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Hawaii artists vie for Grammy Awards
BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
Weldon Kekauoha first learned his latest album, “Pilialoha,” was up for a Grammy Award when a friend offered congratulations after the finalists were announced in December. He said his first thought at hearing the word “congratulations” was that his wife was pregnant.
That wasn’t the case, but Kekauoha could come home from Los Angeles the proud parent of a coveted music-industry trophy after the winners of the 55th annual Grammy Awards are announced tomorrow, Feb. 10.
Also a finalist in the Regional Roots Music Album category is slack-key master Keola Beamer’s “Malama Ko Aloha (Keep Your Love)” and works by Native American, Cajun and zydeco artists.
Win or lose, Kekauoha — the lesser known of the two Hawaiian nominees — said he is looking forward to representing Hawaii and meeting other Grammy finalists.
“It’s amazing when you think about it that I pulled through (to the final ballot) somehow,” he said. “I was totally surprised … but I feel like a winner. I don’t care what happens — if I bring something home, cool, I’ll be totally elated — but as it is now I feel like a winner.”
(Editor’s Note: Kekauoha is also blogging his Grammy experiences for The Pulse; click here to read more.)
Also vying for a Grammy is Hawaii expat Daniel Ho, a five-time winner in the Hawaiian Music Album category, which was eliminated in 2011 in a move by The Recording Academy to consolidate some of the categories. Ho’s “On a Gentle Island Breeze,” which fuses Hawaiian and aboriginal Taiwanese music, is a finalist for Best World Music Album.
“The Descendants” soundtrack, featuring music by Beamer, Gabby Pahinui, Jeff Peterson, Dennis Kamakahi and others, is a finalist for Best Compilation Album for Visual Media. If it wins, the Grammy award will go to the producers, Dondi Bastone and Alexander Payne, who directed the film.
At 46, Kekauoha is one of the small number of local musicians who doesn’t have to schedule his musical career around the demands of a “day job.” He took early retirement six years ago from Hawaiian Airlines to focus on his music.
Kekauoha grew up listening to Hawaiian records at home and going with older family members to hear Hawaiian musicians perform. He competed in the original “Brown Bags to Stardom” high school talent contest and then left Hawaii to go to college in Washington state. When he returned home in 1993, he hooked up with Mana‘o Company.
The group’s founding members — Danny Kennedy, Sean Na‘auao, Salaam Tillman, Kuhio Yim and John Baricuatro Jr. — had initially sought to blend several styles of modern Hawaiian and hapa-haole music, but the commercial success of their two Jawaiian remakes, “96 Degrees in the Shade” and “Drop Baby Drop/Who Loves You Pretty Baby,” took them in another direction entirely and made them one of biggest acts in local music.
“Mana’o Company in its heyday wasn’t really around for a very long time, but they made such a huge impact. … By the time I came back, they were like pretty much done playing already. I caught maybe the last year of what was left, and then I did a ‘Hot Hawaiian Nights’ (television show) with them and that confirmed my connection with them — at least in the public view. They had already established themselves, and then I pop on the scene on TV with them.”
Kekauoha continued playing music after the original Mana‘o Company disbanded. In 1998 Robert Kekaula, the KITV sportscaster and singer/musician who had a record label, offered him a record deal as a solo artist.
Kekauoha’s debut album,“Hawaiian Man,” released the following year, won him his first Na Hoku Hanohano Award — the Hawaii equivalent of a Grammy — for Most Promising Artist in 2000.
He then joined Kennedy, Baricuatro and Tillman to create a new Mana‘o Company with Kaulana Pakele as the fifth man. The group won three Hokus for its “comeback” album, “Spread a Little Aloha,” in 2002, and when Mana‘o Company disbanded a second time, Kekauoha, Baricuatro, Tilman and Pakele created a new group, Weldon Kekauoha & Tapa Groove, with Kekauoha as lead vocalist and primary songwriter.
Kekauoha said he enjoyed being part of a group, but there wasn’t enough money in working the club scene to keep it going. Eventually he decided to “embrace my solo career again.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing ever since, and it’s been a good move for me,” he said. “I miss the guys. We still talk and everybody’s fine, (but) everybody’s on a different path.”
Kekauoha’s path has included a major supporting role in Nathan Kurosawa’s 2003 indie film, “The Ride: Back to the Soul of Surfing,” and two more solo albums. Both took Kekauoha away from pop and back to contemporary hapa-haole and Hawaiian-language music. Now he’s a Grammy finalist.
“Pilialoha” celebrates the richness of Hawaiian music with several classic compositions and a larger collection of newly written songs by Kainani Kahaunaele and ‘Iliahi Paredes. The instrumentation is traditionalist: acoustic guitar, bass, ukulele and steel guitar. A beautiful arrangement of “Ho‘onanea” shows that Kekauoha’s voice can soar into falsetto range.
Kekauoha’s commitment to perpetuating the Hawaiian language is underscored by the fact that with the exception of a few phrases, the lyrics are all Hawaiian.
“A lot of people talk about going back to your roots, and for me that wasn’t done intentionally,” he said. “I think it was a natural, almost instinctual thing for me. (Hawaiian music) is part of me. It’s part of my DNA.”
BEAMER, 61, won’t be in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards ceremony. His Aloha Music Camp starts the same day in Kona, and he said teaching takes priority over rubbing elbows with other music industry stars.
“We usually have some scholarship kids from the Hawaiian community, and it’s my chance to work with them,” he said in a recent phone call while on tour in California. “Mentoring is a little bit more important to me than awards and that kind of stuff. I’m trying to keep my life focused on the things that are the most important and meaningful.”
That’s not saying Beamer, who lives on Maui, isn’t proud of his Grammy-nominated album. “Malama Ko Aloha (Keep Your Love)” is a beautifully crafted overview of his recent work. It includes a song with Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai, another with Raiatea Helm and a third that honors the musical legacy of his mother, Nona Beamer. Various combinations of European, Native American and traditional Hawaiian instruments make each selection unique and engaging.
“There’s an interesting dichotomy to the Grammys,” Beamer said. “In one sense, one is grateful that the music’s recognized. Weldon has a terrific album, and I’m glad to see that recognized. … Likewise, in the terms of the Grammys, (with) the soundtrack album for ‘The Descendents,’ I felt so happy to hear Gabby Pahinui’s music on the film score really once again standing the test of time.
“It’s wonderful when the Grammys recognizes music that the general public might not be aware of.”
What Beamer doesn’t care for is what he describes as “the other side of the dichotomy,” when people get too invested in the competitive aspect of winning awards for their own sake.
FOR HIS ALBUM “On a Gentle Island Breeze,” Ho partnered with Taiwanese vocalists in recording aboriginal Taiwanese melodies using slack-key guitar, piano and ukulele. The album is presented in a hardcover, book-style package, with liner notes in English and Chinese, and comes with sheet music. It is the first such fusion of Hawaiian instruments and indigenous Taiwanese music.
“Ken Yang, the founder of Wind Music (records), thought it would be a good idea to bring the music of two island cultures together,” said Ho, 44, by email while on a promotional tour in Taiwan. “He invited us to Taiwan last May to explore and experience aboriginal culture and music in the untouched mountainside region of Taitung.”
The album reminds Hawaii musicians that many musical frontiers remain when it comes to exploring fresh genres of island music.
“Taiwanese aboriginal melodies are primarily based on pentatonic (or five-note) scales,” Ho explained. “In Western music, we use pentatonic scales to play blues and many other styles. But Taiwanese aboriginals combine the notes of this scale in a completely different way. …
“On the other hand, most Taiwanese aboriginal songs are melodies with no harmony. Introducing different kinds of harmonies and rhythms with instruments like ukulele and slack-key guitar introduces new musical settings for these traditional songs.
“If ukulele and slack-key guitar accompaniment help to propel mainstream interest in Taiwanese aboriginal music and culture, I’d be humbled to know that my efforts played a small role in it. It’s also nice to bring Hawaiian sounds back to a more worldly genre,” Ho said.
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.