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.

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.

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?