Hana Hou Dat Bass!!!

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Hands down, next to the Sons of Hawai`i, my favorite Hawaiian group of all time is Hui `Ohana. Coming from the remote area of Kalapana on Hawai`i Island, they came onto the Hawaiian music scene in the 1970s with a purpose. By mixing their old school traditional arrangements with very forward thinking musical composition they had a sound that was like no other. I like to think of them as a Hawaiian music power trio. Each member on their own was a force; Dennis Pavao’s soaring falsetto, Ledward Ka`apana’s innovative reverbed electric guitar and Nedward Ka`apana’s thundering bass combined to create something that was true to the roots of Hawaiian music and yet so modern and cutting edge as well. Talk about HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries!

What I would like to focus on is Nedward’s bass playing. To this day, after no matter how many listenings, I am still fascinated with how he approached his instrument. Historically the bass player in Hawaiian music plays a solid backing for the rest of the band to build off of. Usually the bass player focuses on the root notes, leaving wide open spacing for the other instruments like `ukulele, steel guitar and slack key guitar, to embellish over. What was unique about Nedward’s playing was he seems to take the opposite approach. It sounds as if he is constantly soloing over the chord progressions, never settling in one region of the neck and never repeating the same pattern more than once.

This approach to bass playing reminds me quite a bit of legendary jazz bassist Ray Brown. Ray was well known for his combination of a walking bass line that is melodic and inventive, supplemented by unsurpassed tone and rhythm. Here is an example. That is Nedward’s playing in a nutshell. I will point to the song Kaimana Hila as an example. Make sure you are listening on headphones or external speakers, as built-in computer speakers won’t properly capture the bouncy rhythms of the bass.

Stay with me on this myspace page as I site examples from other tunes on this amazing album. It should let you play them without an account, if not, you should be able to login using your facebook information if you have one. You are probably saying, “wow, myspace that still exists?!” Well it does, and I have found it to be a nice resource for streaming music. If this doesn’t work, try spotify as these songs are available for streaming there as well.

Really this entire album is full of extremely inventive bass lines that explore the melodic potential of this often over looked and undervalued instrument in Hawaiian music. On Ka Makani Ka `iIi Aloha”  the slow ballad is built on a bass at steady tempo that is accentuated with subtle flourishes in the upper registers. Also listen how he intersperses the steadiness of the bass with short walking phrases during the chorus. By the guitar solo Nedward has already introduced three different techniques of bass playing within one song. During Ledward’s spacey lead parts, Nedward is almost soloing in his own right. Again the flourishes in the upper registers are there, but notice how he quickly jumps back to the lower end of the bass creating a sound that is full and balanced. At times it sounds as if it is Nedward himself who is doing the soloing!

“Punalu`u” is another song that features a jazzy walking type bass line during the verses. Listen to the alterations he adds to the end of the first verse starting at the 22 second mark. He enters into some sort of improvised free wheeling section that is all over the place yet still firmly situated in the root notes. You never feel like he is veering too far off course, but on close examination what he is doing is truly revolutionary. There is no other bass playing I have found that had explored this type of approach to the bass. Again during the solo he employs what is sort of a signature Nedward technique, a low note on the root and then a jump to the relative high tone with quick embellishments. During the end ha`ina section he settles back in to a “normal” bass line, taking you full circle back to something familiar after the world wind tour of notes the song takes you on.

Another section I would like to point out is on the song “Kealohalani” at the 1:18 mark. I am not sure I can put into words what he is doing here. Take a listen for yourself. He builds a phrase that ends in a crescendo of notes at the 1:31 point in which I believe he is doing note sliding that one would associate with Jaco Pastorius. I am firmly convinced by playing such as this that Nedward must have been familiar with jazz playing from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions. Otherwise Nedward independently conceived of bass playing techniques that are considered at the forefront of the capabilities of this instrument.

Finally listen to what Nedward is able to accomplish on the instrumental tunes at the end of the album. The sliding techniques are featured somewhat again early on in “Ku`uipo Onaona” but also of note is the slight syncopation he uses right at the end. On “Maunaloa” what I find interesting are the sections in which he complements Ledward’s fast picking with some forward thinking use of right hand techniques. Not only are the quick slides there, but he seems to be using some quick fluttering of the index and middle fingers interspersing with the walking bass lines.

What this all adds up to is an approach to his instrument that is HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. My question is where did it come from? Was he mimicking techniques from the jazz realm that he adapted to Hawaiian music? Is this something he heard another bass player from Kalapana doing? Or was this completely invented on his own? What I do know is I haven’t been able to find another bass player in Hawaiian music approaching the bass in this manner and I have yet to hear someone consistently play this way. I do hear inflections of some of these techniques played during isolated sections in some bass players, but I have yet to hear someone apply this approach to every song one plays.

I hope you listen to and appreciate the musicality of Hui `Ohana in a new light. Often Dennis Pavao’s falsetto and Ledward Ka`apana’a guitar playing get mentioned as being the notable aspects of the group’s sound, but for me, what Nedward is doing in the back ground is equally important. What is does for me as a musician is inspire HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries in how I approach my playing. I hope it does for you too.

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