Na Leo Pilimehana first formed in 1982 when Nalani Choy, Lehua Kalima Heine, and Angela Morales met and began singing together as juniors at the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii. Since then, they have successfully taken their music from the Islands to the mainland and even further afield, to Japan.
One reason for their success is their ability to cross genres in music, while retaining their own Hawaiian identity. Hawaiian Memories, for example, is an album featuring 11 tracks including traditional and contemporary songs from their home, along with their own compositions and even a Disney classic. Singing mostly in Hawaiian, they fuse elements such as the close-knit harmony and counterpoint often associated with Polynesian music, with the emotion of soul music as developed by Motown and Atlantic Records three decades ago, along with the vocal simplicity and innocence of 1960 girl groups, such as the Chiffons and Shangri Las. It's a potent mix, made even stronger by the timeless quality they infuse -- the music rooted us in a time gone by, but is also so well-suited to today.
Although Na Leo reach back to earlier times in their lives for material, it is not a nostalgia trip or the re-working of tried and trusted formulae. This is an adventurous journey by three women who are willing to reach into the vast repertoire of sounds and influences that creates their own musical identity.
Opening with a lively song describing a valley in Maui, the close knit harmonies and chant-and-response vocals with a ukulele and steel guitar accompaniment set the scene for the remainder of the album. This is a celebration: Of the land, places, people, families, relationships, and communities. Na Leo creates an appreciation in song of the joy of living.
Heine composed "Ku'u Sweet Lei Makamae", a soft, jog-along song in dedication to her daughter. Her pure voice transcends any language barriers as she sings in Hawaiian. The group continues with the theme of a parent's love for a child with a medley, a wonderful pairing of "He Punahele" and "Baby Mine" (from the movie Dumbo). These two tracks present the group's harmonic approach to perfection -- a lead singer, distinctive and strong, shadowed by angelic accompaniment, at times matching the melody with exact precision, at times weaving a pattern behind the main voice.
One of the most beautiful songs on the album is "Ku'u One Hanau", written by album co-producer Kenneth Makuakane. Each member of the group takes the lead in turn, alone to begin with but then with a tapestry of voices woven behind the melody. The instrumental work is kept simple -- just guitars, piano and bass -- maintaining the prominence of the heavenly vocals.
"Hilo Hula" is a place-song that describes areas in Hilo on the Big Island. It's also a hula (a song to be danced to) and within the vocal work, Na Leo keep rhythmic qualities at the fore.
Instrumental accompaniments throughout the album are wisely uncomplicated, mainly performed on guitar, ukulele, steel guitar, piano and bass (not necessarily at the same time). So the addition of flutes on "Manu 'O'o" comes as a surprise. With the flowing flute-like voices of the group, its presence seems a little unnecessary.
Na Leo bring members of their families to add touches here and there. "Kona Kai 'Opua" is one such case, featuring Heine's father (Square Kalima), Uncle Norman, and Uncle Puni. The three men sing in unison which contrasts strongly with the tight harmonic approach of the women.
With such sweet voices, there is a danger the group will begin to sound repetitive and saccharine as the album progresses. But in fact, the opposite happens. With such strong material as the classic "Kawohikukapulani" and the more modern "Nani 'O Wai'anae", both powerful songs, the recording moves toward its climax, the final two of the 11 tracks on the album.
Once again, the generations come together. "Hu'u Home O Keaukaha" begins as a soft, lilting tribute to a settlement sung by the three women. At the end of the first verse, Heine extends an invitation: "OK, daddy, your turn �" and the men return, this time also with weaving harmony lines. Verses are then alternated between the two trios until they all join together on the last one.
And from such a lulling, gentle song, the only way to end on a high note is with a kanikapila, a Hawaiian jam. Led by Na Leo, there are at least another half dozen unnamed singers on "Koni Au". (Is that the Kalimas again? Who is the young male singer?) Along with the voices and ukuleles are laughter and fun indicating it's party time. It would be hard to imagine a better ending to this journey through the musical lives of Nalani Choy, Lehua Kalima Heine, and Angela Morales.
Na Leo is made up of three talented singers who have distinctive lead voices but also the ability to step back a little and provide complementary backings and harmonies. They select material wisely, creating a balanced mix between the rolling hulas and the emotional powerful ballads. They produced the album with Makuakane and successfully capture the warmth, innocence, and togetherness that is their sound. Now they've whetted my appetite, I would love to hear a longer collaboration with the Hilo Kalimas, a Hawaiian fathers-and-daughters.