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Hana Hou!

How did the first Hawaiian music Grammy change the local music industry? Look no further than this year's nominations.


It's Grammy time again for Hawaiian music. And the announcement of this year's nominees leaves little doubt about the influence of last year's winning album, Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2.

In case you missed the biggest local music news of 2005, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) awarded the first-ever Grammy for Best Hawaiian Music Album. Last March, the nominees read like a who's who of Hawaiian music vocalists–The Brothers Cazimero, Keali'i Reichel, Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Willie K and Ho'okena.

But it was the slack key entry, the only instrumental album in the category, that captured the prize. Produced by Charles Michael Brotman on his Palm Records label, the compilation featured 10 slack key artists, including John Cruz, Randy Lorenzo and Brotman himself.

That historic win has already changed Hawai'i's music industry, with record companies seeing a surge in the number of ki ho'alu (slack key) albums produced over the past year. Producer Jon de Mello now gets pitched about three slack key albums each week, five times what he's seen in previous years.

And while slack key was the dark horse in last year's Grammy competition, the musical style dominates four out of the five albums nominated this year.

"The selection is very logical," says de Mello, whose Mountain Apple Co. distributes three of the nominated albums. "It's a cycle. Hawaiian music is being perceived as slack key by many at this time, although sales throughout the world show that the average fan of this genre is more educated about the various types of Hawaiian music–contemporary, traditional, Jawaiian, etc.–than the Grammy voter appears to be at this time."

Who were these Grammy voters who picked last year's long-shot nominee over some of Hawai'i's best-known vocalists? Mostly music industry members from the Mainland. Of the 17,000 members of NARAS, only about 100 are based in Hawai'i.

The disproportion between Mainland- and Hawai'i-based voters may help explain why slack key ruled this year's list of Grammy nominations, as well, excluding some of the most critically successful vocal albums of the year, such as Hapa's Maui and Dennis Pavao's The Golden Voice of Hawai'i Vol. 1.

"You really cannot tell what will happen," says Alan Yamamoto, president of the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts. "I thought the success of 'Ale'a's CD [Ka'ulopono] would help them, but it's a hard name with the title and the act, if you're not familiar with the [Hawaiian] language. Frank [Kawaikapuokalani] Hewett, same thing. The language might be a problem with voters. Even if they've seen them or heard the CD and like it, remembering the name might be difficult."

Hawaiian language was a sticking point in the long, heated debates over the requirements of the Grammy category. For years, the local industry argued about how much of an album had to be in the Hawaiian language in order to qualify. The final decision? Eligible recordings–whether traditional or contemporary, vocal or instrumental–must contain a substantial amount of traditional elements, with the predominance of vocal tracks in the Hawaiian language.

So how do Mainland Grammy voters–presumably with less knowledge of Hawaiian culture than Island musicians–pick a winner? Many go with what's familiar to them, says Grammy trustee Keith Olsen, who lives on Kaua'i.

The Best Hawaiian Music Album category falls in the folk field, with traditional folk, contemporary folk and Native American music. There are more than 100 Grammy categories, divided into 26 fields. Members can vote in eight fields and are asked to vote only in fields about which they're knowledgeable.

"What's the common thread that goes through [all four categories]? It's guitar," Olsen says. "So the people who are voting for traditional folk or contemporary folk that can't even pronounce the names of last year's nominees or the titles of the albums went and said 'Wow, slack key guitar. Well, I know about guitar.' And they voted for it, so it won."

But while local artists have already grumbled to Olsen and Yamamoto about this year's nominees, not very many of them did anything about it–that is, sign up to become Grammy voters themselves. Fewer than 30 Hawai'i music industry members joined NARAS over the past year, up to about 100 from 76 last year. By comparison, the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts has about 400 members who vote for the Hoku Awards each year, most of whom would be eligible for NARAS membership, says Yamamoto.

NARAS even conducted a Grammy 101 workshop to educate musicians about the category's nomination requirements and recruit more members.

"I was disappointed there weren't more new members. I don't think they see the incentive to join," Yamamoto says.

This year, all voting members of NARAS will be able to hear every nominated album online, thanks to an agreement between the academy and Yahoo Music. Olsen hopes members will take the time to familiarize themselves with each entry, rather than vote for an album at random.

While it's likely the local industry will continue wrangling over this year's nominees–even after a winner is named on Feb. 8–it's impossible to dismiss any album on the list as unworthy of the honor. The four slack key albums feature several of Hawai'i's greatest guitarists, and the fifth entry showcases one of our fastest rising stars.

Kapono Beamer (Onopak Music Co.)

There are two meanings behind the title of Kapono Beamer's Grammy-nominated album, his first solo vocal release in more than 10 years. "Ponomoe" can be translated as "a righteous dream state of sleep," a concept that represents the veteran musician's inspiration for the album, as well as the tranquil mood that runs through its lushly produced tracks.

"I went through this phase in my life where I felt sort of in hibernation, I was tied up creatively, and I felt like I was coming out of that," says Beamer, who composed 10 of the 13 tracks. "I came up with this idea of ponomoe, because for me, it was a period of making things right. I was waking up, looking at things differently, putting the negativity behind me."

photo: Dayna Marie Beamer

Ponomoe was also Beamer's childhood nickname. "My cousins would ask, 'Where's Kapono?' 'Pono moe' was the answer, because I guess I used to sleep all the time," he says with a laugh.

The album depicts many of those memories for Beamer, a member of one of Hawaiian music's most prolific families. It recalls especially the time he spent at the Beamers' ancestral home in Waimea on the Big Island. That's where he'd wake up early on cold Saturday mornings to accompany his grandmother, the late Louise Leiomalama Walker Beamer, to her Hilo hula studio, so he could play 'ukulele for her halau. It's also where he spent hours lying on his bed, strumming the refurbished guitar given to him by his grandfather, Pono Beamer.

That's why there's a personal story behind nearly every song on the album. "I felt like I was really connecting with my family roots as I put the CD together," says Beamer, who even included recordings of two chants performed by his grandmother in the early '90s. The album shows off Beamer's slack key skills, as well his proficiency on electric guitar, the piano, the nose flute and a host of traditional Hawaiian instruments, including the 'ipu.

"While I was making the album, I really felt like my grandma was with me, giving me confidence, telling me I was on the right track," Beamer says. "And the songs just started pouring out."

Raiatea Helm (Raiatea Helm Records)

At 17, Moloka'i-born Raiatea Helm shook up the Hawaiian music scene with her debut album, Far Away Heaven, enrapturing listeners with her ha'i falsetto and earning her two Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. Now 21, she's still reeling from the news that her second album, Sweet & Lovely, has earned her a Grammy nomination, making her the only female artist and non-slack key entry in this year's competition.

photo: by Monte Costa, shot at The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu.

Her critical success seems more surprising, considering that she didn't even start singing until she was 15 years old and has never received any classical training.

"I was watching the Kamehameha Schools song contest one day, and during the intermission, they featured all these old-time singers, like Genoa Keawe and Myrtle K. Hilo," Helm says. "It was Nina Keali'iwahamana who inspired me. She sang this song called 'Pua Tuberose,' and I just thought she was unbelievable. All I could think was, That is what I want to do."

Sweet & Lovely, a mix of Hawaiian and hapa haole tunes, marks Helm's debut as an executive producer–along with her parents, Zachary and Henrietta Helm–on her new eponymous record label. Multiple Hoku-Award-winner David Tucciarone serves as co-producer and engineer.

Album highlights include "Haole Hula," an English-language duet with Keali'i Reichel, and "Hu'i E," a playful exchange with Keawe, one of Helm's inspirations. Helm pays another tribute to the falsetto legend with her own solo rendition of Keawe's signature song, "'alika."

"I know it's rare for somebody my age to be doing this kind of singing," Helm says. "But it's so easy for me. I feel really comfortable with this style of music, and I'm so proud to share it with people."

Ledward Ka'apana (Rhythm & Roots)

Ledward Ka'apana is considered one of the finest slack key players in the world. Even some of his Grammy competitors won't complain if he walks away with this year's award.

"Led is so charismatic, how he plays on stage," says Sonny Lim, who was taught by slack key master Fred Punahoa, Ka'apana's own uncle and teacher. "He plays just like Uncle Fred."

photo: Monte Costa, shot at The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu.

"I just think Led is the best–that's one guy who I wouldn't mind losing to," says Paul Konwiser, co-producer of Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar.

Ka'apana is a fixture on the Hawaiian music scene, cutting his teeth in the business as a member of Hui 'Ohana, the iconic Hawaiian Renaissance trio. A solo artist since the 1980s, Ka'apana became one of the first slack key players recorded by producer George Winston, who is credited with popularizing ki ho'alu on the Mainland through his Dancing Cat Records label and national tours. After nearly 40 years of playing, Ka'apana even has his own groupies, loyal concert attendees who've dubbed themselves "Led Heads."

"Despite Ka'apana's reputation as one of slack key's most innovative and influential artists, his inspiration for his Grammy-nominated album is as clean and simple as its 15 instrumental tracks, including five original compositions.

"There was no concept, really," says Ka'apana, with his trademark giggle. "I never recorded a solo album for a couple of years, and I just thought it was time to record another one."

All of the album's songs come from Ka'apana's repertoire, including Hawaiian standards such as "Ka Makani Ka'ili Aloha/Pua Tuberose," country hits such as "San Antonio Rose" and even a Spanish-influenced rendition of "Killing Me Softly," one of two songs for which Ka'apana swaps his guitar for an 'ukulele. Producer Milton Lau recorded the entire work in just four days, adding minimal accompaniment with bass guitar and keyboards.

"I wanted it as natural as it could be," Ka'apana says. "I like people to know what they're getting when they see me live."

Sonny Lim (Palm Records)

Sonny Lim was one of 10 artists featured on Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2, the Palm Records album that earned the first-ever Grammy for Hawaiian music. The landmark album was Lim's solo recording debut, after years of playing with his family, one of the Big Island's most beloved musical clans, and other artists, including The Makaha Sons.

photo: Olivier Koning

This year, Lim has a Grammy-nominated album of his own–a solo album in its truest sense.

"It's an unaccompanied solo," says producer Charles Michael Brotman, who recorded the album at his Lava Tracks studio in Waimea. "Nothing but Sonny. No instruments, no overdubbing, no ensemble. It's just Sonny playing acoustic guitar–a very beautiful, natural-sounding recording."

The instrumental album ranges from the traditional to the contemporary, with original compositions by both Lim and Brotman, two songs by Lim's mentor Fred Punahoa and a medley dedicated to his hometown of Kohala.

"I really like the idea of doing a variety of stuff," Lim says. "I play the old favorites, giving respect to the more traditional parts of slack key, and I do some of the more modern styles to inspire the next generation of artists, to help ki ho'alu evolve."

Both Brotman and Lim take pride in perpetuating the slack key tradition in Kamuela, often considered the birthplace of Hawaiian slack key guitar. Kamehameha III had brought Spanish vaqueros to Hawai'i, primarily to the Big Island, to help Hawaiians manage the burgeoning cattle population. When the vaqueros left the Islands, many gave their guitars away to the Hawaiian cowboys, who weren't quite sure how to play them.

"It's thought that the paniolos just slacked the strings on the guitar until they found a pleasant sound," Brotman notes. "Sonny and I always talk about how those paniolos could've been sitting around the campfire, playing slack key, within a few miles of where our studio is today."

Various Artists (Daniel Ho Creations)

Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar highlights the best of Hawai'i's slack key players, including Cyril Pahinui, Ozzie Kotani and Ledward Ka'apana, who is also nominated for his own solo album. But when the compilation's eight featured musicians were recorded, they had no idea their performances would wind up on an album, let alone earn a Grammy nod.

The album started out as a weekly concert series of the same name, organized by Paul Konwiser, Wayne Wong and Maui slack key master George Kahumoku Jr.

Konwiser, a retired computer exec and longtime slack key devotee, managed Mainland road tours for Kahumoku.

photo: Tammy Osurman

"We'd be playing at some bar or hotel or clambake on the Mainland, and Paul would keep saying, 'We should have a concert series on Maui,'" Kahumoku recalls. "I'd say, 'OK, make it happen, and I'll come home.'"

In 2003, Konwiser and Wong, Kahumoku's childhood friend, formed Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Productions on Maui. Konwiser shopped their idea of a weekly slack key concert series to several venues, before The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, agreed to let them use their 120-seat theater.

Although the concerts take place in a luxury resort, the casual, freewheeling shows feel more like kanekapila time at a backyard party, especially with the charismatic Kahumoku as emcee.

"At the end of each show, a lot of people would ask, 'Do you have a CD with all the artists on it?' and we didn't really have one that represented the entire show," Konwiser says. "But because all of the shows are recorded for posterity, we decided to take all of the tapes over to [Los Angeles-based producer and slack key player] Daniel Ho to put together a CD."

Ho screened two years' worth of shows, more than 100 in all, selecting the best performances and mastering them for the compilation. The result is a collection of dynamic vocal and instrumental pieces–from Pahinui singing "Hi'ilawe" to Kahumoku plucking the notes of "Mauna Kea Mosquito"–that make listeners wish they could've been there.

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