Kahulanui – Hawaiian swing like you’ve never heard it.
A contemporary take on vintage…unabashedly playful...
- Professor Amy Kuuleialoha Stillman
"Kahulanui…pure delight.. A Breath of Fresh air!"
- Ke Ola Magazine
Hawaiian Swing at its finest...
– Hawaii Radio icon Skylark Rossetti
"The Band Kahulanui Updates the Musical Bridge Between Hawaii and the Mainland" -The Wall Street Journal
GRAMMY Award Nominee for “Hula Ku’i”, Palm Records (Regional Roots category)
Na Hoku Hanohano Award Finalist for Album of the Year "Hula Kui", Group of the Year and Most Promising New Artist of the Year 2013
Na Hoku Hanohano Award nomination 2016 "From Here to New York" EP of the year and Group of the Year.
There is a new wave coming from Hawaii, a blend of traditional music and the Big Band Swing brought to the Aloha State by U.S. servicemen during World War II. Its leading exponent is Kahulanui, a nine piece band—four horns plus guitar, bass, ukulele, drums and steel—whose energy and dynamic arrangements have caused a sensation throughout the Islands. Their debut CD, Hula Ku’I, was nominated for a 2014 Grammy Award in the Regional Roots category, and soon Hawaii’s Kings of Swing will be bringing their unique style to audiences across America.
Kahulanui band leader, Lolena Naipo, Jr. found inspiration from his Grandfather, Robert
Kahulanui, who was a member of the Royal Hawaiian Band during an era when horns
and drums were a part of Hawaiian music. In the CD liner notes for this debut release
Hawaii radio icon Sylark Rossetti elaborates:
“Throughout Hawaii in the 20s and 30s, one could find orchestras playing
Hawaiian Swing and the house would be jumping. Lolena and Kahulanui borrow
from these influences and perform classic Hawaiian songs in a syncopated style
making Hawaiian Swing vibrant and alive in Hawaii today. Lolena ‘Lena’ Naipo,
Jr. goes back to his roots in Kahulanui’s first release, Hula Ku’i. It’s Hawaiian
Swing at its finest.... one of the most innovative releases to come out of the
Lolena accompanied his Dad who played music with Aunty Genoa Keawe, Andy
Cummings among others. As Lolena grew in his abilities he would accompany
musicians like Darrell Lupenui, Kekua Fernandez and even the Hawaiian Airlines
Serenaders and others… With musical influences from Uncle Alvin Kaleolani
Isaac’s, Ray Kinney, Sam Koki, Lani McIntire and even Spike Jones, I am excited
for you to hear Kahulanui with the Kahulanui horn section.”
Kahulanui Band Members: Lolena Naipo, Jr on rhythm guitar, lead vocals, harmonies; Patrick Eskildsen on lead guitar, bass, background vocals;
Robert Duke Tatom on ukulele, background vocals and Tim Taylor on drums and ipu.
Kahulanui Horns and Steel: Jesse Snyder on tenor sax; Bill Noble on alto &
baritone sax; Vince D'Angelo on trombone; Josh Timmons on trumpet
Kahulanui Nominated in two categories
"From here to New York" Ep of the Year
and group of the year
The palm trees gently sway in the soft breeze. The waves lightly caress the shore even as the warm sun beats down on reclining bodies glistening with tanning oil. You might expect the musical background for this tableau of tropical paradise to be soft ukuleles and strumming guitars, but what would you think if this sunshiny scene were livened up by a ferocious blast of swinging jazz? The sun may be hot, but the music is hotter.
“Hawaiian Swing” flourished during the big-band era, both in the Islands and in North America. But even though this music might as well have been buried under a volcano for the past 60 years, a revival has been slowly emerging. At the forefront is Kahulanui, a remarkable nine-piece band founded by vocalist and guitarist Lolena Naipo Jr., which launched its first North American tour with an appearance at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing on Friday. Kahulanui (”the big dance”) is a mathematically perfect blend of traditional Hawaiian music and American-style swing—with four strings (ukulele, bass, steel and standard guitar), four horns (two saxes, trumpet and trombone) and trap drums. Mr. Naipo croons Hawaiian songs in 4/4 dance time, with the uke and guitars on one side of him and the brass and reeds on the other, all complementing one another in a beautifully swinging mixture.
“I’ve had this idea for more than 30 years, but it took a long time to pull it off,” Mr. Naipo told the Journal from his home in Waikoloa on the Big Island of Hawaii. The guitarist is a third-generation musician; his grandfather was part of the famous Royal Hawaiian Band. “When Hawaiian bands first played San Francisco in 1915, that was when the music really took off in the States,” says historian Malcolm Rockwell, also speaking from his home on Maui. The widespread popularity of Hawaiian music would last for roughly 50 years, and American superstars from Al Jolson and Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley would all record Hawaiian songs both real and ersatz.
Guitarist Sol Hoopii (1902-1953) is generally recognized as the first important musician to combine Hawaiian music with American jazz and blues, starting in the mid-1920s. Andy Iona (1902-1966), who doubled on guitar and saxophone, took the mixing process a step further with a long series of popular recordings in the 1930s. By the war years, there were full-scale Hawaiian big bands, like Ray Kinney and His Hawaiian Musical Ambassadors. Lani McIntyre and His Aloha Islanders brought Hawaiian Swing to New York and enjoyed a long run at the Lexington Hotel. At the height of the genre’s popularity, such African-American jazz stars as King Oliver, Fats Waller, the Mills Brothers and Louis Armstrong all spread the word about coconut islands and little grass shacks. Duke Ellington even composed his own Hawaiian song, “Swingtime in Honolulu.” (Kahulanui has returned the favor, you might say, by quoting Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” at the start of its “Na Ka Pueo.”)
It was roughly four years ago that Mr. Naipo at last found the opportunity to put together his own full-size band. “A record company wanted to do an album of me singing Hawaiian songs in a very traditional way, which I didn’t really want to do,” he says. “So I talked them into letting me add horns. They said, ‘Are you crazy? You know how much that’s going to cost?’ I said, ‘Yes, but if we do it right, it will be the first time it’s been done since the 1940s.’”
Mr. Naipo collaborated with the orchestrator and saxophonist Jesse Snyder to come up with a sound that, in many ways, is actually a better-realized Hawaiian/swing hybrid than musicians were able to achieve 75 years ago: authentic and true to both halves of the equation. Hawaiian music, intrinsically, “is a very mellow kind of thing, it’s all love songs,” says Mr. Naipo. “Even when they would swing, I felt that it needed to be kicked up a notch. So that’s what I added on.” (Although Kahulanui is the most ambitious of the new-style Hawaiian swing bands out there, it is not alone—another is King Isto’s Tropical String Band, based in the tropical wonderland of Brooklyn, N.Y.)
“Nani Waimea /Nani Wai’ale’ale,” which is heard on Kahulanui’s 2012 album “Hula Ku’i” (and is also seen on a YouTube video), opens with Duke Tatom plucking out a distinct, fast-moving melody on ukulele, a line supported by the four horns, who play behind him in harmony. The strings enter, not only playing but singing; Mr. Naipo leads them in his distinct, resonant baritone—he describes his singing as “like a very old Hawaiian man.” The bulk of the arrangement is essentially two sections of parallel counterpoint working in call-and-response to each other: the low horns led by the high ukulele and the high voices led by Mr. Naipo’s deep voice.
Although the orchestra consists of nine musicians, the ability of the string players to sing simultaneously makes the group sound like a full-size 15-piece big band. But what’s really remarkable is the rhythm—you’ve never heard a beat quite like this, either in Hawaii or in Harlem. You probably never imagined that it was possible to dance a hula and do a jitterbug or lindy hop at the same time. Now you know better.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.
One of the best things about working in American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities is having the opportunity to see and experience the cultural traditions of our clients. A big part of those traditions is music. As someone who has always been involved in music in one way or another, I enjoy discovering new artists and musical styles. As I explore the music of Native musicians, I’ll be sharing those discoveries on Travois’ blog. Stay tuned!
Just last month, the Grammys announced that the album “Hula Ku’i’” by the band Kahulanui had been nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album within the American Roots genre. I had the opportunity to chat with Lena Naipo Jr., guitarist and bandleader of Kahulanui, and the band’s tenor saxophonist, Jesse Snyder.
Kahulanui, a nine-piece band, began as a dream of Lena’s about 30 years ago. He remembered, “I was listening to a lot of the contemporary music on the islands, but was in a predicament — everyone was doing that. Everyone was pretty good at what they were doing.”
Instead of doing the same, Lena recalled advice he had received. “My father always taught me, ‘If you’re going to try to do something, do it your way’.”
So, Lena decided to do something different and tried his hand at Hawaiian Swing.
For the uninitiated, Hawaiian Swing is a combination of swing jazz and Hawaiian folk music. In the 1920s and ’30s, American jazz was popular on the islands.
Jesse Snyder remarked, “In order to promote Hawaii as a tourist destination, they incorporated jazz elements to make it more palatable.”
During the World War II era, American servicemen and entertainers in Hawaii brought with them a love of the big band swing music popular at the time. Hawaiian musicians melded the sounds of the ukulele, steel guitar, and Hawaiian language with the brass, drums, and syncopated rhythms of swing.
Lena found inspiration from his grandfather who had been a part of the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra before he was born.
“By the time I came around, my grandfather was retired,” Lena said. “I had no idea what he did. I only heard him playing a little ukulele. As a retired person, he stayed home and was busy with all of us. I was a ‘kolohe,’ which means ‘rascal’. But as long as he played, I stopped and listened. And then I would try to mimic him. As the years went by, it kind of stayed in me.”
When asked if Kahulanui had any aspirations as a band, Lena emphasized the love of playing.
“My goal was just to play the music and see if anyone would like it,” he said.
Contemporary audiences haven’t always been sure what to make of the band’s style, but it looks like things are coming around. Recently, Hawaiian Skies Airlines engaged Kahulanui to record a music video for its in-flight video magazine.
And a year ago, Kahulanui was nominated for the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for Hawaiian musicians in three categories: Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Most Promising Artist. Though the musicians didn’t take home an award, this December they received word that they had been nominated for a Grammy Award.
The first song on the track, “Ku’u Home I Waimanalo” (“My Home at Waimanalo”), exemplifies the Regional Roots category. It’s a “mele pana,” a song of celebration about a certain place.
Waimanalo, situated near the southeastern coastline of Oahu, is Lena’s hometown.
He added, “My grandfather wrote the song. It’s about the beauty of Waimanalo back in the day when everything was a bit simpler. It talks about the ‘ko’alu’s’ — the mountains that start at a place called ‘makapuu’ and end at the ‘pali’. It also talks about the ocean and the breeze that blows and keeps the nights cool and the laid-back lifestyle.”
Currently, the band is focusing on selling CDs and fundraising to cover its travel expenses to the awards ceremony in Los Angeles later this month. More information about Kahulanui can be found at www.kahulanui.com or on Facebook. The 2014 Grammy Awards ceremony airs on Sunday, January 26
Located on the Big Island of Hawaii