Q&A: Kupaoa

Meet this promising Hawaiian music duo.

Photo by: Mark Arbeit

In 2005, Kellen Paik agreed to do a one-time Hawaiian music set for a friend’s wedding, and recruited Lihau Hannahs, an acquaintance from college. One thing led to another, and in 2008, the pair, now known as Kupaoa, released their first album (Pili o ke Ao), for which they won two 2009 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. Their second album, English Rose, was released in June.

And, if you’re reading this after Aug. 14, Lihau Hannahs has become Lihau Hannahs Paik.

First things first: How do you say it, and what does it mean?

Hannahs: Koo-POW-a. No glottal stop. It means a lingering fragrance.


For your first CD, you co-founded a record label, Hulu Kupuna. Why?

Hannahs: We wanted to retain full ownership over our own songs. One of the things that we are told has distinguished us from other people is that we write a lot of music.
Paik: Most traditional Hawaiian groups are three-part. It’s hard to find music for duets. Our vocal arrangements and our instrumentation are purposely big; we’re trying to maximize what two people can do.


Were the Hoku Awards—for Most Promising Artist and Haku Mele—a surprise?

Hannahs: We were doing everything so grassroots—we didn’t have a publicist, we didn’t have a record label, we didn’t have anybody to push for us except ourselves—so we really weren’t expecting anything.


You’re also known for your poetic Hawaiian-language compositions.

Paik: When I first started Hawaiian-language class [10 years ago], you couldn’t have sat in a Barnes and Noble and run into Hawaiian speakers. But now you hear it wherever you go. If you sing somewhere, you can’t get away from the fact that people know what you are saying. The audiences are different now. Bands realize that and have to step up what they’re doing.

For more information, visit kupaoa.com.