This is Hilo Idol: New singing competition opening doors for Big Island talent
September 1, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
Terran “TJ” Kaleiwahea Jr. was so excited Wednesday night that he was shaking.
The 30-year-old from Puna, who’s been singing since he was 9, had just won the first round of the Big Island’s ultimate new singing competition, Hilo Idol. He bested seven other contestants with his version of “When I Was Your Man” by Hawai‘i’s own Bruno Mars and then impressed the judges again in the Challenge Round by belting out “Maria Maria” by Santana.
“I feel amazing,” said Kaleiwahea as he stood outside the Hilo Town Market Showroom just off Waiānuenue Avenue, taking a much-deserved chance to cool off in the late night breeze after electrifying the audience during the show. “I’ve taken a lot of L’s, so it’s nice to finally get the W I’ve been looking for.”
Wednesday night’s competition was the opening salvo to six weeks of quarterfinals, during which up to 10 contestants, who are selected by the judges before the live shows based on recorded auditions on social media, will take the stage at Hilo Town Market to vie for a spot in the top three.
Joining Kaleiwahea in the first round’s top spots were Benjamin McMillan in second place and Raina Wunderlich in third.
Auditions for the quarterfinal competitions continue through Sept. 26.
According to Hilo Idol co-creator and show host Liam “Levi” Strauss, who owns Levitation Entertainment, the karaoke format competition creates a platform — a literal stage — for exposure, cross-promotion and being part of reconnecting, re-establishing and reinvigorating the community in a post-COVID world.
“With the things going on now currently in the world, people need that,” said Strauss. “I think people have fallen back to feeling as if they need to stay inside instead of creating that community and the connection and the friendships with each other that we all miss and we need so much. So this is really creating that offset platform right now for people to kind of get out of their shell a little bit.”
The top three performers from each quarterfinal — judged on criteria including singing ability, stage presence and audience interaction — move on to the semifinal Oct. 18. The field of 18 contestants will be thinned to a top six, who will battle it out during a grand finale Nov. 3 on the market’s grand stage during Hilo’s annual Black and White Night.
The top six will each sing three songs, which can be karaoke, original, with instruments or a combination. The winner will not only become the first Hilo Idol, they also will claim half the prize pot money collected during each show, with the other half to be donated to help victims of the deadly Maui wildfires.
The first night of competition exceeded everyone’s expectations, with a full showroom and overflow crowd outside, braving brief occasional downpours interspersed with parting clouds that allowed the bright light from the blue super moon to shine through.
Audience members cheered their favorites on as each contestant performed under the red, blue, green and orange stage lights. The banter between judges and Strauss’ expert hosting only added to the concert-like atmosphere.
The competition series is the brainchild of Strauss and Hilo Town Market managing partner Mana Thome. The two had been talking about starting a karaoke night to anchor a new Wednesday night market while at the same time, Hawai‘i’s Iam Tongi was on his way to becoming this year’s American Idol.
So they thought why not take that momentum of Tongi’s rise and the awareness he was bringing to Hawai‘i talent to connect musicians and businesses with people in the music and entertainment industry while nurturing up-and-coming talent on the Big Island?
“We kind of wanted to just take the torch and carry it forward to see how many other places we can illuminate through the darkness,” Strauss said. “Ride the waves that have already been splashed with the ripples that occurred.”
The Hilo Idol production team includes director and mentor Jonathan Humphries, who owns Lōʻihi Studios; the three judges, KWXX’s Scotty on the Weekend, Sister Sauce of KBIG, HI95 and The Beat; and “Hawaiiz Own” MainLan of We Stranded Records.
Sister Sauce, a.k.a. Sasha Kauwale, said the show not only gives artists a stage to perform on, it brings live streams to boost their and Hilo businesses exposure, judges with uplifting yet critical feedback for growth — as they just want to see everyone thrive — and also creates an environment that invites aloha and connections to foster between artists.
“Awareness is key, and when the public are aware of talent being able to be showcased it changes the dichotomy of the communities perspective on what can be achievable,” added Idol judge MainLan.
For someone like Kaleiwahea, a former social worker who would love to make music his career and is now putting his life back together after a few hiccups, the platform Hilo Idol provides is priceless. His win in Week 1 helps.
But it’s not easy. The competition is stiff.
“They didn’t make it easy,” Kaleiwahea said about his fellow contestants Wednesday night.
MainLan was floored at how serious the competition was and the level of talent each contestant displayed, saying they went above and beyond. There were some whose performances got the judges up on their feet, either offering a standing ovation or following the queue of audience members who couldn’t help but dance.
“I got chills on one particular performance, others blew it out of the water with eye contact, stage presence, energy, and of course vocals,” Sister Sauce added.
Contestants must be 18 or older and a resident of the Big Island not currently signed to any recording contract or management company. Auditions — which can be original songs, covers, a cappella, with instruments or a backing track — are done by creating a reel of no more than 2 minutes on Instagram and then tagging @levi.tationentertainment with #HiloIdol.
All entries will be judged and the top 10 participants will be informed via direct message as to whether they move on to the live competition and further directions, suggestions and instructions.
Doors open at 7 p.m. each night of live competition at Hilo Town Market, located at 69 Waiānuenue Ave. Cost to attend is just $10 and audience members can bring their beverages and snacks.
Those who can’t make it to Hilo can watch the competition online.