots reggae, smooth lovers' rock, contemporary pop and rock with indigenous Hawaiian musical/lyrical references, The Green's engaging melodies and lush, nuanced harmonies, led by Keolanui's exquisite timbre, has made them a sought after act far beyond Hawaii's spectacular shores.

Marching Orders was recorded at bassist Brad Watanabe's home studio, Studio One and Sea Major Seven, all located on Oahu. Although the band had initially completed the album in 2016 they were dissatisfied with it so they returned to the studio at the end of the summer of 2017 "and attacked the album with more aggression, which brought about a rebirth of The Green," offers JP. "Caleb wrote a couple of tunes including 'Marching Orders' in that second wave and we brought on Brian Fennell (Ryan Tedder, One Republic, Third Eye Blind) who co-wrote/co-produced 'Foolish Love' and 'All I Need.'"

Produced by Christian Mochizuki, Leslie Ludiazo (the band's original drummer) and The Green, Marching Orders features several guest vocalists including Jamaican dancehall star Busy Signal on the title track and Eric Rachmany, lead singer of Grammy nominated reggae band Rebelution on "Good Feeling" (The Green and Rebelution are managed by C3 Management). Celebrating the diversity within the Hawaiian reggae music scene, Marching Orders also includes collaborations with J Boog on the joyous "Mama Roots," Daniel Spencer Kennedy Sr. (uncle to Caleb and JP and mentor to the entire band) and his band Mana'o Company on the somber "Land of Love" and singer/songwriter/musician George "Fiji" Veikoso, an icon in Hawaiian and Polynesian music and a pioneer of the Pacific Island Sound, on "My Rights," a roots rocking request to smoke marijuana without harassment from authorities. (Medical marijuana was legalized in Hawaii in 2000 but the first state licensed dispensary didn't open until August 2017.)

"In listening to Marching Orders and watching The Green at the Highline, there's now a comfort level, and relaxed confidence in their sound; there's still a lot of punch but there's a settled place that feels really good," observes Eric Smith, one of four founders of Easy Star Records, the New York City based reggae independent that has released three of The Green's four albums, beginning with Ways and Means in 2011. "We will be doing a documentary style series about the making of Marching Orders and the tour so there will be a lot of video content with this release," adds Smith. "There are lyric videos for each song and an official video for 'All I Need' with additional videos to come, many showing Hawaii and its powerful content without coming off like a tourist board ad."

JP Kennedy estimates there are over 100 artists within Hawaii's flourishing reggae scene ("from the underground to hotel lobby bands to pool bar bands to the artists you hear on the radio, that's a lot of people playing reggae"), which grew from the seeds planted by Jamaican artists who played there in the late '70s including Jimmy Cliff, Toots and The Maytals and Bob Marley and The Wailers. "We grew up listening to reggae on Hawaiian radio; back then they called it Jawaiian, but if you are from Hawaii playing reggae, you don't want your music to be called Jawaiian, because it suggests something that's not legit," explained Zion Thompson. Jawaiian, as the name suggests, developed as a Hawaiian interpretation of Jamaican reggae. Jawaiian music got further support when KCCN/FM 100 in Honolulu (Hawaii's capital, located on Oahu) adopted a Jawaiian format in 1990. "In the years that we have been recording and touring," Zion notes, "Hawaiian radio began playing more roots reggae, not just novelty songs or a Hawaiian reggae mixture, but now you hear more authentic Jamaican influenced rhythms."

Within the 808 state (Hawaii's area code) reggae is so popular that Hawaiian Reggae is a designated format on three mainstream Honolulu radio stations including KDNN FM (Island 98.5 FM), the flagship reggae station for iHeartRadio. According to Jamie Hyatt, Senior Vice President of Programming iHeartMedia, Honolulu, and Program Director at Island 98.5 FM (which adopted its Hawaiian Reggae format in late 1999) the station regularly ranks in the top two among the 18-34 demographic and in the top three for the 25-54 range in the Hawaiian market. "Jawaiian was kind of a tongue in cheek term; today we call the music what it is, Hawaiian reggae, but we play reggae from all over the world (including Jamaica) on Island 98.5 FM," says Hyatt. "What's different about Hawaiian reggae is it's a lovers' rock style, mostly songs about love and relationships, cruising at the beach. Dancehall reggae, which is so popular in the Caribbean, never really took off in Hawaii."

The Green have had numerous hits across various formats on iHeartRadio stations in Hawaii, including Adult Contemporary station KSSK FM, the No. 1 station in the Honolulu market, and the Alternative formatted Star 101.9 FM, where the band's cover of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" (from Marching Orders) is currently in rotation. "The single 'All I Need' could easily play on mainstream Top 40 or Hot AC stations anywhere in the U.S.; it's just a matter of program directors being turned on to them," states Hyatt. "In my professional opinion, The Green is the biggest band out of Hawaii, the cream of the crop, and it speaks volumes that (Honolulu born and raised) Bruno Mars chose them as his opening act for his last three (sold out) shows in Hawaii" (at Honolulu's Blaisdell Arena in April, 2014, part of Mars' Moonshine Jungle tour).

Mainland U.S. radio remains a challenge for The Green, as it is for the entire reggae genre. But as they continue their winter tour through mid February, with upcoming festival dates in the spring and another as of yet unannounced tour planned for later in the year, The Green is winning over new audiences, one show and one city at a time. "We tour very hard and whenever we perform in a place we wonder, did they hear our music through radio promotion, streaming or songs we did with other artists, we don't really know," says Zion. "We have many friends in bands in Hawaii that would love to be playing in these different places, but it's so hard to get out here. We were really lucky entering the scene when social media was just beginning to blow up, it spread our music so easily and that made all the difference."

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