What Iʻm Listening To: Natalie Ai Kamauu

It is so rare when the luxury presents itself to sit with a CD and listen to it from start to finish. Equally rare–or perhaps more so–is the experience of having a CD draw in the listener by its very unfolding. So it is with ‘Ã, so much so that I am moved to share some of the many thoughts that todayʻs listening brought to mind. What made this listening exceptional from earlier listenings is that around track 4, “Ku‘u Pua Pakalana,” I suddenly sensed that something special was happening. And by track 11, “Pi‘i I Ka Nahele,” it became imperative to go get the jewel case and the booklet and take a closer look.

There are two principles in record production that the digital environment (like, downloading single tracks; ripping to iTunes, loading to smartphone or mobile music player, filesharing, etc) has thrown into chaos.

  1. Artists communicate not only in their choice of songs, and their marshaling of skill and talent in performing songs, but also in their sequencing of multiple songs, whether it be on a product like an LP or CD, or in a setlist for a live performance. The digital environment is imperiling this dimension: regardless of what an artist may attempt to achieve, listeners more than ever are choosing to bypass the packaging  and hone in only on constituent parts.
  2. Whether a physical product or a live performance, liner notes or program notes are an additional opportunity for artists to communicate with their audiences. The digital environment has virtually dispensed with liner notes. Even when they are still produced, notes are becoming peripheral to the listening experience. Indeed, a consumer trying to go green by reducing the accumulation of stuff has a difficult choice to make:  downloading an album so often means going without any liner notes that may accompany the physical product. Very rarely have I had digital booklets included with my “instant download” purchases, which is why I only buy  non-Hawaiian music this way.

Sequencing, and liner notes. Importantly, I came back to these two principles through the experiencing of listening to Natʻs new CD, her third solo project. On unwrapping the CD, the contents first struck me as a hodgepodge:  songs about O‘ahu, songs about Kaua‘i, the opening track a hapa haole song, two ballad-y mele Hawai‘i songs–“Nohili Ê” and Sanoe,” another monarchy song “Ninipo,” a chant, some new Hawaiian-language mele, and a Stevie Wonder song. [The truth: I didnʻt know it was a Stevie Wonder song until I read the liner notes. But it sure stuck out in the track list.]

‘Ã is a sparkling gem of an autobiographic revealing of a soul sparkling with love. Nat writes in the liner notes: “Every stone has inclusions, tiny imperfections within, but a steady, patient hand can carve around these creating magnificence. Every cut creates a facet, a table for light to dance upon. And when the artistʻs job is complete, it is a dazzling sight.” Nat presents this as a perspective to appreciate the beauty that surrounds her, both in the magnificent place that is home, and in the ʻohana in her life. After listening to the entire CD and then backtracking to read the notes, it struck me that this is also exactly what Nat does musically–she uses her gifted leo to carve and shape messages of love and aloha that accumulate into a sparkling gem.

Here are some of the facets.

Track 5, “Nohili Ê” — sung in honor of her brothers, especially Rhett: “he has a bit of the rest in him. World, This is my baby brother.”

Track 4, “Ku‘u Pua Pakalana” — to honor song Chaz, a mele by Nat which uses her favorite lei pakalana. The words fall perfectly onto the tune. The tune is so perfect that the words do not have to be pushed around to fit. And then vocally, each verse ends in a soul-inspired “e / hū.”

Track 6, “Ninipo” — a monarchy song, but sung here in remembrance of Natʻs grandmotherʻs laughter.

So Iʻm beginning to see how the song selections read autobiographically. I turn back to the beginning of the liner notes.

Track 1, “Hanalei Moon.” Nat writes: “It was the first song I sang. I mean really found my voice and sang. . . . This is my first love.” Okay, now I understand why this song is not only included, but is given the honor of being the opening track.

Track 2, “Firemanʻs Hula.” A song associated with chanteuse extraordinary Myra English. And, I learn by reading the liner notes, that Myra was one of the musicians who sang for Nat for her award-winning performance in the Miss Aloha Hula contest at Merrie Monarch.

So now I turn to the love songs at the end.

Track 10: “No Ku‘u Ipo I Ka Ua Noe,” a new mele written by Nat for ‘Io. Wow, the love song I wish I wrote for my beloved! And sung as a weaving of voices throughout. Verse one asks “where are you, my love?” and verse two responds “here, with you, in the lush green uplands of Lanihuli.” Turning the “Haʻina” phrase into a call-and-response added yet another sparkle onto an already sparkling mele.

Track 11: “E Pi‘i i ka Nahele” A mele about Ka‘ililauokekoa, one of the epic love stories in the mo‘olelo tradition. Pure mele: E Ka‘ili e, e Ka‘ili e! E Ka‘ililauokekoa, grandchild of Ho‘oipokamalani, treasured of Lehuawehe, rising there on Waiehu . . . ” The liner notes: “This chant takes flight with the spontaneous design of the tune.” The tune unfolds organically, its delicate laciness caressed by the nose flute accompaniment. I listen to the leo, and a revelation–that any distinctions that might be insisted upon between a “singing voice” and a “chanting voice” become irrelevant when the voice, the leo, is understood as simply the vessel that delivers the mele.

Track 12: “Sanoe” — a love song, a beautiful love song composed by Queen Lili‘uokalani. Upstaged by “No Ku‘u Ipo i ka Ua Noe” and “E Pi‘i i ka Nahele,” it is an expression of love, but now it is also a capstone commentary on how living haku mele are crafting and presenting expressions of love that resound in equally compelling ways.

Once I began to grasp the logic, the rationale underlying the song selections, the liner notes were absolutely indispensable in helping me appreciate not only the songs individually, but their sequencing that traced an autobiographical arc, from the biographical to the most intimate love between ipo. And I realized that this product, this CD, was itself a sparkling gem, one that was a window onto a sparkling soul. ‘Ai a ma‘ona, inu a kena”–eat until filled, drink until satiated.


And Stevie Wonderʻs “Stay Gold” now makes perfect sense.

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4 Responses to What Iʻm Listening To: Natalie Ai Kamauu

  1. Beautifully written, Amy! I love Nat and ‘Io – they are 2 of my favorite people in the world, full of the kindness and love that is so richly expressed in her compositions. As always, I’m forwarding your lovely essay to my halau. Much Aloha and see you in 3 days!! Anne

  2. LuauLover says:

    Lovely Review… ^_^ …. now, how do I buy it? 😀
    Just heard it on Hawaiian 105 and I can’t find it on Amazon.com yet…. I hope it will be available somewhere soon…. Mahalo for the great write-up!

  3. I must get this CD. And you and Nat seem to share many commonalities with your respective loves of Hawaiian music & culture. Kudos Nat, how always beautiful your CDs are 😉

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