Laurie Rohrer first discovered native Hawaiian music at the age of eight, when her military family was stationed at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
"I fell passionately in love with Hawaii and its expression through music," she says.
Now Laurie and her husband, Jake Rohrer, are devoting their retirement to preserving and promoting some of the island’s little-known native Hawaiian singers in their garage recording studio near the little town of Ha’iku, in Maui.
Music is something Jake Rohrer knows. He grew up in El Cerrito, California, where he befriended John Fogerty and some of the other musicians who later formed the rock and roll band, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Rohrer went on the road with them, as a manager. Forty years later he looks back on those days as a great opportunity.
"Fun. Exciting, and a first-hand look at the music business at all levels, and how it operated," he says.
Laurie's family eventually settled in El Cerrito, where Laurie and Jake met and were married, both for a second time. In 1996, with their children out of college and on their own, the Rohrers decided to retire to Maui. Laurie immediately reignited her passion for Hawaiian music.
"Traditional Hawaiian music is my teacher," she says. "It tells me the legends of the places in Hawaii. It tells me what these places mean to Hawaiian people, and so it connects me to these places and this culture."
Inspired by Laurie’s enthusiasm, Jake also fell in love with native Hawaiian singers, whose sensuous rhythms are distinctly different from any other kind of music he’s known.
"This rich vein of cultural heritage seems to run through them, especially in families," he says. "If one guy’s got the gift, almost the whole family does."
Garage recording studio
It seemed natural for the Rohrers to get involved in the local music scene. Jake built a recording studio in their garage, and they recorded a CD with a traditional native singer named Ata.
With plans to make more recordings, the Rohrers needed their own record label. They chose the name that one of their artists had given to their home - Ululoa. Laurie explains that many Hawaiian homes have names and theirs is especially appropriate.
"Ululoa has many meanings, many layers of meanings. But it means abundant growth, and not just plants," she says. "But spiritual growth, creative growth and it has come to represent exactly what happens here in people growing their music in our studio."
The Rohrers decided to invite only native singers that they liked to record with them. They work with each one individually, granting them free artistic expression and cultural respect.
Once sales have paid back the cost of producing a CD, Ululoa and the artist split the profits, 50-50. Honesty is a key word in the company’s business dealings. There are no contracts. Everything is sealed with a handshake based on the Hawaiian cultural principle of ‘pono.’
"You do the right thing with your artists, with anybody you do business with," Jakes says. "It’s a matter of being pono and when everybody is pono with one another, lawyers aren’t needed."
One of the groups the Rohrers invited to record on their Ululoa label is the Hula Honeys. Its CD, "Girl Talk," won an award from the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts for Best Hawaiian Jazz Album of 2010. Singer and songwriters Robin Kneubuhl and Ginger Johnson say the Rohrers put them on the music world’s map.
"They took a chance with us. We weren’t professionals in the beginning. They just took us in and we’ve gotten to watch, not only what we have done with them, but what they’ve done with a lot of other fabulous performers and musicians here on Maui," says Kneubuhl. "They’re great supporters."
Johnson agrees. "We’re tremendously lucky to have Ululoa because they’re coming from the heart. The bottom line is heart with them and they’re only recording music they really believe in. That’s rare."
Hawaiian culture is an oral tradition. Legends and stories are passed down from generation to generation through songs. Many artists have said that with Ululoa, the Rohrers are saving a culture that might otherwise be lost, but Laurie Rohrer says they are just trying to put out good music.
"It cannot be said that we are doing what we do to preserve Hawaiian culture, but if by recording Hawaiian people and their music has that as an end result, we would be very happy."
Laurie and Jake Rohrer keep a close eye on native Hawaiian singers coming up in the next generation. When the best of them are ready, they will be invited to record on the Ululoa label, continuing the Rohrers’ success in promoting and preserving Hawaii’s unique sounds.