POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 13, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:53 p.m. HST, Feb 13, 2011
The following are capsule reviews of Best Hawaiian Music Album nominees by Star-Advertiser music writer John Berger. The albums are listed in the order in which they appear on the Grammy ballot. For full reviews, Grammy blogs by Hawaii music stars, results, photos and other features, see honolulupulse.com.
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.
This is a group project in the best sense of the word. The group is Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom, Dennis Kamakahi, Elmer "Sonny" Lim Jr., Chino Montero, Cyril Pahinui and Jeff Peterson, and they perform in various combinations. In short, this is not a compilation album of recordings made separately by individual artists, nor is it another Amy Hanaiali'i album in which all the big-name artists are used as celebrity guests. All six members of this group contribute in equal measure, and none of them contributes to every song. It would be easy but simplistic to appraise the album and the use of the words "slack key masters" in terms of whether that improves the sextet's chances of winning a Grammy, but that's letting the tail wag the dog.
Taken at surface value, this is a simple project perfect for casual listening or as background music. There is, however, more going on here. Ho explains in the liner notes that he wrote the 11 original pieces partly for his own personal enjoyment and partly to explore the musical concepts of half-steps and unisons. He also explains how he creates them on ukulele. Set aside the technical aspects and "Polani" is also a perfect choice for anyone trying to mellow out after rush-hour gridlock or drama on the home front.
Kaapana's been a Grammy finalist before, but just in case the Grammy voters don't remember who he is, producers Chris and Milton Lau splashed the words "Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar" across the bottom of the cover. Those who listen to it will find that Kaapana sings in Hawaiian and English (falsetto and lower register) and that he plays ukulele as well as slack-key guitar. The album was inspired by a visit to the remains of Kalapana — Kaapana's hometown, now mostly buried in lava. The songs are Kaapana family favorites that he grew up with in the '50s. They include "Hi'ilawe" and "Ikona." The one new song, "The Legend," was written by Kaapana's brother, the late George Kaapana Jr.
A ki ho'alu arrangement of "In the Mood" is the big surprise, and it fits in beautifully as an instantly familiar tune placed in a fresh context. Peterson's interpretation of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" also displays his vision as an arranger. Either could catch the ear of the Grammy voters. Most of the other songs are originals. With them, Peterson draws on his formal training as a guitarist in other musical genres to skillfully blend the Hawaiian and the non-Hawaiian in ways that bring slack key forward while honoring its traditions.