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The Best of Kupaoa
Spring is definitely here; the air was fragrant with the overpowering scent of puakenikeni and maile; green jade leis made of every possible stage of the exotic blossoms were worn by audience members. The entire Paik ‘Ohana from the north shore was present to support their musical stars. Happily, visitors from Madrid, Spain and Canada are present, so it looks like traveling is opening up. Walter and Mimi Levison, long-time “snowbird” supporters, were lei’d on their last night of EKK as they bid farewell to their many friends and prepare to live full time on the mainland.
Kupaoa, whose name means “fragrance”, once again came to share their music in tonight’s “The Best of Kupaoa.” What a treat in store for us. Lihau and Kellen were very frank about the impact of Covid on their vocal chords and strumming hands as such a lengthy recess from live concerts, rehearsals and performances made them feel a bit rusty from their usual performing selves. “Let’s dust off the cobwebs and see if we remember how to play and sing. Every song we get through with no mistakes, we bump our knuckles together.” They have not been on stage since the last time they came to EKK when they had their first daughter Jemma. Six months ago they had their second daughter Maizie who is here with them tonight.
They shared their powerful and unique sound of Pili O Ke Ao from their first album in 2008. Their harmonious voices, like the fragrance filling the room, enveloped the audience thirsty for live music. It’s a joy to see Kellen’s exuberant style of singing; it’s still there! This song is from a chant about Goddesses Pele and Hi’iaka and their respective visits to Kaua’i; it’s about the early morning dawning of the new day when one should be deep in slumberland with a beloved and others are just getting off from work. Pele who hails from the Kilauea Caldeira traveled in spirit to Ha’ena where she first set eyes on Lohi’au, the new object of her affections. Hula dancer Pohaikauilani Campbell, Lihau’s God Sister and long-time friend, came out in her attractive dark purple hula dress with aqua floral designs; she moved gracefully through the song Ha’ena, the site of Pele’s legendary encounters. This song is on their Ho’okele album.
They did a few shows in California, ‘Oahu, Hawai’i Island just before the Delta surge, but it soon became apparent that they were not going to be doing any live shows for a while. Although they resisted social media at first, they took to social media to keep in touch with their fans during the pandemic. Facebook Live posed a steep learning curve for them as they had to invest in a lot of new equipment to produce the sounds they needed. They started a program called “Jemma Jam” in the spring followed by a summer series called “KoAloha Live” with support from the KoAloha ‘Ukulele Company. Their new venture into social media turned out amazing as it pushed them to explore new songs requested by their online audience. One of the songs they had always wanted to add to their repertoire was the slack key classic by Jerry Santos of Olomana, Ku’u Home ‘O Kahalu’u; Kellen picking the melody on his guitar certainly has not lost his touch.
One of his explorations during the pandemic was to switch to playing the ‘ukulele, something that he had been wanting to do for a long time, but life on the road makes it hard to realize his dream to make an album with his friend Mark Yamanaka. Everyday Local, a creative outlet for Kellen and Mark with songs that did not fit on either a Kupaoa album or a Mark Yamanaka solo album, was released on New Year’s Eve. Of course, the characteristic family banter between Kellen and Lihau revealed some background on the challenges for Kellen to make an album without Lihau in it. Lihau made it clear that she played a part in it . . . a small but important part. The audience loved Kellen’s first-time-in-public performance on the ‘ukulele. Also premiering tonight was the hula to this super fast-paced Oni A Ka Moku that was choreographed a week ago by Frank Ka’anana Akima with the help of Puakea Nogelmeier. The hula was not only a tongue-twister song, it was also a rapid-fire hip-twister hula perfect for aerobics or Zumba practitioners. Screams of appreciation greeted both the ‘ukulele song and the hula. During the first year of EKK back in 1984, hapa-haole singer Sol Bright described the instrument on ships that measured the rolling of the ships; it was the suggestive shape of the oni a ka moku instrument that was most interesting to him.
Requests on their “Jemma Jams” online program asked for classic country which coaxed Kupaoa to explore songs from the 50’s and ‘60’s; this expanded their repertoire in a new direction. “Whatever happened to this awesome music,” asked Lihau. They wanted to share the song Sad Movies (make me cry). This oldie but goodie by Sue Thompson (The Sad Sisters) was definitely a new sound for them which they added to their repertoire. Those who follow Kupaoa know that there is always something new with this group. Kellen’s new ‘ukulele album features the shoyu bottle motif on Everyday Local. This might have been inspired by the Sunday Manoa with their “Guava Jam” and “Crackseed” album covers. He held up his pineapple-shaped ‘ukulele and wished out loud for his next pineapple- shaped ‘ukulele to look like a shoyu bottle. Lihau pointed out that she designed the shoyu bottle cover.
Kellen sings Stars & Moon Slack Key on their CD; it’s a cross between Hawaiian and Country that was written by Harold Kama, Jr., the brother-in-law of the bassist of the Kaua’i composer Jimmy Kaholokula. It’s a very local style love song that speaks of many things treasured by the locals. Kellen’s pa’ani on the ‘ukulele was as great as shoyu.
Of course, no Kaua’i concert is ever complete without Dennis Kamakahi’s Koke’e. What was very fresh about the song tonight was the emotional hula rendition by the gorgeous hula dancer Matt DelRosario, a friend of Lihau since small kid time. He simply emotes on stage with his fluid hula twists and turns; it brought new meaning to the lyrics . . . lot of cheers from the audience.
Matt stepped on stage and modeled the striking Liko Lehua silk screen shirt, designed by cousin Candace Paik. This is a new item for the Puahina line of local-style wearables owned for the past 25 years by Loui and Fumi Cabeba. Just two months ago, Kellen and Lihau Paik took over the ownership of the company that for many years provided them with their concert attire. A huge part of the Puahina market is their annual participation in the Merrie Monarch Crafts Fair which is right around the corner. The couple is hard at work with on-the-job training producing the attractive and popular local attire in time for the MM Crafts Fair. Two new designs modeled by the artists tonight are called the Kaliko Lehua Kea named after Jemma and Lau Koa named after baby Maizie. The new business venture is a family affair.
A perennial discussion that seems to come up every time Lihau and Kellen step on stage is about Lihau’s 2007 birthday gift to Kellen. They had just spent every penny on their first album; Lihau had no money to buy Kellen a birthday gift, so she instead composed a song for Kellen titled Lei Mokihana which likened him to the scented island berry. She reminded Kellen that she is still waiting for his song for her. Kellen’s weak disclaimer: “I dunno how to describe you in Hawaiian! I’m still learning, and I haven’t gotten there yet. So I bought her a present; she wrote me a song.” It’s been only 15 years.
Lihau said they wanted to sing a special song for a longtime friend Susan who was going to be moving back to the California where they first met. On their Bum-Bye album, Pakalana A Ka Pu’uwai is definitely a very special song composed by Lihau for her maternal grandmother about her favorite flower . . . the pakalana. Lihau’s affection for her grandma was evident in the way she sang it. It’s great how Lihau sings one verse followed by Kellen on the second verse; then the beautiful harmony on the third verse. They really know how to deliver.
The song that Kellen had taught the ‘ukulele circle at the beginning of the evening was Wa’a Hokule’a, a song composed by Larry Kimura celebrating Hawaii’s voyaging canoe that sailed around the world. It’s on their recent Ka Lei Moana album. The canoe was a cornerstone of the Hawaiian Renaissance. This was also taught to the hula circle so both ‘ukulele players and hula dancers stepped up to the stage to share the mele with Frank, Pohai and Matt leading the hula. Audience participation is one of those very special things about EKK that folks really love; everyone can get into the act and express their appreciation for the songs and hula that are a big part of our culture. Amazing that they can dance so proficiently in a 45-minute lesson.
Just before the intermission, Kellen played the Kamoa ‘ukulele to show how great it sounds while a bevy of “Boro Boro” beauties modeled some of the upcycled garments from our “Boro Boro Boutique”. The minute-long runway fashion show was a sweet interlude before everyone got into intermission mode.
The biggest surprise of all was the winner of the ‘ukulele giveaway whose prime reason for purchasing a donation ticket was to support the cause. Good intentions reap its reward for his name was called for the second week in a row to receive the Kamoa ‘ukulele as his prize. “Onio Punzal! Come on up and get your Kamoa ‘ukulele!”
To start off the second half of the evening, Kupaoa brought back a Dennis Kamakahi favorite. He was one of the composers that skillfully bridged the folk country and Hawaiian genres with many memorable songs. Lei Kupukupu, on their Ho’okele album, is a gorgeous song, especially when Kupaoa sing it with their special magic on their Ho’okele album.
Their good friend Mark Yamanaka’s wife Leilani is originally from Texas. When she moved to Hawai’i Island, she became a part of the family coffee farms in Laupahoehoe on the Hamakua coast where her grandparents work hard to grow their coffee. Leilani asked Kellen to write a song to describe the present-day farm as it may one day become a historical landmark. Like Dennis, Kellen tried to bridge the country folk and the Hawaiian genre in Waipunalei; it’s on their Everyday Local album. Hopefully, the coffee farms will remain as they are today. If it changes hands and changes in its use, this song will become a landmark song.
The title track on their latest CD, Ka Lei Moana, is a song composed by their mentor Puakea Nogelmeier. Written originally as a chant, the lyrics of this song has a timeless message about the importance of water and of the connectedness of all things using the water cycle as the metaphor. Frank skillfully managed to translate all those words into beautiful hula motions.
Song composers are born storytellers. Their songs have to the ability to share so much in their lyrics. Lihau admires the amazing Dolly Parton for her ability to tell her story in a way that holds you spellbound. One of 12 children in Tennessee, she has risen from rags to riches and really turned it around during her illustrious 70-year career with a reputation that is impeccable. One of her current projects titled “Imagination Library” provides a book every month to children under age 5 living on West Kauai and the North Shore with the help of local businesses such as KIUC, the County, and the State of Hawai’i. As a request from Uncle Donald, they wanted to share Dolly Parton’s story in her song titled Coat of Many Colors; it clearly tells the story of her unmatched rise to stardom. Lihau confessed that she had to fire all cylinders to get all those words into the song. Thank you! It’s a gift! (I was so moved by this song that I came home and sewed a new mu’umu’u of many colors, using up my batik scrap fabric.)
Hula dancer Matt returned to the stage for a premiere hula performance of the charming song Lio Kiwi about the horned horse or unicorn that was based on the poem by Shel Silverstein. The poem was put to music and performed by the Irish Rovers and translated into Hawaiian by Kaua’i composer James Kaholokula. This adorable tongue-twister song explains why we don’t see any unicorns today. Matt was the perfect dancer for this song as he is a storyteller and a comic all in one; the audience loves him. This was also one of Jemma’s favorite songs; having kids is definitely impacting the couple’s choice of songs . . . all good!
Lihau said we’re going to share a song with “no more plenny words” by Kellen and Mark who are not only musicians but big fans of ocean sports. At any time, you can find them fishing, diving, and surfing in the ocean. Kellen wrote We’re Gonna Surf while sitting on Mark’s couch; it’s a song written in the style of Ka’au Crater Boys; it’s definitely a favorite of water babies of every calling. You can hear many of the Kupaoa songs on the television Fishing Channels.
Definitely a love song for the the multi-colored hau blossoms lining Kalihiwai River, Lihau shared one of her favorite stories about her river excursion with Kellen many years ago. It’s all about the destination for Kellen, the three waterfalls at the end of Kalihiwai river. With Lihau, it’s all about the journey paddling leisurely up the river and enjoying the profusion of hau blossoms that she collected onto her paddle board. Hula dancer Pohai, dressed in a beautiful two-piece turquoise outfit with silkscreened floral designs, brings to life the lyrics of the song Pua Hau ‘Ula.
One of their favorite country western singer is Alison Krauss. To share this connection they sang one of her sad songs titled Ghost In This House; Kellen loves the emotional sad songs. Lihau’s voice rings out so pure and clear in this slow ballad and Kellen’s harmony is always spot-on. His expressiveness while singing is one of the highlights of their singing. I’m now a fan of sad songs.
Lihau acknowledged Kilauea Social Club for teaching them Beautiful Sunday, a single recorded by Daniel Boone. It became very famous in Kwajlein Islands where the uncles used to work. While in Japan Kupaoa did not have a hula song which they needed to not lose the crowd, so they had to find a song with a good beat. When they started signing Beautiful Sunday, their entire audience of mostly age 65+ stood up and started to wave their hands around and burst out in song. The song turned out to be a one-hit wonder for a group in Japan who recorded Subarashi Sunday; the song became an instant hit. It’s still a super popular song in Japan so they added it to their Japan repertoire.
“In a ‘Best of Kupaoa’ show, we would be remiss to not include the song Bumbye. Pohai and Frank joined Kupaoa and their daughter Jemma, dancing their hula to this catchy song composed by Puakea Nogelmeier for Ku’uipo Kumukahi’s mother. The message is to not take things for granted and do what you need today because tomorrow may be too late. This song pops up everywhere . . . even on a spear-fishing show where everyone is running around weighing their fish to find the winner.
The audience joined hands to sing along with Kellen and Lihau Paik to bring another memorable concert to a close. Kupaoa, from their first EKK performance to the present, has secured their spot as one of the EKK favorites. Their shows are just what music-starved audiences need right now. Even the sad songs are uplifting.
*** Photos Courtesy of Mike Teruya & Kathleen Ho***
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Funding for E Kanikapila Kakou 2022 Hawaiian Music Program is made possible by Hawai’i Tourism Authority, with support from Kauai Visitors Bureau, Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau, National Endowment for the Arts, the Kaua’i Beach Resort, Kamoa ‘Ukulele, Kauai Festivals and the Garden Island Arts Council supporters.