Beatboxing champion Pono’s rhythms come straight from the heart
Pono Akiona isn’t your typical champion. The Wailuku native’s mild-mannered humility belies the world-class skill he possesses in his discipline of choice. Then again, the arena in which he competes isn’t typical, either.
Akiona is a master human beatboxer, a vocal percussionist who creates complex arrangements made up of sounds that mimic a multitude of instruments using only his mouth. His discipline and dedication to the art propelled him to win top honors in the solo category at the 2022 American Beatbox Championship in Atlantic City in September, making him the first beatboxer from Hawaiʻi to win—or even place in—the national championship.
Akiona, 20, who performs as “Pono”, had previously won the 2v2 battle at the nationals in 2018 and 2019 with his former tag-team partner “Bizkit” (Alex Sanchez).
As is typical, Akiona began with a video submission. The 200 videos received were narrowed down to the top 32 who were invited to the competition in New Jersey. Following an elimination bout determined by a panel of judges, the remaining 16 advanced to the battle, where they faced off in timed sets, taking turns for a minute and a half trying to out-perform and shame their opponent. The comparison to a break dance battle is an obvious one, and the bold expressions of confidence and attitude are similar.
“The atmosphere for them is different than just a normal performance,” Akiona says of the battles. “You’re really getting in each other’s face. It’s more aggressive.” But even in the heat of competition, Pono’s thoughtfulness is evident. “At the end of the day it’s all love. Nobody actually hates each other—there’s no beef—but onstage, you know, you gotta really give it to them and show why you’re the better beatboxer and why you should be winning the battle.”
Attitude is a big part of the performance, and Akiona enjoys playing the part, despite his humble, courteous personality. Or maybe because of it.
Competitors bring their own microphones, not just for the sake of health and hygiene, but also because each mic performs slightly differently and they want to make sure that the sounds they make are picked up clearly. It’s important to practice using a microphone for that reason, Akiona explained. Certain beats sound very different when amplified.
“If a beatboxer is wanting to compete, or really do anything live in front of an audience, practicing with a microphone is essential,” he explained, “because there is a certain way to hold a microphone that is specific to beatboxing.” It involves creating a sealed air tunnel with your hands between the lips and microphone. “That takes a lot of practice to get down and nail.”
Akiona hosted his own Maui Beatbox Battle at ProArts Playhouse November 19, having previously organized Hawaiʻi Beatbox Championships the past two summers, at both ProArts and Da Playground nightclub in Maʻalaea. He handled MC duties at the latest battle with typical humility, propping up the four contestants and singing their praises as he acted as both timer and host.
“I’m pretty happy with the level of the competition as well as the execution of the event itself,” he said afterwards, praising the four judges, each of whom performed a showcase set in between bouts. A much-anticipated solo performance by Pono wrapped up the show.
“I’m very, very proud of the Maui beatbox scene, they have gotten so much better and I was happy to make this event happen for them,” he said, “It’s all for them, all for the scene, all love. Glad to keep it local here on Maui.”
But afterward, offstage, it was the other contestants and their families expressing their love for Akiona along with sincere gratitude for the work he’s done to help build their growing community and lend their artform the legitimacy that it enjoys today.
“He’s the godfather of Hawaiian beatbox,” proclaimed Jaden Chang, who performs as “Addicted” and placed third in the Maui contest. “None of this would be possible without him.
“He’s next level on his own, and he could have gone way farther if he focused on himself, I think, but he wanted to improve the community and wanted to give a place for all of us and I think that’s very respectable,” Chang continued, summing it up with, “He has a kind heart.” That seems to echo the collective sentiment about the young champ.
Many people associate beatboxing with early hip hop music, and rightly so. But its origins lie far earlier. Mimicry of percussion instruments can be traced back to India, where people would imitate the sound of tabla drums, and to African traditional music, in which performers utilize their bodies as percussion instruments and produce sounds with their mouths by breathing loudly in and out, a technique common in modern beatboxing. Tuvan throat singing and the aboriginal didgeridoo from Australia are other potential precursors.
Human beatboxing rose in popularity in NYC as hip hop took hold, serving as an accompaniment to rappers or singers when a drum machine wasn’t in the budget, and causing the two musical forms to become forever intertwined. It’s considered the fifth element of hip hop: DJs, MCs, B-boys, graffiti artists, and beatboxers.
As for Akiona, the bug was caught early. At four or five years old, he recalls watching a children’s television program that used beatbox sounds to teach kids the alphabet. But it was a YouTube video posted by beatboxer oZealous in late 2015 that really drew his attention. “It was basically him beatboxing for people and their reaction to it,” Akiona recalls. “He would catch them off guard with it, you know. He’d go ‘Yo check this out’ and he would do a beat and they would just, like, trip out. And I was like, ‘that’s pretty cool.’”
Akiona started beatboxing the following January. He developed his technique by watching videos at first, then practicing for hours, often despite the annoyance of friends and family.
“When I first started getting into it I remember picking up the fundamental sounds pretty quickly,” he recalled. “I was like, OK, I’m kind of getting the hang of this.”
While there is a form of tablature for beatbox rhythms, Akiona learns best by ear. “Just hearing it, I can pick it up way quicker,” he asserted. “And I can also break it up into pieces … and try and put it together slowly. I feel like that is a much easier way for me to wrap my head around things.”
Soon, he started studying specific sounds that other high-level beatboxers had coined and given names like “tongue bass” and “spit snare.”
“I was just, like, going down the rabbit hole watching every video I could find, just hours of watching beatboxing and more hours of beatboxing on my own, everywhere I went,” he remembers.
His parents were supportive, or at least tolerant. He remembers how surprised his father was when he first showed off his skills after only a few weeks of practice. “I didn’t necessarily hide it from anybody, but I just kind of kept it to myself,” he explained. “And I remember showing him in the car and he was like, ‘Oh, what?!’ He can’t believe it, you know.”
His two younger brothers, Nalu, 18, and Koa,13, both dabbled in beatboxing as Pono became obsessed, and he claims they showed some technical skill, but they didn’t stick with it like their older brother.
Just as hip hop has evolved out of rap into its own musical genre, so beatboxing has evolved into its own art form. “It is rooted within hip hop,” Akiona acknowledges, “but at this point I think both culturally and within the music itself I feel like beatboxing has kind of just diverted from that.
“When you listen to actual beatbox pieces, they don’t fit into any one genre,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of influence from EDM, a lot of influence from hip hop, from everywhere, even pop.” Listen closely and you’ll pick up elements of dubstep as well as house music.
While Akiona knows the names of the sounds in his arsenal and can trace many of them back to their originators, when it comes to music theory, he doesn’t claim to be very knowledgeable, despite three years of high school band. “Knowing how to pitch things, that to me just comes by ear,” he said. “I can tell when I’m pretty close or if it’s off. I kind of have an ear for it.” But it’s the precision with which he creates sounds that he thinks sets him apart, leading to his US title.
“I had been working on a lot of stuff and really putting a lot of time and effort into getting better,” Akiona recalled. “I prepared. I practiced all of my sets. I got feedback from some of my peers and got their perspective on things.
“I wasn’t nervous onstage. I had no doubt in terms of my ability, so the only thing left was to bring my best performance, give my best showmanship as well as executing the beats as well as I could, and I feel like I was able to accomplish that that night.
“Every battle, I got more fired up,” he continued. “As we kept going on I just kept ramping up in terms of my energy and my performance, and just really being present in the moment onstage.”
So, what does it take to be a world champion human beatboxer?
“I feel like one of my biggest strengths is the cleanliness that I have,” he explained. “I feel like a lot of my beats, when I present them, all the sounds feel really clean. There’s not a lot of, like, muddy- or sloppiness.” Clear articulation, or what an acting coach would call diction, is key.
“On top of that, I think I have a pretty wide sound set in terms of, like, my arsenal,” he claims. “I have some alien crazy kind of sounds, but then I have really solid fundamentals,” meaning bass, hi-hat, and snare. “Taking home the trophy, being the first guy from Hawaiʻi ever to not only place in a competition, but to go on to win the whole thing, was really an honor,” he proclaimed. “I’m super, super proud to represent Hawaiʻi.”
Attending international competitions, like the Aloha Beatbox Battle scheduled to take place at Oʻahu’s Maili Beach Park January 7, enable Akiona to meet his contemporaries from all over, like 2015 world champion “Alem” (real name Maël Gayaud) from Lyon, France, whom he credits with ushering in a new era in beatbox evolution. The two jammed together at the 2021 Grand Beatbox Battle in Poland in October 2021.
At the same event he met British beatboxer Reeps One, who is credited with combining beatboxing with sung vocals, which has since become standard in Pono’s solo sets.
Back home, Akiona established the first Hawaiʻi Beatbox Championships held in July 2021 at ProArts Playhouse, followed by a second battle at Da Playground in Maʻalaea the following summer, before planning November’s battle of the Maui crew. He spends his days apprenticing as a barber at Hairstyles by Noe in Kīhei, learning to shampoo, bleach and do highlights and perms as he prepares for his license.
Meanwhile, solo gigs are hard to come by for a beatboxer, but Pono’s found a partner and mentor in longtime Maui singer-songwriter, Marty Dread, with whom he has performed at St. John’s Kula Fest in Keokea and landed a couple of gigs at The Ritz Carlton in Kapalua, including a scheduled New Years Eve performance.
He was featured in a November episode of PBS Hawaiʻi’s series, “Home is Here,” and slated to perform solo at the Da Kine Music Festival at Gilligan’s in Kīhei December 10. But when he’s not performing, he’s thinking of ways to build the island’s fledgling beat community.
“The scene, not only on Maui but within the entire state, is really small. There’s only a handful of beatboxers, but I’m really all about it,” he said. “Going into the new year, I’m very excited to see what the scene has to offer. I really want the best for them. I want them to grow and succeed and become better at the craft—spread the love, spread the music.”
Kai Matsubara, who flew in from California to help judge the Maui Battle in November, met Pono online, where his YouTube videos have garnered considerable buzz. “Pono is someone who has always been driven and passionate about the community in Hawaiʻi,” he said. “Someone needed to be a really big catalyst—the spark to a flame—and that’s Pono.”