New Album: Keola Beamer & Raiatea
Essential Tracks: “I Kilohi Aku Au,” “Hilo Hanakahi,” “You Somebody” and “Kimo Hula”
Upcoming Show: Saturday (August 28), 7:30pm, Castle Theater, MACC, $30-$45, 242-7469 or mauiarts.org
Online: kbeamer.com; raiateahelm.com
This week, Keola Beamer and Raiatea Helm will play a one-night-only engagement at the MACC’s Castle theater, joined by Chamber Music Hawaii’s Spring Wind Quartet. Beamer—who comes from prestigeous Hawaiian pedigree; his mother Nona coined the phrase “Hawaiiana”—and Helm—an effervescent vocalist—recently released a self-titled album. We chatted with them via phone ahead of their Maui gig.
I understand you two had never met until talent coordinator Cary Hayashikawa suggested you collaborate for a 2007 show at Ala Moana Beach Park. How quickly did you realize you wanted to work together more?
RAIATEA HELM: I was going into the studio to work on my next solo album. But while going through the songs, for some reason I didn’t feel the right drive. I thought about Uncle Keola—we’d just met [and] the chemistry was there right away—and for some strange reason, he was thinking about the same thing. It was a no-brainer to talk about recording a CD together. All of a sudden, we were making a CD and 18 months later, we made a “baby.” [Laughs] [Keola] is a perfectionist. While working with him in the studio, he had taught me a lot about being honest as a person and being courageous with my voice—finding things that I would never imagine trying. He really, really encouraged me to try to step out of that box and be open with myself. That’s what he taught me, and it made me comfortable in my own skin. It was quite an experience.
KEOLA BEAMER: I’d listened to Raiatea’s records and liked the sound of her voice, but didn’t know too much about her. When I began to work with her, I really fell in love with the beautiful light behind her voice and I also really began to appreciate her discipline and her love of her craft.
The thing about talent is that it’s a ke akua thing, you know? You can’t really learn it. You either have it as a gift or you don’t. That’s kind of the equation for music people, you have to have the gift and hopefully some kind of discipline to bring that gift forward. You must not only have talent, but a sincere wish to malama that talent. I work hard at it, and I help the people I work with work hard at it. It’s not easy—we live in a 500-channel world with so many distractions. So when [people] come to see you, they deserve the very best.
During that first live collaboration, you performed “Ina,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” translated in Hawaiian. It’s also the first track on your CD. What significance does that song have to you?
RH: You know, Keola is a genius with music—having the right songs come out for the right reasons. And that song has so much spirituality and a message.
KB: It’s so amazing to me that John Lennon wrote that song 40 years ago, and it’s perhaps even more relevant in today’s world. When we performed that for the first time, people were weeping. It carries a message, and that’s what we’re carrying through these concerts. Carrying forward a message of aloha. Aloha is not just a word, it’s a way of being in the world.
What can Maui audiences expect from your show?
KB: What’s good about it is that this show has a lot of musical horsepower, with the best musicians in Hawaii. We’ve got a band that’s second to none and a great wind section. With Raiatea, myself and my wife, Moanalani, we all play as a group and there’s a cohesion, a strength, a refined beauty—each using our own skill set to bring the material forward.
In contrast to a lot of contemporary Hawaiian music, many of the songs on your new CD are quite haunting—especially “I Kilohi Aku Au,” with its use of harmonics and spacious-sounding piano. Describe the motivations and emotions behind songs like these.
KB [Raiatea] did a beautiful job on the vocals with “I Kilohi Aku Au.” I really appreciate the complexion of music, the space in music. Hawaiian music has a beautiful mana—the Chinese would say chi—a healing energy. It kind of goes past language. It’s so hard to talk about music with words, but basically the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves—and maybe more important. You have to create this sort of esoteric place that somehow reflects the guitar. Perhaps a way to look at it is, ancient Greeks had a thought that music and astronomy are separate sides of the same coin. Where astronomy is study of hidden objects in space, music is the study of hidden objects in the human soul—and the relationship of those objects.
RH: “Haunting” is a good word for it, and I use it to describe that song all the time. When we began working on the album, “I Kilohi Aku Au” was the first song that Uncle Keola introduced me to, and it started the whole concept for the CD. When I first heard the music, I thought, “What? What is this?” I thought to myself, “I can’t sing to this.” He said, “No, just try.” So I did. I tried really hard. It was frustrating to me. When I sing, I try to put myself into a song. I try to put my whole body into it. You have to really dig deep when you sing a song—especially with a song you’re unfamiliar with. It took me three months to try to feel it and be comfortable.
Keola, you used six types of ki ho‘alu tunings in this recording, including classic D, G, D, G, B, D “taro patch” tuning, and your own, special C, G, D,G, Bb, E “G minor tuning.” Do you have a favorite way to play?
KB: Each one has a different sort of tonal palette. I believe that part of the mastery of the instrument is understanding what the potential of each one of those palettes is. You have six strings on the guitar, and with each you get a new, I guess, “flavor” would be a word. The way I look at it is, I take a song and sort of imagine going down a hallway. It’s a long hallway with doors on either side. In one door is one type of tuning. So I take a song that I’m thinking about interpreting, and I’ll play it in one tuning, look at it in the light of that tonal palette and assess if that coloration lifts up the piece. If it does, I know that’s where it belongs. Often times, it doesn’t happen with the first door. So you go to the next door. If that doesn’t work, you close that door and continue down.
Raiatea, last year you performed at the Presidential Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C. What’s your most memorable anecdote from that experience?
RB: Besides the freezing cold? [Laughs] I think it was being a part of all the excitement. Everybody in Washington D.C., they’re very proud. Being in that moment, you can actually feel millions and millions of people at the same time. They’re really proud of a new world, change, and it was really cool to be a part of. It was exciting because all the Hawaii people were there, and were having a good time for one reason—representing Hawaii and Obama being President, and he being from Hawaii. Even though he didn’t come to our ball. It was pretty much a secret to everyone. With all the security and whatnot, you can’t really say what he’ll be going to. There were hundreds of balls that night. I met [Obama] before he was elected, when he came to Honolulu for a fundraiser at the Kahala. I performed at that, with Ho‘okena and Willie K and he spoke afterward. I got to take a photo with him and his wife Michelle. I remember I took a photo with the President, his wife, Willie K and [Willie’s] brother, and before he left, [Obama] accidentally stepped on my dress. My champagne colored gown! He said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t ruin your dress.” I was looking at him, just totally star struck. I don’t know if I even said anything—I can’t remember. I didn’t wash it. I would never wash it. Or wear it! I leave it in the closet.
Having performed all over the world, do you have a favorite place play?
RH: Well, I haven’t been all over the world. I have yet to go to Europe. I’ve been to Japan, China, Tahiti and all over the United States. But I would love to travel the world more.
KB: It’s hard to say, every place has its own wonder and beauty. I’m one of those people who likes to learn stuff. So when I’m with a different culture, I really try to participate—eat the food, hang with the people, walk off the beaten track—to get the feel of how people exist in different parts of the world. It’s a valuable, interesting experience. I have wonderful memories of places all around the world. I’m so remarkably grateful for music to have carried me so far.