POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 10, 2010
Stephen Inglis ('Aumakua)
What if young Robert Zimmerman had discovered ki ho'alu while he was growing up in Minnesota -- and then developed a more melodious vocal style than the unmistakable raspy delivery that catapulted him to fame as folk music megastar Bob Dylan?
Stephen Inglis explores both possibilities with this album of Dylan compositions, played with slack-key tunings and sung without any misguided attempts at imitating Dylan's unique vocal style. It is, as Mark Hentelff writes in the liner notes, "either a brilliant notion or just plain lolo. Maybe a little of both."
Inglis' best idea is avoiding almost all of Dylan's Hot 100 chart hits and all of the compositions that were big hits for other artists. It would be interesting to know why he picked the songs he did -- another panel of liner notes would have been enlightening -- but choosing lesser-known compositions gives him more room to interpret them. It is almost always interesting to hear an artist play music that has deep personal meaning. Inglis' work here is a good example.
Dylan purists may feel -- and with good reason -- that no one can do these songs better than Dylan did. However, Inglis' labor of love will almost certainly inspire listeners to follow in his footsteps, seek out Dylan's recordings, and become Dylan fans as well.
CJ Helekahi (Mountain Apple Company)
It is always a pleasant surprise to discover a "new" Hawaiian artist stepping forward as a recording artist. "New," in this case, is relative, though: Maui has known CJ Helekahi for years -- he lives in Hana -- but this beautifully crafted album makes his music available to a worldwide audience.
Producer Dave Tucciarone makes some excellent choices in surrounding Helekahi with a small group of studio musicians who play various combinations of ukulele, guitar and bass as needed. Leokane Pryor and Kaiolohia Smith lend their voices to the project. The sense of ohana enhances the traditionalist 20th century Hawaiian feel of the project.
First impressions are always important and Helekahi introduces himself with several standards. "Hilo Hula" gives the production a firm Hawaiian foundation while "Church In An Old Hawaiian Town" pays homage to Hawaii's hapa-haole traditions in fine style; Helekahi's voice and Tucciarone's skillful work on guitar mesh perfectly in making "Church" one of the highlights.
"I Will Never Leave You Hana, Maui" is a heartfelt place song that displays Helekahi's style as a vocalist and songwriter. Like Glenn Pinho, a generation earlier, he pledges allegiance to the isolated area and makes it clear that there is no reason to "improve" or "develop" it. Although this isn't a protest song, the lyrics make it clear that Hana is perfect as it is.
"What Aloha Means To Me," co-written with his wife, also stands out. The couple dispense with conventional concepts of rhyme and meter as they share their feelings on that subject. It comes too late for 2010 but the Aloha Festivals people should consider the song as the theme for next year.
The project breaks format with "Never This Lucky," the only track on the album that Tucciarone didn't produce. Helekahi and studio guest Vince Esquire play it well, but the addition of synth tracks is a distraction, given that Tucciarone doesn't use synthesizer on any of the songs he produced.
The liner notes include composers' credits and Helekahi's thanks -- first to God, and then to the people who made the album possible.
Tia Carrere (Daniel Ho Creations)
Grammy Award-winner Tia Carrere's fourth project with Daniel Ho approaches Hawaiian music from a different direction than its predecessors. The first consisted of Hawaiian and hapa haole standards, the next two original Hawaiian-language songs written by Ho and Amy Ku'uleialoha Stillman. This one is Hawaiian in terms of the primary language she's singing, but Ho has looked to European composers for the melodies. Piano rather than ukulele or acoustic guitar is the primary instrument as he explores the works of Puccini, Schumann, Beethoven, Brahms and several others. The soothing lullabies that result also are suitable for anyone trying to decompress after a stressful day dealing with deadlines or rush hour gridlock.
Carrere and Ho set the mood perfectly with "Hiamoe Maika'i," which is based on a Brahms melody. Carrere's voice is rich and soothing; Ho's instrumental arrangement adds to the feeling of tranquility.
Each subsequent selection seems equally beautiful, although "Pua i Ka Ua," the one completely original song, stands out in being a bit more up-tempo and playful. It's lyrics translate as a story about gathering flowers and rain falling -- topics that are reason enough to speculate on possible kaona (hidden meanings).
It was accepted practice in the 19th century for Hawaiian songwriters to set their own lyrics to popular tunes. Stillman does so here writing new lyrics for songs whose tunes come from "Rock-a-bye Baby," "Greensleeves" and "Hush Little Baby." There's no mention of the bough breaking in "E Ku'u Pepe," and "He Kama Makamae" celebrates a "child cherished by the parents" rather than a woman in green, but Stillman is in good company -- Francis Scott Key recycled the melody of an English drinking song when he wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Although this is officially a solo project by Carrere, Ho closes it with a solo piano piece that brings the album to a restful finish.
It isn't necessary to understand Hawaiian to be enchanted by Carrere's voice and Ho's arrangements, but bravo to co-producers Ho and Stillman for including the Hawaiian lyrics and English translations anyway.