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Hawaiian Music Corner: Makalei’s “Pehea Ka Lawai’a”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Makalei are a new Hawaiian duo to my ears, but it was a pleasant surprise to receive this CD and see something with a very old school feel. The album cover looks like something from a Sons Of Hawai’i album circa 1971, right down to the lettering. But for a serious old school feel, you must listen to the music.

What I like about Pehea Ka Lawai’a (Makalei Music) is that the songs come from times long gone, from the musicianship to the styles to the vocal harmonies. This isn’t Kam School Glee Club-style singing, but you’ll hear something in each of these songs that will make you say “wow, I remember when Hawaiian music used to sound just like that.” Is this a throwback album, maybe the Hawaiian equivalent of Amy Winehouse‘s approach to soul and ska, in a small way maybe. But as with Winehouse, what Stew Kawakami and Mike Judd are doing is simply revisiting those old Hawaiian music vibes and looking to see what was good and perhaps what we’ve lost in the race towards what we feel is modern. It’s a vibrant music, and the thirteen songs on this are proof.

Makalei are accompanied by a number of musicians, and the album begins with the slightly sly title track, where they speak about going to the ocean to catch some fish, maybe a squid or two. They replicate the squid by playing guitar as if the squid jumped on the instrument and started going crazy. Then you have to wonder: are they really talking about aquatic squid? If you’ve ever gone fishing in Hawai’i early in the morning in total darkness, making sure to get to that special spot before the sun comes up, you can sense the approach to this song and the metaphors it may or may not have.

In “The Graduation Song” they speak to those who must leave Hawai’i for school, the anticipation of new experiences and the anxiety of leaving home:
I feel my heart beating cause I can’t believe I’m leaving
All of the word I know but its time to go so I’m on my way
Time is so deceiving, my plane departs this evening
It all feels like a dream, time is not what it seems
When it’s yesterday

The Charles E. King composition “Lei Aloha Lei Makamae” sounds like a mixture of Country Comfort mixed in with a bit of The Brothers Cazimero, especially the vocal harmonies that are really sharp, sounding like a generational mix that you rarely hear in today’s Hawaiian music since no one is really doing it like this. If you want to get chicken skin and start tearing up, then “Ka Lei Punahou” will be the song to provide it, as they come up with the sweet falsetto, the dual acoustic guitars, and the ipu that makes it feel as if you’re listening to the good ol’ days of Krash Kealoha, Honolulu Skylark and KCCN all day every day. “Lifetime’s Too Short” is an original song by Judd that has that Peter Moon Band/Sandwich Isle Band feel from the late 70’s/early 80’s with that style of guitar playing made famous in America‘s “Ventura Highway”, when Hawaiian artists were exchanging ideas with the California sound. With drums, this song could be reinterpreted into a Jawaiian jam, but I like this rendition as is. The song has Judd singing about looking for love, and how if you feel something, don’t let life pass you by.

The loungy-sounds of “Oceans Away” goes back to the late 50’s/early 60’s when people like The Invitations and Arthur Lyman were adding a jazz touch to the sound of the islands. The highlight of the song is when the vocal harmonies are going on during the line “A jillion stars in a rainbow” and it goes up a notch, catching you by surprise and perhaps making you smile. The exotica continues with their take of Sammy Cahn & James Van Heusen‘s “Come Fly With Me”, and one may be able to revisit the glory days of Waikiki when it was the swinging part of Honolulu.

By ending the album with Jack DeMello‘s “The Wonderful World Of Aloha“, you then realize you’ve just taken an incredible tour of Hawaiian music of the last 50 years, the time it has been a part of the union. It is indeed a retrospective, but in the hands of Makalei it shows how powerful and timeless these songs are. They’re not old, it isn’t dated, although by hearing the strings or a style of percussion you may remember a time in your life when these styles made you proud to be Hawaiian or made you want to visit the islands for the first time. These guys show an incredible amount of respect for Hawai’i and its music, and whether you’re still on the rock or trying hard to make it back on/to the rock, you’ll understand why.

Dave Tucciarone also deserves recognition for not only being a co-producer, but as the engineer who captured these sounds, and also being involved in the mixing and mastering phases, and on top of that being one of the contributing musicians on the album as a guitarist. What I like about Tucciarone’s approach is that it doesn’t sound forced or brickwalled, it’s a warm sounding album. Tucciarone has worked with everyone from Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom to Sean Na’auao, Sistah Robi Kahakalau to Weldon Kekauoha, and now you can add Makalei not only as a group with the Tucciarone touch, but as an addition to a group of artists who add to the fabric of music, language, and culture of the islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hana hou.

What do you think?