Throughout the world, indigenous music has undergone many changes in recent years as musicians steeped in tradition have moved into a more commercial or mainstream world, taking their culture with them and presenting it in styles which are more reachable and understandable by outsiders. Such musicians as Robbie Robertson and Rita Coolidge, among others, have taken Native American music to a wider audience with varying degrees of success. Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu does the same as he takes what he calls "first music", Hawaiian chant, and presents it in a form which is accessible to haole and other non-Hawaiians.
While still featuring ukulele, guitar, and ipu (gourd drum) along with powerful voices, often unaccompanied, from Island culture and presenting chants in Hawaiian, he offers a fascinating near-40 minutes of driving, soulful music even for non-speakers of the language.
As might be expected, the hard consonants, glottal stops, voices which seem to come from undreamt of depths, the two-note chants, and the hypnotic percussion are all present. But all the while, intriguing, weaving melodies with a softness that soothes, sliding and bubbling instruments which lift, as well as harmonic voices which transport you to image laden destinations balance the album.
Part of the beauty of Call It What You Like is its contradiction, its standing in two camps. Is this ancient music, reaching forward toward a present day audience or is it a modern form, leaning back into the mists of time?
Perhaps the album is best summed up by the final "hidden" track. For over six minutes, Ho'omalu poses questions in English which he then attempts to answer. To the accompaniment of a hypnotic drum, he speaks in a husky voice and, through his Q&A session, runs through a series of philosophical points in an attempt to give an understanding of where his is coming from -- an explanation of what it means to him to be Hawaiian. The track reaches its climax after four and a half minutes when he is joined by a synthesizer and he switches to a chant in Hawaiian in which his voice stands at the edge of breaking. On the preceding 12 tracks, he chants alone, with instrumental accompaniment (performed by Ka Ehu Kai, a San Francisco-based trio playing guitar, ukulele and bass) or with a dozen chanters of the Hula Halau o Ku'uleinani.
Each arrangement presents a slightly different facet of his music: a Spanish sound ("Kawika"), chants sharing much in common with sea shanties ("Ka Pua Hau o Maleka"), melodic pieces ("Ka Wohi Ku I Ka Moku"), tracks which accept outside influences ("He Inoa No Lili'uokalani") and tracks which don't ("Keali'i Milimili").
Some translations are provided in the liner notes, but not for every track. The poetry of Hawaiian in translation is fascinating in itself; the different ways of expressing concepts are eye-opening. Whether singing of the beauty of a sunrise, old steam trains, the ascension of a monarch or sovereignty (if I've understood the piece correctly), Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu performs with an understanding of his style and with feeling.
Ho'omalu is a teacher of hula, as well as a chanter of note, with something of a reputation for going beyond accepted boundaries. His work was featured in the movie, Lilo & Stitch. As he says in the album notes, "this is not the only way to chant, not the only way I chant." Call It What You Like, he invites. How about excellent?