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Hawaii steel guitar music alive, well

John Berger
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Musicians Greg Sardinha, left, Casey Olsen, Alan Akaka, Ronald Kanahele and Jeff Au Hoy performed at the Waikiki Beach Walk Steel Guitar Festival earlier this month. Sardinha, Olsen and Akaka have teamed up for the group project "Hawaiian Steel VI."

‘Hawaiian Steel VI’

Alan Akaka, Casey Olsen and Greg Sardinha

Is Hawaiian steel guitar the most endangered of the instruments associated with contemporary Hawaiian music? You wouldn’t know it from the number of CDs that Hawaii’s major steel guitarists have released in recent months. This one, the fourth in less than three months, presents Alan Akaka, Casey Olsen and Greg Sardinha teaming up for a group project on which they all play on all the tracks but take turns playing as the lead or featured performer.

Akaka is the star on five songs, Sardinha on three and Olsen, the youngest of the threesome, on one.

On three tracks the three guitarists all take solos. "Maui Chimes" and "Hilo March" have particularly outstanding interplay, but the three guitarists’ work makes each track a significant addition to their discographies.

Having noted that Sardinha and co-producer John Ierovolino did not provide artists’ bios on their recent "Hula Island Style" steel guitar album, it should be mentioned that brief bios of Sardinha, Olsen and Akaka are included here. That’s a welcome step in the right direction.


» "Beyond The Reef"
» "I’ll Remember You"
» "Pearly Shells"

Songs show ukulele master’s depth

‘Hawaiian Style Ukulele 2’

Troy Fernandez
(Neos Productions)

Troy Fernandez played a major role 20 years ago in redefining the role of the ukulele in local music. His rapid picking and powerful fingering was a major factor in the success of the Ka’au Crater Boys and the duo’s back-to-back Hoku Award wins for Contemporary Album of the Year in 1994 and 1995.

In the years since the duo’s demise, Fernandez has been active as a recording artist and record producer. This collection of instrumentals was released without the promotional support he merits, but it’s a welcome addition to his discography.

Producer Bob St. John presents Fernandez as the leader of a small combo—Taz Vegas on bass, Thomson Enos and Eric Lee sharing duties on guitar, and Salaam Tilman and Tyrone Tomanaha providing percussion.

Fernandez’s choice of material—Hawaiian, rock, pop and "exotica"—displays his broad musical horizons as a musician and arranger. Each selection is a fine demonstration of his skill and technique. A medley linking "Kikaida" and "Hawaii Five-0" is one of several multi-song pieces that also document his imagination as an arranger. The medleys also show St. John’s willingness to give Fernandez the artistic freedom to express himself even though each two-song medley costs the record label two publishers’ royalties instead of one.

There is one oddity: You’d think that with an artist of Fernandez’s stature, his face would be on the front cover instead of a generic drawing of a beach scene. Oh, well!


» "Yellow Bird"
» "I Can See Clearly Now"
» "Kaulana Na Pua"

Kawao best without fake accents


(Jus-Us Kawao)

Kawao—Walt "Walt G" Grilho and "China Man" Hinoi—follows its ambitious two-disc DVD release of a year ago with this aptly titled CD. The DVD, good as it was, missed making the final ballot in any category at the Hoku Awards in May, but the duo is back in the game with another release that could easily take them to the finals in 2011.

They open strong with "Push Comes to Shove," a romantic radio-friendly Jawaiian number that combines catchy rhythms and good hooks with the pseudo-Jamaican affectations that have defined the genre also known as "island music" for two decades. An ukulele provides a bright local-style vibe over the solid rhythm section, but then comes an imitation-Jamaican singer substituting "me" for "I" and doing his best impression of—is it Shaggy? Mad Cobra? Oh well, never mind, why bother?

As with previous projects, the guys are best when they sing without bogus accents. Their Jawaiian/pop songs show off their pop appeal and mainstream potential, when the imitation-Jamaican stuff is kept in check—"Going Crazy," "Serious for Me" and "Bounce" offer good examples of their strengths and weaknesses. A remake of "Sweet Baby" that features their harmonies and completely omits Rasta-wannabe stuff shows the heights they can reach.

It’s a shame composers’ credits aren’t provided for most songs. Stanley Clarke and George Duke are credited with "Sweet Baby," and that’s a good start, even though Duke actually wrote the song solo. Grilho has been Kawao’s primary source of new material, so it is likely that he deserves credit for the others.

Wherever the credit belongs, the duo should give props to Mad Cobra for coining the phrase "Flex, time to have sex" they use in "Push Comes to Shove," and to Tower of Power for the "You ought to be having fun" riff in "House Party."

FYI, the duo’s talented backing musicians aren’t identified by name in the liner credits, but get the recognition they deserve at www.KawaoMusic.com.


» "Push Comes To Shove"
» "Serious For Me"
» "Sweet Baby"

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