Hula Ku’i — a new CD by Kahulanui. New arrangements of vintage midcentury songs, complete with vintage instrumentation and crisp playing techniques, and produced to gold-medal blue-ribbon standards on Charles Michael Brotman’s Palm Records label. “Hawaiian swing at its finest,” writes Skylark Rosetti in the liner notes, but without the tinny-iness of 1930s recordings–not to mention the scratchiness on surviving discs–thanks to the resonance made possible by state-of-the-art recording technology.
Kahulanui is a quartet made up of the core instrumentation in contemporary Hawaiian music–Lolena Naipo, Jr. and Patrick Eskildsen on guitars, and Robert Duke Tatom on ‘ukulele, plus Tim Taylor on drum set. The quartet is augmented on the recording by a full-blown horn section with Jesse Snyder and Duncan Bamsey on saxophones, Andrea Lindborg on trumpet, and Gary “Railroad” Russell on trombone. No less than three guest artists contribute the iconic sound of steel guitar: Greg Sardinha, Paul Kim, and Dwight Tokumoto.
Liner notes inform us that “Kahulanui is an inspiration passed down three generations from Grandfather Robert Kahulanui, to Dad Rodgers L. L. Naipo, Sr., to Grandson and Kahulanui band leader, Lolena Naipo, Jr. Lolena remembers stories of his Grandfather who was a member of the Royal Hawaiian Band during an era when horns ad drums were a part of Hawaiian music.” Clearly, then, this project has a dimension of homage, by recreating the sonic ethos of that era.
The title, Hula Ku’i, fits on so many levels. The historical roots of the term “hula ku’i” lie in the concept of “ku’i”: “to join, stitch, sew, splice, unite, joined, seam”. The term “hula ku’i” referred to “joined hula, i.e. old and new steps were joined together”(Hawaiian Dictionary), and was coined when guitars and ‘ukulele added the harmonic dimension to mele hula, in order to name the type of hula and their songs that we know generally as “modern hula songs.” These mele are patterned into verses of 2 or 4 lines, with instrumental vamps between the verses; songs like “Na Papa He’e Nalu” (tr. 2), “Noho Paipai (tr. 3), “Kalena Kai” (tr. 5), “Na Ka Pueo” (tr. 7), “Papalina Lahilahi” (tr. 8), “Ka Mea U’i” (tr. 9), “Nani Wai’ale’ale” (tr. 10).
Mid-20th century Hawaiian musicians and songwriters like Alvin Isaacs, Sam Koki and Lani McIntire brought their fluency in big band swing music into the performance of Hawaiian music, by joining / ku’i the swing-band harmonies and arrangements of that era to Hawaiian songs. They then went another step further, by infusing /ku’i the songs they composed with harmonic progressions that ventured far beyond Hawaiian music’s conventional three chords plus vamp. Think Sam Koki’s “Nani Waimea”–not a typical backyard “kanikapila” song, as the musically advanced leave the novices behind.
On the CD Hula Ku’i, Kahulanui continues the “ku’i” process that is already integrated into the songs themselves. They bring new arrangements to two oldies but goodies–“Ta Ha Ua La” and “Nani Waimea,” and bring a handful of less well known midcentury songs back out–Lani McIntyre’s “Lava,” Sam Koki’s “Hula Ku’i,” Alvin Isaacs’s “Ka Mea U’i,” Ray Kinney’s “Not Pau,” and Robert Kahulanui Naipo’s “Ku’u Home i Waimanalo” and “Na Papa He’e Nalu.” Today’s recording technology, however, enables Kahulanui to take innovative spins. We hear pre-electric acoustic guitar playing; we hear triplet ‘ukulele strumming, we hear ’50s-style rock-and-roll sax riffs; we even hear duets of acoustic guitar and saxophone. “Ku’i” joining is carried one step further, by bringing ’30s-era swing arrangements and harmonies to older hula ku’i songs like “Kalena Kai” and “Na Ka Pueo.” (Check out, too, the Dizzy Gillespie-esque trumpet soloing in “Noho Paipai.”)
On top of all of the instrumental shenanigans, Lolena Naipo’s vocals hearken back to the vocal stylings of past generations. But a testament to his musicianship is the fact that he does not confine himself to only respectful replication. Just listen to his tutu-man take on “Noho Paipai” (also known as “Rocking Chair”), the “oo” choruses in “Ka Mea U’i,” and the clipped pronunciations (almost exaggerated!) in “Na Papa He’e Nalu” –at once faithful, yet unabashedly playful.
Kahulanui’s execution of big-band stylings evokes an era of smoke-filled bars alive with lindy-hopping dancers. Underlying this contemporary take on vintage music, moreover, is a cultural cohesiveness of enacting ku’i–of joining old and new. Like, awesome!