Treasury of Hawaiian gems
Kumu Hula Uluwehi Guerrero returns to recording studio after nine years
Nine years since the release of his last album, Maui Kumu Hula Uluwehi Guerrero has returned with “E Mau ana ka Ha’aheo” (“Enduring Pride”), a superb treasury of Hawaiian gems all performed in his inimitable style.
Transporting us on a journey back in time, his latest recording features a magnificent collection of classic hula songs that honor his beloved Hawaiian culture. A previous Na Hoku Hanohano Male Vocalist and Hawaiian Album of the Year winner, Guerrero’s latest offering will likely make him a prime candidate for the 2019 Hoku Awards.
“It’s not intentional, somehow it just worked out like that,” says this respected artist about his lengthy recording gaps. “Hula always takes precedence, and my singing accompanies that, but being a recording artist is not really a priority. It’s when I have time aside from my hula and traveling.”
With a fondness for a classic Hawaiian sound, he typically records songs loved by hula dancers.
“Sixteen of the songs are traditional hula songs that I’ve implemented in teaching my hula classes or shared in my ukulele classes,” he explains. “It’s the music that I grew up with. When I first learn a song that I’m drawn to because of the melody and beautiful poetry, I find out a story of why and how it was written, and what inspired the composer to write the song. I like sharing that when I do choreography for hula. It’s not just about the beautiful melody and poetry.”
Compiling a new hula song repository was inspired by his desire to help preserve and perpetuate this important tradition.
“It’s been a kuleana (privilege) for me as long as I can remember to perpetuate the stories of our ancestors and to bring it forward in this time,” he says. “I remain grateful to the people who came before us for their perseverance (in) keeping Hawaiian language alive and keeping the music alive and keeping the culture alive.
“These songs have been recorded many times over the years, but this is my interpretation. The way I sing it and present it is my own personal connection, and when people hear it, they know it’s an Uluwehi rendition of that mele. I always put the soft tones in the back, and I do all the harmonies myself. I usually have a low harmony and high harmony, and then I triple track it to give it a chorus effect.”
One of the hallmarks of his recordings is his love for string ensemble embellishment. On “E Mau ana ka Ha’aheo,” he includes a string section adding a lush sound to a number of songs.
“Ever since my first recording, ‘Ka Manawa Pono,’ we’ve always used live strings. For me it’s all about keeping the true sound of the instrument. I didn’t want anything synthesized. One of my favorite times to listen to music was the early recordings of Jack de Mello when he did all the orchestration. I always loved that full sound. I loved the era of Emma Veary and Nina Keali’iwahamana, the classical Hawaiian singers.
“Our own alii, like Queen Lili’uokalani and King Kalakaua, when they wrote music it was very classical in sound. So I wanted to bring that sound back again. It can sound so beautiful when you add a soft layer of classical strings over Hawaiian instruments. The strings are carefully added to bring the visual part of the song out. It adds to the storytelling.”
Uluwehi is accompanied by a stellar band on the album, including multi-instrumentalist Wailau Ryder, lap steel guitarist Geri Valdriz and celebrated Hawaiian pianist Iwalani Ho’omanawanuiikana’auao Apo.
Ryder’s credits include composing the Hoku-winning 2010 Song of the Year with Lorna Lim and playing on Raiatea Helm’s “Sea of Love.” A regular at George Kahumoku’s shows, Valdriz played with Ola Hou and The Waiehu Sons, and now with Maui Jam Band.
Apo’s previous recording credits include Keali’i Reichel’s “Kawaiokalena,” Kalani Pe’a’s Grammy-winning debut and Ikaika Blackburn’s “Maliu.”
“She’s (Apo) from Maui and was a delight to work with,” he says. “I used people who were used to my music. They’ve played with me before. I’ve played with Wailau for years, mostly in Japan. We’re so fortunate to have him on Maui.”
The album opens with a lovely version of the hula favorite “Mauna Loa,” adorned with a tranquil steel guitar. While ostensibly about the old steam ship, “it has a lot of kauna (hidden meaning) in there, it’s a little kolohe (mischievous) song,” he notes. ” ‘Where are you Mauna Loa, as you come into the long harbor with your broad hips.’ It’s the name of a ship that sailed between the islands. A lot of the steam ships had names of famous mountains in Hawaii — Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Haleakala.”
He next pays tribute to remote Kaupo with “Me Ka Nani A’o Kaupo” (“The Beauty of Kaupo”) by John Pi’ilani Watkins, previously recorded by Maui artists Ata Damasco and Pekelo. Watkins’ love for our island was celebrated in the 1950s album “Songs to Remember Hana, Maui,” with the Heavenly Hawaiians.
Embellished with lush strings, one of his hapa-haole favorites, “A Million Moons over Hawai’i,” follows. As a child Uluwehi remembers accompanying his mother, who danced at Aunty Emma Sharpe’s hula classes in Wailuku, and hearing “Million Moons.”
“It was so sentimental for me as that was one of the songs she learned back then,” he recalls. “I remember it so vividly. It’s such a beautiful song. Marlene Sai made the song very popular, and I invited Marlene Sai to be a part of my last concert.”
Two songs for Hawaii Island — “Hanohano No ‘O Hawai’i” by Alice Ku’uleialohapoina’ole Namakelua and “Halema’uma’u” by Maddy Lam and Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln — shine light on that island’s beauty. Recorded before the recent volcanic upheaval, one line seems rather ominous — “Behold the beauty of Halema’uma’u and its famous fire of the woman, Pele.”
“I never had any intention to do it because of the eruption,” he notes. “It just worked out that way.”
Remembering the joy he felt as a child seeing a train operating on Maui inspired him to include Palani Vaughan’s famous “Ka’a Ahi Kahului,” originally recorded in the early 1970s. After King Kalakaua encouraged railroad building in Hawaii, the first passenger train service was inaugurated by the Kahului Railroad Company in July, 1879, running between Kahului and Wailuku.
“I thought about recording the song before he had passed,” Uluwehi explains. “I taught it in hula and would often talk about (how) as a child I remember being in Kahului watching the train coming from the harbor area and passing in front of where the (Maui) Seaside (Hotel) is now and it would go to the cannery. I’m connecting songs with memories of my childhood — it really evokes a special time.”
Other classics he covers include “Ke Ala O Ka Rose” (Fragrance of the Rose) by Niihau’s Danny Ka’opio, composed in 1932; the late 19th century song “Makee ‘Ailana,” by James Ka’ihi’ihikapuokalani I’i; and Lena Machado’s “Moani Ke Ala Oha Pua Makahikina,” enhanced by Apo’s Hawaiian-style piano playing
There’s one new original song, “He Aloha no ku’u Aina” (“Love for my Land”), composed by the kumu hula with his partner, Pono Fried, as a tribute to Maui.
“We had gone out on tour and I was traveling so much,” he says. “We came home and unpacked, and I sat out on our lanai in Makawao facing towards the West Maui Mountains –Mauna Kahalewai. I was thinking how beautiful it was for me to be home and acknowledging all of the beauty that I could see from my lanai. There are a lot of verses.”
The new album comes to a fitting close with another classic hula favorite, “Po La’ila’i” by Mary Pukui and Maddy Lam.
“Ho’olono ana i ke kani,” he sings. “Honehone a ka ‘ukulele / Me ka mele ho’ohau’oli / Ho’olana i ka pu’uwai” — “We will pause to listen / To the ‘ukulele’s sweet refrain / With a melody so cheery / Uplifting the heart.”
Grammy-nominated Tibetan flute player Nawang Khechog will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Makawao Union Church, as a tribute to the late Maui-based Lama Dhondup Gyaltsen. He will be accompanied by Sal Godinez on piano.
Khechog is best known for his collaboration with Kitaro, including playing on the Grammy-nominated albums, “Enchanted Evening” and “Mandala.” He has also performed with Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and Maui’s Peter Kater.
Tickets are $25 and are available at www.tibetanflute.eventbrite.com.
Oahu musician Micah Ganiron has been touring Maui, accompanied by Dane Stilwell and Keith Molina. He will feature songs from different genres and from his island style EP, “The Origin.” A former student of Jake Shimabukuro, he was featured on the 2014 Hoku-winning Compilation of the Year album.
He will play from 6 to 9 tonight at Hula Grill in Kaanapali; from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Maui Mall in Kahului, and then from 8:30 to 10 p.m. at the Wai Bar in Wailuku. He returns to the Maui Mall on Sunday to play from 4 to 5 p.m.