Uluwehi Guerrero is seated at his dining room table, aglow in afternoon light diffused through the kitchen windows. The air is filled with the sweet scent of pink plumerias; Guerrero’s producer and assistant, Pono Fried, is stringing lei from flowers picked fresh from the front yard. Though outside the Kahului sun is blazing, inside it’s thankfully pleasant. As I relax into the seat next to him, I find it hard to pinpoint whether the cool is a result of the air conditioning or Guerrero’s calm, easy style.
Guerrero’s home is immaculate yet comfortable, decorated in a chic Hawaiiana style tastefully infused with Victorian-era elements. Bold jacquards, carved dark woods, a handmade crimson and white Hawaiian quilt folded precisely and draped over the back of a chair, masterful feather leis in koa wood shadow boxes, an antique phone—every piece of his décor is a clear reflection of his personal style.
“It all started right here,” Guerrero says, motioning toward the garage where he first began practicing hula and playing music—the same garage he lovingly references in the first lines of a letter on the inside jacket of his latest release, Uluwehi Sings Na Mele Hula Aloha – Beloved Hula Songs—“I grew up right here in this house with my grandparents.”
His grandparents—especially his grandmother—instilled in Guerrero the values of passionate dedication to one’s work and a deep love for culture and ‘ohana. “She always taught through action,” he says fondly of his grandmother, who passed away four years ago.
Guerrero—a multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Awards nominee and 2001 Male Vocalist of the Year—is more than just a champion of Hawaiian music; he’s a kumu hula beloved the world over who tirelessly devotes himself to the study and perpetuation of Hawaiian arts.
“We don’t have enough of this,” Uluwehi says, his storyteller hands gesturing gracefully between us, “the human connection.”
Through his prolific teaching of hula and Hawaiian music, Guerrero hopes to foster more heartfelt face-to-face interactions—the kind that bring the whole ‘ohana together. Given that, it’s not surprising he prefers live performance over studio work.
Eight years in the making, Guerrero’s latest album is a compilation of classic Hawaiian tunes, many of which have not been recorded in decades. The much-anticipated release event is scheduled for this Saturday, August 22, at Lahaina’s Barnes & Noble. The show will feature dancers from Guerrero’s Halau Hula Kauluokala and coincides with the Lahaina Gateway’s one-year anniversary celebration.
“People have been waiting for this a long time,” says Guerrero.
Calling the album’s 16 tracks a collection of “musical photographs,” the 20-page liner notes—slid into the left pocket of the entirely recycled, plastic-free packaging—contain a photographic homage to each song. “Nani Kamakura,” for example, the only original song on the album, was inspired by the beauty of Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms and features the lyrics in Hawaiian and Japanese with photos from Guerrero’s travels to Japan. (True to his thematic attention to detail, at our meeting I’m served—among other ono sweets—white bean manju, Maui style, on little cherry blossom motif plates.)
A frequent international traveler, Guerrero takes bi-annual trips to Japan to teach hula and perform (he’s had to cut back from trips that were once made as frequently as monthly). He recently returned from Chicago, where he headlined the Hula Association of the Midwest’s early August seminar “Hawaiian Hula Days.”
With all that time on the road, his home schedule is remarkable. Every day of the week is crammed with multiple hula lessons and workshops with students that number in the hundreds.
“I always start with my kupuna,” Guerrero says of his Monday classes of kane dancers, “then, my makua,” speaking of his Tuesdays spent with wahine. Classes are held in the early evening to accommodate his students. “They have their schedules,” he says with a chuckle. “Gotta eat one certain time, go bed one certain time.”
Wednesdays are dedicated to his core group of approximately 25 dancers and musicians—those passionate folks who’ve immersed themselves in the art and are often the traveling dancers that accompany Guerrero on his trips abroad.
“We’re hula people,” he says of his longtime friends and students. “From when we wake up in the morning, we have each other.”
Saturday’s classes enjoy the biggest turnout, with 165 devoted students. For those who can’t make the intensive commitment, Guerrero has developed a “Hula Light” class on Thursday nights.
Considering the abundance of his professional bookings and all he does for the hula community, it’s no wonder his latest release has been so long in coming. It was worth the wait. Guerrero has given yet another gift to the Hawaiian music community, sung in his smooth, soothing style—a treasury of traditional sounds that, without the mana‘o of masters like Guerrero, might disappear. Maui Time Weekly, Anuhea Yagi