Sons of maoli
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
The three twentysomething musicians in Kamau have been writing and playing music together for six years. All three are connected to influential Hawaiian musical families. They have more than 30 original compositions in their repertoire, carefully worked and reworked over the 2,190 days they've called themselves a band.
So why is it that, unless you've been spending Friday nights over the last two years at 'awa bar Hale Noa, you probably haven't heard of Kamau?
"In a certain way, we're all kind of perfectionists, and we wanted to create music that had a certain quality. And that takes a while to happen," said Kamana Beamer, thoughtfully, sitting on a pune'e in the living room that doubles as rehearsal space in his Temple Valley home.
Cousin Adam Zaslow, perched somewhat precariously on the pune'e's armrest, nodded.
"We had to get used to playing our music and being confident about it on stage," added bassist Kaliko Ma'i'i, looking up from his place on the room's faded shag carpet.
"Now, luckily, it's gotten to the point where I can write a new song, sit down with 'Liko for the first time — and we almost have an arrangement before I know what took place," said Beamer, Kamau's lead songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, allowing himself a rare, small boast.
On keeping Kamau and much of its music mostly underground since forming in 2000, he said, "We were just trying to do what we felt. And at least for us, that took time."
Beamer paused, and smiled.
"Or maybe we're just untalented."
The three erupted in strong laughter.
When Kamau plays live on Friday at this month's Hawai'i State Art Museum "Live From the Lawn" concert, it will do so as part of a program showcasing a contemporary Hawaiian music blend that's been dubbed "maoli music."
The trio's sound combines mellow acoustic guitar, conga and electric bass with rich, soulful vocals and earnest lyrics, recalling the '70s heyday of pioneering local musicians Country Comfort, Olomana and the Peter Moon Band. Kamau's songs can be quietly intense when addressing the trio's thoughts on Hawaiian issues, sweetly melancholic where memories of loves former and present are concerned, and endearingly goofy when the guys need a good dose of laughter.
On its MySpace Web site, Kamau uses the term "maoli" to describe its own music, calling it, among other things, "beyond genre, beyond boundaries."
"Other people use that term to explain what's going on (with the music), but to me, it has to do with truth," said Beamer. "That's one of the meanings of 'maoli.' Maoli can mean 'true,' (or) 'original.' "
Its primary meaning is "native" or "indigenous," as in kanaka maoli — a self-descriptive term increasingly preferred by the Native Hawaiian community.
"To me, it's about just trying to be genuine and honest in where I'm at today," said Beamer. "Whether it's using 'olelo Hawai'i ... or pidgin, or English, it's just about trying to be true to what's happening today and being conscious about what's happening around us."
Beamer stopped short of classifying maoli music as a genre of Hawaiian music or a "next wave" of Hawaiian music.
"Think about all of the great music that's been done, from the Sunday Manoa to Country Comfort to Olomana, and the range of music those players played," Beamer said. "Could you possibly put it into a box and say that it's this or that? They experimented. They did so many different things in their time."
Said Ma'i'i, "These musicians were expressing themselves, being honest and really trying to analyze the times that they were living in and what mattered to them. Their music still means a lot to us today."
"They could've called it maoli music," finished Beamer. "It has that same feeling."
Beamer is the son of Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and guitarist Kapono Beamer. Conga player Zaslow is Kapono Beamer's nephew (he's actually a blood relative of Kapono's wife).
Bass player Kaliko Ma'i'i is the son of renowned bassist and songwriter Steve Ma'i'i, whose collaborations with George Helm, Teresa Bright, the Beamer Brothers and others have become pioneering works out of the "Hawaiian music Renaissance" proto-movement of the 1970s.
Given their family backgrounds, it might seem inevitable and wise for the trio to absorb as much influence from their rich musical lineage as possible. Kamau does that, but also makes music simply to please itself.
The last thing on the agenda is crafting music to fit easily into a genre.
"They're just so conscious. They're aware of our history and what's going on right now, and it's reflected in their lyrics," said Hale Noa owner Keoni Verity.
"(The music) comes from many influences. And they don't let definitions or genres box them in. They just play what's in their hearts, and it comes out as totally their own."
Hale Noa features local musicians whose acoustic-based folk musicianship and conscious lyrics might fall comfortably into a genre called "maoli music." But Verity stopped short of describing it as a percolating movement.
"In my fantasy world, I'd like to think, 'Yeah, there's this huge movement of people that want conscious lyrics, that want to reflect on society, that want to think deeply about it. ... " said Verity. "I'd like to think that. But I don't know if that's true." Still, Verity sees the enthusiasm for music like that of Kamau's. "There's definitely a body of people out there that are hungry for stuff like maoli music," he said.
Later that evening, the trio settled down for its Tuesday rehearsal. Zaslow turned off the living-room lights. Bowls of fried sausage and gyoza pupu were finished or put aside. Lit by second-hand fluorescent backwash from the kitchen and the glow of a couple of laptops, the band gathered in a tight semicircle to play.
First up was "Hawaiian Kingdom," a quiet ballad with a strong message lamenting, among other issues, loss of identity and revisionist Hawaiian history being taught in the school system.
Kamana Beamer's pure tenor guided "Fade Away," a surf-folky open-ended relationship ballad with a pronounced bass line and mellow percussion reminiscent of Country Comfort at its heartbreakingly sweetest.
"Wanna do 'Cucumber'?" Beamer asked, looking at Ma'i'i and Zaslow, then to me. "This is one of our stupid songs."
Actually, it's simply playful, with its "ain't it just the way life goes" chorus, and an oddball cast of characters that quite likely includes one or two Kamau members. I asked about the title.
"There's a story behind that, yes," Beamer said. "But we can't print that one."
The trio again fell into laughter.
Scan Kamau's lengthy list of musical influences on its MySpace site and you'll find diverse artists, including Curtis Mayfield, Ben Harper, Gabby Pahinui, George Helm, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Big Island Conspiracy. Near the list's end is its common thread: "Music with feeling."
Kamau will hold all this music close when the band begins recording a debut album this week. Band members said the disc will likely hew close to the gentle acoustic sound they played in Beamer's living room.
Kaliko Ma'i'i was the first to encourage Beamer to take the music he was composing and playing in his bedroom six years ago out into the world. Kapono Beamer suggested the same, but as he'd always done when it came to music, left the final decision to his son.
"My dad bought me my first guitar. He taught me how to string it, which is a big chore when you're a little kid. He taught me how to tune it and a few tunings," Beamer said. "And then his approach was kind of like ... 'You've got to figure it out on your own now.' "
"My dad, my uncle (Keola Beamer) and my grandmother (Nona Beamer) are brutally honest when it comes to music; especially with me. So they'll tell me if they think it sucks," Beamer said, answering the inevitable questions about his locally renowned musical family.
Steve Ma'i'i was similarly hands-off and encouraging when it came to son Kaliko's bass playing. "So when at a certain point, 'Liko's dad said, 'You guys should record,' ... that, coming from Uncle Steve was like ..." Beamer paused, at a loss for words. "I mean, this is a man that has made so many albums and has been a part of so much good music."
Though acquainted with the Beamers almost since birth, just having Kapono in the audience of a Kamau show last month was still reason enough to make Kaliko "super scared."
"When I did my solo, and I heard (Kamana's) dad say, 'Whoo!' at my most nervous part ... and he cheered and laughed at my lyrics ... that was crazy!"
Wait, his laughter was a good thing?
"They were funny lyrics," assured Zaslow.
Ma'i'i clarified, "We have stupid songs, political songs and we like to sing about women."
Sort of a trilogy of Kamau compositional touchstones, then?
"Yeah, the trilogy," agreed Ma'i'i, laughing. "I mean, what else can you sing about?"
Reach Derek Paiva at firstname.lastname@example.org.