Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, November 30, 2001

Sean and Kau'i Na'auao are partners in life, business and music-making.

A musical blend like
fish and poi

Kau'i Na'auao takes hubby Sean
beyond reggae beats and into
Hawaiian territory

By John Berger

There was a time when Sean Na'auao didn't worry about pronouncing Hawaiian lyrics correctly. He didn't speak the language and didn't worry about the kaona (hidden meanings) in the words. He'd read 'em off paper and sing 'em.

"However I pronounced it, so be it," he said, as he discussed the challenges involved in performing and recording Hawaiian music. Most island residents don't speak Hawaiian or understand only a few words. They either learn Hawaiian songs by listening to someone else's version or by reading lyrics that may lack diacritical markings and other important information.

That kind of slapdash approach isn't good enough for Na'auao anymore. He made a risky but successful commitment to perpetuating his culture by including several traditional Hawaiian songs on his 2000 album, "Neutralize It," despite concerns that the change might cost him some of his Jawaiian and "island music" fans.

Sean Na'auao CD Release Party

With performances by the Makaha Sons, Genoa Keawe, Olomana, Dennis Pavao, Lorna Lim, Koa'uka, Hawaiian Time, and B.E.T. featuring Bruddah Waltah

Where: Kapono's, Aloha Tower Marketplace
When: 5 p.m. tomorrow, to 1 a.m.
Cover: $10
Call: 536-2161

He made an even bigger statement this year with the simultaneous release of two new albums -- one consisting of contemporary "island" music, the other traditional Hawaiian in style but featuring new Hawaiian songs co-written with his wife and business partner, Kau'i Dalire Na'auao.

The release of "Holomua" and "Progression" will be celebrated with a seven-hour CD-release party tomorrow night at Kapono's in Aloha Tower Marketplace. Several guests will share the spotlight.

"I thought it was a neat concept," Kau'i said of the decision to record and release the two different albums. "It's almost like the contemporary was him and the Hawaiian was me, even though if you look at the blood (quantum), it's opposite. He really likes his reggae stuff, but he loves the Hawaiian, too."

Na'auao had considered making his last album traditional but decided that fans of his reggae-beat hits -- "Fish & Poi" and "Panini Patrol," for example -- might feel he was selling out or snubbing them. That wasn't where he was coming from, as he's a longtime reggae fan, but since winning a Hoku Award for his "Fish & Poi" album in 1998, Na'auao has been working on a more innovative fusion of Hawaiian and "island" music.

"In the long run I want to get away from the contemporary end and do more traditional language music, but with the contemporary beats and stuff like that," he said.

He and Kau'i approach the music business as a team. She's his manager, writing partner and language coach as well as his wife and best friend.

"For him the biggest challenge is just kind of gliding the words together. It's hard because in Hawaiian there's parts where you have to cut it off because you have an okina or stress it when you have the kahako. The music can make it hard to do that, (and) it gets frustrating because I keep telling him he has to do it again. It can be hard to fit the musical thing together."

Kau'i, the daughter of kumu hula Aloha Dalire, has been dancing hula "all my life" and grew up around the language. She took three years of Hawaiian at Kamehameha Schools and four years at the University of Hawaii; she graduated with a B.A. in Hawaiian studies and says she's spoken the language for about 10 years.

The challenge is that regional differences exist, so native speakers may disagree on correct pronunciations. Even with diligent research, there are often people who take issue with the finished product. If a songwriter is recognized as fluent and knowledgeable, however, their instructions are respected even if others disagree.

"At least for me now the criticism is not so much about me pronouncing it," Sean said. "It's more like why I did something a certain way. If people ask me, now I can tell them who I consulted and who my sources are. In the past my source was nobody."

While Kau'i helps Sean sharpen his language skills, he's taught her about songwriting. The partnership began several albums ago with the title song of the "Homegrown Hawaiian" album. They co-wrote two of the sweetest songs on "Holomua" and contributed six to "Progression."

"I have a lot of Hawaiian issues that I like to talk about," Kau'i said, "and he basically forms them and puts it into a song. For me it's always interesting."

The process is a way of sharing the musical experience as a couple.

"It's not like I cannot write," he said, "but we have our own label, and we make all the business decisions together, so I wanted her to be involved in the creative side of writing, too. I like what she's coming up with, and I think it's working pretty good."

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