If Hawaii’s music scene had its own kupuna, Kauai’s Keli’i Kaneali’i, with three decades of entertainment under his belt, would more than qualify for that elite title. The native Hawaiian, who was born on Oahu and spent many years living and playing on Maui, was part of one of the biggest musical movements to hit Hawaii and is largely responsible for introducing a truly unique brand of Hawaiian music to the world.
He’s practically a god in Japan.
But don’t be worried if you don’t know this artist by name. He hasn’t played a Maui show in eight years. Most people know Kaneali’i as the original singer, guitarist and half of the duo Hapa. The Hawaiian half.
The word hapa, for all the newbies, means mixed blood or race (usually Hawaiian and Caucasian) and the group that dubbed itself Hapa more than 20 years ago was exactly that. New England native Barry Flanagan arrived on Maui in the 1980s without a drop of Hawaiian blood, but you wouldn’t know it from the passionate way he set about to master the slack key guitar and learn the art of composing Hawaiian language music.
When the duo formed and began releasing albums they quickly found themselves in the spotlight of a new movement in Hawaiian music with their self-titled 1993 debut album. In 1994 it was obvious Hapa had hit the right combination—a blend of folk, bluegrass and traditional Hawaiian music that was unlike anything that had come before it. That year, the group swept the Na Hoku Hano Hano awards and started to be known locally and nationally as the “sound of Maui.”
Kaneali’i and Flanagan recorded five albums together and toured extensively for 18 years before going their separate ways in 2000. Many loyal fans were sad to see the pair that had created so much incredible music split over creative differences. Flanagan, like the half of the Oreo cookie that kept the crème, continued Hapa with a new singer.
Kaneali’i retreated to Kauai with his family to develop his own sound and pursue a solo career.
After having a musical partner for so many years, Kaneali’i says it was “hard to get up on stage alone.” He spent his time adjusting to his solo sound, which initially felt bare without the accompanying music and vocals he’d grown accustomed to. But he’s not just that guy from Hapa any more.
“It took a long time, but now I’m comfortable playing by myself,” he says.
It seems like Kaneali’i has been avoiding playing on Maui since leaving Hapa. He has a regular gig on Kauai and a loyal fan base on Oahu, but this will be the first time Maui will get to experience his solo show and hear the material he’s been working on. “It’s going to be nice to see all my friends on Maui,” he says.
Kaneali’i’s been working hard on his first studio CD and promises to treat Maui to the new songs he’s written. Fans will be happy to know that he still plays lots of the old Hapa favorites, as well as covering some of his own favorite songs. Rumor has it he does a mean rendition of “Lady in Red.”
“My music has changed a little bit. I’ve got my own style now that I’m playing alone and I have to sound fuller,” he says. “I’ve become more freelance with my singing. It’s all good.” MTW