Kapono's destiny: 'The Wild Hawaiian'
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
Henry Kapono wouldn't allow himself to get nervous.
Backstage at Jack Johnson's Maui edition of the Kokua Festival in April, Kapono readied himself for a first-ever live set with no guaranteed crowd-pleasing Cecilio & Kapono faves, classic rock covers from his Kapono's shows or pre-2006 solo works. What he did have planned was a half-hour of reimaginings of pioneering Hawaiian compositions and original music he had been working passionately on for the past nine years.
The music was from Kapono's then-unreleased first recording in his native language, Hawaiian. It was also music fusing that language not with traditional instruments, but with the rock bravado Kapono grew up loving.
Every song was from Kapono's "The Wild Hawaiian."
"I was just excited," he said. "Excited because I had waited so long to do this and get this music out."
And so out came a powerful, Jimi Hendrix Experience-reminiscent rearrangement of "Na Ali'i," a song made famous by Kui Lee; and an electric ax-propelled take on J. Kalahiki's "He'eia." Kapono's cover of "Hi'ilawe," rendered iconic by Gabby Pahinui, was tucked away for another day. But he did share his self-penned "Hawai'i Aloha (A Mau Loa)" — Red Hot Chili Peppers-reminiscent guitar-and-bass backbone and all — and surf rock instrumental "Taboo" with the Kokua Fest crowd.
No one screamed out for "Friends," "Sailing" or even "Freebird." And folks got up and danced to every song Kapono hoped would move them.
"Even the backstage guys were blown away afterward," said Kapono, smiling. "They didn't know what to say. So they just said, 'Right on.' "
A NEW KIND OF PROJECT
Henry Kapono performs "The Wild Hawaiian" live in its entirety for the first time Saturday at the Hawai'i Theatre.
The disc's beginnings go back to 1997, when Kapono first contemplated recording an entire album in Hawaiian. He entered the studio with a few chanters, recorded four songs and promptly shelved it all.
"It was something I'd done before ... something that a lot of people had done before," recalled Kapono, of the buried tracks. "And my thought was that if I was going to do something Hawaiian, I was going to do something different.
"I wanted to do it out of respect. But if I was going to respect it, then the first thing I was going to have to do is learn something about it."
So he put the project away to do just that.
Though pure Hawaiian, Kapono was not raised speaking the language, nor was he taught it. In fact, while growing up he rarely heard Hawaiian spoken by either of his parents. When he did catch them conversing with friends in Hawaiian, they would always switch quickly to English.
Kapono learned why while researching "The Wild Hawaiian."
"When they were in school (in the 1930s), they were usually punished if they spoke the language in classes or anywhere in public," said Kapono. "Their feeling was if we were to do it we would get punished, too."
That, of course, was not the reality when Kapono and his eight siblings went to school. But it remained ingrained in his parents' minds.
And over the years that followed from high school to C&K's '70s heyday to much of his '80s and '90s solo work, Kapono said he felt no desire to learn much beyond the norm about Hawaiian music or language.
"Sometimes when you're in something so deep, you want to get out and experience something else. And that's how I was," said Kapono. "I was around Hawaiian all the time and never understood it. I wanted to play rock 'n' roll and acoustic contemporary music."
That is, up until considering the project that would become "The Wild Hawaiian."
TRUE POWER OF LYRICS
Kapono launched his self-guided Hawaiian music study by absorbing compositions both new and familiar to him. He then narrowed the list further to songs he knew he could learn and whose Hawaiian words had personal meaning to him.
His aim in rearranging them with a rock influence was less about being revolutionary than properly channeling the immense power he felt in each song's lyrics.
"I wanted the lyrics to say what they were meant to say," said Kapono. "Some of those songs were (originally) sung in a way where they were light and happy, which is cool. But when I read the lyrics, it was really something different. ... I wanted to get to that side of the song."
He also wanted the songs to influence others. In particular, young musicians.
"I wanted them to feel that it's OK to experiment and do things like this ... as long as it's honest," said Kapono.
By 2003, Kapono had a handful of songs he felt comfortable enough about to bring to his band along with his concept for "The Wild Hawaiian."
"I just brought it to rehearsal ... and told them what I was hearing — how I was hearing the drums, the bass," said Kapono.
A quick first-time run-through of "Na Ali'i," in particular, "really rocked," he said. "As soon as that came to life, everything else started to fall into place. That was it. It was all there at that rehearsal."
That includes the disc's name.
"After we ran through it all, the drummer just kind of shook his head and said, 'Wow! That's wild!' And I went, 'The Wild Hawaiian!' " Kapono said, smiling, again.
GETTING IT DONE RIGHT
Kapono and his band finally entered Maui's Hyperbolic Sound recording studio (owned by Steely Dan's Walter Becker) in March 2005, took a break, and finished recording "The Wild Hawaiian" on O'ahu two months later.
Kapono's original plan to get the disc out on Kamehameha Day 2005 fell through when he insisted it be mastered by an unavailable-until-September Ted Jensen in New York.
"One of my favorite CDs right now is Green Day's 'American Idiot,'"said Kapono, of the Jensen-mastered disc. "I just love the way it sounds. It had a lot to do with how I was perceiving 'The Wild Hawaiian' would sound. It was real simple, but every instrument sounded real big."
So Kapono waited. And when Jensen was done, Kapono continued to sit on the finished album for nine months while concluding a C&K tour with Cecilio Rodriguez, wrapping up the four-year life of his restaurant/bar/entertainment venue Kapono's, and taking some time off from work.
By February, "chomping at the bit" to get back to work and show off "The Wild Hawaiian," Kapono began planning the disc's Kokua Festival debut.
RESPECT FOR TRADITION
Kapono's finished product is a relentlessly inspired and wonderfully accomplished work, attempting nothing less than redrawing the boundaries of modern Hawaiian music.
The six well-known songs by composers including Samuel Kuahiwi, Edith Kanaka'ole and Queen Lili'uokalani on "The Wild Hawaiian" may not remain the same, but Kapono brings a heartfelt respect to each that even traditionalists should appreciate. Even when he occasionally rocks a power chord.
Kapono doesn't try to make listeners forget Pahinui's "Hi'ilawe" as much as respect the purity of Sam Li'a's lyrics and Pop's timeless arrangement. Likewise, Kapono wisely keeps much of Queen Lili'uokalani's magnificent "Ke Aloha O Ka Haku-Queen's Prayer" a soft, lyric-focused ballad, saving an appropriately wistful electric guitar solo for its coda.
The best of Kapono's three original contributions to "The Wild Hawaiian" is "Na Makua," a thank-you to mom Annie and dad Kala Ka'aihue's strong parental hand that, with his rough-hewn voice and fierce instrumentation, comes off a superb power chant.
All of Kapono's upcoming shows this year will ride the entirety of "The Wild Hawaiian." On stage, local slam poet Kealoha adds spoken word between songs as an English bridge linking the disc's Hawaiian language material for audiences. Intrepid and his High Frequency crew also offer interpretation through hip-hop dance.
Kapono hopes to perform "The Wild Hawaiian" statewide through the year, with possible Mainland and international dates added next year if "the vibe is right."
With "The Wild Hawaiian" debuting high on CD sales charts at Tower Records and Borders Books & Music Stores this week, expect to hear Kapono working that infectious "Na Ali'i" power chord live for some time to come.
"I really feel like I'm a pure Hawaiian now," said Kapono. "I feel like I've gotten something out of this whole project. ... I listen to it every day. I'm still learning from it. And now I'm finally learning how people are reacting to it. It feels good."
Patience, it seems, does have its rewards.
"After we ran through it all, the drummer just kind of shook his head and said, 'Wow! That's wild!' And I went, 'The Wild Hawaiian!' "
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.