If you have heard Faith Ako sing, you know that you could listen to her perform her signature song, “What a Wonderful World” all evening. The lyrics, the melody, the personal intonations, all come from her heart. If you have visited with Faith, you know that family, music, and education intertwine with her sense of “living aloha”. If you have worked with her, you have seen her transform the world she lives in.
Faith tells her story best as she recalls her move from Hawaii to California, as she speaks of family love, as she remembers her development as a musician from childhood to the present, and as she discusses her work as a paraprofessional in special education at Rancho Cotate High School.
About to have her fourth album released, Faith, a Grammy nominee more than once, and a winner of many other awards, musical and cultural, reflects on her life in a manner that reveals her humanity, love for culture, and concern for others, particularly students. Her down-to-earth nature transcends all of her successes.
Lanny: How do you see your role as a classroom aide impacted by your family, culture, and your music?
Faith: Living, breathing, and sharing aloha, staying pono and true to myself, my heritage, my family. These are life skills and qualities I grew up with in Hawaii along with respect, honor, kindness for elders first, doing your best in all that you can. Listening and not speaking when you are not spoken to, that was a main skill we learned at an early age. These lessons helped me to assert my position as a para-professional the last twenty-five years. Teenagers at my high school are much different now with technology, music, social media, dress codes and social behaviors. You got to know your place and stand your ground with them but with the intention that you really do care and want them to succeed.
Lanny: How do you balance your life between music, family and the classroom?
Faith: Sometimes I wonder? It’s been a crazy twenty-five years of music in the bay area. Yet I feel so blessed and privileged to have had a great career in both professions. Being a Special Ed assistant in the day, a musician at night and weekends. When you love what you do, people feel it, embrace it, make the connection and they build relationships, that’s what life is about: balance, hope, and prayers, endurance, living aloha daily.
Lanny: When did you begin to become a musician?
Faith: My family is very musical. If you grew up in the islands, chances are you were exposed to music with family, church and community activities. At the age of seven, I first learned how to dance and sing at the old Hukilau Luau put on in the mid 1950s in my hometown of La’ie. As children we were all taught how to perform for this event every Saturday, from ages five to sixty, men, women and children. I think this venue started my yearning to be a performer and musician. In all public and private schools, Hawaii has a May Day Event, and each student learns a dance, learns to play a ukulele, and learns to use dance implements, costumes made by our aunts and elders. These dances represent islands and tell stories of the places through hula, music and implements. Surrounded by wisdom and grace, I loved every moment of my childhood.
Lanny: How did you grow as a musician?
Faith: I played and did music in elementary school and high school and I did some college band music as well. I always loved the rock and roll songs that I listened to on my brother’s transistor radio in the 1960s. I knew at an early age that I would perform. After moving to California in 1985, I was busy raising my children. Music didn’t happen until my youngest daughter convinced me to join her hula group in 1993. I played for small performances and finally came out with my first album in 2007. I had an idea of what I wanted to do with my music, and time convinced me when it was right to team up with some great musicians and create some originality in my own style.
Lanny: What is the best part of being a musician?
Faith: Giving back joy to others through the music, seeing their facial expressions in the audience. I can see whether they had a bad day or lost a family member or were going through a tough time. Hawaiian music is very passionate, emotional, and connected to the environment, nature, and family, and it is heartfelt. When I get to meet people after a show, or get emails or comments from the guests, all positive, I think, ha-ha, I know I did a great job and that gives me great satisfaction knowing someone felt better after the music and the show.
Lanny: What are the best things that happen to you in the classroom?
Faith: Seeing a teenager smile at his or her simple successes in schoolwork, watching a great teacher master the art of teaching, and seeing their students get it and connect to the teacher and the lesson. Teenagers are pretty sharp; they know when an adult is sincere and ‘Faith’ see page 8 real. Simple kindness acts and respectful teenagers I just adore! Feeding a hungry student, listening to students’ frustrations (sometimes that’s all they need), and oh, I am a hugger, too.
Lanny: What are the difficult aspects of being a classroom aide?
Faith: I don’t think our position in the classroom is hard unless we can’t get along with the teacher or student; that can create a problem. Communication is the key and being receptive and approachable and having a great attitude, absolutely a must in high school.
Lanny: Why is preserving and sharing culture important to you?
Faith: It’s in my DNA, it’s who I am and where I come from and the legacy and traditions that have been passed down from my ancestors through generations of time. Had my grandparents from Samoa not come to Hawaii as missionaries, I would never have met my great high school sweetheart and made my way to California. For the last twenty-two years, I have participated in Unity Week at Rancho Cotate, Santa Rosa Middle School, Evergreen Elementary School and Lawrence Jones Middle School. It’s my favorite time of year to share my aloha for my homeland and tell the stories. Singing the music, showing the students artifacts, this is my identity. I encourage them to find out their identities and who their people are and what their stories are. Sometimes, I feel sad for the youth because they have no connection from the past to the future. I know someone made a great sacrifice somewhere along the way for me to enjoy my life here in Northern California and I am grateful for every day!
Lanny: What is the best way to teach others about culture?
Faith: Living aloha, being honest, giving service to others, showing kindness and respect. Finding out stories of your ancestors; where did they live, what did they do for survival, what were their names?
Lanny: What awards and recognitions have you received in the music field?
Faith: My first album “Kukahi” in 2007 won two Hawai’i Music Awards, Best Traditional Hawaiian Album of the Year and Best New Artist of the Year. So cool! My second album “Papaku, Bring It Home” was entered to the Grammys Genre listed in the top twenty albums and selected out of fifty entries. Excited was I! My third album “Kulaiwi” was recognized by the Hawai’i Chamber of Commerce, Northern California Chapter, San Francisco for the Kulia I Ka Nu’u, Strive for the Summit Award. It was also recognized by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s Certificate of Honor Award for promoting and sharing with the Bay Area leadership, understanding and appreciation for multiculturalism and diversity in the Polynesian Communities and abroad.
Lanny: What is most important regarding your talent and how you share it?
Faith: My gift through my music is most importantly my voice representation and what I sing about. Who composed the song and how to bring the story behind the song to life with voice and my eight-string ukulele is also very important. I want to make sure that I respect the artist’s point-of-view and present it in a way that would please the original artist’s view and intent of the song.
Lanny: What similarities do you see between your family, your musicians and your students?
Faith: I don’t know if there are any similarities. But I do feel that the music, the stories, the ukulele, my family, my students definitely hear my message and passion once I start a song. Immediately, I see the room ambiance change and stress goes out the door. We all connect and feel better.
Lanny: What hopes do you have for your students and the younger generation? What concerns?
Faith: Hope for a better tomorrow, hope for better family structure, hope for more support and love, hope for less technology and more playtime outdoors, hope for adults to make changes for their students, to be better examples. I am worried for my grandchildren approaching teenage years soon. The world is a mad, confused, complex place, but I do know there is a lot of goodness left.
Lanny: How did you get into the education field and what have you got out of it?
Faith: Growing up in Hawai’i, I did not value my education but rather took it for granted. My sister Hope got me into Chapter 1 and Title 1 Special Education programs for work. Coming from a large family and being the youngest of fifteen siblings, I loved being the youngest and loved playing with my nieces and nephews and other kids. Guess I had great social skills, ha-ha! I moved here in my late twenties and decided to go to work part-time in special education as I did in Hawai’i. I then realized that I wanted my children to go to college; I knew that the only way they would survive and take care of their families was through education. I didn’t complete college because my hubby was gone a lot for work while the children were young. So, I stayed at home and did daycare and made sure my kids were on track for school with lots of love, great meals, and some yelling, too! It was then I knew that my sacrifice to be home with them would enable their future to be anything they wanted to be as long as education was in the big picture.
Faith Ako’s well-rounded picture includes family and music and education. Imagine her lucky students and colleagues working everyday with this wonderful celebrity. She evokes love from all, students and colleagues and family.
Faith has a fourth album coming out next spring. Her next “gig” happens November 30 in Fairfield where she will perform with a Hawai’i group that plays Beatles music. On January 5, she will perform at an art show in Healdsburg. We can all keep in touch with this lovely musician, educator, and family matriarch at her website: www.faithako.com.