Show and Tell Hawai'i

Island Sounds: A mixed bag of achievement

August 30th, 2011

Aren’t you glad that some folks still favor classic CD releases, providing traditionalists a mixed bag of albums that you can hold in your hand instead of titles you simply download?
Old-style still works, if you ask me, so join the gallery and cheer on these recent entries:

Kaunaloa”
Kuana Torres Kahele
Hulu Kupuna Productions

Kuana Torres Kahele clearly has become this year’s best-selling Hawaiian artist with “Kaunaloa,” titled after the expression “to preserve, to carry on.” This is Island culture at work — apart from Kuana’s fine work with Na Palapalai and an extension of that cred — and his spirit of communicating with Hawaiian words and music is a vital stake in perpetuation. And he’s adopted the essence of local son communicator: sing what you know, sing what you love, sing what is meaningful.
Not since Keali’i Reichel has there been a trouper who meticulously cherry-picks his material, weighing both melody and words before making them a part of his repertoire.
Take “Waikahuli,” essentially a love song about a blossom journeying from afar (well, the Mainland) to Hawaii, related metaphorically with meanings left for imagination and interpretation; or “Pikake Anuhea,” another floral reflection about the rapid passage of time and the fragrance that evokes romance.
“Palisa” is Kuana’s take on his trip to Paris; there are other personal homages to places (“Keanakolu”) that live in his memory and people like his mom and dad (reflected on “Ke Anu O Waimea”).
Kuana even adds lyrics to the classic “Ulili E,” making a daring move with resourceful invention.
His vocal prowess embodies falsetto tones; the style is unabashedly Hawaiian, though there’s an instance of Spanish and vaqueros intervention that simply makes his stew of music robust with seasoning.
“Kaunaloa” offers plenty to applaud and embrace. For Kuana, this is a career breakthrough.

“Pegasis Rising”
Pegasis Rising
No label

Pegasis Rising, and its namesake CD, is a do-all, try-anything, play-everything group. That is its chief asset, but this could also be its major challenge: What is its identity? Its focus? Its target audience?
To its credit, the CD clearly is a labor of love and boasts a broad spectrum of styles, songs and formats. Edward S. Suzui is the go-to guy, composer of all nine tracks on a very under-rated, under-appreciated, under-exposed album of group tracks and solos (male and female). Makes me wonder: who are these voices, where are their faces? The CD lacks a bright photo identifying and introducing Pegasis.
“Wind on the Water” is delightfully and definitively country, with a germaine theme: “just listen to the voice of your heart.” It’s the most significant and satisfying tune — one that could give Pegasis that initial beep on the radar.
Similarly, “Whisper in the Night” is dusty journey down trails of Texas or Nashville or Countryville U.S.A., with snapshots of railroads, rodeos and romances.
“Jungle Music” is homogenized reggae, not the Jawaiian juice but a sweet panorama of nighttime merriment and magic, with that syncopated Jamaican/Caribbean beat.
“The Islands of Hawaii Are Calling” is Island country — not Hawaiian but contemporary aloha with a western undercurrent — rich in memories and details of local life.
There are a couple more tracks to explore.
The group features Rachel Kealani Jones, lead and backup vocals; Judy Mililani Keys, lead and backup vocals; Jorge Gonzalez, lead and backup vocals, keyboards; Robert Klaiss, lead vocals; Howard Komatsu drums; Edward S. Suzui, lead and rhythm guitar; and Eric Becera, bass guitar.
You might know Pegasis, or Suzui, for composing the theme song of Oceanic Cable’s “Ultimate Japan” show.

Ukulele Jazz”
Benny Chong
With Byron Yasui
No label

Benny Chong has been a background musician for years, best known as a member of The Aliis at the height of his popularity and more recently as a band musician for the late Don Ho.
He’s also been one of the town’s low-profile concert ukulele strummers, and here is joined by another career vet and longtime friend, bassist Byron Yasui, in a live-in-Hilo session. I mean, who goes to Hilo to do an album?
This is for the bona fide collectible fan. For trivia folks, Nathan Aweau — yeah, the Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winner and onetime Hapa hipster — mastered the session.
Nine cuts, separated by applause instead of introductory chatter, provide an intimate look, or listen, at Chong’s precision strummings. He shelves Hawaiiana — remember, his motif is jazz — so he has a field day with “My Funny Valentine,” “Satin Doll,” “The Nearness of You,” “Bewitched.”
And then there’s “Frosty the Snowman,” complete with an out-of-season introduction (and a few lines from “Jingle Bells” as a prologue). Surprisingly, this one’s the hippest, hottest, happiest treat. The uke goes to town; the bass ploughs through the snow. Frosty is frisky as ever.
So there. Go get your yuletide gift now; it will last forever.

“No Ku’uipo”
Ahumanu
Ulua Productions

Ahumanu is Liz Morales and Joni De Mello, who sing lead and harmony, on this seven-tune collection that provides a map of where they’ve been and where they’re going. There’s nostalgia and reflection, alongside hope and promise, and lots of good-time Island-style music.
Now a duo instead of a trio, Maui-based Ahumanu smartly explains in liner notes why it recorded each tune — and the reasons shape a tapestry of their collective lives.
Liz wrote “All of My Life” as a last-minute wedding gift to Joni; “Swingtime in Honolulu” (yes, the Duke Ellington oldie), was a titled they learned for a May Day program at a Kahului school; Joni wrote “Pohoiki” after an excursion to Kapoho on the Big Island; “Ha’o’u,” a place song, recalls Liz’s childhood memories of visiting tutuwahine and tutukane and remisniscing on the porch at Ha’o’u; “Vi’i o Lauli’i is another rollback in time, a Samoan ditty about the village where Liz’s mom grew up; the group’s most nahanahe Hawaiian entry is “Makalapua,” served with reflection of a family reunion.
Overall, there’s seasoned aloha and mana’o in the sharing; Ahumanu’s strength is the gentle but expressive harmonies best exemplified on Hawaiian tunes like “Makalapua.”

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