Hawaiian songbird Raiatea Helm
Gives kokua for Maui's kupuna
Multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning musicians Raiatea Helm and Amy Hanaiali’i will headline Hale Makua Health Services’ fundraiser, Kokua for Kupuna, at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali on Saturday. The popular annual event raises funds to help frail elders and disabled individuals on Maui who cannot afford healthcare services.
The two acclaimed female artists previously teamed together back in April with kumu hula/musician Napua Greig for a Three Maui Divas concert at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului.
“Originally it was going to be the three Maui divas, but Napua couldn’t make it because she will be in Japan,” says Helm. “I will go on first, and Amy will go on next. It’s not set in stone what we will do together.”
After the April event, there was talk of taking the show on the road.
“We wanted to do something outside of Maui, an Oahu show,” she explains.
“We had thoughts about doing a tour, which could turn into doing a (recording) project together, but after Merrie Monarch, Napua was slammed with Japan trips, and Amy has been busy with other projects. We’ll probably do something in 2019,” continues Helm.
Heralded early in her career as a successor to such Hawaiian female falsetto legends as Lena Machado and Aunty Genoa Keawe, Helm has currently been busy studying for a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian Music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The course requires two years of Hawaiian language study, and she eventually hopes to pursue a doctorate in ethnomusicology.
“There’s a new generation that is all about the Hawaiian language, and it’s inspired me to get back to learning the language again,” she says. “I was given an opportunity to go back to school and continue my music career. It’s exciting as I’m finally appreciating the technical side of music. I’m a non-traditional student, and I’m trying my best to not get down on myself because I’m older and I should do better in school. Growing up, the academic side was my weakness. Music was the door to life for me.”
Before she graduated high school on Molokai, at the age of 17 Helm recorded her remarkably mature debut album “Far Away Heaven,” which captured Na Hoku Awards in 2003 for
Female Vocalist of the Year and Most Promising Artist.
“It was a special time, I was very blessed,” she says. “When I was 17 I just went with whatever came in front of me.”
The accelerated success of her career took her family by surprise — it was only when she was 15 that her family found out she could sing. She had previously spent time dancing with Moana’s Hula Halau and with her father at the Molokai Ranch Lodge.
The accolades mounted with her second release “Sweet and Lovely,” which included a duet with Aunty Genoa. It 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 marvelous third album, “Hawaiian Blossom” earned Helm another Grammy nomination.
Following a brilliant, multi-Hoku-nominated collaboration with Keola Beamer, “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.
Then in 2013, Molokai’s falsetto star released a mini CD 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 CD’s highlight was her stunning version of the 19th century Latin-language classic, “Ave Maria,” which she dedicated to her late grandmother.
Helm’s most recent recording, “He Leo Huali” (“A Pure Voice”), won her another Hoku for Female Vocalist of the Year in 2017. The exceptional album received seven nominations including Album of the Year.
In her mid-30s now, Helm laments the fact that so few women are successfully pursuing careers as Hawaiian musicians.
“I’m at a time in my career where I want to see more women record Hawaiian music,” she says. “You can barely name a handful of recording artists who are women that have a busy career in Hawaiian music. You have Amy, Natalie Ai, Napua Greig and myself, and there’s no one after us. There so much talent in Hawaii, but not everyone wants to get into Hawaiian music. A lot of contemporary artists want to learn Hawaiian music but they are in a different market. You have to decide whether or not you want to be a full-time Hawaiian musician. It’s not a part-time thing. I want to help folks who want to pursue a music career.”
Helm has excelled not only within Hawaiian music, but also as a jazz and even rock singer performing briefly, years ago, with Mick Fleetwood’s Island Rumours Band.
On her award-winning albums, “Sweet and Lovely” and “Hawaiian Blossom,” Helm closed with a jazz tune, showcasing her gift with this genre. Just as with Hawaiian music she sounds perfectly at home singing the sultry jazz tune, “Taking a Chance on Love,” which was recorded by Frank Sinatra; and Etta James’ classic, “At Last.”
She also sang two jazz standards on Matt Catingub’s CD “Return to Romance,” which also featured Keali’i Reichel and Amy Hanaiali’i.
As far as her recording her own jazz project she’s not sure.
“I’ve been up and down about it,” she says. “I do things according to feel. Sometimes I feel like I should. I know I’m capable of recording a jazz album but it’s a huge decision. I would have to focus on jazz. Right now my main priority is school.”
As part of her studies she is required to attend recitals and take part in performances presented by the university.
“In November, I was asked to perform with the Hawaii Youth Symphony,” she noted. “I will be their special guest.”
Sometimes in concert she will honor her uncle, the late activist George Helm, singing “Hawaiian Soul,” composed by Jon Osorio and Randy Borden shortly after Helm disappeared in 1977.
“I feel his presence all the time, even if I’m not singing,” she says. “I get these little reminders. Some folks print out stickers of his photo and they put them in random places in Honolulu. I saw one the other day on the freeway coming home from school. That song ‘Hawaiian Soul’ sticks with you because you think of the loss. I feel him and I strive to be kind of like him as far as someone who was so eager and passionate and not afraid. He was fearless.”
With college dominating her time, Helm will do a Maui show on Saturday with Hanaiali’i that offers a rare opportunity to experience her angelic vocals.
“I really want to master my craft,” she concludes. “I want to perfect my understanding of the gift that I have. I want to define myself as an artist, someone that can inspire others. It’s been a fun time the past 10, 15 years. Now it’s different. I feel like I’m in a different chapter. The goal is self-discovery. I’m still figuring out what is my purpose. My purpose is just not to make albums and perform.
“Whether or not I do a jazz album or a Hawaiian album I will really be able to find the true passion in it. I’ve always valued Hawaiian music to be something grand, on a grand scale. I keep that with me wherever I go, and I want to share that with the next generation, especially in this new era of technology.
“I’m very fortunate to have the experience I had without the current society that we live in. Even though I’m a millennial, I’m not really a millennial. We didn’t have smart phones when I released my first album. I see the young generation of up-and-coming artists and they think differently and communicate differently. I want to be of service to the next generation. Part of my journey is to help others because I was one of the few who had a chance to experience stage life with the legends. Most of them are gone already. I was very fortunate.”