Various Artists: Hawaii: Songs of Aloha [DVD]

Various Artists
SDR Films

In 2000, Hawaiian PBS (Public Television) produced a program entitled Hawai’i — Songs of Aloha for national broadcast. Now, it is available in DVD form.

I must confess, the spoken introduction did not whet my appetite. The steel guitar and ukulele provide background music to images of a sailing boat, a palm tree, lapping waves, a surfer (all pure kitsch), and the rich baritone voice comes up announcing: “From our 50th state, 3,000 miles at sea, a spectacular presentation — gorgeous music, graceful dance and the beautiful aloha spirit of the Hawaiian people. Hawaii as you have never heard it before.” This is all too smooth, too creamy for the music and dance to be taken seriously. But sometimes it’s worth delving a little deeper, so let the program continue.

Hawaiian music has many sides, ranging from chant to slack key to traditional to contemporary and more, and many of these styles are captured to one degree or another in this 77-minute program. The first musicians on stage, for example, are noted for their diversity and are part of a new generation which is likely to gain fame on the mainland.

Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom and Willie K performed together for a many years during the late ’90s. Willie K has always struck me as a great rocker with strong cultural roots, whereas the control and power of Gilliom show a mixed background with classical and traditional origins. Together, they recorded three momentous albums and garnered a number of awards. They perform “Palehua”, a song the couple wrote on a traditional theme. Gilliom sings with warmth and affection while gazing at the hula dancers of Aloha Dalire who gracefully weave the tribute to the mountain in the title. (Many Hawaiian compositions describe geographic locations. As the singer describes the beauty of a place, the dancers use body language to illustrate the lyrics). Willie K’s guitar accompaniment dances around the melody with gentle arpeggios, runs and slides set on a subdued accompaniment from the house band.

The pair returns toward the end of the show for two more numbers. The first is perhaps a little obvious, “The Hawaiian Wedding Song”. Willie K sings in Hawaiian, Gilliom in English, and I imagine many a person who has vacationed in the Islands will find this a high point of the evening.

Willie K comes into his own when he performs “Ki Ho’alu Man”, his tribute to slack key legend, Gabby Pahinui. His tenor voice is filled with admiration and enjoyment as he recalls his younger days and his introduction to the music. Interestingly like many contemporary musicians, he uses a flat pick rather than a finger-picking style even when he moves into the Pahinui classic song, “Hi’ilawe”.

The Brothers Cazimero are almost synonymous with Hawaii. For many years, Roland (bass) and Robert (12-string guitar) have delighted audiences throughout the world with their singing and playing. They have performed with some of the best musicians Hawaii has known. Here they sing three songs, two in Hawaiian and one in English. Although their vocal ranges seem remarkably close, their good use of counterpoint, falsetto and switching lead, enables them to create a diverse sound. They are joined by dancer Tehani Kealamailani Gonzado on one song and by three male dancers on another, adding a strong visual element.

The tunes may be familiar, and at times veer close to easy listening, but the brothers constantly attract attention with their distinctive performance, as shown by the harmony on “Ku’u Ipa O Hokule’a” or the bluesy guitar on “Na Pe’a O Hokule’a”; they get under the skin. Similarly, as is common with many Hawaiian performances, the history, origins and culture of the islanders, as well as the features of the land and ocean along with the life found there, are constantly explained as so many of the songs and tunes revolve around these elements; shows often risk turning into classrooms. But this impression soon vanishes as they draw their audience deeper into a song with their explanations that serve to make songs come more alive.

O’Brian Eselu and his dancers bring old Hawaii to life. The hula they perform at times seems a world apart to the more modern dance performed elsewhere in the show. Athletic and powerful, this is more like the fire of volcanoes or the strength of a tempest than the rippling waters and snow-covered mountains of the Dancers of Aloha Dalire. These men are warriors. The traditional chanting also seems to come from deep within the earth: The glottal stops and aspirations of the Hawaiian language are more apparent in this context than the flowing vowels and rolling consonants heard in song.

There is something ‘Spanish’ about the Makaha Sons (Louis ‘Moon’ Kauakahi and John and Jerome Koko). Three voices, two guitars and a bass, they open with a medley, “Drums of the Islands/Waterfall”, to the backdrop of some of the most spectacular scenes in Hawaii. But their performance moves into overdrive when ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro joins them on “Noho Paipai”. Shimabukuro takes lead breaks on his humble little instrument, including a dynamic ‘duel’ between the uke and Jerome’s guitar. The first impression is that his style revolves around speed in strumming and chord changes, along with his rushing around the stage and his infectious grin. However, the youthful, exuberant musician is not merely a showman, he is an amazing musician able to draw different sounds and effects from his instrument. He constructs his solos integrating styles normally found on more ‘legitimate’ instruments. Without doubt, Shimabukuro’s performance is a true highlight of the whole program.

Finding an adequate description of Na Leo, a trio that formed two decades ago, is no easy task: A development of the ‘girlie groups’ of the ’60s, soul singers, or something else? The moment you come up with one definition, Angela Morales, Lehua Kalima Heine and Nalani Choy will veer off in the opposite direction. What is obvious is that each woman is a strong singer and each has her own distinctive voice, capable of both melody and harmony singing. Here they perform two songs: “Sugar Cane Shack”, a rolling, soulful song featuring each singer taking the lead on a verse and adding sweet harmonies on the chorus; and Heine’s longing interpretation of “I Miss You My Hawaii”, which with the wrong singer would become sweetly sentimental, but here is a moving recollection. The first song is performed with the 24-VII Dancers, who present another more modern facet of dance as they weave and wend their way around the stage.

“Hapa” is Hawaiian for “half”, but it is also the name of one of the best duos to have emerged onto the music scene made up of Hawaiian Keli’i Kaneali’i and New Jersey-born Barry Flanagan. “Lei Pikake” is sung by Kaneali’i with Flanagan providing a harmony and adding an intriguing guitar accompaniment as the Aloha Dalire Dancers return to the stage. They lift the tempo on their second number, “Haleakala Ku Hanohano”, again with the strong tenor lead, sympathetic harmony and guitar line.

Fulfilling with its promise to present the biggest stars from the Islands, attention is turned to slack key guitar and modern-day legends Ledward Ka’apana and Cyril Pahinui. Seated side by side with grins bursting off their faces, they perform “Mauna Loa”, Pahinui providing the strong accompaniment for Ka’apana to demonstrate his prowess. They follow this with a duet in which they exchange leads, each demonstrating his own approach to guitar playing. The audience response is heartening as they acknowledge the performance with applause and appreciative laughter. (Ka’apana has a sense of humor which he demonstrates on his six-string).

The Kamehameha Schools were founded a century ago partly to foster Island culture and tradition among Hawaiian youth. Indeed, many of the program’s performers attended the schools. And the evening draws to a perfect end with the Kamehameha Schools’ Glee Club performing two songs so closely identified with Hawaii, “Hawaii Aloha” and “Aloha ‘Oe”, separated by a bilingual version of “Amazing Grace”. They are joined for a moving reprise of “Aloha ‘Oe” by the evening’s musicians and dancers as well as the audience.

Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey hosts the program with short introductions which draw together influences and traditions of the material as well as descriptions of the artists. She has a warm, inviting voice and a calm, knowledgeable presence that create an atmosphere that draws the viewer in.

And returning to the opening music, the six-piece house band really deserves a mention for its supportive and complementary accompaniments. Not once do the musicians overstep the mark. Instead, they constantly enhance the performances, keeping the limelight on center stage.

The show was recorded in the atmospheric Hawaii Theater Center. The lighting and stage crews work well. The stage is lit in such a way that it appears to be a pearl, while the décor is limited to plants; the backdrop is of a night sky with a full moon. This simplicity enhances the appearance of the artists, creating a setting in context with the Islands without distracting from the performances. Occasionally, filmed scenes of Hawaii add emphasis to the songs and dances. In the main, cameras and crew are kept out of view, which fosters the feeling that the show is about the relationship between those on the stage and those watching. Overall, it is a tasteful, enjoyable production.

However, the show is not without its faults. On the one hand, the program lives up to its claim that it features Hawaii’s biggest stars — many are here. But the emphasis does seem to be more on contemporary music. Amy Gilliom, among others, is a wonderful falsetto singer in the traditional style, yet that approach to music is not presented in any sort of depth by anyone. Slack key is given a pair of tunes by two of the finest performers, but who was responsible for the sound of the instruments? And what excuse can there be for the incorrect titling of “Mauna Loa” (every piece of music is named on screen)? Also, with the technology of DVD’s, it’s a pity that there are no parallel tracks with interviews about the music and the dance with the performers.

But having said that, I’ve returned many times to the program finding more and more things to enjoy, and I am still not tired of it. It is a grand opportunity to appreciate the likes of the Brothers Cazimero, Na Leo, and others I do not usually listen to. I learn more and more about slack key playing each time I look at and listen to Ka’apana and Pahinui. Shimabukuro still amazes me. Hawaii — Songs of Aloha is very, very good — but perhaps, it could have been even better?


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