(Homestead Productions HPCD-1006)
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
About 40 miles north of the small town of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii is the region of the island known as North Kohala, birthplace of King Kamehameha I, and home to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. Visitors find it difficult to resist the enchantment of its rugged, sweeping shorelines, azure skies, rainbow-framed mountains, turquoise seas, swaying palms, and quaint villages. Perhaps the alluring beauty of North Kohala can only be truly realized with a visit to the area, but for those who have yet to experience it, or for those visitors wishing the memory to linger, there is the music of John Keawe.
John was born and raised in North Kohala. In high school, he played guitar in a rock and roll band and developed an appreciation for the singer/songwriters of the time. After a four-year tour in the Navy, never without his guitar, John returned to his home and was drawn to the sound of Hawaiian slack-key. Influenced by slack-key masters Gabby Pahinui and Raymond Kane, he taught himself to play slack-key, and over the years developed his own unique style. No less beautiful than the silky, almost orchestral quality of the best-known, contemporary slack-key players and recordings, John's style and recording techniques seem truer to the roots and traditions of slack-key. In that spirit, his new CD is just John and his guitar.
Aloha Kaikua'ana is John's eighth commercial release, and sixth for his own Homestead Productions label. Of the seven previous releases since 1989, five have been nominated for Na Hoku Hanohano Awards (Hawaii's Grammy equivalent), and his first solo slack-key release, Ho'onanea won the 1994 Hoku Award for Best Instrumental Performance. John was also named Best Slack-Key Artist at the 1998 Hawaii Music Awards for his Mana'olana CD.
His new CD includes 11 solo slack-key instrumentals -- 7 traditional songs and 4 of John's original compositions -- and 2 bonus vocal tracks also composed by John. Among the traditional tunes is the opening track, Radio Hula, a mele hula (song with choreography) written in the 1920s by Royal Hawaiian Band singer Lizzie Kahau Alohikea to celebrate the arrival of radio in the Islands. John's lovely rendition is an updated interpretation of an arrangement created in the 1940s by slack key guitarist Fred Punahoa. Ku'u Pua I Paoakalani was written by Queen Lili'uokalani, Hawaii's last reigning monarch and most revered songwriter. After less than a year on the throne, the queen was deposed in 1892 by a coalition of foreign missionary descendants and the powerful Dole pineapple empire as a means to take control of Hawaiian government. In 1895, during her incarceration at 'Iolani Palace, she composed this melancholy commemoration of flowers brought to her from her own garden. The classic slack-key hula, Hi'ilawe is a poetic narration of the love affair of a young lady from Puna during her visit to the Big Island's beautiful Waipi'o Valley, where the Lalakea and Hakalaoa streams fall over the pali (cliffs) creating the Hi'ilawe Twin Falls. John's performance is an instrumental tribute to the trademark vocal of legendary slack-key player Gabby Pahinui
Such tributes come easily to John, but traditional music is not his only focus. As he says, "I...appreciate those who have come before us. I treasure the traditional, yet I hear other voicings in the music, which account for my own creations." One of those "creations" included on the CD is based on a melody stumbled upon while practicing. Later, while playing at a wedding at Kiholo, on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, John "felt the music gently embracing the ocean waves," and the melody had found its name - Kiholo Bay. The title song of the CD, Aloha Kaikua'ana (farewell brother), was composed for John's recently deceased brother, whose guitar playing with friends in the early sixties sparked John's own interest in learning to play. John often lets his guitar speak for him, but the two bonus vocal tracks on the CD bring his warm, gentle voice to the forefront. Kona Sunset is John's wish to share the wonder of the setting sun with his wife, and Tutu's Slack Key is a tribute to his grandfathers and an answer to their hope that he would "learn the beauty of the music..." That hope has been realized in this, and John's earlier CDs.
Narrative descriptions of John's music are difficult because it is as much a feeling as it is an aural sensation. Nevertheless, Honolulu news broadcaster Leslie Wilcox was right on the mark when she expressed the notion that "John Keawe's music is a connection to tender places in the heart and to the hills of his North Kohala home. In his music, there is calm wisdom, a sense of wonder, and a playful spirit. I can hear the pre-dawn rain of Kapa'au, taste the tang of a lilikoi pulled off the vine, and feel the shiver of cold, clear pools..." Visitors to the Hawaiian Islands are often encouraged to "live aloha," but it is always difficult to explain just what that means. To the people of the Islands, "'aloha' is more than a word of greeting, farewell or salutation...it is a way of life. Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no expectation of anything in return...Aloha is a gift to be shared." That also is the music of John Keawe.
Edited by: Lindsay Cobb