Island Mele: ‘Robi Calling’ a mixed bag
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
Robi Kahakalau (Neos Productions)
How time can fly! It’s now more than 20 years since Robi Kahakalau first burst on the local music scene with Merri Lake (later known as Merri Lake McGarry), Bryan Kessler and Wade “Che” Cambern as the Hawaiian Style Band. The quartet’s first album, “Vanishing Treasures,” won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Contemporary Album of the Year in 1993. The second, “Rhythm of the Ocean,” was the winner in the Island Contemporary category in 1995.
Kahakalau quickly moved on to success as a solo artist. Her first solo album, “Sistah Robi,” won two Hokus — Island Contemporary and Female Vocalist — in 1996. A singular highlight of her early days solo came when she teamed up with Kaui “Bu La‘ia” Hill on “Pi’i Mai Ka Nalu.” The song showcased Hill’s alter ego as a cheerful would-be surfing instructor in search of “money for buy poi” (“Better than poi, better than pig. Bu La‘ia surf only when big!”)
Jump forward to 2013 and Kahakalau is working with island recording industry veteran Bob St. John and his Neos Productions organization. Kahakalau and St.John are clearly aiming the album at two diverse audiences. Jamaican rhythms and Jawaiian arrangements dominate the first few songs and pop up elsewhere. Hawaiian-langguage standards provide balance later.
A Jawaiian remake of “Ke‘ala,” obvious fodder for Hawaii’s island music radio stations, sets the mood. An engaging vocal performance by Kahakalau and imaginative work by pianist Chris Sanders, make it one of the better reggae-lite numbers.
Kahakalau and her musicians bring no ideas to their remake of Jamaican reggae star Beres Hammond’s classic, “Reggae Calling,” but do better with John Denver’s early 1970’s hit “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” Although adding a Jawaiian beat to an arrangement that would have been beautiful without it is an odd call Kahakalau’s distinctive voice transcends the gratuitous distraction.
Kahakalau takes a cultural 180 as she switches from Jawaiian-pop to Hawaiian with the songs that come next. With the “Kawohikukapulani,” written by Helen Desha Beamer to commemorate the wedding of her youngest daughter, Helen Elizabeth Kawohikukapulani Beamer, in 1941, Kahakalau pays tribute to one of Hawaii’s great song writers in beautiful style. The Hawaiian songs that follow, “Na Moku ‘Eha,” “Ka Lei” and “Na Pali Alo Lua,” likewise show that Kahakalau is as a much a traditionalist as she is a Jawaiian (Lyrics, English translations and background information for the Hawaiian songs — essential information for all “hard copy” Hawaiian music projects — should be included in the annotation but are not).
A Jawaiian remake of “Cruisin’” is the empty nadir of the project. No one has ever interpreted Smokey Robinson’s songs better than he does himself. This attempt, with an arrangement that also lacks the instrumental hook that Robinson and guitarist Marv Tarplin worked into the original hit, proves the point.
On the other hand, give Kahakalau and St. John credit due for an enchanting treatment of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” a pop music hit from the ‘40s. Kahakalau conveys the poignancy of the lyrics in convincing style, and St. John does some very nice work as the pianist.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.