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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 13, 2001

Never a dull moment with musician Kala'i Stern

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Staff Writer

At 27, Kala'i Stern already is a Hawaiian renaissance man, enmeshed in a life of music but constantly reinventing and reshaping his duties and his destiny.

Kala'i Stern, a former member of the musical group 'Ale'a, rehearses at the Mid-Pacific Institute's Kawaiahao Hall for Manoa Valley Theatre's fall season opener, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," starting Sept. 5 at MVT.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

An award-winning performer, Stern has decided to leave 'Ale'a, big guns in last year's Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, to return to school this fall to earn a degree in choral music.

"I've been mulling that decision since the beginning of this year," he said. "In March, before the group won the HokuAwards, I approached the guys again. Though winning the Hoku was nice, I felt that it was time for me to pursue other avenues of music." So the group will carry on as a trio.

But there's more. Stern, who has been teaching music at Kamehameha this summer, is spending his evenings rehearsing for a stage role, as an ensemble member in Manoa Valley Theatre's fall season opener, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," starting Sept. 5 at MVT.

He knew "Smokey Joe" director Andrew Sakaguchi from earlier theatrical connections, and a Kamehameha classmate, Kaohi Yojo ("she and I grew up together and have been friends since first grade") nudged him to give stage work a try. He's glad he did.

But that's not all.

This fall, he's assuming the role of choral director of the Honolulu Boy Choir.

"Everything fits in my life — it's what I do," he said of the hubbub of activities. "I don't enjoy being idle. I realize I have a lot to do, but I always get things done. I anticipate challenges — head on."

Stern is a versatile tenor who has developed into a new-generation falsetto singer, accomplished in the old-fashioned style of singing in the upper registers. Opera fans may remember him from a 1984 performance in "The Magic Flute"; Kamehameha grads know him from the campus glee club; falsetto followers may recall that he won a previous Frank B. Shaner Falsetto Contest.

He's had the training for all this. As a youth, he was a mem-ber of the Honolulu Children's Opera Chorus. "That gave me ex-perience in doing shows," he said.

He had been shadowing his former Kamehameha Schools teacher, Dale Noble, whom he succeeds at the Boy Choir camp, so he's unofficially already on the job of helping to shape the future of the sweet-voiced boy group known the world over for its harmonies and wide-eyed charm.

Kala'i Stern
 •  Age: 27
 •  High school: Kamehameha, class of 1992
 •  Education: University of Hawai'i-Manoa; junior this fall; attended University of Southern California, 1992-93
 •  Recording credits: Solo CD, "He Mana'o He Aloha," Kawai Records KRCD 4020; "Take Me Home" with 'Ale'a, Poki Records
 •  Quote: "I'm good at budgeting time; I have to be. I have multiple calendars, no Palm Pilot. Everything is hard copy; that works for me."
"He approached me in April, asking if I'd be interested in working with the boys," said Stern about Noble, who recently retired. "I had to look where I was going, in terms of my schooling, my choral music, the time with 'Ale'a. It started developing and it all sort of fit."

Noble ticked off Stern's credentials: "He was in the select boys concert glee at Kamehameha. He had a nice tenor voice then, and still does, and he since has developed a wonderful falsetto voice. But beyond that, he has been conducting and assisting with the Kamehameha Song Contest, so his relationship with people is very good. And since he has been working this summer with kids of that age (as a choral teacher for the Summer Performing Arts Academy), he's had experience dealing with the young."

During the academic year, Stern also has been a musical assistant to the Special Events Department of the Performing Arts Academy at Kamehameha, under the tutelage of Randie Fong.

Since Stern had shelved his education to pursue his musical interests, he figured he'd better get on track to get that degree in choral music, his first love. So in the fall, he'll enroll as a junior at UH-Manoa.

He has some regrets about exiting 'Ale'a. "I enjoyed playing music with the three other guys, but we got into the position of doing a lot of the same material at different events," he said. "We weren't moving forward; we didn't have time to develop a format. And looking at how busy I was going to get, I would not be able to put a lot of effort into new things; the wisest decision was to bow out, so they can expand, move on, go on. I don't want to hold them back."

Kala'i Stern will be carrying 17 credits as a junior at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa this fall, as well as performing in Manoa Valley Theatre's "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Lea Uehara, 'Ale'a's record producer, said: "Of course we were saddened at the outset when Kala'i announced his decision. (But) he was not leaving the group on a negative note, but more for personal advancement, and we all rallied to congratulate him and wish him the very best. I've always maintained that change is good when you're going toward something rather than going away."

Since the group previously had been a trio (comprised of Kale Chang, Ryan Gonzalez, Chad Takatsugi) before Kala'i joined, it will continue as a threesome, said Uehara. "I think Kala'i's leaving was made a bit more difficult because they had such a wonderful year-and-a-half together; they won the Battle for the Bash in '99, did the recording in October of that year ... (and) they won three Hoku Awards."

Stern is single, unattached, and has been living with his 77-year-old grandmother in Kailua, mostly because he needed to be close to UH. "My parents live in Hau'ula, and I found that being closer to school and gigs made more sense. Besides, I'm still with family. Grandma is the general of the family; she calls the shots."

When he's in the spotlight, he savors the crowd response. But he gets a bigger charge working with youngsters, as the Kamehameha high sophomores, juniors and seniors this summer learn the literature of music they'll be performing throughout the coming academic year. "I like it when I'm able to impart some knowledge and the kids respond; we're able to see a piece develop, from beginning to end, and it's exciting when the information you pass on takes a life of its own, when the kids make their own music. It all comes alive."

Being on stage may put a crimp on his social life, but Stern said he's had his share of carousing with his friends, both peer music-ians and school chums. "Through 'Ale'a, I've met a lot of other musicians and have been able to go club-hopping and see them."

While Ale'a moves on, Stern will have to buckle down to seriously hit the books.

"I'll be carrying 17 credits next semester," he said. Rehearsals will be over, but he'll be in per-formance with "Smokey Joe's Cafe" for the first couple of months of school as well as doing twice-a-week rehearsals for the Boy Choir.

As soon as "Smokey Joe" ends, it'll be time to think about the holidays. "Christmas will be busy," he said. "That's the time when the Honolulu Boy Choir does a lot of concerts. It's a fun time."

And busy. But he likes it that way.