A year later, falsetto winner is true to his music
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer
Oh, sure, Pata won the competition. But ask him how it felt to perform in the Hawai'i Theatre or even who his judges were on that hot August night, and he draws a blank somewhere between Auntie Genoa Keawe and O'Brian Eselu.
"I had been in front of audiences before for hula competitions, but this was my first for singing," says Pata, 26, whose uncle pressured him into entering the contest on the final day of application. "I was nervous, but people told me later that I didn't look nervous." And when he won?
"I was shocked," Pata says. "I thought the third-place winner was going to win."
Pata will be back on the Hawai'i Theatre stage Saturday to open this year's competition. Not with his contest-winning interpretation of "Ka Hui Ka'a Wai (Fireman's Hula)," but with another favorite, "Ku'u Lei Hoku." A year after his unexpected win, Pata has a performance schedule that will take him to Japan, New Zealand and Australia later this year, and a recently released debut CD to show for his five-plus years of training in the high-pitched singing style.
Of Native American ancestry the Paskenta band of the Nomlaki Indians of California, with "Hawaiian, haole and a little bit of Filipino" Pata was raised on a rancheria just outside Sacramento, Calif., and schooled in the song, dance and chant traditions of his tribe. In 1991, the teenage Pata found out his entire family was moving to Maui, following his father, who had secured a construction job there.
"I remember asking my elders, 'Well, what am I supposed to do in Hawai'i?' " Pata says. "They told me, 'Just do what you do here.'"
The elders also encouraged Pata to learn as much as he could about the native culture of his new home, instead of taking his birth culture with him.
"You should never impose your ways on to a people," Pata says. "You adapt to their ways to maintain a balance."
With some help from his mother, Pata found an opening with a hula halau shortly after the family settled on Maui. In addition to learning various styles of hula, he has prodigiously studied Hawaiian language, tenor, chant and song composition for more than a decade.
"The kupuna here are the same way my elders are back home," insists Pata. Read that as welcoming, and always willing to teach an outsider who truly wants to learn. "For me, it was a natural transition." Pata began training in falsetto with kumu Ke'ala Kukona in 1995, on the recommendation of his hula and chant kumu Nona Kaluhiokalani.
"Auntie Nona gave me my foundation in chant, which is really important to falsetto," Pata says. "From her I learned chant exercises to control my diaphragm and vibrato." In the beginning, he practiced up to four times a week at Kukona's home.
"It's still constant singing, whenever you have spare time," says Pata. "It's breath control and listening to the radio and learning new songs."
Which is how he first heard and became enamored with the song he would use in the falsetto contest. Missing the required demo tape as part of his late application, Pata had to choose something anything to impress competition officials who had unexpectedly called him from Honolulu, wanting to hear his falsetto.
"I was in a hotel room in Hilo," remembers Pata. "I took my cell phone into the bathroom and sang 'Fireman's Hula' because I had been listening to it a lot."
He was as good as in, albeit with only two weeks to prepare and hire backing musicians.
"From an entertainer's point of view, the contest validated my efforts and gave me more confidence," says Pata. "I still have a lot to learn and work on, but it's been a very good experience."
After winning, Pata chose to give up his prize of a recording contract with Honolulu-based Hula Records to sign with closer-to-home Ululoa Productions in Ha'iku. Recorded between November 2000 and June of this year, half of the tracks on Pata's "E Ho'i Na Wai" are his own compositions.
Pata remains a student of all of his kumu, continuing to perform with his hula halau, and returning on occasion to sing and dance with Paskenta Nomlaki elders in California. He has been active in the tribe's language revival and restoration efforts since 1996.
For now, though, Pata is still trying to get over the giddiness of recently seeing a rack of CDs bearing his mug in a Maui record store.
"I never realized that the contest would have this kind of an impact," he laughs.