WAILUKU As a nominee for Na Hoku Hanohano award, Ata Damasco can't help but dream about hearing his name called when the winner for best religious album gets announced Tuesday night in Honolulu.
He's got an acceptance speech prepared, and his family members will be in the crowd with their fingers crossed.
Everything seems perfect except for one thing: Damasco won't be there.
He's still in jail.
"All this goes way beyond stealing," says Damasco, 28, from a visitors room in one of the cellblocks at Maui Community Correctional Center, where the only glimpse of the sky contains a view of the razor wire wrapped around the top of the fence. "I believe God arranged for me to sit in here with my peers and think things out. You have to ho'oponopono - you have to make right with yourself."
Blessed with the voice of an angel and a gift to make music out of almost anything he touches, Arthur K. Damasco - Ata to everyone - seemed to be headed for a Ho'opi'i Brothers kind of success. As a child, he entertained at parties for family and friends; by the time he was 11, he was performing for hire. He's traveled the Mainland on behalf of the visitor industry, sung at the Merrie Monarch Festival, and jammed with such legends as Genoa Keawe and the late Myra English.
"He has the most fantastic voice," says Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. "It's like a voice from the old times; his voice is not new. He has all these kinds of inflections like Lena Machado and Myra had. When he plays, the kupuna are always impressed."
Unfortunately, when he wasn't onstage, Damasco kept hitting the same bad notes, spurred on by alcohol and drugs.
"I was 'p.k.' - preacher's kid," he says. "They say, 'Do this'; you become the opposite. I was rebel. Entertainment took over my life. It opened doors good and bad. It opened the door to the recording studio, and it opened the door to prison."
Last September, the jailhouse door slammed hard behind Damasco as he began a five-year sentence for stealing two baby pigs. That would seem a pretty stiff term, but Damasco was still on probation after serving six months in jail for second-degree criminal property damage, burglary and theft. Because he's a repeat offender, he won't become eligible for parole this time around until he's been in jail for a year and eight months.
Yet, he harbors no bitterness toward the judge or anyone else.
"I was actually getting tired of the kind of life I was leading," says Damasco. "When I got sentenced, I felt free."
The night before he stood in court and heard his fate, Damasco was putting the finishing touches on his first solo CD, "From the Valley to the Throne," with his co-producer, Jake Rohrer, in a Haiku studio. Damasco already sensed it would be a long time before he saw his recording for sale in the mall.
"I kind of had this spiritual feeling that I was going to get locked up," he says. "My spirit was saying, 'I don't care if I get locked up,' I'm still going to pursue this album."
The CD contains hymns from Damasco's youth - "songs that draw me back to my roots," he says. Those roots were planted deep in the ancient Hawaiian ways and shaped Damasco's music along with his soul.
"I grew up with the kupuna," says Damasco, who calls his elders "the righteous ones."
Damasco was hanai'ed to his maternal grandfather, the late Rev. Alfred ChuHing, who preached all over the islands. Young Ata spent his early childhood in the mid-1970s among Niihau-born Hawaiians on Kauai where everyone spoke only the native language.
"It's an older dialect," says Damasco. "It's different than what they teach today. I learned it from my grandparents."
When he moved to Maui before he was 10, Ata spoke no English at all.
"He was telling me how the first time on Maui when he saw a Hawaiian man and Ata started speaking Hawaiian to him," says Cody "Pueo" Pata, another rising star in Hawaiian music who has been greatly influenced by Damasco. "The man replied in English and Ata thought the man had something wrong with his brain; he didn't know why the man would talk like that."
So Ata had to learn English to fit into contemporary Hawaii. He had to learn the new ways.
His music, though, needed no translation.
"Music was the language I could speak through my heart," he says.
It was his favorite way of speaking.
"Ata's like an encyclopedia of Hawaiian songs," says Pata. "When all the people of our generation were singing reggae and Jawaiian, Ata was still singing the old style, the old songs."
Damasco also had a feel for instruments, mastering ukulele, guitar, zither, stand-up bass and piano. He's never learned to read music, but seems to be able to coax music out of anything. When recording his CD, he brought out a 100-year-old upright bass so beat up and battered everyone said it could no longer be played. Damasco restrung it with different gauges of weed-eater string and made the old bass hum like new.
"I knew it would work," he says. "It was seasoned with music."
Before he was out of grade school, Ata was already in demand as an entertainer. As the years went on, he had one job after another: luau, hotel shows, cruise ships.
"I was playing seven days a week, never rest," recalls Damasco. "People always like me to play parties and then there was the business side. They call me up: 'Boy, you going play tonight. You be here at 5 o'clock, then the next one at 7.' "
While Damasco loved the life, he didn't realize the toll it was taking.
"A lot was expected of me at an early age," he says. "I grew up mostly with elderly people doing things young people don't. I was old already and I just wanted to be young."
Although he was old already in some ways, he was hardly mature. After high school he expanded his professional career and formed Valley Boys with Kip Lukela. They released an album in 1997.
But wherever he was and no matter how successful, Damasco never seemed to be far from trouble.
"I was still kolohe (rascal)," he says.
Damasco says the baby pig incident actually occurred more than two years before he was brought up on the charges. By the time he went to court, Damasco says he was already changing his attitude and finding solace in God once again.
Rohrer noticed the difference during the time Damasco was recording the CD from last June to September.
"Ata had a reputation for being unreliable," says Rohrer. "But he set his mind to making this album. It was part of the turnaround."
Rohrer, Maxwell, falsetto legend Richard Ho'opi'i and others spoke in Damasco's behalf at his sentencing, but the mandatory term was imposed anyway.
"He made some wrong decisions, like we all do," says Maxwell. "And sometimes we have to pay for them."
In prison, Damasco has continued his rehabilitation by helping Lt. Walter Kanamu teach a Hawaiian-language and culture class that's open to any of the inmates every Monday night. He says it's painful to see so many Native Hawaiians behind bars and he hopes if they get in touch with their roots and traditions, they can make right with themselves, too.
"A lot of the brothers, they're uneducated about their culture, so they don't understand other cultures and they become mad with the world," he says. "I want to let them know, 'This is who you are,' so they can move on."
Damasco had no idea his album was even being considered for a Hoku. A radio deejay gave the news of the nomination to his sister. Shortly after, Rohrer's wife, Laurie, brought him a list of the nominees.
"I just saw my name up there and nothing else," he says. "I didn't even see the other names. They all became blind."
Should he win, he has asked Maui musician Uluwehi Guerrero, who's up for three awards, to accept on his behalf. The Damasco ohana will also be in the audience. When Ata's name is announced as a nominee, there will probably be no one more emotional than his mother, Gwen Damasco, whom Ata calls "my best friend."
"The family is very proud of Ata and rightly so," says Rohrer.
Damasco still has another year in prison. He's been writing more songs, has just given up cigarettes and tries to stay upbeat.
"It's very humbling," he says. "You have to use toothbrush to eat saimin. We're all treated the same here. That's what jail is - you got to start from 'A' again."
He's well aware of the personal challenges ahead once he's back in the world where he so often went astray, but he thinks he'll be ready.
"I have a good foundation, a good family and my music is my future," says Damasco. "If you're mad at the world and you're mad at yourself, that's the flesh, but if you get around that in the spiritual realm, you'll be OK.
"I feel better now. I feel life."