(Fat Katz Productions)
Darren Benitez's first album, "Broken Hearts," earned him the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Most Promising Artist in 1996. His second, "Mother of the Sea," was a finalist in three categories, including Male Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year, in 1999. Both albums presented him as a Hawaiian falsetto traditionalist whose repertoire includes Hawaiian standards, hapa-haole tear-jerkers, Christian hymns and Hispanic "kachi-kachi" music.
"Dear Mama," his first album in a decade, builds on that proven foundation and follows the familiar template. Once again, the title song is a original. Once again, the set list includes a catchy up-tempo Hispanic song. And, once again, Benitez makes it clear that he is an outstanding conservator of Hawaii's unique falsetto tradition.
He sells the project with the first three songs. The first, "He Nani Kekaha," shows that his voice is as strong and clear as it was 10 years ago. The second, "Kamealoha (Hula Maiden Girl)," reaffirms that with an old-style hapa-haole number perfect for hula. The third, "Ahuroa (I Was There When He Made the Heavens)," is one of several with religious themes.
Three others demonstrate his range. Pop fans will find a surprisingly good remake of "You Needed Me," and "El Bom Bom De Elena" is a dramatic change of pace that reminds us of his Puerto Rican heritage. The most memorable of all comes three songs after that when Benitez's mother joins him for a beautiful country gospel-style rendition of "I've Got a Mansion."
"Hawaiian Style Lullabies"
Friends of Aloha
Form undercuts substance on this beautiful but problematic concept album. On one hand, the musical contents -- an amalgam of slack key, steel guitar, synth track-generated sonic filler and environmental sounds -- make this a perfect choice for anyone seeking an antidote to the stress of modern life. You say you don't have a difficult infant to deal with? The tranquil melodies are equally effective stress-relievers for victims of traffic gridlock or computer problems.
The selections include international favorites such as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Rock a Bye Baby," as well as Winona Beamer's Hawaiian classic, "Pupu Hinu Hinu." There are also two new melodies written by the producer of the project, John Tsukano.
Tsukano is the only person identified by his full name, and that is where the "on the other hand" aspect kicks in. When the musicians who make the music go unidentified, the impression is that the project is "product" -- a work-for-hire cranked out for financial rather than artistic purposes.
The packaging suggests that this particular product is aimed at people who don't live here and don't know much about Hawaiian culture. It includes the standard list of English names and their Hawaiian equivalents (John = Keoni, for example). There is also a list of Hawaiian words that can be used as names. What isn't mentioned is that the traditional protocol for giving a child a Hawaiian name was much more complicated than picking one from a list.
It may be true that the people most likely to buy this album couldn't care less who's playing, but the musicians deserve to have their names known.
1164 Bishop Street Suite 124-160
Honolulu HI 96813
, who has covered the local entertainment scene since 1972, writes reviews of recordings produced by Hawaii artists. See the Star-Bulletin's Today section on Fridays for the latest reviews. Reach John Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org