What compelled you to play this year’s Maui Film Festival?
I actually called Barry [Rivers] up and asked to play because we haven’t done anything [for a while]. We’ve known each other for many, many years. And we did a full HAPA concert eight years ago on Father’s Day, and all this time has gone by. I think it might have been his first or second [Film Festival]. [Since then], it’s just been so much traveling and stuff that we weren’t able to catch up with each other. So a couple of months ago I called and talked to Barry and told him that we were home that week, and if he wanted us to we’d come over and do a short little set for one of the evenings, and he jumped on it. You know him—he gets so much done. He’s like a New York minute guy. And really that’s it, you know? Maui’s always in the blood, so it should be nice to get over there again. We were there three weeks ago for a Casanova concert—which, once again, we haven’t done that in 10 years. Where’s the time going?
You said it’s going to be a shorter set…
It’s actually, you know, it’s not really a concert. It’s just, like, an appearance, before one of the nights. You know how they do music before the movie starts? It’s one of those.
Do you plan on bringing anything new or never before heard on Maui?
We just came off of two and a half months of touring, so we’ll have a couple of new songs that we’re working on for our next release, which should be early next year. One of the songs is called “Like a Road.” We’re going to dedicate that to a good friend, Ray Ennis, from Stella Blues, who just passed. That’s a song that was made popular by Jerry Garcia, so that seems fitting, because Ray loved the Grateful Dead so much. We’ve been doing the song for a couple of years. We’re going to end our next record with it. It’s a really nice kind of farewell, goodbye song. So we’re going to be playing that and a couple of other newbies. We’re going to dedicate our set to Ray.
Do you plan on incorporating hula?
Oh, I’m sure that there’ll be some hula. There’s always someone in the audience. We’re not bringing a dancer over but there’s always somebody that knows something. Every time we play we do one or two songs that somebody in the audience knows, if we don’t travel with a dancer.
Who is going to be on stage with you this time?
Nathan [Aweau] and myself—it’ll be us two. Nathan will probably do one 7-string bass solo. Should be fun. The sound system should be pretty rockin’. Village Audio’s doing the sound; they take good care of us. Barry always takes really good care of us.
How was the tour?
The tour was really amazing. We did 22 Mainland cities, came home for a week, and then did 15 cities in Japan. Probably one of the highlights: we did a private concert for 35 people in Beaver Creek, Colorado with Art Garfunkel, which is really amazing. Then, like, eight weeks later we’re in Tokyo and the Tokyo Dome was selling out for Simon and Garfunkel’s reunion tour, which was like a 60,000-seat venue. It was really a trip to see him in such an intimate little setting and then see what the power is with their reunion tour.
How did you first get into Hawaiian language and slack key guitar?
I moved from the East Coast. I moved to Colorado to attend UC. I wanted to be a creative writing teacher. And in my first year of living there I heard the music of Gabby Pahinui and really fell in love with it. I was a huge fan of Ry Cooder’s and Ry Cooder and Gabby Pahinui had done some albums together. A house I was living in burned down, which gave me a big insurance check and I could go wherever I wanted at the time, so I thought, why don’t I just go to Hawaii for a year, get out of the whole winter thing and kind of, you know, see what that would bring me? I’ve always had this whole traveler thing. I still do. I’m always traveling, which I love. It’s like a hobby. I came to Hawaii, and of course fell in love with the place, and since then I’ve married local. I was on Maui for 11 years or so and I’ve been in Honolulu now for 17. And HAPA was formed in 1983. I just really had this vision of doing a contemporary Hawaiian record that honored the groups I had gotten to know, production-wise. I was honoring the Brothers Cazimero and the Beamer Brothers, Olomana, C & K, all these groups that I just loved. The CD took about eight years and $100,000 to get done. It was at that time that I became friends with Barry Rivers. Way in the early years. Barry actually has a cassette demo of the first HAPA CD before anyone else ever got it. The CD came out and it did really well and I’ve been touring ever since.
Was your sound something that came to you, and then you hashed it out, or did it just happen and then you said ‘I’m onto something’?
You know, I hadn’t been playing guitar very long when I moved to Hawaii. Only, like, five years. But I practiced a lot on the East Coast. I grew up [with] and was influenced heavily by that huge cultural change of the ’60s in a little town called Bergenfield, New Jersey, which was right near New York City. So all of that—the Beatles, all of that stuff was within 15 minutes from where I grew up. The heavy, heavy cultural influence of New York City. I used to see Lou Reed walking around the Lower East back then. And I was a kid that really just absorbed well, so I kind of went from a sports upbringing right to playing eight to 10 hours a day of guitar. Al Di Meola graduated a few years ahead of me; [he] was probably one of the greatest guitar players in the world. This is in a town of 20,000 people, and it had just brilliant guitar players. Van Manakas and Wayne Lopes—those two guys and Al Di Meola were like the Michael Jordans of guitar in my town. I practiced a lot and worked on a lot of different styles of music [before] I started deciding what HAPA was going to be. I always wanted HAPA to kind of make its own map. To me that’s really the most important thing. I surrounded myself with language PhDs—I still do it to this day, whenever doing anything with the Hawaiian language. Stanley Raymond, who’s [taught] thousands and thousands of students the Hawaiian language at MCC, helped me with my songs and pronunciation. A family called the Kaopuikis—Jimmie and Ardel—they really took me under their wing. I ended up living next to them in Lahaina, and they introduced me to everybody. So within a year in Hawaii I was surrounded by some really amazing language people. Uncle Moon Keahi, that family was a huge influence. Uncle Moon played music at a restaurant called the Banyan Inn, which was in Lahaina. This was in the late ’70s, early ’80s. It was the real deal. Slack key and beautiful three-part harmony and stuff. I’m really ashamed that there are no places like that to go to anymore. So within a couple years it was like a dense education of Hawaiian culture. I think for the first three and a half years on Maui it was nothing but Hawaiian music and culture studies every day. What I was bringing with HAPA was kind of a hip, Crosby, Stills and Nash feel with really good harmonies and hopefully good guitar playing.
I noticed the chord progression on the track “Haleakala” is invocative of the David Crosby solo album If I Could Only Remember my Name.
I love that record. A huge influence on “Page 43.” I also toured with them. Each guy used to do a solo piece [when] I went out with them on the road. I would get up and do a song or two with Stephen. He played on “Kaopuihi Aloha,” which is track two on the very first HAPA record.
As you were incorporating Hawaiian culture—music, hula, chant—into what you were doing, did you discover anything that you couldn’t incorporate but wanted to?
No. I heard a CD called A Gaelic Christmas. I heard “Greensleeves” being done by a group with Ilian pipe, which is an Irish instrument, and thought, oh, I’d love to put slack key and Ilian together. And it worked perfectly on a song I composed called “Aloha Namahana,” which is on the Namahana release. I’m using that as an example, but even an Irish bagpipe, an Ilian pipe, fit perfectly with slack key. Music to me is—I mean, look at Ry Cooder and Gabby working together. Music is a bridge. Bridges are built by insecure people who want to get to the other side; who want to see what’s over there. Music is one of the great bridges for insecurity and wanting to see what’s on the other side. So I’ve wanted to be bold with every record. This last CD, the Maui one, the whole kind of influence we wanted was hoki lau and Tahiti—and it totally worked.
So you have a different vision for every album—records aren’t just collections of songs, but instead have a unified theme.
You have to be artful and there’s got to be a musicality with every project. [It’s] a musical integrity thing—to take on something for each recording and make it different. I don’t think any two HAPA CDs sound alike, which is good. That’s a good legacy to continue.
How do you feel about the scene, so to speak, in terms of slack key? Do you think that it has the venues it needs to flourish?
Since I’m out of the state for six to seven months to make Hawaiian music, since there are so many people out the state that love Hawaiian music with Hawaiian words and the Hawaiian music scene, I think that’s pretty much the barometer. I don’t think that Hawaiian music with Hawaiian words—meaning the language, the music added to it and slack key—is supported as much as I would love for it to be. I just think there could be a heck of a lot more people hiring groups that play Hawaiian music for their parties, if they can afford it, to hotels and restaurants, specifically looking for Hawaiian music. People aren’t coming here for calypso and Jamaican music—and nothing against any of [that] music, it’s great—but I’m just saying that I’ve always been a stickler about making sure Hawaiian language is included in the music that I play and record. It’s cultural. A lot of people don’t know this, but there were less than 20 adolescents that spoke the Hawaiian language in the late ’70s. And that started Punana Leo. There were these movements in the late ’70s to perpetuate the language through music and through schooling—and it’s a good thing.
You must have gotten here right in the middle of that.
Yes I did. Big influence on me.
Did you face any challenges as someone coming from the Mainland?
Oh, yeah. I had a couple of bottles bounced off my head walking down Front Street.
As a musician, though?
As a musician? Well, yeah. I mean, what situation in life is completely “Kumbaya”? I would say 90 percent of my experience has been positive and it’s been a really good bridge. My longest and best friends in Hawaii all basically have to do with music and culture. I don’t really see things as black and white or brown and white. I think that the South Pacific Islander vibe is all colors, including our current president. And I’ve always thought that way, since I came here. That’s what I wanted to seek out when I came. And that’s always been my favorite part of Hawaii—the little bit of negative haole stuff that goes with that has kind of rolled off my back. Never bothered me. Yes, it’s happened. But I’d say 90 percent of my experiences have been real rewarding and fulfilling and obviously here I am still doing it, 30 years later. We are all spiritual beings sharing a human experience on one Earth—music and art reconnects us to that spiritual way of thinking, which I feel is the best way. MTW
Kate Bradshaw is also available in Twitter form. Visit www.twitter.com/katebradshaw or text “follow katebradshaw” to 40404.