Kainani Kahaunaele is in two worlds, separate but not incompatible: the worlds of old Hawaii and of jazz, in a wider definition.
With the first, I am somewhat handicapped. Looking at the liner notes, reading the translated lyrics and delving into the associated web site, I realize this recording is far more than just an entertaining three quarters of an hour (entertaining though it is). It is an album in which the rich traditions and language of the Islands are celebrated and encouraged to be shared.
The recording grew out of a curriculum designed to teach the art of Hawaiian poetry, encouraging students to compose in Hawaiian. Kahaunaele brings many aspects of Hawaiian culture into focus through this music, including respect for elders and the importance of family, and love of the land, the ocean, and all that grows. For example, they say the Inuit have many names for snow; for Hawaiians, it is the ocean which governs life, so in her notes to "Sweet Makani", she points out "there are many types of wind and each one has a name that our ancestors knew"; she then proceeds to place this belief into melodic form.
Her voice is an instrument, warm and versatile, which weaves through the strong melodies. She has a lazy yet controlled style that seamlessly joins the accompanying musicians into an enveloping sound that is hard to ignore. Guitars (electric, acoustic, steel, and slack key) appear, along with ukulele, bass, and assorted percussion, instruments typically found in Hawaiian music of all kinds. Yet it is obvious she also has a great understanding of styles which originated away from the archipelago.
The most obvious example of this is "Makaki'i", featuring Byron Yasui on ukulele and bass. A paragraph in the notes is devoted to his explanation of the "right" accompaniment as devised by Count Basie's guitarist, Benny Green -- his "chomp-chomp" chord approach is perfectly suited not only to this song, but also to the arrangement, as his ukulele maintains the rhythm with its subtle insistent strumming. It is an excellent example of the style he describes. Double-tracking a laid back but powerful ukulele lead break (such a small, but versatile instrument) and adding a steady bass, rounds out the sound for Kahaunaele to sing what appears to be a song of love.
(In typical Hawaiian fashion, lyrics are not necessarily what you think. They tell a story, but behind them are hidden meanings, innuendo, and metaphor. They can be understood and appreciated for what they appear to be, but they also function on another, more obscure level.)
"Na'u 'Oe" ("You Belong to me"), the title track, opens the album. It is dedicated to her grandmother, and while the words pay tribute using Hawaiian phrasing, the swing in her voice, the guitar and bass accompaniment, along with the lead guitar playing, make no mistake: the ancient traditions of the Islands adapt well to a jazz approach. Although this is very much a Hawaiian album, three songs feature the English language. "So Delicious", with its easy rhythm capturing the atmosphere of a warm evening, particularly stands out. It is a deceptively simple song based on a handful of chords, allowing Kahaunaele and the harmony voices almost to speak the lyrics -- a most effective approach.
The album can be loosely categorized under a "jazz" banner, though Kahaunaele keeps a foot firmly planted in the sounds of the Islands, incorporating traditional and contemporary Hawaiian styles.
On "Ka Hinano O Puna", she tells of the hinano, a flower which grows on the pandanus tree found in places like Puna on the Big Island. It takes on hymn-like qualities as she sings each verse, accompanied by guitar, bass and traditional percussion, then repeats the lyrics with two harmony singers. In some ways, "Mehanaokala" has much in common with country music. It is a duet with Manu Boyd (who also plays piano), where the weaving harmonies, the jog-along guitar and even the chord progressions are at times reminiscent of Nashville. Lyrically, it is a name-song (in this case, a birthday gift to a friend), while the tune has an old-time Island feel about it.
Two tracks are particularly different, yet help make this a complete album. "E Mau E" is a song which honors the Micronesian navigator Pius Mau Piailug, and features ukuleles, guitars, and voices. However, the first minute is taken up by a powerful masculine chant mainly using two notes and is devastatingly effective. The throaty voices, the percussive consonants, the trailing of each line, and raising the chant half a measure midway through, certainly grab your attention and set the scene for the ensuing song. The album also ends with a chant, an amazing tongue twister by Kaipo Frias, in which he which names the waters of Hawaii to the sounds of ocean waves. It is a fitting end to an excellent album.
Kainani Kahaunaele has an understanding of the music of Hawaii, its origins and its directions; she also is in tune with music found in other cultures. The various styles have many crossover points and have influenced each other over the years. Without compromising the traditions of her own land, she has taken a step into another world -- or perhaps she has moved from the mainland back to the Islands, it doesn't really matter. What does count is how she has respectfully combined a number of different elements and opened doors for others to follow.