Hōkūle`a, Star of Gladness

hokulea at sea

With the highly anticipated launch of Hokule`a and Hikianalia from Hilo tomorrow, I thought it appropriate that I discuss some of my favorite mele about sailing and navigation. With the prevalence of interest in Polynesian navigation and wa`a I am surprised that there isn’t more music centered around this topic. While these concepts are deeply imbedded in Hawaiian chants, as the wa`a was a central theme in the culture, much is lacking in the realm of modern Hawaiian music.

What is interesting is that there are a lot more songs about modern sailing vessels than the traditional ones. This isn’t too surprising as Hawaiians were pretty intrigued about most modern things that were introduced here and tended to write songs about them. One of the first mele that comes to mind is “Na Ka Pueo”  This is a widely recorded song about a cargo ship that sailed between Hana, Maui and Honolulu. This song has made its way as an early falsetto recording by Genoa Keawe and Bill Lincoln to modern slack key interpretations by Ledward Ka`apana. I would recommend checking out Martin Pahinui’s version on his little known album Martin Pahinui. His falsetto is so reminiscent of his father’s it gives me chicken skin. This album along with sound samples can be found here.

Another one of my favorites about modern boats is “Moku Kia Kahi.”  This is a unique recording in Hawaiian music as it modulates between the minor and major keys between the verse and chorus. It’s a really tricky number, but when you see a group able to nail all its changes, it is magic for the ears. The lyrics of this song cover some of the basics behind handling a ship, from the timing of getting the right winds, slacking the lines, setting the anchor and lifting the paddles. While many Hawaiian mele are metaphors for love making, it is especially more so with songs about ships, so you make the connections! As for recorded material, the true masterful version of this song is by the Sons of Hawai`i. This album is a must for any serious Hawaiian fan. The instrumentation is truly amazing, with interactions between the ukulele, bass and steel guitar that is nothing short of masterful. Also, don’t miss out on George Helm’s version from the album  A True Hawaiian. Get a taste here. Now that album is a MUST. That one is definitely on my ever growing list of future blog topics.

What I can add here is the beautiful song Hawaiian Soul written about this prominent man in the cultural renaissance of the 1970s.

One other from the Sons of Hawai`i is “No Ke Ano Ahi Ahi.” As the opening track to Folk Songs of Hawai`i, also known as the faces album, the opening lines “E na luina! E huki mai i ka heleuma! Ho`omakaukau e holo aku!” is a call to the sailors to pull the lines and get ready to set sail. And sail they do, well almost, as this song recounts the anticipated voyage of King Lunalilo to America that he unfortunately never made. Either way the song mentions the unfurling of the sails, the lifting of the anchors and the fluttering of the flag that would have taken place had he not died from tuberculosis at the too young age of 39.  Here’s a little sample.

But it is Hokule`a and Hikianalia that are setting sail, so why all this talk about 20th century boats!?! You’re right, I just wanted to give a little background to some other songs that do cover sailing in case there were some important songs you weren’t familiar with. And there are many more, but those are some of the more important ones. So onto the traditional sailing vessel, the wa`a, the ones that will carry our spirit and our drive for a more sustainable earth for all, the ones that will carry the message of Malama Honua to all corners of the Earth!

I’d like to start with a recording that was first released in 1977 by Roland Cazimero, during the time of the first launching of the Hokule`a voyage. The album Hokule`a – The Musical Saga was co-written with legendary chanter Keli`i Tau`a. The songs are pleasant musical compositions in the vein of much of the Cazimero’s music, but the magic lies in the lyrical content. As this was an important step for modern Hawaiian composing that put into song the contemporary goings on of the Hawaiian people. This spirit is at the core of Hawaiian composition, to capture what is happening in song. That is the essential trait of Hawaiian music, to put into words and music the historical events and the observations of what is happening with the people. This album somehow got lost with time and I myself just recently discovered it.  It is not hard to find, being available on mele.com here and on iTunes as well.

A more well known composition concerning the first voyage of the Hokule`a is the song “Star of Gladness” originally by the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau and later by Israel Kamakawiwo`ole as a solo artist. What’s really great about this song as it was composed by an actual member of the Hokule`a sailing team, Boogie Kalama. There is some useful information about him and the composition of this song here. The recording by the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau is from their album Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha which was released in 1984. This album is readily available on iTunes and mele.com as well. Also, from that same album is the song “Mo`olele O Lahaina” which talks about another wa`a that was built on Maui and has been used as an inter island source of sailing knowledge and mobile educational source. But one final note on “Star of Gladness” is that is was, as mentioned later, recorded by Israel Kamakawiwo`ole. What is cool is that there is footage available of him performing this song in Miloli`i available on youtube. This is important, as this small fishing village in South Kona was the launch point for a voyage of Hokule`a to the South Pacific in 1985. Some details about Mau Piailug’s time in Miloli`i is explained in great detail here.

One final number of importance is “Hokule`a Hula”  by Carlos Andrade. The specifics of this song is covered in detail here and I would recommend you take the time to read this description for the background of this mele. What I can tell you is that this song is well recorded with notable versions by Peter Apo and Carlos’s group Na Pali. A full version of Carlos Andrade’s version is available here for a listen.

With the launching of Hokule`a and Hikianalia we have reached a significant point in the history of Hawai`i where we have a central theme to focus our energies to Malama Honua, or take care of our Earth. Here is where we can incorporate HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries into our lives. As these wa`a sail around the world exchanges of information are available like never before. By incorporating social media and the modern informational exchanges available on the internet, it is possible to stay in touch digitally and spiritually. Visit the facebook page, the website or join their google+ community site. Either way, it is easy to get involved on this historical voyage.

A beautiful thing about the culture of Hawai`i and its music is how it is ever changing and evolving. From the original oli about the journey from Tahiti to Hawai`i, to the mele of the late 19th and early 20th centuries about the modern sailing vessels, to the modern rediscovery and rebirth of the Hokule`a voyaging canoe, the music has been this bind that holds the journey together. Join us as we sing these songs together, swaying and bobbing with the music as the wa`a does along the deep and vast oceans of our Honua. EO!

Na Hoku Hanohano What?

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Another year of Na Hoku Hanohano awards has come and gone and as usual, surprises, disappointments and approvals are in order. First of all I am well aware that I exist well beyond the confines of these awards and my views and opinions on them probably fall outside the norm.

I think it is great that there is a separate set of awards for Hawaiian music and it is a great way to perpetuate and support the Hawaiian music industry. The way I see it, the more that Hawaiian music is acknowledged, the more people will be able to earn a living playing, singing and chanting the mele of Hawai`i. With each Hoku award, another sticker is enabled to be put on the front of an album and it puts more music on the shelves of Wal-Mart and ABC stores for the public to purchase and enjoy. Why else would we continue to give out these awards?

I was very glad to see Mark Yamanaka receive so many accolades.  He is a humble and gentle family man who has an extremely impressive falsetto singing voice. While most of the instrumentation on Lei Maile is straight forward, he has developed tremendously as a song writer and has made very intelligent choices about whom to collaborate with. There is no doubt that he is a true lover of Hawaiian music and has handled himself very well since his last Hoku award extravaganza. One of the most difficult things for an artist to do is handle success, and he seems to have done that very well. I was a little surprised to see him split the award for male vocalist of the year with Kamaka Kukona as I figured Kamaka’s award for most promising artist would suffice for his debut album Hanu `A`ala which I found to be a little too bland for my liking.

For Female Vocalist of the Year I was very happy that Hulu Lindsey won. The other nominees in that category had no business being there as I felt all four of their efforts lacked anything interesting to grasp on to. While I have no interest in engaging in the politics of Mrs. Lindsey, her finely aged falsetto is a true joy to listen to. Her honest surprise and appreciation for receiving the award was very touching to see. Whether or not her daughter’s decision to pull her album from the nominations opened the door for Aunty Hulu win, it doesn’t lesson the beauty found on A He Leo Wale No E. The arrangements are spot on and the subtle additions of piano creates something that is so firmly rooted in the sound of yesteryear that it doesn’t sound like it is such a contemporary recording.

A group that really cleaned house this year was the husband and wife duo Kupaoa and their album Bumbye. While this album doesn’t do anything musically that is too forward thinking their energy is an upbeat and happy presentation of Hawaiian music. It is very easy to listen to and is a joyful presentation of contemporary Hawaiian music. It is no surprise to me that they garnered so many awards and I would expect that they would continue to be darlings of Na Hoku Hanohano voters for many years to come. The title song from their album was one of my favorites this year and I found myself turning up the radio and rocking out every time it was played on the hour.

One group that really surprised me this year by winning Favorite Entertainer of the Year and Group of the Year was The Green. Historically Na Hoku do not get handed out to Jawaiian groups outside of the best reggae album category. Voters tend to avoid groups that adhere to this style of music as it is often seen as a threat to the sustainability of traditional Hawaiian music. Maybe they listened to the opening chant from the album Hawai`i ’13 and didn’t realize it is a straight up Jawaiian album. I know favorite entertainer is open to the voting public so it is not out of the realm of possibility that their extreme popularity among the general listening public helped catapult them into the forefront for this award. I can only then assume that the votes for group of the year were split between Kupaoa and Waipuna, leaving The Green as the default winner. What else could explain a Jawaiian group winning group of the year? You would have to go back to 1989 and the classic recording Good Times Together by Cecilio and Kapono to find anything outside of traditional Hawaiian music to win this award. I dunno, maybe I am missing something, but I did not expect a run of the mill Jawaiian album to win here.

Speaking of shocking, I was a little surprised as well that Kuana Torres Kahele got essentially shut out this year. Of his eight nominations he only won for Single of the Year. This is an odd throwaway category only eligible to songs issued as a stand alone single. Waipuna’s effort was strong as “Aloha E Kohala” has a personal resonance for me, and I thought it had a strong chance. For myself, compared to the other material on his album Kahele, “E Ku`u Lei, My Love” is not my favorite. I do think that Kahele was one of the stronger albums released this year and coming in I figured that the voting members would feel the same. But as his loses began to mount up throughout the evening, I had the feeling this wouldn’t be Kuana’s year. And I am not so sure that really bothers him. I can’t speak for him personally, but I think he has his sights set on higher goals as he has just completed the first in a series of eight albums of original material composed for each of the eight Hawaiian islands. Wow! HO`ANALU!

Kuana has to be my favorite of contemporary of Hawaiian artists. His ground breaking work with Na Palapalai not with standing, he has continued to blaze his own path in the world of Hawaiian music. He is a fearless song writer that composes from his experiences. His ability to blend beautifully poetic `olelo with mood appropriate instrumentation is without match in today’s Hawaiian music scene. See “Aloha Sorrento”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yot9KTMJkeA to hear what I am talking about. What he does is take a journey to a small fishing village in Italy and turn it into a beautiful mele pana. The inclusion of the accordion and a verse in Italian completes the connection, creating a song that embodies the world view and worldly experiences of the contemporary Hawaiian. He has done this before with songs like “Palisa” and “Na Vaqueros” from his multiple Na Hoku Hanohano award winning album Kaunaloa. I can only assume that the voters were bored giving all the awards to Kuana in previous years, as he is so far ahead of what any other Hawaiian music artist is doing today.

When I speak of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries, I immediately think of Kuana. He is so firmly rooted in composition and musical styles of the past that his compositions seem to have already been written. Yet when we look at the experiences behind these mele and the poetry of his words we realize we are listening to something much more forward thinking. I wish there were more artists blessed with the musical talent and world view of this young man. I can’t wait to hear what he has in store for his next seven albums as I already feel Hawai`i Keawe has set in motion the high standard he is attempting to create.

At this point that is all I really have to share about this round of awards. As for the other non-Hawaiian categories here are a few observations. I did take a listen to “The Akira Project” as there was a lot of hype around it and I am always curious to hear if a legitimate Hip-Hop album can come out of Hawai`i. Unfortunately this album only further confirms that Hawai`i is light years away from producing Hip-Hop that is listenable or acceptable by the discerning rap fan (which, surprise surprise, I am).

I can say that Herb Ohta, Jr. continues to put out the purest most listenable `ukulele music today with his aptly named “Pure `Ukulele.” Nothing innovate or genre-bending here, just good ole happy `ukulele instrumentals. And considering the other nominees, this was an easy win. A blog post on contemporary `ukulele recordings is due for this very reason.

I am not sure who the hell Stuart Hollinger is or what the hell he put together, but I think it is time that Na Hoku Hanohano award board members think about removing the rock category for years when there are no legitimate entries. Doesn’t contemporary album cover this looked over area of Hawaiian music? Can we let Bruno Mars be eligible? Veritable questions indeed if you are willing to expose your ears to this poorly produced and put together collection of songs. Speaking of contemporary, not surprised Makana didn’t win here. Wonder if his unyielding ego got in the way of being recognized by the ever ready purveyors of humility that is the Hawaiian music industry.

So there’s my two cents, fun part of writing your own blog. If you disagree with anything I’ve said, go write your own! We need more voices to dissect the self-perpetuating world of Hawaiian music. That’s why we have these awards right? While these awards are a good thing, I firmly believe that, we mustn’t forget all the great artists that work hard at their craft and don’t get considered for these awards. These individuals truly embody the concept of continuing HO`ANALU….to go beyond the known boundaries. Take a listen and decide for yourself.

M. Kalani Souza Pacific Uprising http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mkalanisouza

Prince Kalani Kinimaka He Hawai`i Au http://www.mele.com/music/artist/prince+kalani+kinimaka/he+hawai%60i+au/

James Daniel Pahinui Bla http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jamesdanielpahinui

Nate Kana`e Hawaiian Music http://www.mele.com/music/artist/nate+kanae/hawaiian+music/

The Lim Family Following Traditions http://www.mele.com/music/artist/the+lim+family/following+traditions/

 

 

A Great Voice of Hawai`i Rediscovered

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Besides an impressive lineage of instrumentalists, composers and dancers of hula, Hawai`i boasts an even more astounding history of world class male vocalists. Their heyday was found in the lounges and luau shows of Waikiki in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the more noteworthy are Alfred Alpaka, Bill Lincoln and Gary Aiko. Before the movement towards a more traditional slack key based sound the male crooner was a sought out and highly respected type of performer. One individual that is often over looked is Kalani Kinimaka. One big reason for this is the lack of recorded material available by him. Fortunately for us this changed recently when an entire album of material was discovered after his death in 2011. It is currently available on iTunes as well as on reputable Hawaiian music websites like mele.com.

This album was recorded in 1980 with talented guitar player Henry Ka`ahea and featured a mix of traditional Hawaiian tunes, hapa-haole classics and some pop covers. What you will find are some of the greatest vocal recordings in the history Hawaiian music. His voice is strong in the deeper registers yet reaches a feathery delicacy is the high ranges. His vocal phrasing is inventive and well thought out, showcasing his subtle vibrato and smooth tonality. Whether it is the love-lost yearning of “Ka Makani Ka `Ili Aloha” or the bouncy playfulness of “Jamaica Farewell” Kinimaka is equally at home. HIs voice reaches its apex in the classic Hawaiian love song “Pua Lilia.” And in listening to this recording I am left to wonder if my mentor Braddah Smitty was at least partly inspired by Kinimaka’s delivery.

All this is framed by the truly astounding nylon string stylings of Henry Ka`aheo. His spanish guitar provides the perfect backdrop to the vocals, providing complex chordal support for the fine vocal delivery. The solos are tastefully picked representations of the melody with an appropriate amount of decoration to leave you wanting more. The flamenco-esque flavors of his playing take the songs somewhere beyond a typical hapa-haole tune or traditional Hawaiian piece into somewhere beyond. The rendition of “I’ll Remember You” is a great example, as this version has now become my favorite recording of this classic Kui Lee tune. I would highly encourage you to take a listen to this album if anything for the remarkable version of this song.

I had recently posted about my top 5 under the radar Hawaiian music albums of all time. This one wouldn’t qualify as it remained unknown until it was discovered a few years back.  Having been originally recorded in 1980 it got me wondering what other recordings are out there that haven’t seen the light of day? If something of this quality can stay undiscovered, the possibilities for more are intriguing. I am just glad that this album made its way to my ears. So I ask all those out there to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries and try to dig deep into your vaults and bring out any unreleased recordings. There is a large enough Hawaiian music fan base that would love to hear some of these hidden gems from the past.

Under the Radar

The Hawaiian music recording industry is a funny beast. While there have been times of active recording and large scale album production, there have also been periods of big lulls. I would like to focus on one particular time period in which the Hawaiian music recording industry was not as strong, but produced some amazing music, namely the early 1980s to the mid-90s. We could bookend these years with the deaths of Gabby Pahinui and Israel Kamakawiwo`ole. What is interesting to note is that Gabby’s death signaled the end of the slack key recording boom of the 70s and Israel’s passing coincided with the beginning of the slack key recording boom of the late 90s and 2000s. So I have put together my top 5 under the radar Hawaiian music albums from the era.  All of these were recorded by big-time heavy hitters of Hawaiian music, but they are either albums that are out of print or extremely hard to find.  Also, it is rare that you hear these songs on the radio for that very reason. What I hope to do with this post is to expose you to some albums that you may not know about and also get you to appreciate these artists that continued to work and record during the dark years. When Jawaiian began to take over the air waves and the future of true Hawaiian music recordings was in limbo these individuals showed the true spirit of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.

Here in order of year of release are my top 5 under the radar Hawaiian music albums:

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Haunani Apoliona “Na Lei Hulu Makua, Na Wahine Hawai`i” 1984.  This album is only available as an out of print lp or cassette and has yet to be released in cd or mp3 form.  This is a shame as it is a true gem of Hawaiian music, featuring exquisite slack key playing, impeccable vocals and that uniquely beautiful sense of Hawaiian vocal phrasing. I was lucky to find the cassette on ebay in a lot of random Hawaiian music albums.  Definitely a score! Fortunately a sample of one of the tracks from the album can be found here: http://ec.libsyn.com/p/8/f/1/8f13631f54f68094/04_Na_Kuahiwi_Elima___Kimo_Hula.mp3?d13a76d516d9dec20c3d276ce028ed5089ab1ce3dae902ea1d06c88736d5c85ff931&c_id=5335405

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Moe Keale “Aloha Is a Part of Me, a Part of You” 1985. This album was printed onto cd but has since gone out of print.  This album features what I think to be one of the greatest compositions in the history of Hawaiian music, the English language song “Aloha Is…”  While IZ’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gets lots of attention from its inclusion in numerous Hollywood productions, this song is where it’s at. The mood of the song, subtle masterful `ukulele playing and spiritual lyrics and singing makes for a universal song of pure beauty. I discovered this album while working at an `ukulele store as it was part of a random assortment of albums they had to play while we were open. A quick burn onto my laptop while clocked in helped add this to my collection. Hear for yourself as someone put a recording of the song onto youtube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6B34PKhBWw

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The Lim Family “Aloha Na Makana: Gifts of Love” 1988. Something about the Lim family always uplifts my spirits.  Their intricate and complex harmonies with masterful instrumentation just makes for something special. They always have unique song choice that is delivered in a way that is fine tuned yet so natural and real. This is an extremely difficult album to find, definitely snap one up if you see it either on ebay, at a garage sale or thrift store. Luckily a music teacher college of mine had a copy that I was able to borrow and burn for myself. The best I could do was find a link to their cover of the country classic “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol Days)” here: http://www.allmusic.com/song/grandpa-tell-me-bout-the-good-old-days-mt0002280872 

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Led Ka`apana and the New Ikona “Nahenahe” 1991. Ledward of course has had a long and illustrious recording career, but his albums with his group Ikona aren’t that well known outside the realm of hard core Hawaiian music listeners.  This album along with “Jus Press” from 1985 are must have for any fan of Hawaiian music. This is another score from my days working in the `ukulele store. A mix of instrumentals and vocal tracks, there isn’t a misfire on the whole album. A highlight is his version of “Sands.” This steel guitar classic is in just the right place in Ledward’s hands. Sadly I couldn’t find any audio resources on the web to share so that you could get a feel for how great this album is.

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Mel Amina “Ku Ha`aheo Kakou, E Na Hawai`i” 1996. I was unaware of this album until a close friend of mine and musician brought it to my knowledge. It just goes to show there are so many hidden gems out there buried under the thousands and thousands of Hawaiian music recordings. While Mel is well known for his work with his cousin Israel and the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau, this solo album has everything: chanting, slack key guitar, Hawaiian vocals and a classic English language song just waiting to be discovered “Na Pali Outlaw.” Again, I couldn’t find anything online to give you a taste of the diversity found on this album so you’l have to seek it out yourself.

All these albums helped keep the flame of true Hawaiian music burning while outside influences threatened the vitality of the Hawaiian music industry. As Jawaiian music gained in popularity many artists were forced out of jobs and pressure mounted to change their sound. But these artists along with others from this era pressed on. They understood it was important to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries and create music that would last forever. It is my hope that as time goes on and more people see for themselves the greatness of these recording they get rediscovered and become available to the Hawaiian music listening public.

Heart of the Ukulele Part 2

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Here is a continuation of my analysis of the great `ukulele album “Heart of the `Ukulele.”  For an introduction please see my post titled “Heart of the `Ukulele” part 1.  The first analysis covered Side A which was comprised of a mixture of American standards, Latin folk songs, string symphonies and a popular movie score.

Here on Side B we find Eddie Kamae continuing in his `ukulele mastery, employing many of the same techniques he refined and revolutionized for the `ukulele presented on Side A.  These include tremolo chording, intricate single note melody picking, rapid interval plucking and syncopated rhythmic strums.  Here the song choice is decidedly Hawaiian, foreshadowing the direction he would soon take with his group the Sons of Hawai`i.  In exploring the heart of the `ukulele, Eddie discovered the heart of his music as well.

Side B

The second half of the album begins with the classic praise song for the beautiful waterfall along the Hamakua coast “Akaka Falls.”  Written by Helen Parker early in the 20th century, this song once and still is a standard of the Hawaiian music repertoire.  Its easily recognizable melody has found a lasting place through the different phases of popular Hawaiian instrumentation; from the acoustic tricone steel guitar of Sol Ho`opi`i to the vibraphone of Arthur Lyman to the petal steel guitar of Jerry Byrd and to the slack key stylings of Leonard Kwan.  Along this journey this classic recording on `ukulele got lost.  Here it is played with such passion and concentration that the breathing of Eddie is audible on the recording.  At first the melody is played with the rapid tremolo strokes so familiar to the listener by now, and then interrupted by a soft single note picking line.  Chordal flourishes interject at appropriate times as the melody line builds to a fervent crescendo.

The next song “Ka Ua Loku” is a fast paced jazzy number from the island of Kaua`i.  The quick chord changes mimic the quick falling rain so familiar to anyone who has been to the “Garden Isle.” The chords dance off the `ukulele with the seventh chords providing a mixture of rag time and bee-bop.  Again the second verse is played with a single note picking line, this time the tones thick and creamy, each note expertly played to precision.  In over 50 years very few `ukulele players have dared try to record such a challenging musical piece.  While melodies of equal difficulty in terms of number of notes have been tackled by some of the modern instrumentalists, no one has taken on the task of recording something that requires the combination of technical prowess, tonal comprehension and ardent passion.  Often confusing notes per second with proficiency on the `ukulele, the popular `ukulele performer is left reaching for inspiration in the oeuvres of a kitschy pop cover while greatness lies right before them in the grooved lines of a classic lp from the 1960s.

Having established himself as a fine interpreter of the Hawaiian ballad and the up beat jazz number, Eddie next reminds us that a waltz is in order with Charles King’s ode to his alma mater “Kamehameha Waltz.”  At first we hear a solo introduction on `ukulele done in almost free time.  A number of `ukulele techniques are presented that impersonate things found on popular orchestra instruments.  In the first 60 seconds we are introduced to the melodic arpeggios of a violin, to ascending and descending intervals of a cello to the minor voicing of a 6 string concert guitar.  If one were to isolate each of these techniques and play them together a true `ukulele orchestra could be born.  This is a concept I have heard the great Jake Shimabukuro mention during his own concerts and I await to hear the concept come to musical fruition.  None the less, the exposition of versatility well established, Eddie moves into a tutorial on `ukulele intervals striking them vigorously and adding melodic embellishments as he sees fit.  A flurry of chords signals the ending, completing an instrumental arrangement of the highest quality and ambition.  Again, setting a bar so high that in the next 50 years of recorded `ukulele music, no one has touched it since.

Another brash series of chords introduces the next song much like the tune “Grenada” was presented to the listener back on Side A.  This time the chords allude to early rock-n-roll, but alas another jazz standard comes your way, this time a nod to the Hawaiian song book with the song “Sweet Someone.”  Although originally from the Bernstein-Shapiro publishing house, a later version by Don Ho and Sam Kapu made it a tune played throughout the bar rooms and lounges of Waikiki in the 60s.  Here Kamae is dedicated as ever, playing through the tune with a determined sense of tone.  The feel is established early and he never lets up.  The physical demands alone to perform the song would scare away most any `ukulele player who thinks highly of himself.  With the drum and bass steadily plodding along Kamae holds on to the end, a thoroughbred on four strings.  In anointing one to the rarified throne of `ukulele virtuoso, this tune should be required playing for acceptance into the faction of ukulelists, similar to the ceremonial ordaining of a black belt in karate.

As the second half of the philosopher’s stone comes to completion, Kamae presents another Charles King waltz.  Much like “Sweet Someone” another exposition of high level physical dedication is played on the `ukulele.  Like Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, Wilt Chamberlin’s 100 points or Nolan Ryan’s 383 strikeouts, Kamae sets the bar so high I am not sure it will be matched without performance enhancers.  To do this in one take in a time when numerous shots a recording wasn’t a reality is truly exceptional.

Here before he rides away into the sunset, Eddie clearly says, here is the bar, here is greatness, here is the blue print for the future generations.  Unfortunately the `ukulele was not destined for this path.  In the coming decades `ukulele solo instrumentation ceases to be explored as a viable musical expression by the Hawaiian player save for a select few.  Hidden on the beaches of the remotest sands, played in solitude on the porches of isolated plantation homesteads and relocated to the evening backyard jams of close relatives and friends, this beautiful music form is left undiscovered until it is too late.  It won’t be for another 40 years when a branch of this genius is to grow with the young Jake picking away in a far away park in New York City playing a British pop song, that people’s ears begin to open up the potential of the `ukulele.  The cobwebs now taken control in the attics of people’s musical minds, one man tries to continue this mission started by Eddie “Pops” Kamae so long ago.  A single man on a mission to bring this style and level of playing to the world, all alone, still searching for his direction in the vast desert of instrumental expression.

And so Eddie Kamae says “Aloha `Oe.”  Aloha to his previous life and career.  Soon he would abandon inventive arrangements of Jazz, American standards, Latin music and  Hawaiian classics.  Next he would enter the world of Hawaiian lyricism, archival investigation, group orchestration and vocal harmonies.  With 30 minutes of greatness firmly engrained in the microscopic lines of a record groove and later in the digital binary codes of the cd and mp3, Eddie never plays instrumental `ukulele music again.  And to my knowledge no one has ever played it as expertly ever since.  Many have come and many have tried, but in the annals of recorded `ukulele music, no in my mind has reached the technical proficiency, tonal semantics, syntactical arrangement and self driven passion of Eddie Kamae and his “Heart of the `Ukulele.”

And so we have HO`ANALU…. to go beyond known boundaries.

Heart of the Ukulele Part 1

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To my ears and soul this is the greatest `ukulele album ever made.  Creative, emotional and technically challenging, in under thirty minutes Eddie Kamae expresses all the musical voices possible on the `ukulele.  The song choice is inventive and daring and while the recording is raw and unembellished, the complex musicality is diverse in scope and execution.  When I first discovered this album it was like I heard the `ukulele for the first time.  I felt like some alien species had found the instrument and began playing it in ways that were previously incomprehensible to mere human ears.  At that moment I decided everything I had known and thought about the `ukulele meant nothing, that no one had tapped into its true voice.  It was if the last 40 years of `ukulele playing never existed, its history started and ended in this one climax of genius.

Is this an exaggeration?  Am I blindly over emphasizing a moment in an individual’s creative spirit.  I doubt it.  All you need to do is take a listen to what is being played on this great album of music and I think you will agree.  This is the heart of the `ukulele.  This is the `ukulele in its purest form.  One man, one `ukulele, one microphone, one take.  Here is what you will hear:

Side A

The first track is an old Neapolitan song made famous by luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Luciano Pavarotti.  “Come Back to Sorrento” is an emotional praise song to the Prime Minister of Italy during his stay in Sorrento in the early 1900s. Here Kamae uses a rapid tremolo to evoke the longing of this feeling.  The heavy striking of the strings produces a melody that is a statement of purpose and a direct pronunciation of one’s intention.  Much like the Prime Minister, the listener is asked not to leave this place and to stay in the moment of the performance.  Any decision to depart would be met by the pleading notes of the `ukulele to return to this beautiful place that has been created.

The second track “Star Eyes” uses a similar technique, but here the tremolo is reduced to a light brushing of the strings to evoke the sensation of a dreamy ballad.  The popular jazz standard is completely at home within the confines of the sublime `ukulele.  The melody floats through the air, light and soft as an alto saxophone.  Not rushed and properly relaxed, it is a striking contrast to the first track.  The technique required to create this tonality is refined and here delicately presented with a strong understanding of the instrument’s capabilities.  In addition, the tremolo brushes are not limited to the melody but the chords as well. We can hear the complex intervals required to reference the flatted fifths, major sevenths and sharped ninths present in the song.  Not easy on any instrument, let alone one with four strings, but Kamae’s understanding of chord structure and voicing allows the subtle elaborations to exist with this limitation.

The next track jumps out of the speaker.  It is striking, brash and dissonant.  The chords are firmly struck and interrupted with intricate melody lines that create a vivid array of light and dark tones.  Here the `ukulele finds its flamboyant side with the Mexican tune “Grenada.”  Confident and daring, the instrument boldly states that it has arrived and no one can hold it back from it taking its seat at the table of instruments capable of virtuosic expression.  The listener is now forced to accept that it is in the presence of greatness. Prejudices and contempt are thrown out the window as any attempt at dismissal is met with the bold flourishes.  Here the musical trilogy of praise, longing and exaltation takes root and all bets are off.  Everything from here is icing on the cake, the sword humbly drawn, the fight all but over.

Next an exposition of rhythm is in order and the tune “Tropical” fits the bill.  Like an island scene filled with complex colors and smells yet mellow in its tone, the tune rides along a syncopated bass and drum line that feels neither over baring or driven by ego.  The head melody is humbly stated, setting the stage for a free wheeling jam that bounces back and forth between pulsating chords and sharp rhythmic displays of Kamae’s inventive tremolo technique.  By now the listener has accepted the chordal tremolo as a standard voice of the `ukulele rather than a novel presentation of its capabilities.

At a place of complete comfort with not only his instrument, but song choice as well, Kamae dips again into the songbook of pop standards with “Under Paris Skies.”  Referencing the forceful striking of the strings first presented in “Grenada” a contrast is made with the light tremolo found in “Star Eyes.”  By combining the two an argument is made for an instrumental piece that should be in the canon of any self respecting `ukulele player.  But alas, it has not reached this place in the society of `ukulele performers. Usurped by flashy displays of arpeggiated picking and tongue in cheek instrumentals of bland pop songs common to the modern instrumentalist, the magnitude of the song has been lost with time.  Only the most tasteful of individuals with an eye on the past and a true voice of the instrument would dare take on such a piece.  The musicality of the song yearns to come out the `ukulele yet the modern player is distracted by the bombardment of ambitious youtube posters hoping for a seat at the small round table of proficient `ukulele soloists.

Finally the first side of this narrative comes to a close with the unexpected “Around the World in Thirty Days.”  If the listener wasn’t discouraged enough with his or own prejudices regarding the `ukulele, the first half of the philosopher’s stone concludes with delicate picking evoking nimble protons of light bouncing off the `ukulele strings.  Small declarations of greatness with each note flood the ear, putting the listener in a dream like alternate universe where all the great musicians of the world were given but a small humble four stringed two octave box to express themselves.

Here HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries resides on its glorious throne atop the mountain of instrumental expression.  Need I say more?  Side B to be covered in the next post.

Part Two coming soon….

 

Talking Story With Jesse Kalima’s Nephew

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When you grow up in the Big Island the big city is in Hilo.  And having spent my whole life on the west side, I still get lost over there and I still find places in parts of town I never knew existed.  During the time I spent playing music with Braddah Smitty I had the wonderful opportunity to play in some of these little hole in the wall joints, that I otherwise would have never known existed or would have never dared walk into for that matter.

One of the most interesting things about paying music with Smitty is you never knew when or where a music throw down was about to happen.  Once after playing a baby luau in Hilo we decided to stop into a bar for some drink and pupu.  We found some little hole in the wall in the industrial part of town.  Upon entering it was like the whole entire staff rearranged things to accommodate Smitty. Tables would be moved, chairs changed around, pupu magically arriving out of the kitchen and of course cold beers quickly arriving in front of us.  I wasn’t of interest to anybody, it was all for Smitty.  Soon an entire table would amass with people coming to sit down, talk story and say their hellos.

After some food and drinks would come the gracious request if he would so kindly be interested in plugging in and doing some entertaining.  Smitty would always generously oblige and we would play a short set for whoever happened to be there.  It was one of my most favorite moments to be apart of.  I felt like I was experiencing something magical, spontaneous and above all real.  These people longed to hear Smitty sing.  They needed it.  People would dance the hula, people would cry, hoot, holler, whatever the music did to move them.  I was just lucky to be along for the ride.

On this particular night after we had finished sharing some music I was seated next to a kind elderly gentleman who was very interested in where I was from and how I learned to play `ukulele.  I told him my story and he was very complimentary of my playing. He told me his uncle was the great Jesse Kalima.  I was shocked.  Jesse Kalima is one of the first true virtuosi of the `ukulele.  His album Jess’ Uke was revolutionary in its use of chord voicing, intricate picking lines and tremolo rhythmic strumming.  Coming out in 1962 it, along with Eddie Kamae’s “Heart of the `Ukulele” set the gold standard from what is possible on this little four stringed wonder.

It was so great to sit and talk story with this man.  He was so forthcoming in his compliments of me and his advice to keep doing what I do, that the art of true `ukulele playing is being lost to all the newer emphasis on flashy showmanship and single note rapid picking.  I felt so humbled to hear this from a man who I know had heard and seen the real deal.  But he also told me an important thing.  Have your own style.  He said that’s what truly set his Uncle Jesse apart.  He always strived to have his own style.  And if you listen to his recordings, especially the Jesse Kalima and Sons & Sam Wai`au album you will know what I mean.  Unfortunately this album is out of print, but if you ever get your hands on it you will be amazed.  The song “Kila Kila O Moanalua” still blows me away with its use of syncopated rhythmic drumming and subtle ukulele counterpoint.  It sounds like if Hawaiians brought their music to Mexico, taught them how to play and left, not the other way around.  Truly innovative and unique.

HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.  When I think back to this moment in time and I listen to Jesse Kalima’s music I think about how much he went beyond the known boundaries.  He put his own stamp on Hawaiian music.  He never played a song how others were playing it.  His tempo, instrumentation and arrangements were always his, but always Hawaiian at the same time.  I love when I hear an arrangement of a song that is new and fresh and unlike anything I have before.  It is getting rarer and rarer these days.  More people continue to churn out the same arrangements of the classics done so many times before.  that is OK, that is what they know.  But for me, I look to HO`ANALU….to go beyond the known boundaries.  I like to play Hawaiian music with my own little flourish.  I learned this from people like the great Braddah Smitty who always did things his way.  He played Hawaiian music the right way, with the right heart, the right feeling, but it was always a little different.  It had that little touch of something that was unique to him.  He along with so many others embody that spirit of HO`ANALU….to beyond known boundaries.

 

Another One Leaves Us Too Soon

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I only met Chino once, but he left a lasting impression on me.  A few years back I went by the Kahilu Theatre to check out the free show during the Slack Key and Ukulele Institute series.  I had seen the name “Chino Montero” on the bill, but wasn’t familiar with him or his music.  What I saw that night blew me away.  The way he shredded on the guitar in such a relaxed and humble manner was shocking to my eyes and ears.  The way he tastefully and artfully completely ran circles around the melody put me in awe.  “Shredding” per se isn’t something that is overly valued in Hawaiian music. The idea is to humbly state the melody and embellish within the bounds of a restrained approach. Not to say there aren’t people who play fast or overly complex, it is just not something that is emphasized.  But there was something in the way this man did it that was so proper and fitting to who he was a musician.  He would be constantly smiling and laughing as he was playing like he was just as amazed himself as we were as to what he was playing.

Later that evening I was excited to see him and some of the other members of the Slack Key Institute at a show I was playing with Braddah Smitty.  After the show we all sat at a table together and do what musicians do after they have all played their gigs: eat and talk story.  The conversation was lively as it was a collection of eccentric musicians (what musicians aren’t!) talking story, shooting the shit and busting each others balls.  I was the greenest and youngest member of the group and just sat and listened the whole time.  I mean what can I really contribute when you have heavy weights like Aaron Mahi, Sonny Lim, Braddah Smitty and Benny Chong and others around?

Because musicians are always playing at different venues every night, it is rare that a bunch of them are able to get together at one time.  Add in that many of these guys live on O`ahu, there was a lot of catching up to do.  That night I happened to be seated next to Chino and his wit, charm, story telling and humor were second to none.  Topics ranged from Rap Reiplinger to seeing the original Makaha Sons to the status of various venues long gone in Waikiki to Gabby and Sonny getting drunk at the old Waimea Hotel (which is now the HPA Village Campus where I now work!) to well anything and everything.

Amongst all this discussion, Chino took the time and talked to me.  He said he was watching me while I was playing and he noticed that I was listening.  He noticed I was paying attention to what was happening around me.  He said my playing was respectful, restrained and refined.  He told me to keep at it.  He told me there was still time for me to learn and to improve. He told me I needed to HO`ANALU….to go beyond the known boundaries.  He told me to be grateful for my opportunities, continue to improve, never be satisfied, learn more, take chances and above all stay humble.  It made me practice harder, prepare better and it set a fire in my belly to humbly develop what I could do with my `ukulele

I will never forget that night.  It took me awhile to comprehend everything that I heard and that went on.  When I heard of Chino’s passing I immediately thought of this short moment I got to share with Chino.  The album of music he recorded before he passed “Made In Hawai’i” is sweet and soulful.  Chino may not have been in the realm of the “heavy hitters” in the business, but he deserves to be.  He is one of the countless many in Hawai`i who humbly went to work every evening perfecting his craft and constantly improving.  There is so much talent here it amazes me sometimes.  I have seen guys in the backyard to a no name guitarist in a trio at a hotel gig who could play circles around some of those that have shelves full of awards and accolades up the wazoo.

Unfortunately another one has left us to soon.  I am sure I am just one of many who Chino touched with his playing and his positive joyful attitude.  I am so grateful I had the opportunity to meet this man who contributed to my own journey of HO`ANALU, of going beyond my known boundaries.

Jus’ Cruzin’ With Uncle Led

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One of the most innovative and accomplished musicians in Hawaiian music history is Ledward Ka`apana.  Starting with the group Hui Ohana in 1972, Uncle Led set a new standard for what sounds were possible within the realm of Hawaiian music.  His electric guitar playing with added reverb was new and exciting.  He was never afraid to push the boundaries, or HO`ANALU, of what was being done with slack key guitar.  He was by no means the first to play an electric guitar in a slack key tuning, but his extensive use of it and explorations of the outer realms of creative possibility was revolutionary.  Along with his twin brother Nedward on bass (another post solely about his bass playing is due) and falsetto vocalist Dennis Pavao, Hui Ohana was a Hawaiian power trio.  Exploding on the scene in Waikiki in the 70s these Big Island boys from Kalapana set a standard of musicianship and execution unmatched by anyone other than the all time greats the Sons of Hawai`i.  The group disbanded in 1978 when Dennis Pavao decided to pursue a solo career.  Led continued on, forming the group I Kona.  The group did reunite in 1987 to record the album “Hui Ohana”

Over the next 30 or so years Ledward has established himself as THE master of slack key.  Comfortable in any tuning, including standard, and with his emotional and well crafted falsetto voice, Uncle Led is a master musician in any culture, any musical environment, any where, any time.  Chet Atkins himself called him the greatest guitarist he ever saw or heard.  Go take a listen for yourself.  His albums are numerous and readily available.  While some of his work from Hui Ohana and I Kona are out of print, much is available on iTunes, as are his solo albums.  Especially notable is “Waltz of the Wind” which he recorded in Nashville.  It’s Hawaiian music with a bit of country, featuring guest artists like Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs and Bob Brozman to name a few.

Which brings me to his most recent piece of work “Jus’ Cruzin'”  Always willing to innovate, and go beyond what is known, ready to take risks, to push what we know of Hawaiian music, Uncle Led embodies the concept of HO`ANALU.  Which makes sense as the Hawaiian teacher who brought the term HO`ANALU to light for me also worked with Led to come up with his phrase “Jus Press.”  This album is a collection of traditional Hawaiian tunes recorded on the autoharp.  The autoharp is a stringed instrument with 36 strings that is played by strumming the strings with one hand and pressing a series of buttons with the other that depress and mute certain strings to create chords.  It is a fascinating instrument that is most often played in folk and bluegrass music.  It was used extensively by the Carter Family and can be heard in many of their recordings.  To say it is rarely heard in the world of Hawaiian music would be an understatement.

The fact that Led decided to record an album with this instrument is in line with who he is.  He is not afraid to play what he feels, to let the sounds come out of him as they may, unabashed by fear or prejudice.  He has one foot so firmly placed in the past that he can stretch it forward as he may.  When he plays “Sanoe” it sounds like it was composed on the autoharp.  When you hear “Kanaka Waiwai” you think “how did this song exist before the autoharp?”  No matter who or how Hawaiian music is recorded or with what instrument, anyone could tell you the only true requirement is how it FEELS.  It has to feel right.  It doesn’t matter the tuning, the microphone, who produced it, what custom koa guitar you use or how many Grammys it was nominated for, it has to feel right.  And that is something that can’t be taught or transferred without time and conscience understanding.  It comes from within.  There has to be that something inside your heart that you want to transfer through your music.  Without that it is just notes on a guitar or an ukulele or an autoharp for that matter.

I went to see Led play once at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki.  Between songs I went up to put some money in the jar.  He said mahalo and asked me where I am from.  I told him I am from Waimea.  He immediately says, “Oh, you one paniolo then eh.  You play music?”  I said “Sure I play a little.”  He asked if I would like to play something on his ukulele and he would back me up.  It was a transcendent moment.  Uncle Ledward Ka`apana the great slack key guitarist asking me, a little haole boy from Waimea by way of Honaunau to play a song with him.  To say I jumped at the opportunity would be an understatement.  I decided to play “Kaula `Ili” to pay homage to my Waimea roots.  I asked him to sing the added O`ahu verse to create a connection between my journey from the Big Island to O`ahu.

It was so magical.  This was early in my development as a musician and player of Hawaiian music.  To be able to stand on stage with the great master and share and play told me I was blessed with something special from Ke Akua.  That I must nurture and share this great gift the world.  I was grateful and humbled to have the experience.  The moment was HO`ANALU in action.  I was lifted beyond the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of and blasted into a new dimension of what was possible.  And to this day, whenever I see Uncle Led he always says to me, “Eh, the paniolo from Waimea!”

I love that man.  Take a listen.  Get to know his music.  Listen to his playing of the autoharp and imagine.  How can I HO`ANALU?  What can I do in my life to go beyond the boundaries of what is known?

A Painting of Eddie Kamae Takes Me Back

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I humbly believe that the greatest ukulele player ever was Eddie Kamae. He recorded what I find to be the best ukulele album in existence “Heart of the Ukulele” in 1962. I was very blessed to have the opportunity to share the stage with and play with Eddie Kamae when I played ukulele for Braddah Smitty. It wasn’t my best night and I was honestly rather intimidated to be playing with such a master. As he sang “E Ku`u Morning Dew” and I transposed in my head the often played version in G to D, I prayed he wouldn’t ask me to pa`ani. Of course he did and I proceeded to mangle what is a perfectly constructed melody in my attempt to quickly transpose the melody up a fifth. This is a lot more challenging on an ukulele with its limited range and peculiar re-entrant high G tuning.

None the less, afterwards Smitty related to me Uncle Eddie’s impressions of me as a player. When Smitty asked him how “the boy (me)” did, he responded with “the boy still has lots to learn.” When Smitty said “I think in a couple years he get ’em” Pops said, “I think in 20 or 30 years he might get ’em.” That remains the most humbling assessment of my skills as an ukulele player and something that always reminds me to keep working at my craft and more importantly be ready for the moment. This painting is currently on display at the Isaacs Art Center at HPA, it is what got me thinking about that moment when Eddie Kamae sang “E Ku`u Morning” and tossed me the solo. An adjunct is I totally nailed “Ka Lama `Ae One.”