If you want to know about vocal ranges, listen to the opening track of Ululani, Richard Ho’opi’i’s debut album: his bass, baritone, tenor, and high tenor singing are all there, along with his wife, Ululani, adding soprano. Establishing his credentials on this opening himeni (Hawaiian hymn), Ho’opi’i goes on to show why he is regarded as one of the finest performers in the Hawaii today.
Ki’eki’e (falsetto) singing seems to have originated many years ago. Simply put, at first the men sang; then the women decided to sing; the men liked their sound and male falsetto singing evolved. There are few who can perform the style as well as Ho’opi’i.
Together with his brother, Sol, he formed a band in the ’60s which eventually became known as the Ho’opi’i Brothers. In the ensuing decades, they established a reputation for their classic approach to falsetto singing. Disbanding in 2000, Richard was persuaded to continue performing and the result is this, his first solo album.
For material, he has delved back through the years, choosing songs he learnt in his youth along with showstoppers from the Brothers’ days. Some are relatively well known, including “Lovely Hula Hands” and the medley “Kona Moon/Hanalei Moon”, which are sung mostly in English. Others may be new to non-aficionados, but even on first listening take on a warmth and familiarity, which draws you in.
This style might be “unusual” away from its Pacific setting, but Ho’opi’i has an understanding of its intricacies — he floats gracefully between normal register and his falsetto voice, tipping over the edge with a poignant but gentle bump before soaring to unimaginable heights, often paralleled by a double-tracked harmony line. As he sings of places, people, relationships, and more, conveying images and emotions with a natural skill and delight. (The excellent liner notes help set the scene with descriptions and origins of the tracks).
Along with his singing, Ho’opi’i adds a subtle but strong ukulele accompaniment. He is joined on the 16 tracks by his wife on vocals, steel guitar player Bobby Ingano, Led Kaapana on guitar (also a fine falsetto singer), and Chris Kamaka on bass. Sean Thibadeaux also plays guitar on two tracks.
The arrangements allow the small ensemble to develop the atmosphere on each song: at times, things are stripped down to basics as Ho’opi’i sings and strums alone; elsewhere, the entire band creates a full, rich sound, enhancing the multi-track vocal lines; but perhaps best is the moving interpretation of “Makee ‘Ailana” featuring Ho’opi’i, Kaapana, and Kamaka on vocals with guitar, bass and steel instrumental accompaniment, one of the most beautiful performances of one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard.
For some, falsetto is a very different approach to singing, perhaps not easy to get into. Richard Ho’opi’i is a fine exponent of the style and transcends cultural barriers. One can only admire his wide range and the emotion he puts into his music. For those who already know his work, this album will not be a disappointment; for those new to the style, there can’t be many better introductions.