From the liner notes: “Hanu, to inhale and breathe in the essence of life. ʻAʻala, a sweet fragrance that captivates the senses. . . . Hanu ʻAʻala, a solo debut recording effort.”
Kumu Hula Kamaka Kukonaʻs debut album is abundant with fragrances sweet, intense, and even overwhelming. The vocal command on “Hole Waimea” caught my ear immediately; the bouncy liveliness on “Eō hana” had me reaching for the liner notes so that I could track this experience closely. And I found myself rewarded with an exquisite sonic palette that continues to draw me back to the album, again and again.
The voice–a resonant, tenor-range, chanting and singing voice, a valued asset for a kumu hula. Through the magic of the recording process, Kamaka does all the harmonizing.
The songs–among the 11 tracks, four Hawaiian-language compositions that establish Kamakaʻs star in the firmament of hake mele; two English songs (one of which Kamaka wrote); a country ballad paired with a monarchy-era waltz song; four chants; four mele that extols Kamakaʻs Maui home.
The palette–an intuitively divined sense of surrounding the voice with the touches needed on a song-by-song basis. Namely: Casey Olsenʻs solid steel guitar fills on “Eō Hana” and “Honomuni;” pedal steel guitar work by Denny Hemingson on “You Look So Good in Love;” Kapono Naʻiliʻiliʻs subtle rhythmic touches on “Here for Today;” Iwalani Apo’s elegantly understated piano accompaniment on “Waikā;” and Dave Tucciaroneʻs sparkling piano countermelody on “Puanani Aʻo Hawaiʻi.” Thank goodness for liner notes; may they never disappear. The credits are indispensable for appreciating the diversity of the sonic palette over the album.
The mele: what an absolute pleasure to hear witty, well-crafted ʻōlelo, to hear the ‘olelo fit the melodies so perfectly, to hear the ʻōlelo simply flow off the tongue. The four original compositions by Kamaka are “Eō Hana” (track 3), “The Bullet Train Song” (track 5), “No Uka Ke Aloha” (track 6), and “Hanohano ʻo Maui” (track 12). The title track, “Hanu ʻAʻala,” is an original gifted to Kamaka by haku mele Puakea Nogelmeier. “Eō Hana” will be in rotation on my playlist for awhile. Itʻs a party song, with upbeat guitar and ʻukulele strumming, tongue-twisting lines in which ʻokina fall in exactly the right places (try “Noenoe kuʻu kapaʻahu ʻohu i ka pali” and “O ʻena kuʻu liʻa nou e Kahaʻi” five times, fast), and complete attitude in rendering ” ʻO Hana i ka malie, ʻo Hana i ka ua noenoe” as ” ʻo Hana i sa malie, ʻo Hana i sa ua noenoe.” Par-tay!
“The Bullet Train Song (Liko Pua Hau)”–a mele inspired by travels in Japan, and for Kamakaʻs “hanu liko sakura blossom” students there. The mele itself is entirely in Hawaiian, although “bullet train” and “Takada” are left untranslated, and “pua hau” finally transforms at the end into “pua sakura.” The melody, arrangement and accompaniment all contain insightful nods to some of the conventions of Japanese enka and obon. Props to producers Kamakoa Lindsey-Asing and Dave Tucciarone.
The most intriguing track for me is “Puanani aʻo Hawaiʻi,” a mele inoa honoring Liliʻuokalani and composed by Malia Craver for the Queen Liliʻuokalani Childrenʻs Hula Competition. Although patterned in the mele format of a hula kuʻi, Kamaka eschews the conventional use of ipu in favor of the greater antiquity and sacredness of the pahu and pūniu drums with its distinct rhythms. In this context, Dave Tucciaroneʻs evocative piano countermelodies ground this track in the living present. E ola nā pua!
The narrative arcs: There are multiple stories that I read embedded in the sequencing of the tracks across the entire album. There are songs about meaningful relationships, gentle notes underscoring the importance of making and valuing connections, but of also letting go of relationships. There are songs of affection for Maui–Kamakaʻs birthplace as well as current home. There are mele meaningful to Kamakaʻs hālau–songs for them, as well as mele presented publicly by the hālau. And yet the album begins and ends with the chanterʻs voice. A he leo wale no. It is the voice that carries the stories, the mele, the aloha. Sonic fragrance. Hanu ʻaʻala.