Try Wait: ‘Holidays’ caps busy year for Kahele
BY GARY CHUN / email@example.com
It’s the last month of the year, a time for reflection and giving thanks, and Kuana Torres Kahele has much to acknowledge what has gone on for him in 2012.
Already a noteworthy musical talent with Na Palapalai, Kahele released his debut solo album, “Kaunaloa,” in mid-year on the Mountain Apple Company label, which would go on to deservedly win six Na Hoku Hanohano awards. It was certainly my favorite contemporary Hawaiian album, and the strongest, I feel, in some years.
Now with Christmas a-coming, he’s followed up “Kaunaloa” with “Hilo for the Holidays,” a solid and sometimes inspired collection of songs, ranging from the more tradition-bound like a gorgeous “The First Noel” and “Iesu E Komo Mai” (written by Mama Ane Kanahele of Ni‘ihau) to the charming “Here Comes Santa in a Red Canoe,” made famous by The Surfers in the early 1960s, and Kahele’s lilting Hawaiian language take on “The Chipmunk Song,” aka “Christmas Don’t Be Late (Mele O Na Kiulela).”
Currently working in Japan, Kahele will be back home in time to perform from 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, as part of Kahala Mall’s “Songs of the Season” holiday concert series, as well as to continue coordinating “The 12 Leis of Christmas Giveaway,” giving away precious Ni‘ihau shell lei reportedly worth over $25,000 with the help of his record label, Hawaiian 105 KINE and Hawaii News Now. (Click here to enter.)
I interviewed Kahele via e-mail while he was in Japan last week:
QUESTION: You’ve hopefully had some time to reflect on this year has been for you as an artist. With the accolades you’ve received, what are some of the emotions and thoughts that you can take away from 2012?
ANSWER: Overwhelmed and grateful are my two emotions for 2012. My “Kaunaloa” project was the fulfillment of a 15-year promise to my mom to do a solo CD. I never thought about awards, more just to honor my ‘ohana and my heritage.
Although the awards are important to some, I mark more of my success on the fact that I can make a full-time living as a musician in Hawaiian music. In this day and age, that is an achievement in my eyes.
Q: One of my favorite vocals that you do on the “Kaunaloa” album is on the song “Palisa,” or Paris in English. As you are in Japan right now, you strike me as a relatively well-traveled person. What has travel abroad done for you?
A: I have been very fortunate to see a lot of the world, both through performing and travel. I think it gives you a broader view of people and other cultures. I find inspiration from what I see and it almost always shows up in my music.
“Palisa” was born from two Paris trips. I have a new song I am excited to share on my next CD from a recent trip to breathtaking Sorrento, Italy.
Q: Turning to your new Christmas album, how did it come about? Was it recorded due to the success of “Kaunaloa” or was it planned beforehand?
A: “Hilo For The Holidays” has been a work-in-progress for several years. It is a collection of songs my mom taught us as kids, some standards I have put a Hawaiian spin on, and a few originals from me. I tried to make it fun and upbeat and reflective of me and my music.
Q: Your reworking of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was a pleasant surprise. Offhand, I don’t know of any other version that’s been translated into another language. It already has a memorable melody and it sounds wonderful in Hawaiian. You’ve obviously made it, “Haleluia,” into a more religious song than the original. Why did you change up the original?
A: To be honest, I had heard the melody, but never really paid attention to the words. The original lyrics are very complicated and have nothing to do with Christmas or the holidays. My hope was to merge the two, honor Cohen’s song and tell the Christmas story in a uniquely Hawaiian way.
Q: The two songs that you sing in English, the title track and “I Guess It’s Christmas,” are two of my favorites on the album. Why did you forego doing them both in Hawaiian?
A: I had never written an English song before “I Guess It’s Christmas.” My mele comes to me in Hawaiian and I consider myself a Hawaiian musician, even though many of my fans are non-Hawaiian speakers.
I wanted this CD to have something for everyone. I guess it is a little way to give back to so many whom have supported me.
Q: The Ni‘ihau shell lei giveaway is a great idea, considering how beloved they are.
A: I am an avid collector of Ni‘ihau shell lei and supporter of the Ni‘ihauan community. There are so few lei makers today, I want to celebrate and support this dying art. For most of the Ni‘ihauans that still make, it is their only income.
I encourage people to get their (shell) lei out of those safety deposit boxes and actually WEAR them. Honor the artists that spent so much time to create such beauty from our islands.
Q: Finally, you’re also in Japan to work at the school you started. Tell me more about it.
A: With the Kuana School of Hawaiian Music & Culture, I am able to share more of what I am passionate about — all things Hawaiian. Courses range from instruction in voice, ukulele, guitar, upright bass, culture exploration, Hawaiian mele and some hula based on my original compositions.
I spend the last 10 days of every month in Japan. The Japanese are such enthusiastic students, ready to soak up this new culture from Hawaii. I had taught workshops for years that always overflowed with anxious students, so this seemed like a natural progression based on such a huge demand.
Gary Chun is a features reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.