First, a story. About ten years ago, I sat in Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College in Torrance, California, listening to a concert by the incomparable Kekuhi Kanahele. She pulled out all the stops on her array of oli-infused vocal stylings. In the midst of the musical feast, she changed directions radically and pulled out a golden-oldie, the kind of song that used to be pulled out at kani ka pila singsongs, the kind of song that screamed “old folks music,” music for rocking chairs on the front porch. The song? “ʻImi Au Iā ʻOe.” Beloved, but in general not the fare of contemporary recording artists searching for new songs and innovative sounds. Right in the middle of this concert of new songs and innovative sounds, Kekuhi and her musicians took a giant sonic leap back at least 75 years. Knowing that many of us grew up singing this song (and others like it), and she invited everyone to sing along. An auditorium of diasporic Hawaiians and ex-Hawaiʻi residents were swept into this communal experience of strolling down memory lane. I donʻt recall Kekuhiʻs exact words (how was I to know I would be writing about them some 10 years later??), but the sense was this: these old songs are treasures, and we should sing them once in awhile so that we donʻt forget them. What a compelling way to illustrate this point, by erasing the distance between stage and audience, and for five minutes creating community through singing.
Ten years later, honoring is exactly what Kūpaoa is doing. And they are deploying an interesting creative model to do so. The duo of Līhau Hannahs-Paik and Kellen Paik are known for award-winning Hawaiian language compositions, to which are applied their impeccable Hawaiian-language performance and euphonious blend. So this series comes as a bit of an unexpected delight.
Their goal for the series is written in the liner notes to Hāliu vol. 1 (and reproduced on their website):
“As Kūpaoa, we have made a determined effort to contribute to growing the genre of Hawaiian music by recording original songs, either from our own hearts or from the minds of our talented contemporaries. . . . While we dearly love the new music we have put forth as Kūpaoa, we have a special place in our hearts for all of the songs that we cosider more traditional mele, older songs whose poetry has been expressed by dancers for generations. This unreleased album is but a temporary departure from the mission that weʻve worked so hard to define . . . Available exclusively through us, this new collection of treasured works represents our attempt to hāliu, to turn and acknowledge the noteworthy efforts of those who came before us.”
The project began as a sideline to their touring activities and their formally recorded output on their own Hulu Kūpuna record label. On Volume Two, Līhau wrote: “Three years ago, when Kellen and I decided to do a fun project at home, we ended up with Hāliu: Volume One. Since we usually focus on creating our own original music, I think we were both surprised when people liked our take on old favorites! . . . Our love for composition certainly hasnʻt waned but with such demand, it was only a matter of time before Hāliu: Volume Two became a reality.” And on Hāliu: Volume Three Līhau wrote: “In early 2015 Kūpaoa had a break in our travel schedule, . . . And though we made sure to enjoy some much needed rest and relaxation with family and friends, we also took this time to record.”
So a project that began in the interstices of a career trajectory committed to new music became a series in its own right. And here the business model gets interesting. These recordings are self-releaed, and hard copies are available exclusively through their website, www.kūpaoa.com. They have put out the music through digital download services such as CDBaby, Amazon.com and iTunes. HOWEVER, the only way to obtain the liner notes is to order hard copies through their website (or directly from them at gigs).
The songs range from the era of “Nā Lani ʻEhā” (Kalākaua, Liliʻuokalani, Likelike, and Leleiōhōkū, the four royal siblings–and their contemporaries)–songs like “ʻAinahau” (v1), “Sānoe” (v2), “Ahi Wela,” (v3) “E Nihi Ka Hele” (v2), and even the perpetually maligned “Kāua i ka Huahuaʻi” (more infamously known as “Hawaiian War Chant,” here restored to its dignity as the love song Leleiōhōkū wrote), to those old old old hula kuʻi that appeared in print in the 1890s and early 1900s, such as “Sassy” (v1), “Iā ʻoe e ka lā” and “Nā Hala o Naue (v2), and “Maui Girl” (v3).
Musically, Kūpaoa puts its signature sonic spin on these songs. At the same time, they eschew fancy arrangements, which is what allow listeners to sing along. We get songs from the corners of our memories, but brought up to the present sonically, with contemporary recording quality, clean instrumentals, and clear vocals.
Līhau wrote in Haliu: Volume Two: . . . as we assembled our songs for Haliu: Volume Two, we made an even greater effort to research our selections. We gathered songs that we loved and took a look into the vast repositories of knowledge that are available to all and we found lesser-known versions, rarely heard verses, and lyrical variations that amazed and inspired us.”
There are many many MANY more such treasures in these repositories of knowledge, simply begging to be brought out again. For everyone of the well-known standards like “Makalapua,” “Old Plantation / Kuʻu Home,” and “Aloha ʻOe,” there are dozens more songs overlooked by generations of musicians who have limited themselves only to what was remembered. Kūpaoa reminds us that there are vaults and vaults of forgotten treasures, and even treasures we used to know that somehow went virtually silent during our own lifetime. They are reaching back and bringing treasures out of the vault again, and making these recordings available through self-release.
Hea aku lāua ʻo Kūpaoa, e ō mai kākou ā pau!