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Gregg Porter's Music Reviews

June 2005

 THE MĀKAHA SONS:

“Heke Wale Nō: Only the Very Best of…”

First, to be completely clear – this collection features highlights only from the group’s repertoire of five albums (excepting a sixth collection of Christmas material) issued between 1994 and 2001, long after the passing of Skippy Kamakawiwo`ole, and the departures of Mel Amina and Israel Kamakawiwo`ole; in other words, nothing from their days as The Mākaha Sons of Ni`ihau. Having said that, there are no disappointments here, as each of the albums that provided material were winners of Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards. If you own none of the five albums represented within, this collection is an excellent starting point, and may lead you to seek them out (all still in print, fortunately.)

The album begins with the popular medley of “Drums of the Islands/Waterfall,” from the 1996 release, “Kūikawā.” Others from that album include the comedic (even if politically-incorrect now) “Pidgin English Hula” and Kawaikapuokalani Hewett’s gorgeously-arranged “Hōpoe.” From their first album as a trio (“Ke Alaula” – 1994) come four selections, including that album’s title cut. We are also treated to two medleys from their 1997 “Live on the Road” disc, recorded at shows in New York, Boston and Honolulu.

The two most recent releases featured here show how much the group has continued to grow and strengthen. After years of resisting most hapa-haole material, 1999 saw the issuance of an album’s worth of Moon Kauakahi’s wonderful arrangements of classics, “The Mākaha Sons Sing Golden Hawaiian Melodies,” from which we hear medleys of “Honolulu/Waikīkī” and “Little Brown Gal/Little Grass Shack,” as well as a sweet rendition of “Lahaina Luna.” The last album, 2001’s “Nā Pua O Hawai`i" was filled with wonderful guest appearances; none are featured here, but the three songs chosen from that CD are all good: “Nā Kānaka Holo Lio,” “`Ala Pīkake” and “ Wahine Hele Lā.”

The liner notes give a nice summation of the group’s history during the period represented by this anthology.

BRYAN TOLENTINO: “Ka `Ukulele Lele” (Side Order)

One could easily argue that the `ukulele never went away, but there certainly seems to be a distinct resurgence in it’s popularity in recent years, particularly by those who feel it should be considered a serious instrument, capable of lead lines as beautiful as any guitar. Just look at recent successes of and attention paid to players like Herb Ohta, Jr., Jake Shimabukuro, Brittni Paiva, and David Kamakahi. Add to that list now Bryan Tolentino – he has handled `ukulele parts on a number of CDs for friends over the years, but this is his first solo project.

Tolentino has a gentle and tasteful way of playing, cleanly and without a lot of flash, yet it’s easy to hear what a virtuoso he is. Standout tracks include a softly-swinging rendition of Andy Iona’s classic, “How D’Ya Do” (with lovely ki ho`alu additions from guest Ocean Kaowili); “Analani E,” another old standard; the title track (one of his two original compositions on the album); and a nahenahe solo rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”

His backup group, “The Side Order Band,” dates back to the early 1980s – though they have all gone on to distinct and successful musical careers since then, it’s a treat to hear how well Asa Young, Chris Kamaka and Del Beazley can blend together to support an old friend.

NATALIE AI KAMAUU: “`E” (Keko)

I am honestly a bit surprised that this disc hasn’t created more of a stir in the Hawaiian music community yet – but I suspect it will show growth in attention over a long time (it will have “legs,” as they say.) Kamauu was singing with her father Howard Ai’s halau back when she was a teenager; years later, she won the Miss Aloha Hula title at Merrie Monarch; now, she has finally released her first solo album, ably backed up by the musical talents of her husband (and former KCCN dj), Iolani, as well as members of her family and several other talented friends.

Not only a fine singer, but an excellent songwriter – she has four originals on the recording. There are also several traditional selections, as well as a gently jazz-inflected take on Don (“American Pie,” “Vincent”) McLean’s “And I Love You So,” featuring piano (and a hint of bass) to back her up; unfortunately, the notes do not tell us which of the three marvelous pianists is featured here – Aaron Sala, Kip Ebersbach, or Producer/Engineer Dave Tucciarone. This is one of those albums where I feel very comfortable suggesting that you pick it up, even though you are not familiar with the artist – take a chance on someone unfamiliar to you, and I am sure you will be pleased.

TROY FERNANDEZ: “Hawaiian Style `Ukulele” (Neos)

Yet another new release to shine the spotlight on the humble-but-loveable uke, this time featuring a former member of the Ka`au Crater Boys and Palolo. Over the years, Fernandez has played with a number of great musicians, as well as running his own label and `ukulele studio, where he teaches, inspires and supports new musicians. But he hasn’t disappeared into the background, by any means. This latest release (which also uses art design and title from Neos Productions’ successful “Hawaiian Style” line of CD compilations) is an enjoyable collection of classic and contemporary Hawaiian hits, all done in straightforward instrumental arrangements.

You’ll find hapa-haole numbers like “Blue Hawai`i” and a medley of “Lovely Hula Hands/Little Grass Shack”; standards such as “E Ku`u Morning Dew,” “Ka`aahi Kahului” and a blending of “Wahine `Ilikea/Waimānalo Blues”; as well as remakes of hits from his own past: “On Fire” and “TNC.” This is a great album both for background listening as well as focused attention. (Be sure to pop the disc into your computer for a little uncredited video interview with Fernandez, mixed with footage of him recording “Maui Hawaiian Suppa Man.”)

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