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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Teresa Bright

"Nadasousou" from Teresa Bright's CD "Hawaiinawa"

"Ka'ililauokaipo - Chimuganasa" from Teresa Bright's CD "Hawaiinawa"

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Teresa Bright strums a song with her dog, Pono, at her side. She recently released a new CD, entitled "Hawaiinawa."

Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Born/raised: Honolulu/He'eia

Currently living: Kane'ohe

Ethnicity: Hawaiian-English

High school: Castle High School

College: University of Hawai'i-Manoa

Hawa'i albums: "Self Portrait" (1990), "Painted Tradition" (1994), "A Bright Hawaiian Christmas" (1995), "Kapilina" (1996), "A Christmas Season's Delight" (2000), "Lei Ana" (2002), "A Gallery" (2004), "Hawaiinawa" (2007).

Currently grooving to: African and Brazilian music, Michael Bublé, Tony Bennett, O-Shen, Christina Aguilera and anything her daughter listens to (Gwen Stefani, Opihi Pickers).

Favorite album right now: "Na Pali" by Na Pali

Influences: Her musical aunties who sang and played music during Bright's childhood

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bright translated Okinawan tunes into English and then into Hawaiian for her new CD. Hawaiian music is per-ennially popular among the young in Japan.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

"A lot of us go to Japan (because) we do a lot of business there. They demand us." —Theresa Bright

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Teresa Bright's new CD, "Hawaiinawa," is unique — a reading of classic popular and traditional Okinawan tunes translated into Hawaiian.

It's also the Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning singer-songwriter's first album of all-new material released locally in more than five years. But Bright has been busy.

For the last decade, she has focused her work in Japan, where Hawaiian music and hula are perennially popular. Of the 15 albums she's released since her 1990 debut "Self Portrait" won four Hoku — including album of the year and female vocalist of the year — only seven have first gone on sale here. And that tally doesn't include "Hawaiinawa" — its title a joining of the island locales that inspired it — which was first released in Japan this summer.

Bright is an in-demand producer for Japanese vocalists seeking a guiding hand in duplicating her honeyed, sublimely sultry vocalese and crisp, sunny contemporary and traditional Hawaiian sound. Her music has been licensed by major corporate brands such as Toyota, Japan Airlines and Sapporo Beer for use in a number of Japanese television commercials.

Given the five years since her last proper Hawai'i release, 2002's "Lei Ana" and the unexpected aspect of arranging a handful of Okinawan songs Hawaiian-style, one might think "Hawaiinawa" began its life as a passion project for Bright.

It didn't. But it soon became one.

We caught up with Bright at her beach home on the Windward side to discuss "Hawaiinawa" and other music-related passions.

Why an album of Okinawan songs done in Hawaiian?

In September 2006, Bright's Japan manager and business partner, Peter Homma, suggested she record classic Okinawan popular music with Hawaiian-language vocals and a mix of Island-style ki ho'alu, 'ukulele and Okinawan sanshin.

"Hawaiian music is really popular with the young kids in Japan," said Bright. "But I didn't understand (Homma's idea) at first because I wasn't familiar with the popular Okinawan songs. I love different music, though. I thought it was interesting. And I liked the challenge."

Though unfamiliar with the music, Bright was in.

Listening to the original songs.

Homma sent Bright more than 40 songs to soak in and determine if she could do anything with them.

Oddly enough, the more she listened to the songs — which in their original form featured the raucously high vocals and hard-plucked sanshin of traditional Okinawan music — the more she visualized what they could sound like with her own more subtle and delicate voice and low-key Hawaiian instrumentation.

"I could begin hearing the slack-key guitar playing some of these songs. I could hear the 'ukulele. And I could hear how the sanshin would play along with them," said Bright. "From there, I just picked the ones that I thought I could arrange and produce for my voice.

"Sanshin almost sounds like slack-key. So I immediately knew I could figure it out and do it."

Music came first. Translations second.

In selecting compositions, Bright's feeling from the start was that the literal meanings of the songs would be secondary to their musical structure. In other words, would she be able to wrap her voice around them? Would ki ho'alu and 'ukulele arrangements work with the structure?

Bright first learned to sing the songs phonetically in their original versions.

"It was kind of extreme for me, personally," said Bright. "Vocally, I had to use more of my high tones (since) the way the original music was, the women sing very hard. I'm not a hard singer. I don't really belt it out. I use sweet tones and all kinds of different tones."

Bright softened the harshness of the lyrics but raised her vocal register a bit higher than normal, while keeping it soft and soothing.

Tales of two islands.

At the beginning of the project, Bright chose to not read literal translations of the songs. Instead, she found a connection with Hawai'i by studying Okinawan culture, history, geography and music origins. She researched the Okinawan migration to our Islands for sugar plantation work and the songs workers brought with them.

"I found similarities with Hawaiian people," said Bright. "Okinawans once had their own kingdom and were overthrown. They were fishing people, people of the land, gentle people ... just like us."

When Bright later received very basic English translations of the songs, she discovered other similarities.

"A lot of what they wrote was about their daily lives. The men going out to sea to fish, and the women missing them. A lot of it is about that love. A lot of songs were about flowers."

Japanese to English. English to Hawaiian.

Bright's main goals for translating the basic English translations she'd received into Hawaiian included preserving the meaning and feeling of the original Japanese words, and properly fitting Hawaiian-language pronunciation and phrasing into the song's original music structure. Where no Hawaiian word was a perfect match for a Japanese word, Bright selected the closest match in meaning that fit phonetically. Whole Japanese phrases were left intact when "the words felt so pretty and so right. ... The meanings fit, and the words flowed correctly," she said.

While Bright was still translating lyrics last December, she and her musicians began writing and recording the album's musical arrangements with no vocals. Musicians included Ben Vegas and Dwight Kanae on acoustic guitar, Pua'a Auwai on bass, Bobby Ingano on steel guitar and Pekelo Honomua on percussion. Bright played 'ukulele, recruited local sanshin instructor Derek Shiroma and enlisted a noted master for the album's all-important lead ki ho'alu contributions.

The wizardry of Ozzie.

A longtime admirer of ki ho'alu composer, musician and instructor Ozzie Kotani, Bright chatted her project up with him and sent him a sampler CD of Okinawan music. Already familiar with a few of the tracks, Kotani got on board, writing fresh arrangements for his slack-key parts.

"Ozzie is so intricate. You can hear every note," she said. "On a weekend, we'd give him the music, he'd study it and come up with all of these beautiful works and arrangements."

Bright was so impressed with Kotani's contributions, she scrapped plans to use additional musicians on several "Hawaiinawa" tracks to feature just her voice and his guitar. The CD's opening track "Nadasousou" is one example.

Bright laid down all of the album's vocals in February following completion of her English to Hawaiian translations and all instrumental recording.

Working in Hawai'i, recording for Japan.

Since 1997, Bright has recorded at least one album a year exclusively for the Japanese market. The discs span a variety of styles and genres, but have focused primarily on Hawaiian language classics and Bright's original works.

Over the years, local musicians have seen the market change, said Bright. She watched her record sales here slide mainly due to lack of radio support.

"A lot of us go to Japan (because) we do a lot of business there," said Bright. "They demand us." And she's grateful for that demand.

"I'm grateful they're still interested in me and my music."

Bright arranges and records her music on O'ahu, and retains full rights to release it here if she chooses. "Hawaiinawa" was originally scheduled for release only in Japan — where it has been on sale and its music played on the radio since July.

"Then I thought, 'I'm so proud of this album (that) I would like for Hawai'i to hear it,' " said Bright.

Bright has also nurtured a lucrative career over the last six years producing CDs for young female Japanese singers seeking her vocal and phrasing expertise and skills with Hawaiian instrumentation. The singers come to O'ahu to work with Bright.

She likes where she is in her career.

Said Bright: "I'm comfortable. I hear other musicians say, 'T, where you been? How come you haven't been gigging?' ... But I'm OK with it."

Bright does do the occasional live gig here — though has nothing scheduled to support "Hawaiinawa." She's planning a first-time visit to Okinawa, possibly with some performances. But working her music live is no longer what drives Bright or solely fuels the finances.

"I still enjoy it a lot. It's just not the main thing. It's quieted down. And that's OK," Bright said softly. "I get to be creative and produce stuff. And I'm happy to do it."

Reach Derek Paiva at dpaiva@honoluluadvertiser.com.