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Gregg Porter's Music Reviews


April 2006


New Releases

Nā Leo: “Feel The Spirit” (NLP/Second Twenty)

First thing you have to do is listen to this album WITHOUT any expectation of having it be “Hawaiian.” Nā Leo (whither Pilimehana?) has always had a contemporary sound throughout their twenty-one-year history, even on the more “local” flavored tracks, but this is the album where the popular female trio sets a new direction for their future. Once you drop any link to a Hawaiian sound --- the album truly comes together. This disc features the strongest singing this group has ever recorded, on a wonderful set of selections, beautifully produced (by a famous, multi-award winning gentleman from Los Angeles, Keith Olsen.) I’ve never faulted the trio for their songwriting, and there are many strong cuts here, including some that share writing credit with “local boys” Daniel Ho, Ben Vegas and Bryan Kessler. Where I have complained before is about their vocal work; despite lovely harmonies, I felt they had some issues with pitch – but no longer; their efforts with a vocal coach (Alex Ligertwood, who sang with Santana) have paid off tremendously. Each member of the group takes the spotlight on several songs, and there are no clinkers. A couple of more familiar tracks include “Along for the Ride” (an Island hit for Daniel Ho’s Canoe Club project), the BeeGees smash “Love You Inside Out,” and a remake of their own classic “Flying With Angels.” Nā Leo’s announced goal for the past few years has been to expand their following well beyond fans of Hawaiian music – this is the album they needed to take them down that path.

Aaron J. Salā: “Ka `Upu Aloha” (Hula)

This is an album that stuns all who hear it. Salā has been appearing on all kinds of great Hawaiian albums in recent years, as a pianist on releases by Nā Palapalai, Raiatea Helm and `Ale`a, among others. He’s also been making a mark as an arranger, and finally steps into the spotlight with his first solo release. The Kamehameha Schools graduate tackles ten songs in Hawaiian, along with one in Tahitian and one English “standard,” Rodgers and Hart’s lovely “My Romance.” Salā respects and honors the great songwriters whose material he presents here, including Randie Kamuela Fong, Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, and Kaumakaiwa ‘Lopaka’ Kanaka`ole (who sings on his own composition, a song that also features a powerfully uplifting brass arrangement by the Royal Hawaiian Band’s former leader, Aaron Mahi.) The performances and arrangements overall are brilliant and impressive, and this 28-year-old promises to be a force in Hawaiian music for decades to come.

Manny K. Fernandez: “My Island Paradise (PekeKini)

Fernandez is the respected Hawaiian artist who retired to Aloha, Oregon, where he and his wife run a Hawaiiana gift store – and with this, his second CD, got everybody all abuzz about how the Hōkū Awards would not allow him to submit his work for “Album of the Year” consideration. (See the March 2006 issue of this paper for more details, or check the archives on our website.) He did win for Best Contemporary Hawaiian Album at the recent Hawai`i Music Awards, however, with this lovely collection of twelve tunes, some in Hawaiian and some hapa-haole ones in English. The livelier tracks may put you in a Sons of Hawai`i mood, and you can tell that Fernandez got his chops playing for years at Island hotels – the choice of material, the harmonies, the arrangements, the steady playing and singing create a classic “old Hawai`i" environment. There are songs about historic ocean liners, hula tunes, love songs, bouncing kolohe numbers, and one song (Charles E. King’s “Lei Aloha, Lei Makamae”) referred to as the “Original Hawaiian Wedding Song” and sung in a lovely duet with René Pearson (who also provides some of the album’s photos.)

Holunape: “He `Olu” (Roy Sakuma)

It’s a treat to hear how many new, young groups are interested in recreating the classic Hawaiian sounds, songs and harmonies of the 1940s and ‘50s, but with contemporary techniques. One such group, Holunape, has recently issued their debut disc. Evolving from the band Kilinahe, this trio has a Seattle connection in guitarist/bassist Kekoa Wilioma Kaluhiwa, who attended the University of Washington just a short time back. All three of the band members sing and are dedicated students of the Hawaiian language, as well as music. Guests also add steel guitar and piano, and Aaron Mahi provides a sweet synth string section on the title track. There are a couple of band originals, as well as another couple of contemporary compositions, but the majority of the album consists of classics and standards (plus one religious song.)

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