Hawaii’s Shining Stars
Along with pursuing a successful musical career, multi-Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner Raiatea Helm is now back in school, studying culinary arts at Kapiolani Community College. It’s all part of her new vision to create a supper club on Oahu where fellow musicians can perform in an intimate environment.
“I want to create a supper club like on the West Coast, bringing music together in a more classy form,” Helm explains. “A place where people can fine dine and listen to really great music. It’s a tough industry, but my dream is to put music and food together, and have something like Yoshi’s (in Oakland, Calif.) with a stage; it looks like you’re in a minitheater.”
Most recently, Molokai’s female falsetto star released a miniCD of three songs to benefit her youth music education foundation and the Catholic Church’s Office for Social Ministry, which administers to Hawaii’s poor.
Featuring covers of “Amazing Grace” and “Kimo Henderson Hula,” the album’s highlight is her stunning version of the 19th century Latin-language classic, “Ave Maria,” which she dedicates to her late grandmother.
“Half of the proceeds go to the church and the other half goes to the Raiatea Helm Hawaiian Music Foundation,” she notes. “My grandmother was a devoted Catholic, and we went to church when we were kids. ‘Ave Maria’ was her favorite song, and I wanted to do a homage to her. God gave me this gift, and it’s a way of saying thank you.”
Heralded early in her career as a successor to such Hawaiian ha’i (female falsetto) legends as Lena Machado and Aunty Genoa Keawe, Helm’s remarkably mature debut album, “Far Away Heaven,” captured Hoku awards in 2003 for Female Vocalist of the Year and Most Promising Artist. The accolades mounted with her second release, “Sweet and Lovely,” which not only won her Hoku awards for Female Vocalist of the Year and Favorite Entertainer of the Year, but also brought her the distinction of being first solo female vocalist from Hawaii to receive a Grammy nomination. Then her third album, “Hawaiian Blossom,” earned Helm another Grammy nod.
Following a brilliant collaboration with Keola Beamer in “Keola Beamer and Raiatea,” she evoked the romance and magic of a simpler time with another superb recording, “Sea of Love, which further cemented her reputation as one of Hawaii’s most gifted artists.
As to future album plans, she reports: “I really like the music of the 1950s. For the next album I decided to incorporate different periods of Hawaiian music from the early 1900s to the 1960s. Today, because of the different generations, Hawaiian music of the past hasn’t been really exposed a lot. The idea is to work with what I’ve done and add color to it. I’m growing as an artist, and I’d like to grow more in different areas like writing.”
Helm has excelled not only within Hawaiian music, but also as a jazz and even rock singer, performing briefly with Mick Fleetwood’s Island Rumours Band. She is now planning to release a jazz project. “In the summer I’ll be recoding a jazz album exclusively for Japan,” she says. “Jazz is really big in Japan.”
For her show Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Helm will be accompanied by musician friend Brian Tolentino. “He’s been accompanying me for 13 years,” she says. “He’s one of the best ukulele layers out there. The whole of idea of the show is to give the story of my music career. I’ve been in the music industry for 16 years, and I’ll be 30 this year.”
After winning a handful of Na Hoku awards in 2011 for his exceptional debut album, Hilo’s Mark Yamanaka decided to concentrate more on traditional Hawaiian music for his follow-up, “Lei Maile.”
“I wanted more of a traditional Hawaiian feel,” Yamanaka explains. “(On) The first album, there was some Hawaiian stuff with more of a contemporary sound. I wanted more chalangalang styling in the second one, a little more roots. And I picked a couple of traditional songs like ‘Hanohano No O Hawaii,’ stuff with that real Hawaiian flavor.”
Blessed with an exquisite falsetto, Yamanaka has delivered another spectacular collection of primarily Hawaiian language compositions with a few sung in English. Besides standards like “Hilahila ‘Ole ‘Ole” and “Kanaka Waiwai,” he features three songs by his mentor, kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho.
“I asked Uncle Johnny what songs he would like me to record,” he says. “I’ve been part of his halau as a musician since 1998. He’s just been a solid backbone for me as far as support and teaching me. He makes me appreciate the simple things that tell a story.”
Yamanaka features a couple of his own original compositions on “Lei Maile,” including a lovely, romantic hapa haole number that pays homage to our island. Reminiscent of classics from the ’40s and ’50s, “Maui Under Moonlight” was inspired by a trip in 2012.
“I was staying in Kihei with my family, and I was really struck by the setting with the moon and the feeling I got,” he explains. “When I got home to Hilo, I had to write something down, and I turned it into a love song, a love for Maui and my family. Coming back to Maui (to perform on Friday), hopefully I can write another song or two.”
A surprise on the album is his inclusion of the Irish classic, “Danny Boy,” which gets a Hawaiian twist with Dwight Tokumoto’s steel guitar and Yamanaka’s heavenly falsetto. It’s included as a tribute to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
“I sang it at Senator Inouye’s memorial service in Hilo,” he notes. “It was requested by his family. It was a great honor to be asked, but I actually didn’t know the song, and I learned it in a few hours the night before. I fell in love with the song and the lyrics.”
To close the album, he offers another tribute – this time to his grandmother, who helped nurture his love for Hawaiian music and loved the church hymn, “Kanaka Waiwai.”
“When I first started, she was so supportive, and she used to play a lot of Hawaiian music in our house,” he recalls. “That’s how I took to liking the style of falsetto and Hawaiian music in general. She was always encouraging me to sing Hawaiian music, and only Hawaiian music. Hawaiian music is probably my first passion, but I enjoy other genres. I lost my grandma in late July last year. She passed in the middle of producing ‘Lei Maile,’ so at the last the moment I recorded ‘Kanaka Waiwai’ as a tribute.”
Yamanaka began playing music while attending intermediate school in Hilo, beginning with the ukulele and later teaching himself guitar. Soon after, he discovered a talent for falsetto.
His first solo album, “Lei Pua Kenikeni,” featuring an assortment of Hawaiian standards and new Hawaiian songs, made him the big winner at the 2011 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.
He was only the third artist in the history of the Hokus (after Keali’i Reichel and Willie K) to win Male Vocalist, Album of the Year and Most Promising Artist in the same year. He also won Song of the Year for “Kaleoonalani,” which he composed for his daughter.
“It was a surprise; I never expected it,” he says about winning four Hokus. “It opened up a lot of doors. When I first started playing music, I was really insecure about being nonHawaiian. I’m not of Hawaiian ancestry, and I had to deal with that insecurity. I just wanted acceptance. Since the first album, I feel a responsibility to perpetuate Hawaiian music. My mission is to continue doing what I’m doing and stick to traditional Hawaiian music or music with the Hawaiian language.”