Roger Bong, founder of Aloha Got Soul, has evolved decades of curated tunes into a library of musical diversity found only in the Islands.
Roger Bong has soul for eternity and vinyl for miles. After blogging for five years about rare and obscure ’70s and ’80s music of Hawai‘i under the moniker Aloha Got Soul, Bong flipped that blog—a collection of mixed tapes, reviews, and stories about underground artists and out-of-print music—into a record label in 2015. Today, Aloha Got Soul curates a library of eclectic albums from Hawai‘i artists that span the genres of vintage, modern, progressive, alternative, island, funk, R&B, and, of course, soul music. From relatively unknown to international reach, Aloha Got Soul is giving Hawai‘i artists new life on the turntable.
OluKai: Aloha Got Soul is a great name. How did it materialize?
Roger Bong: Aloha represents the culture in Hawai‘i. It’s so mixed, so varied, and so diverse. Despite this intense diversity, we all get along and live in harmony together. It’s achieved through the respect we share for one another, which can be defined in one word, aloha. The soul part is something that has substance, meaning and value. If you put the two together, Aloha Got Soul is a mixed group of people coming from all different kinds of backgrounds who are creating something meaningful, timeless, and impactful. A lot of people think that the label is just one type of sound because of the word “soul,” but soul is deep. And it’s just like aloha—it’s very deep. Yeah, the two go well together, hand in hand.
What’s your process for curating the artists that you promote?
I think curation is having a vision and finding ways to promote or further that vision. By no means is curation an end all or be all. It’s a point of view from someone’s particular perspective or vision. I look for the underdog—lesser-known or underrepresented artists—and give them a voice and a platform in the modern age. Aloha Got Soul has a global reach, and we want to open that up to the people of Hawai‘i who are making music and give them opportunities to reach a wide audience and to define their own identities. That’s really important. We’re in the middle of the ocean and people’s perceptions of Hawai‘i can be very narrow, and so we want to work with artists who are ready and willing to define themselves and define their part of Hawai‘i that makes the most sense to them.
I think it all goes back to record collecting. When you’re digging for records you have to be discerning. You have to know a little bit about what you’re looking for, and about who is involved in the kind of music that you’re looking for. You’re drawn to artwork that catches your eye, you make some bad choices, but sometimes you stumble upon some really good and interesting finds just based on that gut feeling on top of what you’ve come to know so far.
Tell us about the music scene in Hawai‘i right now?
There’s a groundswell happening in music that’s outside the popular scheme of things. I’m seeing a lot of the artists that we’ve worked with collaborating and creating new stuff together. And there are artists who are coming out of the woodwork, who feel inspired by what’s happening around the music scene in general. There are definitely ups and downs in Hawai‘i’s music scene. It comes in waves. It’s a very small community, but I think right now is a particularly interesting time with more artists experimenting, collaborating, and pushing each other. We’re trying to feed off of that and do the same thing with the label.
Is the label succeeding in helping your listeners understand the broader diverse culture in the islands through the diversity of the music you offer?
Oh yeah. I think we’re in this position now where we can contribute to the conversations that are happening about Hawai‘i outside of the islands. Now we have a responsibility to challenge people’s perceptions of what Hawai‘i is. The physical distance that separates us from the rest of the world makes it hard to come out here and truly sink your feet into the culture.
You work side by side with your wife, Leimomi. What does she bring to the turntable?
We do everything together and are always bouncing ideas off each other. I might be more on the logistical side of things, putting releases together, contacting artists, tracking down producers or licenses, and Lei very much sees a bigger picture, a broader scheme of things, like where we might be in five years or how we can redirect our path to reach a wider audience. Our aesthetic is very similar. We both share the same feeling of what works well with Aloha Got Soul, whether it’s music, merchandise, events, or artwork that we’re designing for a release.
Tune in to our Spotify playlist curated by Roger himself!
Roger Bong's choice of sneaker:
Mōno proprietor Dean Song has an eye for utility and design.
Wallets and clutch purses from Japan are artfully displayed on handmade wooden shelves against white walls. A Taiwanese stationary kit with forged scissors and hand-lettering sheets is displayed on a small mid-century modern end table. Bento boxes from Japan, colorful backpacks from Sweden, and mugs and bottle openers from the U.S. adorn other simple spaces at Mōno, a small design goods boutique in Honolulu. Hawai‘i’s modern culture is an amalgam of Eastern and Western cultures—a melting pot of food, music, art, fashion, and lifestyle—and Mōno is its manifestation. Owners Dean and Cassy Song curate high-quality, everyday necessities with design aesthetic and functionality from Japan, Sweden, Canada, and the U.S. Whether it’s stationary, office supplies, homewares, or personal accessories, Mōno is informing Honolulu’s modern and diverse lifestyle, a blending of bests. We checked in with Dean Song about his favorite little things from Mōno.
OluKai: What types of utility and inspiration do these well-designed, small things bring to people's lives?
Dean Song: Mōno is focused on small design goods to improve your home, office, or lifestyle. I feel that people associate certain objects with memories of places, people, or experiences. This could be a reason why people get attached to an item or product. One of my favorite principles from Dieter Rams is: “A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.”
When did you begin to appreciate the concept of design thinking and well-designed goods?
Growing up I remember my mom’s Marantz sound system. It was beautifully designed and it sounded amazing. I think that might have been the start for my appreciation for well-designed things. It had all the elements that I look for in good design—equal parts of form and function. Yes, it permeates beyond the items I carry at Mōno. I try to follow Dieter Rams principles, not only in the products I create or curate, but also in my lifestyle.
It feels like there’s been a shift in in urban Honolulu to embrace smart design and quality. Why do you think this is trending now and how does it blend with an island lifestyle?
I think it’s because these items are becoming more accessible to us now. Whether it be through finding inspiration on social media, the Internet, or local shops and creatives, I feel people in Hawai‘i have started to take notice and appreciate the allure of clean and modern design. In my opinion, it fits well with tropical urban living because it gives a nice balance of traditional and modern design. It’s hard for me to say what has influenced this trend, but I do hope that Mōno has made a small impact. We’ll continue to do what we do and we’ll try our best to influence this lifestyle through our products and store.
When something is handmade or hand crafted, does it elevate that item?
I feel that it does elevate an item or product. When a piece is handmade or handcrafted, it makes it that much more special. It becomes something that can’t be duplicated. You probably could get close, but it will never be exact. I feel that having that one-of-a-kind piece makes a person appreciate an item or product even more.
For someone new to the world of well-designed, small things, what are your five must-have picks?
I would pick these 5 items: MD Notebooks from Midori, Horizon Pens from OHTO, Hasami Porcelain Mug and Wood Lid/Coaster, Round Analog Clock from Braun, and the Pencil/Storage Case from Yoshida Porter.
Dean's choice of Nalukai:
Matthew Dekneef, managing editor at Nella Media Group, is sharing the hopes, dreams, and struggles of the people that define Hawaiian culture
At Nella Media Group, a multi-media company specializing in Hawai‘i lifestyle and visitor-industry print publications, managing editor Matthew Dekneef has his finger on the ever-changing beat of Hawai‘i culture. He has created a vivid channel to amplify Hawai‘i’s voices and share its many perspectives through robust storytelling. Dekneef is inspired by the humanity of Hawai‘i, the stories and voices that form the emotional narratives that live next door to the contextual facts and figures of traditional journalism. Through collaboration and a deep respect for the unheard and underrepresented, Dekneef curates compelling stories grounded in Hawai‘i’s rich history, stories that testify to the strength of diversity.
OluKai: People from all over the world write about Hawai‘i and its people. How does your local perspective differ from those other voices and what does that bring to story?
Matthew Dekneef: I’m very interested in communities and people that are underrepresented, feel invisible, or are portrayed differently in mainstream media. If you’re born and raised in a place, you just come with a different perspective and a different approach to storytelling in that place than someone that is new to the place. There are hundreds of ways you can tell the same story, but I’m only concerned with telling it in a way that hasn’t been told, or focusing on an angle that hasn’t been exposed. I’m trying to get as deep as possible or in terrain that hasn’t been explored.
As an editor, how do you develop your story lines?
Basically, I identify people, communities, places, and creatives, just interesting points of view and perspectives about the islands—what it means to live here, what it means to have a family here, what it means to be an artist, chef, or writer in Hawai‘i. I’m really interested in the humanity of Hawai‘i and what that looks like, what that sounds like, and what that feels like. As far as editing is concerned, my role is to find a place for those voices and those stories to be heard and to be visible. I’m always on and everything is timing to me. We’re constantly following up with people over the course of a year—I’m a really patient person—or we’re working with a photographer to see what areas of the island or communities they are interested in. My creative process is just remaining interested all the time.
Do you draw on the past to inform your perspective for current pieces that you’re collaborating on?
I’m very drawn to and curious about how the generations before us experienced Hawai‘i. I draw comparisons from the universal storyline between all the people that came before us and how they perceived certain subjects and their environment. I look for the commonalities and the differences and reconcile the two. Then I filter that in a way that makes sense for today, bringing in my own feelings. There’s a degree of nostalgia to it that’s always kind of fascinating to me. Hawai‘i is in this constant state of change all the time, so I like to ride all those different waves and figure out where we are in the whole scheme of it.
You have a penchant for exploring native Hawaiian stories and disseminating those stories to a much larger audience. What is it about Hawai‘i that captures your interest?
Hawai‘i’s greatest strength is its diversity. The people living here express so many different points of view, and not just all the great things, but all the struggles that people have, too. My stance on curation in this field is not along a spectrum of what’s good and what’s bad, and it’s not necessarily anything to a taste level. It’s collaboration. It’s talking with local writers, photographers, designers, and seeing what excites people or what starts a conversation. It’s also recognizing what kind of language people use when they’re discussing certain subjects.
What drives the message home, words or images?
I want Hawai‘i stories to reach as many people as possible. I’m very drawn to the potential of something. How far can we take it? What boundaries can it cross? I think the content that we produce here is very visual because the visual component is very inspirational. The relationship between words and images tells a well-rounded and rooted story. I’m always thinking about the relationship—the dichotomy or the interplay—between the two.
Matt's choice of Nalukai: