Memorable isle sounds
Local artists filled 2007 with irresistible albums, slack-key compilations and impressive debuts
The year 2007 was another eventful one for the local record industry. A slack-key compilation won the Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album for the third year in a row. That win — by "Legends of Hawaii Slack Key Guitar — Live From Maui" — also made it two wins in a row for producer Daniel Ho and his Los Angeles-based record label, Daniel Ho Creations. Most of the complaints this year about another win for a slack-key compilation were not aimed directly at Ho and his co-producers — George Kahumoku, Paul Konwiser and Wayne Wong — but rather at the fact that the Grammys recognize only one category for Hawaiian music of all types.
But get ready, Hawaii! When the finalists for the 2008 Grammys were announced earlier this month, the list included Ho's latest slack-key compilation, "Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key."
This was also the year that Keali'i Reichel's debut album, "Kawaipunahele," was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for confirmed sales of more than 500,000 copies. That made Reichel the third Hawaii resident artist to go gold; Don Ho was the first, Israel IZ Kamakawiwo'ole the second.
Jon de Mello added string arrangements to archival recordings by the late Kamakawiwo'ole and created a second posthumous IZ album, "What a Wonderful World." The album appeared for a week on Billboard's pop album chart.
The Hawai'i Academy of Recordings Arts celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, our equivalent of the Grammys, in June. Created by Krash Kealoha in 1978 as a sales promotion for KCCN-AM, the Hokus have been administered by HARA since 1982.
Kaukahi's debut album, "Life in These Islands, dominated the 2007 Hokus with wins for Group of the Year, Song of the Year and Graphics (Group member Kawika Kahiapo also received the Ki Ho'alu Award). The Makaha Sons made history as the first Hoku winners in the new Music Video/DVD category, and Afatia Thompson won the first Hoku for Best R&B/Hip Hop Album.
On the down side, even counting in anthologies, recordings of Hawaiian music by non-residents, and music of all types by expatriates, approximately 10 percent fewer "local albums" were released in 2007 than the year before. Fortunately, Hawaii's major labels and many smaller ones as well went for quality over quantity.
Here's a look back — in alphabetical order by title — at 13 memorable albums whose musical content, production values, annotation and packaging earned them a spot on the list of the best "Island Mele" releases in 2007:
» " 'Aina Kupuna" Hoku Zuttermeister (Kaleiola): Zuttermeister's long-awaited album is a perfect showcase for him as a solo artist and lives up to the high standards expected. Zuttermeister acknowledges his family heritage with the opening song; others show his range and talent as a falsetto vocalist. The detailed annotation provides information about each selection along with the Hawaiian lyrics and English translations.
» "Hawaii's Falsetto Poet" Bill Ali'iloa Lincoln (HanaOla): Lincoln was one of the major Hawaiian falsetto singers of the mid-20th century. This anthology is a perfect retrospective on his legacy as a singer, song writer and recording artist. State-of-the-art audio restoration does justice to the recordings. Detailed annotation provides a wealth of information about Lincoln and his music.
» "Hawaiian Blossom"
Raiatea Helm (Raiatea Helm): Helm reaffirms her position as the foremost female Hawaiian falsetto singer of her generation while also exploring broader musical horizons. The first few songs remind us of her falsetto capabilities; next comes a rendition of "Ei Nei" that features electric keyboards instead of acoustic piano. When a clarinetist joins in on "My Dede," a hapa-haole song of apparently unknown origin, it's only a short step musically to a sweet and romantic cocktail-lounge version of "Taking a Chance on Love" that closes the album with a tantalizing hint of things to come.
» "Hawaiiana" Tia Carrere (Daniel Ho Creations): One of the biggest surprises of 2007, "Hawaiiana" marks Carrere's return to the music she grew with. With Daniel Ho providing accompaniment on ukulele and slack-key guitar it is a perfect homecoming. The duo's renditions of "He Aloha Mele," "Pupu Hinuhinu" and "Hi'ilawe" are particularly notable selections on one of the prettiest Hawaiian albums of the year.
» "He'eia" Cyril Pahinui (Dancing Cat): Pahinui's third solo album for George Winston's Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Series is another perfect showcase. Among the gems are two versions of the title song — each in a different tuning. Serious fans and students of slack key will welcome the opportunity to compare the two. Pahinui's father, Gabby, was known for his distinctive singing voice; four songs show that Cyril is well able to perpetuate that side of the family legacy. Extensive annotation completes this perfect introduction to the fascinating traditions of slack key.
» "Ho'okanaka" Maunalua (Lokahi): Traditionalists will applaud the trio's commitment to perpetuating the unique music of Hawaii while finding fresh arrangements for familiar songs. "Uncle Bobby" Moderow Jr. is well known for his strong falsetto, but Kahi Kaonohi and Bruce Spencer are featured as lead vocalists on several selections. The trio's imaginative arrangement of "Koke'e" is a particularly good example of their strengths as musicians and vocalists.
» "I Be Hawaiian" Mana (Wayoutwest Enterprises): Mana made a memorable debut in 2001 with a mele ku'e (song of resistance) titled "They Couldn't Take the Mana." He returns now, angrier and even more articulate, with powerful new insights on the issues of sovereignty, self-determination and Hawaiian nationalism. Mana calls on native Hawaiians to take individual responsibility for making things better, to get an education, and get involved in the struggle. Producer "Radical Rob" Onekea's blending of reggae with elements of hip-hop and R&B enhances Mana's political manifesto.
» "Ka Hikina O Ka Hau" Keola Beamer (Dancing Cat/Windham Hill): Beamer steps outside traditional slack-key material to explore an assortment of non-Hawaiian melodies; most are the works of Western classical composers. Modern studio technology allows him to accompany himself on additional guitars with different tunings. Some arrangements also contrast the sounds of nylon strings and steel strings. Beamer writes in the liner notes that he didn't intend to record a slack-key album, but he succeeds brilliantly in bringing the essence of slack key to these beautiful melodies.
» "Kanikapila — Live!" Mike Kaawa (Rhythm & Roots): Kaawa's album captures his talent, well-worn voice and his personal appeal perfectly. Although it wasn't produced to create the impression of listening to a single uninterrupted set, it provides a good idea of what it's like to catch him at the Koolau Golf Club or a slack-key festival. A medley of "Maui Girl" and "I'm Going to Maui Tomorrow" is one of the strongest cuts. "Wahine Ilikea," "Haleiwa Hula" and "Keawaiki" are beautiful as well.
» "Kukahi: Keali'i Reichel Live In Concert" Keali'i Reichel (Punahele Productions): Reichel was one of the first Hawaiian artists to embrace video as an extension of the familiar album/CD. He takes another significant step with this beautifully produced DVD. Reichel is in top form as a singer, chanter, guitarist, percussionist, dancer and emcee. The production values are excellent, and the various subtitle options make this a must buy for anyone interested in modern Hawaiian music.
» "Life In These Islands" Kaukahi (One Hawaii): Kaukahi's debut includes performances by two high-profile guests, but the quartet stands securely on its own talent. The title song, an idealized portrait of life in Hawaii, establishes the group's command of smooth four-part Hawaiian harmonies. A spirited rendition of "Ulili E" displays their strengths as vocalists and their ability to interpret the work of other writers.
» "Live From the Lo'i" Kamau ('E'epa): Kamau plays in a style promoted a year or so ago as "maoli music," a fusion of Hawaiian music and non-Hawaiian folk reminiscent of what Big Island Conspiracy was doing in 1999. But there is nothing derivative here. Kamana Beamer writes with insight and passion about the alienation of the Hawaiian people from their land and their culture. He also proves adept at writing introspective love songs, and shows his sense of humor with "Cucumba."
» "1 Rebel" O-shen (Sharpnote): O-shen continues to be a major player on the island music scene and one of the two here who can do reggae-style music in a language other than English (Fiji is the other). Jamaican guests add authentic Afro-Caribbean patois while he presides in Hawaiian, English and Niugini pidgin (the official national language of his childhood home, Papua New Guinea). Rock-solid instrumental arrangements are the final components, whether he is commenting on political issues or showing his romantic side.