Kaiao wins Ka Himeni ‘Ana singing contest
BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
An unexpected performance by revered chanter and songwriter Ka‘upena Wong was the surprise highlight of the evening during a big event of the year in island music, as Richard M. Towill and the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame presented the 29th Annual Ka Himeni ‘Ana singing competition last night at Hawaii Theatre.
Wong was there, at least in part, to support his friends, the Leo Nahenahe Singers, who were honored for their contributions to Hawaiian music. When the group took the stage to perform while the final results were being tallied, they brought Wong with them. It was a great decision.
When the trio sang “Leo Nahenahe,” a song Wong wrote more the 50 years ago, he served as narrator and provided the English translation of his lyrics. He stepped forward again several songs later to join them in singing a Big Band classic from the 1930’s, “Does Your Heart Beat For Me.”
Wong capped the evening with a third performance after the winners were announced. He recalled researching the music of Lili‘uokalani with Mary Kawena Pukui more than 50 years ago and then serenaded all the contestants with an a capella rendition of “Hawaii In My Heart.” Wong, 84, rarely performs in public. This was one of those rare performances and a “ya shoulda been there” moment in Hawaiian music.
Noelani Mahoe, leader of the Leo Nahenahe Singers, also took the show in an unexpected direction. She announced that instead of closing Ka Himeni ‘Ana with “Hawaii Aloha” as usual, she was going to lead everyone in singing “Aloha ‘Oe” — but that it would be played and sung as Lili‘uokalani arranged it rather than the standard arrangement. The Queen’s original arrangement has a much cheerier sound.
Milestone moments aside, it was a great night for traditional nahenahe (“sweet, melodious”) Hawaiian music. It was a particularly great night for this year’s winners. Kaiao — Ku Souza (acoustic bass), Ekolu Chang (‘ukulele) and Liki Tavete (guitar) — took top honors in the field of seven.
Sons of Kapalama — Pomaika’i Brown (steel guitar), Papaiano Kaowili (acoustic bass), Halemana Mullaney (‘ukulele) and Keliikai Paleka (guitar) — took 2nd.
The Kono ‘Ohana — the father and son duo of Greg Kono (‘ukulele) and Grant Kono (acoustic bass) — was third.
Kaiao’s strong harmonies and Chang’s clear falsetto made a strong positive impression on many members of the audience. Sons of Kapalama were also crowd pleasers — each member of the group did some form of hula or expressive dancing as part of their rendition of “Laupahoehoe Hula” (aka “The Boy From Laupahoehoe”). Kaowili lifted his bass over his head to pantomime the boy’s strength (“Broad are my shoulders / Husky is my body”) after the others had done their solos.
Na Wahine O Na Ko‘olau also earned extra applause, and some appropriate laughter as well, for the engaging performance of Barbara Martin as she played pakini (wash tub bass; or in this case, oil drum bass). Martin didn’t only play the old-time instrument effectively, she danced and clowned and played to the audience as well (Martin was a crowd favorite last year performing with a different group).
Martin was the only bass player this year to use a pakini bass instead of the standard acoustic “stand up bass,” and Sons of Kapalama was the only group this year with a steel guitar. Kalae‘ola‘a — a quartet of Kamehameha Schools students from the Big Island — may have made history by using an acoustic piano along with ‘ukulele, guitar and “stand up bass.” It was certainly unusual and a nice touch — piano has been part of Hawaiian music for at least 150 years.
As always, the contestants performed without microphones or amplified instruments — steel guitar is the only exception to the acoustic “unplugged” rule. Musical instruments must be considered “traditional” as the term currently applies to Hawaiian music — guitar, ‘ukulele, acoustic bass or pakini bass, steel guitar, piano, and instruments that were used in the 19th century or earlier (One group last year used Pre-Contact Hawaiian percussion instruments).
Each duo or group was judged — by OHA trustee Haunani Apoliona, Nina Keali’iwahamana, Aaron Mahi and Nola Nahulu — on the quality of their harmonizing, their pronunciation and use of the Hawaiian language and their overall musicianship.
Some of the contestants were challenged by the “without microphones” requirement, but Grant Kono’s strong falsetto came through clearly to the back of the house. The Sons of Kapalama, and Stephen Freitas of the trio Kapakahi, also projected their voices effectively.
Manu Boyd presided as emcee; he was a Ka Himeni ‘Ana winner in 1986 as a member of the group Kipona Leo Hawai’i. Contestants are not required to say anything about the songs they perform, so Boyd provided information on some of the songs and their composers. He also shared the meaning of the names of some of the competing groups and commented on their choice of aloha shirts and na lei.
The contest this year was notable for the age range of the contestants — the oldest participants were middle-aged, the youngest in high school. An even younger generation of singers was heard before competition began. Nahulu — a Ka Himeni ‘Ana winner in 1983 as a member of the group Waipahu — directed a performance by students from Princess Kaiulani Elementary School after Boyd opened the program with an oli (chant).
It’s a Ka Himeni ‘Ana tradition that the previous year’s winners return for a hana hou performance. Last year’s top group was Kuini — Iwalani Hoomanawanuiikanaauao Apo (ukulele), Kapulanakehau Tamure (guitar) and Keli Mehealani Viernes (acoustic bass) — and they were every bit the show-stoppers this year as they were in 2012.
Boyd mentioned while introducing them that “kuini” is the Hawaiian pronunciation of the English word “queen.”
“Figure it out,” he said dryly. “Even Johnny Almeida (Hawaii’s most famous blind entertainer) could see through that!”
To borrow a phrase from “La Cage Aux Folles,” they are what they are, and they entertained with style, panache and charisma. The threesome sang in three part falsetto harmonies for the most part but got a big reaction from crowd every time any of them “accidently” switched to deep masculine voices.
It has been a Ka Himeni ‘Ana tradition to honor a significant figure in Hawaiian music. In 2011 there were two honorees — Genoa Keawe and her husband, Edward Punawai Keawe-Aiko. This was the first year that the honor was extended to an entire group — Manoa, Noelani Teves, Ethelynne Teves and Lynette Paglinawan.
Kimo Stone, president of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, also acknowledged Towill, who founded Ka Himeni ‘Ana to revive interest in traditional unamplified Hawaiian music, and who kept it going for many many years as producer and financial underwriter until the organization stepped forward to help.
“None of this (tonight) would be possible without Richard Towill,” Stone said.
Another Ka Himeni ‘Ana tradition was observed at the end of the program. Towill’s son, executive producer Rick Towill, invited the audience to take home the long stalks of white ginger and other delicate flowers that decorated the theater. The folks down front didn’t need to be asked twice.
Ka Himeni ‘Ana will return next year on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014.
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.