There’s only one chance to make a first impression, and for Hawaii recording artists only one chance to win most promising artist at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.
Na Hoku Hanohano Awards
Most Promising Artist
34th Annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards
Where: Hawai‘i Convention Center
The award has helped launch the music careers of past winners Willie K, HAPA, Keali‘i Reichel and Raiatea Helm, to name a few, and it’s open to artists of all styles of music. The five finalists this year represent the broader diversity in the Hawaii record industry — pop and rock as well as Hawaiian — quite well.
Traditional Hawaiian music is represented by Mark Yamanaka and CJ Helekahi, other genres by Michael Keale, Maui luthier Steve Grimes, and pop duo Jody Kamisato and Chris Salvador, who work under the name Heart & Soul.
The winner will be announced at the 34th Annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards on Sunday.
"Hilo will be there for sure," says Yamanaka, a finalist in six other categories including male vocalist of the year, album of the year and Hawaiian language performance. Yamanaka’s album, "Lei Pua Kenikeni," includes Hawaiian and hapa haole standards and a Hoku-nominated original composition, "Kaleoonalani," he wrote for his daughter.
Eligibility for the category is sometimes cloudy. John Cruz was conflicted about winning most promising artist in 1997 because he had made recordings on the East Coast before coming home to Hawaii and recording "Acoustic Soul," the first project he recorded here. The Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts ruled that his work outside Hawaii didn’t count and that "Acoustic Soul" would be considered the work of a first-time recording artist.
Local reggae band The Green was ruled ineligible this year because more than half its members had recorded together under another name.
Yamanaka had some experience recording with friends on the Big Island but says that recording as a solo artist raises the pressure.
"Everything was on me, as far as sour notes, missed chords. … (It was) fun, yet at times very hard work and frustrating," he says.
The pressure was worth it, he adds, in making something "that would make my children, family and friends proud, and something everyone could appreciate … something my family and I can cherish forever."
Grimes, a Maui resident whose profession is making stringed instruments, has worked as a musician since the 1970s. He decided to record a solo CD because he had so many original songs left over from an album he’d recorded with his band, Mojo Gumbo, and because "I (also) had the opportunity to have some of the great players that I’ve built guitars for over the years contribute to the CD," he said. "(The album) was the actualization of a dream of mine to combine my original tunes with my original guitars."
Grimes and his friends play an assortment of mainstream genres: acoustic guitar ballads, jazz and electric blues. His lyrics provide incisive commentary on contemporary cliches, America’s fascination with celebrities and what he considers the overdevelopment of Maui.
Michael Keale’s first album is "a musical memento for my friends and family, especially my granddaughter, to remember me by," he says.
"Though music is constantly changing, remembering who we are and where we came from is important," Keale says. "People ask me, ‘What’s the old jazz standards doing on there?’ Uncle Moe (Keale), my dad, my mom, all loved those songs. It didn’t make them any less Hawaiian."
It’s been 12 years since Pure Heart won most promising artist in 1999 with an album of bright up-tempo mainstream pop music, and with that as precedent, Heart & Soul can’t be counted out. Their sound is reminiscent of Pure Heart, but they have two distinct voices where Pure Heart had but one. And where Pure Heart’s repertoire included remakes of vintage pop hits, Heart & Soul’s debut album consists entirely of acoustic pop originals.
The recording process was "definitely a learning experience," Kamisato recalls. "It wasn’t so much of harder or easier than we expected, but more of a journey of learning for us, and a lot of fun. Kapena De Lima played a huge role in our recording process and we had a great time with musicians that worked closely with us as well."
Maui resident CJ Helekahi made a monthly commute to Oahu to record "Ka Mahina," a beautifully crafted collection of Hawaiian and hapa haole standards. One of the highlights is a newly written place song, "I Will Never Leave You Hana, Maui," describing his feelings for his home.
"Hana has nurtured me in a culture that I’m proud to be a product of," Helekahi said. "I’ve also recorded this album to fulfill a dream that my grandparents had and to gift my parents and many musicians, mostly from Hana, that have given (me) their knowledge and manao. I can’t imagine where I would be without them in my life."
Helekahi is also up for island music album. He considers himself a long shot in both categories but plans to represent Hana at the Hokus on Sunday anyway.
"It’s a little discouraging for me, but I thought to myself that I should go to represent the town I’ll never leave in spirit, Hana, Maui."