Solomon Ho'opi'i, 70, Hawaiian musician
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
Solomon "Sol" Ho'opi'i, one-half of a pioneering Maui-based Hawaiian music duo known as the Ho'opi'i Brothers, died Wednesday at Hale Makua on Maui. He was 70.
With brother Richard "Rick" Ho'opi'i, 64, the Ho'opi'is have been known for decades as old-school masters and guardians of leo ki'eki'e, the falsetto singing style that combines traditional Island chants with Christian hymns. They were self-taught musicians who learned from watching and listening to kupuna and later perfected their craft at family and church functions and resort hotels.
"Sol was a brilliant talent," said Jon de Mello, CEO of the Mountain Apple Co., which produced the Ho'opi'is' last CD. "The way the two of them worked together — the dynamics — was incredible. Sol's passing is a big loss for Hawai'i; he was one of the masters."
The brothers earned national acclaim when they were honored in 1996 by the National Endowment for the Arts for their role in upholding and perpetuating a cultural form for future generations to enjoy, earning a $10,000 award in the process. At the time, Ho'opi'i said, "This is a very, very special honor because it means we are being recognized throughout the world. Never in my life had I expected this."
Ho'opi'i had been in failing health for several years, with diabetes claiming one, then the other leg. "Sol's spirit never diminished, even when he had to have dialysis three times a week, going from his Hawaiian homestead home to Maui Memorial Hospital," Rick Ho'opi'i said. "He is in a better place now."
Sol Ho'opi'i "enjoyed life every day he was awake," said Rick. "We have enjoyed many good times together, sharing a connection in singing that was unbelievable. We could always feel one another, anticipate each other's needs."
Harry B. Soria Jr., long-time "Territorial Airwaves" host, said the brothers complemented each other.
"When I did tributes to them, I'd always point out that Sol is the strength, the cowboy paniolo power, and Rick is the gentle counterpoint," said Soria, whose show is now broadcast on the Web. "Together, they had this unmistakable falsetto duet that will never be equaled. Sol was the rough edge who did the yodeling; Rick was smooth as silk."
Lea Uehara, who produced Ho'opi'i albums for Poki Records, said Sol "was such a nice man, with a very beautiful voice. His death is a tragedy."
Perhaps Jay Junker, University of Hawai'i ethnomusicologist, said it best: "He was a truly great Hawaiian singer with an incredible range, from a tender leo ki'ek'e that could make the angels (and the kupuna) cry, to a low, gravelly Louis Armstrong imitation that always cracked us and himself up. His music was always so full of life and expressed the truth, as he felt it wherever he was at the time, which meant that it served in different songs as the voice of his love for people, his love for the land, his love of a good time, his deep religious beliefs and all the other things that make up this thing we call the human condition."
Born in rustic, rural times in the Kahakuloa area of West Maui, the brothers started performing at an early age in church and were tenors in high school. They mastered the higher-pitched falsetto technique from listening to elders such as Auntie Genoa Keawe, singing to their 'ukulele accompaniment. They had simple needs and should have been bigger local stars, given the breadth and scope of their iconic music.
Junker has traveled with the group and got to know "Uncle Sol" firsthand.
"He was very spontaneous, a real larger-than-life character," said Junker. "For example, I'm sure everyone at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1989 will remember Club Ho'opi'i with great affection; that was where the brothers opened up their hotel room to cook local-style grinds for all the local artists who were getting more than a little tired of the hotel cuisine. Uncle Sol would try to cook something for everyone who came. At times it was quite a feat to stretch whatever was on hand, but he came from a big family and he had a big family, and it meant a lot to him to make sure that everybody had something.
"Fortunately, the Smithsonian had created a talk story stage on the festival grounds with cases of Spam and big bags of rice for decoration to represent a country store. Needless to say, a couple cans of Spam disappeared every day. One day a couple of the festival staff decided to play detective and asked Sol if he knew anything about the Spam disappearing. He told them that if they really wanted the talk story stage to resemble a country store, then it should look like people are coming in and buying things. That satisfied them, and the breakfasts went on!"
Rick Ho'opi'i said Sol stopped singing in 1999, "when his condition got worse and worse, making him lose his voice and his timing." His health halted duet performances that had been popular for nearly 40 years. "Wherever I go now, people always ask about Sol. So I guess I will have to carry on our legacy," Rick said.
Rick said he and Sol had a see-saw relationship. "He and I were very argumentative in a sense, but we pulled it together in the end by working together. I will miss the certainty of his leo ki'e -ki'e."
Survivors include Sol's wife, Gladys, and nine children — five daughters and four sons — plus 32 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Their parents went through three marriages, so they have 15 sisters and 11 brothers, said Rick.
Funeral services, planned on Maui, are pending at Borthwick Mortuary.
Reach Wayne Harada at email@example.com.