Gregg Porter's Music Reviews
It’s that time of year again, where everyone with any interest in Hawaiian music gathers to either (a) celebrate that the recording industry recognizes the distinct, unique and valuable genre of Hawaiian music enough to award it a prestigious trophy, or (b) complain how the Mainland folks just don’t “get it,” and keep selecting winners (or even nominees) who don’t deserve to represent the Hawaiian music scene. Yes, it’s time for the Grammy Awards – the 50th annual party, in fact, though it’s possible that, if the Writers Guild of America strike is not settled in time for the February 10 broadcast, it may not be much of a soirée this year.
Whether you are in the (a) or (b) camp, or have a foot in both, here’s a recap (in alphabetical order) of this year’s five nominees in the category of Best Hawaiian Music Album (in some cases, quoting myself from previously published reviews in this paper). As before, I must add the disclaimer that I am a member of the Recording Academy and a Grammy voter.
As one of the acclaimed masters of Hawaiian music, leave it to Beamer to open up another set of doors with this disc. Using slack key technique as a starting point, he explores classical and world music forms throughout. Short romantic-style classical pieces by composers such as Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel are joined by more experimental compositions by Igor Stravinsky, Alberto Ginastera and nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla. In addition, there are a few winter-themed selections; successful new-age pianist, fellow slack key musician, Dancing Cat Records founder and old friend George Winston also makes a couple of appearances, and many of the works feature arrangements by acclaimed Irish guitarist Daniel O’Donoghue. This is an album that crosses so many boundaries, record stores will be challenged to know where it should be stocked. (Reviewed Feb. 2007)
Created primarily as a lullaby collection for actress Carrere’s daughter, Bianca, it has been easy to dismiss this release. But the “Wayne’s World” co-star has a sweet voice, the majority of the eleven songs are Island standards (the exception being the “Sesame Street” song, “Sing”), and the simple accompaniment, from producer Daniel Ho on guitar and `ukulele, is gentle, elegant and appropriate for the project; Ho and Carrere are school chums since high school days, and they competed together in the old “Brown Bags To Stardom” contest. If this is the result of Carrere’s desire to reconnect with her Island roots, then this was a lovely path for her to take – listeners with small children, especially, may want to investigate this project.
Continuing in the same vein as her previous release, this is another straight-ahead album of Hawaiian music, new and old. Working with many of the same musicians as before, classic songs ride alongside newer compositions by the likes of Puakea Nogelmeier, Louis Moon Kauakahi, O’Brien `Eselu and Tony Conjugacion. In addition to her band on this album, which includes familiar names like pianist Aaron J. Salā, Casey Olsen on steel guitar, Bryan Tolentino playing `ukulele, and multi-instrumentalist and rising star Hōkū Zuttermeister, special guests include slack key master Ledward Kaapana on “E Ku`u Sweet Lei Poina `Ole,” Robert Cazimero sharing duet vocals on a medley of “Ko`ūla/Manowaiopuna,” and Louis Moon Kauakahi (of Mākaha Sons) playing and singing on the song he wrote for Raiatea, “Lei Kukui.” (Reviewed Aug. 2007)
One of the unquestioned masters of slack key, from one of the top families in Hawaiian music, this is an excellent album (would you expect anything less?) with a dozen performances, two-thirds instrumentals, one-third vocals. Most of the selections are familiar classics and traditional pieces arranged by Pahinui. A nice demonstration of his range exists in the cases of the title track and “`O Kamawailualani,” both of which are on the album twice, with variations in their style. This is also one of the albums that re-launches the Dancing Cat label (along with “Sunny Rain” by Cindy Combs).
The first two compilations this label released, featuring performances taped in concert at the weekly slack key shows on Maui, took home the Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album the past two years – so here’s volume three: a fine blend of acclaimed masters alongside some newer faces on the scene. Names you’ll know include two of the Pahinui brothers, Cyril and Martin, as well as Led Kaapana, Dennis Kamakahi, and George Kahumoku, Jr. George’s son, Keoki, is here as well, as is producer Daniel Ho, falsetto master Richard Ho`opi`i, steel guitarist Bobby Ingano, and `ukulele players Peter deAquino and Garrett Probst. Owana Salazar shows up as the first female artist on one of these releases, and young Sterling Seaton makes his recording debut with support from some of the other musicians. (Reviewed Oct. 2007)
Now, to complications, controversies and comments about this year’s competitors…
Slack key guitar continues to take so much heat for having won the “Best Hawaiian Album” Grammy in all the years of its existence. Does it represent where much of Hawaiian music is at present? Probably not – you certainly don’t hear much on Hawaiian radio. But there’s no denying that the names of Pahinui, Kamakahi, Kahumoku, Beamer and Kaapana do represent some of the most heartfelt Island sounds of the past 35 years or so, and it’s certainly a familiar sound to Mainland Grammy voters – if they pay any attention to Hawaiian music at all. And it’s not just an instrumental form; if you think that, you’ve simply not bothered to listen to very many slack key albums.
The “Treasures…” team is hoping for a hat-trick, having won in both of the past two years. Part of what bothers people about compilations taking the award is that it goes to the producers, not the artists; but the artists involved don’t seem to have the same problem with that (and one of them is George Kahumoku, Jr., the man who has worked for years to make the weekly Maui shows a popular destination, fighting against an Island-wide decline in audiences for their music, along with continuing to have a touring and performance schedule of his own to carry.) Could some people be upset that at least two of the producers (including the label’s founder) are expats, now living on the Mainland?
Keola Beamer, unquestioningly a superstar of Hawaiian music for decades, is “boycotting” the Grammy Awards, in a fashion. He feels that his latest release, an excursion into classical music that he has long wanted to take, is not “Hawaiian music” – and for that reason, he feels he would be “a fake” to participate in Grammy activities connected with his album. He released a statement earlier this year in which he notes that there were other Hawaiian releases that he felt should have received nominations instead of his, and rather than attending the ceremonies, he will be spending that time working with at-risk youth on Moloka`i. While Beamer’s decision is both noble and pono, it does beg the question – why was the disc even submitted for consideration in this category (by either Beamer or his record label)?
Then there’s the Carrere album. The elephant in the room. Even people who can get past seeing the Grammy voters bypass iconic performers like the Brothers Cazimero, Henry Kapono, Amy Hānaiali`i, Kapono Beamer and Keali`i Reichel in their final decisions are on edge about the possibility of this album winning. If she takes it, would it be an “embarrassment” for the Awards? Remember, these are the same folks who gave the first “Heavy Metal” Grammy to Jethro Tull several years ago. And what “damage” would it do to the Hawaiian music business? None whatsoever. This Island industry has become amazingly strong in the past decade or so, and continues to show signs of further expansion – at home, across the Pacific, around the world. As I noted above…it’s a sweet album, too. I’ve heard much worse from a lot of homegrown artists still in Hawai`i - but this one takes flak - why? Because she’s not had a career as a singer (until now), or because neither she nor her producer live in the Islands any longer?
Selecting the “best of” anything is a totally arbitrary thing to do anyway … so here’s mine! My “Top Ten” of favorite Hawaiian releases from 2007, in alphabetical order:
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