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PBS special serves up a cultural music mix


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POSTED: Thursday, May 21, 2009

Keola Beamer is once again breaking new ground with his music. In a recent collaboration with accomplished jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer and renowned American Indian flutist R. Carlos Nakai, who is of Navajo-Ute heritage, he created a series of melodies—primarily based on traditional Hawaiian songs—with startling depth. The result is “;Keola Beamer & Friends: Bridging Worlds Through Music,”; a new television special airing at 8:30 p.m. tonight on KHET/PBS as part of “;PBS Presents.”; It repeats at 11 p.m.

“;I found the music really haunting, and immediately got the concept,”; said executive producer Robert Pennybacker. The collaboration among different cultures “;is a good model for how the world should operate. It's a beautiful but simple concept.”;

During rehearsals before shooting began, Pennybacker described the musical exploration as “;improvised but disciplined. You're melding these different genres, so everyone has to give a lot of space. It can't be thick, dense music, and that takes a lot of trust.”;

Though Beamer had worked individually with Nakai and Keezer, the three had never played together before this project.

In the show, Keezer shares his early concerns about playing the melodies correctly. Beamer told him, “;Just do your own thing; that's the Hawaiian way.”; Keezer laughed and replied, “;Oh, I understand that. I'm a jazz musician!”; But he added that one of the greatest challenges was to avoid overplaying.

Most important, the music needed to resonate culturally, rather than fall into an established category. The use of traditional instruments like the guitar and piano combined with the American Indian flute, ipu and conch shell creates an unpredictable yet soothing, ethereal blend. Beamer calls it “;transcendent.”;

FOR ALL OF the musicians, it was a personal journey. Nakai explains in the show that he is “;working toward trying to realize the dreams of those who were here before me.”;

To accomplish this, each had to leave his ego at the door, according to Pennybacker. “;It wasn't going to work otherwise.”;

Additional participants include chanter/storyteller Moana Beamer, Keola's wife; jazz bassist John Kolivas; and Calvin Hoe, an expert in indigenous Hawaiian instruments. Michael Harris directed.

“;Keola Beamer & Friends”; was shot with three high-definition cameras against a black background in the PBS studio, lending a three-dimensional quality to each scene fade. Editor Michael Powell said the high-quality footage allowed him “;to take an artistic license to showcase the performers.”;

The notion of collaborating with different cultures arose after Sept. 11, 2001, when Beamer and his wife were on a concert tour in San Francisco. In the wave of cancellations that followed, Beamer received a call from the promoter who asked if they could combine a few different acts. So Beamer performed with a Shinto priest and an Asian storyteller, who—with different skills, ideas and backgrounds—converged to share one idea.

The principle lends itself to endless possibilities, which is why Pennybacker hopes the Beamer special becomes a pilot for an ongoing series.

“;Maybe we can help make the world a better place,”; said Beamer, “;and help generate the idea of peace and diversity.”;