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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 20, 2003

Musician carries on tradition

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Kaumakaiwa "Lopaka" Kanaka'ole never set out to be a singer. In fact, he fought against it. Destiny, it seems, disagreed.

"You just have to go with it," Lopaka says. "Why fight it? You're just trying to swim upstream. If the water flows to the ocean, to the ocean I go."

He is the great-grandson of hula master and legendary composer Edith Kanaka'ole, grandson of revered kumu hula Pualani Kanahele, son of powerful chanter Kekuhi Kanahele. With lineage like that comes great responsibility. For the most part, Lopaka has always been comfortable in his role as the eldest of his generation and ascribed to the family mission of perpetuating the Hawaiian culture through the arts. But for him, it was always hula. Singing was something else.

"I remember being with Uncle Keali'i Reichel and my mother at Carnegie Hall in 1997," he says. "I was a little punk. I served up a big platter of attitude with a side dish of snob. I said I never wanted to sing. I hate singing. This is not what I want to do. We have to stay up late, we have to wake up early. It makes everyone grouchy. I don't want to do it. Bam! Right there, I bachi'd myself."

The journey between vowing never to be a singer to releasing his first album is filled with things that could be called coincidence. Or something else. "Destiny happened," Lopaka says. "DNA happened."

The first indication of Lopaka's gift was when a long-lost song he had composed as a 13-year-old kid surfaced and was performed at the Hawai'i Theatre, all without his involvement. The song was within the pages of a journal he kept during a cultural immersion summer program in Waipi'o. Years later, his uncle found the lyrics, set them to music and taught them to his students during the summer.

While visiting the Waipi'o program, Manu Boyd heard the song and fell in love with its poetry. He learned the song and brought it to his halau on O'ahu, which performed the piece at the Hawai'i Theatre. Boyd later complimented Lopaka on his work. Lopaka barely remembered the composition. The lyrics had taken on a life of their own. "I said, wow, that's the power of Hawaiian composition, to transcend when the time is right. To transcend through fate. Then the idea of destiny was kind of spooky after that."

The album came about in a similar way, pushed along by fate with little effort on Lopaka's part. Two years ago, a friend signed him up for the Kindy Sproat Falsetto Contest. He went on a lark and to his own amazement, he won. Among his prizes was a recording contract with legendary Hula Records.

"My mother gave me good scolding," Lopaka says. "She said, 'You'd better write your own songs for your album.'"

So he did. "I meant to take traditional Hawaiian poetry and composition as a vehicle to introduce other worldly sounds and music, to inspire a new generation. ... We as a people are amazingly talented and constantly innovative."

He and guitarist Kihei Nahale-a worked together to set the poetry to music. "This album was put together note by note," says

Nahale-a. "It was the most challenging thing I've ever done. We wanted to make it sound different, but not crazy. We kept saying, 'No typical vamps!'"

The result was a collection of songs that seem to transcend worlds — undeniably traditional, definitely contemporary.

"You have to be able to adapt to transition between the two worlds," says Lopaka. "Hula is my first and foremost, my foundation. When you have a good foundation, good roots, your ability to adapt is uncanny. You find yourself stable in everything you do.

"The poetry is what defines Hawaiian music. You can't define Hawaiian music by how it sounds. It has constantly been influenced — by the yodeling of the vaqueros, the hymns of the missionaries, even Na Palapalai, you hear the influence of R&B in their music. Hawaiian music has never been afraid to evolve."

The album's liner notes contain the Hawaiian lyrics and English translations for all but one of the songs, the title track, which Lopaka composed for his great-grandmother Edith Kanaka'ole and her mother. Lopaka didn't print the lyrics for personal reasons, but there is a note explaining that the song was written to honor his ancestors. "Every note you play, you call on them," he says. "With that, you give a great performance because it's not just you anymore."

Lopaka never met his great-grandmother. Edith Kanaka'ole died two years before he was born. When his grandmother Pua asked him to compose something for tutu Edith, Lopaka wasn't sure how to begin. "I thought, how am I supposed to talk about someone I never met? Then I thought, wait a minute. How naive of me to think I've never met her. I know my mother. I know my grandmother. Truthfully, I've known her for two generations. We literally are a part of her."

Lopaka just turned 21. He's finishing up a degree in performing arts at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo. He teaches at the charter school run by the Edith Kanaka'ole foundation and choreographs for Halau O Kekuhi. This summer, he's doing quite a bit of touring to promote his album. In all his diverse endeavors, the mission is the same: to practice the Hawaiian culture, to grow the body of work, to bring the traditional art into the modern world, to continue the vision of his remarkable family. It's his destiny.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com