An artist's soul


POSTED: Monday, June 08, 2009

Aaron Sala remembers the night when music—particularly Hawaiian music—stirred his young soul.





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        Aaron J. Sala

MySpace: Aaron J. Sala




It's pau hana time on a warm, early Wednesday evening, and Sala is talking while taking in a panoramic view of eastern Honolulu from the lanai of his fiancee's mother's Manoa hillside home. He's says that as a fourth-grader he was a dutiful piano student, practicing his Bach minuets, Chopin sonatas and the like.

“;One day, my grandmother, my grandfather and I came back to their home after a luau. They had a grand piano in the living room, but I never saw either of them play it until that night. For some reason, my grandmother sat at the piano and started playing. When I saw what she was doing, my jaw dropped to the floor!

“;She played a vamp that I later learned was part of the popular Hawaiian song 'Kalama'ula.' After that experience, all of my interest in playing Chopin and Bach went out the window. The music she played spoke to me on an emotional, spiritual level. That night began my whole journey. I asked her to 'teach me what you're playing.'”;

Sala's maternal grandmother, Cecilia Cabral, did so, first making sure that her grandson kept practicing his classical lessons. They spent afternoons at the piano through Sala's first year as an college undergraduate.

Flash forward to the present, and Aaron Sala is one of the bright lights on the contemporary Hawaiian music scene. The sound of his piano, combined with his classically trained tenor, has received accolades over the last four years.

Sala is a thoughtful man and pauses before talking about the four Na Hoku Hanohano Award nominations that he's up for at this year's sold-out ceremony at the Hawai'i Convention Center tomorrow night. The annual event honors the best of locally made music.

Sala will not be attending the awards ceremony due to a previously scheduled engagement in Japan, but said, “;I'm definitely proud of the nominations. I'm honored that the (Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts) saw that my latest album is worth the recognition. But awards are only a small part of the entire process of my music.”;

In 2005, Sala's recording debut, “;Ka Upu Aloha: Alone With My Thoughts,”; was honored with a couple of Hoku awards for Most Promising New Artist and Best Haku Mele. His latest album, “;Napo'ona Mahina: The Illusion of Reality,”; is up for awards in the categories of Male Vocalist of the Year, Hawaiian Language Performance, Haku Mele composer's award for first-time recording of a Hawaiian-language song (”;Pulupe i Ka'ili,”; written by Kainani Kahaunaele), and Graphics.

Considering the care he puts into shaping his career, it's no surprise that Sala said that “;it's not just about the music, but the whole package and how I present myself as an artist.”;

IN SPITE OF accolades, Sala admits the recording studio is not his favorite performance environment.

The process of doing his first album, he said, “;was just horrible. It was the first time I had come into the studio in this capacity as the sole producer-arranger-and performer. It was daunting and just a very uncomfortable situation for me. Looking back, I wish things could've been better, but considering what I learned, I'm glad I went through it.”;

For his latest album, Sala wanted another pair of ears and someone with more experience in the studio, so he worked with Dave Tucciarone, with better results.

Opening with the warm and romantic “;Sweet Moonlight,”; the album touches on all aspects of what's best about Hawaiian music—from Randie Fong's loving praise song for Queen Liliuokalani, “;Mele o ke Ke'ena Kalaunu”;; to an intimate, rapturous “;Kanaenae a ke Aloha,”; a highlight of the album; and through a couple of spry hula favorites, “;Po La'ila'i”; and “;Koa'e,”; by Mary Kawena Pukui and Maddy Lam; a swinging “;Sophisticated Hula,”; courtesy of Sol K. Bright; and a swaying, tropical take of “;Ua Noho Au a Kupa”; (featuring flutist Rocky Holmes and guitarist Jeff Peterson). There's even a bit of Italian bel canto as Sala shows off his classical vocal chops on “;Non T'Amo Pi.”;

AARON SALA might be considered a renaissance man, gifted in music and language. A 1994 Kamehameha Schools graduate, he continued his schooling at the University of Hawaii before leaving to study opera in New York with Arturo and Sharon Spinetti. Upon returning to Hawaii, Sala performed in a couple of Hawaii Opera Theatre productions.

Sala received his bachelor's degree in music from UH in 2000 and aims to earn a master's degree in ethnomusicology next year.

Sala has many people to thank, starting with his grandmother. “;First, there's Les Ceballos, who is the choral director at Kamehameha, and the many lessons I learned from him during my junior and senior years. Then, when he said, 'I've taught you all that I've learned,' he handed me off to his vocal teachers, Neva Rego and Betty Grierson. It's because of those two women that I decided to stay home. They taught me how to listen.”;

He's used that skill and sensibility in his school work as well, as he finishes working on his thesis on the piano's place in the history of Hawaiian music.

“;It was fun interviewing Aunty Leila Kiaha before she passed away,”; Sala said. “;She was definitely one of my mentors as a student at Kamehameha, and I spent a lot of time with her after graduating as well. I've also interviewed Lanihuli Lee, Mahi Beamer and Randie Fong. I'm hoping to get a chance to talk with Auntie Violet Awai, but I haven't been able to contact her yet. My interviewees run the gamut of ages and experiences.”;

IN ADDITION to working on solo projects, Sala's been a guest performer on recording projects by other Hawaiian music artists such as Raiatea Helm, Weldon Kekauoha, Alea and Na Palapalai. He also makes himself available as a halau accompanist, and he's worked with Walt Disney Records, arranging “;Mele Kalikimaka”; for Bette Midler's Christmas album, “;Cool Yule.”;

“;As far as I'm concerned, I'm in it for the long haul,”; he said. “;My only question is, Can I continue to sustain myself as a musician? I've been lucky so far and I count my blessings. This is what I do.”;

If there is one regret, it's that Sala's grandmother died 10 years ago.

“;It's still very important to remember what she did for me,”; Sala said. “;She's a part of what I do, and I like to think that what I'm doing now would make her proud.”;

Beginning next Monday, Aaron Sala returns to his regular 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday gig at the Pa'ina Lanai in the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki.