Story and photos by Deston Nokes
Hawaiian artists performing at preview gatherings for Mele Mei started with a rumble, grew to a thunderclap and ended with gentle chords. From pop and rock to traditional Hawaiian styles, visiting journalists were treated to a memorable lineup of artists eager to provide a taste of what to expect at Mele Mei — a month-long celebration of music, hula and culture.
Held throughout May in Honolulu, the festival features concert performances, award ceremonies, demonstrations and hula workshops. The celebration culminates with the 36th Annual Nā Hōkū Hanohano, honoring the Islands’ top performers.
A music evolution
Hawaiian music now encompasses almost every style, from the traditional styles of chanting, slack key, steel guitar, ukulele and falsetto; to the contemporary, including pop, hard rock Jawaiian (a reggae/Hawaiian hybrid) and alternative.
The Mele Mei 2013 festival provided a sneak peek at the outstanding music in store for Honolulu visitors. The Desert Sea Duo cranked out a set of tunes at a special press preview.
“There’s a new music paradigm taking place right here in Hawaii … we’re not just slack key and hula skirts anymore,” Kevin Jones declared kicking off a powerful set last Monday night at the Loading Zone in Honolulu’s Chinatown. As the Desert Sea Duo, Jones and Derek Ho are unabashed acoustic guitar rockers. Ho took on the solo guitar-playing duties, while Jones sings his own compositions, strums and never stands still.
The young group, EMKE, played a rock-infused set featuring four of their own songs, as well as covers of Def Leopard and Journey. The age of the band’s members, none older than 16, belies their solid, tight sound. In fact, they’ve been playing together since 2005. Sisters Kira and Ezri Santos, Mari Arakawa and Payton Sekigawa work hard at their art, and definitely have a bright future.
“We have a regular spot at The Hard Rock Cafe, the Hyatt Regency and do a lot of conventions,” Kira said. “We’re waiting to add another regular spot next month — some new, large club in Waikiki. I hope we don’t have to play too much dance music.”
The evening concluded with a stunning set by Kings of Spade, featuring Kasi Nunes on vocals, Jesse Savio on guitar, Matt Kato on drums, Tim Corker on bass, belly dancer Natalie Phoenix, DJ Packo and Musa. With Janis Joplin as Nunes’ stated inspiration and Savio cranking out stellar guitar work, the band blasted through a foot-stomping set of rock, blues and ballads that left the crowd stunned, pumped up and giddy. They’re embarking on a tour of the U.S. mainland this March.
Hawaii’s softer side
On the 37th floor of the Hilton Waikiki Beach Tuesday night, Yoza performed, impressing us with her strong vocal styling. After learning ukulele at age five, she became an accomplished saxophone and guitar player — referring to her music as “acoustic soul.” She’s releasing a CD in March.
Pali Kaaihue jammed with Jenn Wright, Kapono Nailiili and Will Yokoyama (who sported his trusty, six-string bass). Pali is a master guitar player, businessman, entrepreneur, entertainer and television personality in Japan and Hawaii. As the president of the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts Board of Governors, Pali also is a founder and driving force behind the Mele Mei festival. On this night, however, he plugged in his ukulele and mesmerized us by picking his instrument as though it were a banjo. LEAD ukulele? Pali rocks his music with a whole lot of heart. He had us shouting Hana Hou! (encore) over and over.
Kamakakehau Fernandez next took the stage to bring a decidedly traditional approach to Hawaiian music. Born in Little Rock, Ark., and adopted at eight months, he was raised in Maui. While attending the Hawaiian Immersion School, he found his love for music. He plays ukulele in the traditional style – held up high on his chest while he sings a smooth, easy falsetto. He released his first CD this year.
Next, Starr Kalahiki wowed me with her rendition of The Girl from Ipanema … in Portuguese. A nice touch indeed. Starr’s debut CD, SALT, won her the 2012 Na Hoku Hanohano awards for Most Promising Artist and for Jazz Album of the Year. She appears at Tropics at Hilton Hawaiian Village, every Monday night.
Our final performer, Sunway (yes, it’s her real name) has been charming and soothing audiences with her popular tunes live and on CD. She was flanked by her outstanding bandmates, Harry Ladera and Bryan Kessler.