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.
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,"include Hawaiian and hapa haole standards, and a Hoku-nominated original composition, "Kaleoonalani," he wrote for his daughter. It would have represented Hawaii beautifully at the 2012 Grammys.
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 of the 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 ups 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 said.
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."
Yamanaka has been playing promotional gigs each week supporting the album since it was released in November, a schedule he maintains with the support of his "gracious band mates, Bert Naihe, Eddy Atkins and Kihei Nahale-a, that leave their ohana, and sometimes their day jobs, to help support me, so big mahalo to them!"
Grimes, a Maui resident whose profession is making stringed instruments, has worked as a musician since the 1970s. He said 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. (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 over-development of Maui.
Doing the album also "increased my awareness of how demanding my lutherie business is because I fell behind my production schedule … . I’m back to having a good balance between making music and making guitars, and am back on schedule now."
Michael Keale describes his first-ever album as "a musical memento for my friends and family, especially my granddaughter to remember me by … . Though music is constantly changing, remembering who we are and where we came from is important. 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."
"(Doing) take after take can sometimes be so exhausting," he said of the process of recording the album. As for the expectations people may have given that Moe Keale was his uncle, "It’s hard to live up to each and every one of those expectations, so the best thing to do is be yourself. That’s become evident with my family members that continue to entertain today — we sound and act the same, but sometimes totally different!"
It’s been 12 years since Pure Heart won the Most Promising Artist category in 1999 with an album of bright up-tempo mainstream pop music, and with that as precedent Heart & Soul — Jody Kamisato and Chris Salvador — 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 chart hits, Heart & Soul’s debut album consists entirely of acoustic pop originals.
Kamisato recalls the recording process as "definitely a learning experience. 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 team of musicians that worked closely with us as well."
Hana resident CJ Helekahi commuted to Oahu — a two-hour drive to Kahului, then the flight to Honolulu — for a year and a half to record "Ka Mahina," a beautifully crafted collection of Hawaiian and hapa haole standards.
"Thankfully, I had a lot of help from (Hawaiian recording artist) Leokane Pryor who sings along with me on my CD. He told me what to expect due to his experience with two of his own albums. I guess it was easy for me because I had help, but still difficult to accomplish."
One of the highlights of Helekahi’s album 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 says. "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 mana’o. 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."
BEST NEW ARTIST/MOST PROMISING ARTIST (1978-2010)
1978 – Hokule’a
1979 – Andy Bumatai
1980 – Karen Keawehawai’i
1981 – Fabulous Krush
1982 – Frank Kawai Hewett
1983 – Kasuals
1984 – Audy Kimura
1985 – Brickwood Galuteria
1986 – Kipapa Rush Band
1987 – Darrell Lupenui
1988 – Nightwing
1989 – Peter Apo & Del Beazley
1990 – Jeff Rasmussen
1991 – Ho’okena
1992 – Willie K
1993 – Ke’alohi
1994 – HAPA
1995 – Keali’i Reichel
1996 – Darren Benitez
1997 – John Cruz
1998 – O’Brian Eselu
1999 – Pure Heart
2000 – Weldon Kekauoha
2001 – ‘Ale’a
2002 – Keahiwai
2003 – Raiatea Helm
2004 – Kainani Kahaunaele
2005 – Brittni Paiva
2006 – Aaron J. Sala
2007 – Kaukahi
2008 – Hoku Zuttermeister
2009 – Kupaoa
2010 – Anuhea Jenkins