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From Japan to New York City, Hapa is the sound of Hawaii

April 17, 2008
By JON WOODHOUSE, Contributing Writer
Like many of Hawaii’s most successful groups, Hapa has been busy capitalizing on Japan’s phenomenal attraction to all things Hawaiian.

Since the early 1980s, the Japanese have steadily embraced hula as a significant cultural dance form, initially attracted to hula auana, and more recently, a new younger generation embracing ancient kahiko.

It’s been estimated that around 500,000 people in Japan, almost exclusively women, are involved with hula, and many are learning about Hawaiian culture and protocol, and studying the language, taking up the ukulele, and singing Hawaiian songs and chants.

“The Japanese have really embraced Hawaiian music and culture and dance, especially in the last five years,” says Hapa’s co-founder Barry Flanagan. “It’s at the point now where pretty close to what half the population of Hawaii is, there are hula dancers in Japan. There’s basically a second Hawaiian renaissance period going on — in Japan. It’s not reggae and Jamaican music; it’s Hawaiian music with Hawaiian words.”

“They have more halaus and hula dancers than here and more ukulele players,” adds the group’s multi-Hoku winner Nathan Aweau. “And they’re so excited about it. A lot of them started in hula, then they take the next step by trying to understand our culture, and some learn the language.”

It’s a remarkable phenomenon that so many Japanese citizens are actually helping preserve and perpetuate Hawaiian culture, and actively supporting our musicians and teachers.

“It’s true, a lot of kumu hulas are moving there,” Barry continues.

“We had six trips there last year. The groups playing Hawaiian music that are making a good living are getting on planes every month.

“In a way it’s a shame that if you want to be a full-time musician in Hawaii, you have to go elsewhere,” notes Nathan. “I find it very unusual that we’re in Hawaii playing Hawaiian music, but we can’t make a living just staying here.”

On their last Japanese tour, Hapa played 19 cities over 25 days, and, “four prefectures had never had a Hawaiian concert before,” Barry reports.

The ever-growing popularity of Hawaiian music in Japan was addressed last year in the Japanese version of Rolling Stone magazine with in-depth interviews of Hapa’s members.

As to why so many Japanese women are flocking to hula classes, Flanagan suggests: “Some of the most beautiful poetry in the world has been composed by Japanese emperors and poets for women, and I think hula being a manifestation of poetry is a way for Japanese women to be free, to experience something outside of the parameters of what is culturally expected of them.”

The group’s popularity in Japan has inspired him to compose his first Japanese song.

“I read hundred of haikus and the English translations,” he explains. “I wrote the poem in English and had it translated, and stared at it for six months, and then the melody came.”

Currently working on a new CD they have titled “Hula,” Barry reports, “We’re looking at it as a valentine to the Japanese hula market for being so kind to us. Nathan and I are both going to compose a couple of original songs, and then take eight traditional tunes and do Hapa arrangements of them. And we want to do something very unique and explosive artwork-wise.”

Reflecting on the group’s recent musical highlights, he feels most proud that he could perform last year for his mother in New York City.

“It was my mother’s 80th birthday and she was in the front row with two best friends, and Tommy Tune (the Broadway star) was there. She’s had on crush on him and didn’t stop talking about it for four months.”

Reviewing their performance in the city, The New York Times hailed Hapa as “the most successful Hawaiian music group in recent history.”

Spotlighting Barry’s superlative guitar playing it noted: “Mr. Flanagan played a signature instrumental that justified his stature as an innovator in the field. Throughout the evening, he indulged in intricate finger picking and tricky harmonics.”

The review also paid tribute to Nathan’s amazing bass technique. “Mr. Aweau brought a more pronounced virtuosity to Hapa. He has prodigious skill as an electric bassist; during an unaccompanied tear through ‘Greensleeves’ he strongly evoked Stanley Clarke.”

The acclaimed duo routinely earns Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for their exemplary artistic achievements. Since their landmark debut in 1994, which won a half-dozen Hokus, successive recordings have cemented their reputation for crafting superlative contemporary Hawaiian music. The revitalized group of Awaeu teamed with Flanagan, created their most adventurous recording, the brilliant, pan-Pacific themed “Maui,” which triumphed in 2006, winning four awards, including Album of the Year.

As a solo artist Aweau also routinely wins Hokus. A former lead singer with the Ali‘is, and bass player, arranger and vocalist with Don Ho for many years before Ho’s death, his “Hawaii Classic Series” earned him Male Vocalist of the Year awards two years in a row, and in 2006, his superb “Bass Etude” won best jazz album.

On his latest impressive solo release, “Kane‘ohe,” which will likely reap more awards, Nathan wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, and arranged, produced, mixed and mastered the disc.

How does “Hawaii’s Prince” accomplish such a feat?

“When I get involved with something I get in deep,” he answers, laughing. “I like learning new things, and I like to be involved with not just one musical entity. I love my jazz, I love my folk and I love my Hawaiian music. My father played everything, too; he had a master’s in music, so I grew up with that. It’s not uncommon for me.”

This month Hapa is featured on National Geographic’s new world music cable TV channel, in a show titled “Geo Sessions With Hapa.” Other Geo sessions include portraits of Ben Harper, Bebel Gilberto, Michael Franti and Gogol Bordello.

Returning to Maui to perform on Saturday evening accompanied by Malia Peterson, Miss Aloha Hula 2002, and longtime contributing chanter Charles Ka‘upu, Hapa will treat us with a cowboy song composed by Rick Nelson and made famous by Dean Martin.

“It’s the highlight of our show,” Barry enthuses. “Charles learned the Ricky Nelson classic ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me.’ We’ve been doing it for the last year and Charles’ version is very paniolo and beautiful. Everyone knows him as a chanter and he’s a beautiful singer.”

The show will also include a tribute to America’s forces at war in Iraq. “We really wanted to do a song to show appreciation for the folks over there, so we’ve brought back ‘Cavatina’ from the ‘Namahana’ CD,” he says. “It’s the instrumental guitar theme song by John Williams from ‘The Deer Hunter.’ ”

With the passing of Aunty Nona Beamer, we lost another extraordinary Hawaiian treasure. A leading light, among her many remarkable accomplishments she coined the term Hawaiiana, and pioneered Hawaiian studies at Kamehameha Schools. Struggling against cultural suppression at the time, Nona was actually briefly expelled from the school for standing up performing hula at a time when only noho, sit-down style was allowed. She was also the first Hawaiian to perform kahiko hula at New York’s venerable Carnegie Hall.

In a Maui Scene interview, she once suggested her greatest contribution was working with children. “I don’t know another single more satisfying aspect of my life,” she said. Her love of educating and perpetuating Hawaiian culture was reflected in her marvelous gift of shining brightly and spreading aloha up until her last days.

Award-winning Maui filmmaker Kenny Burgmaier has been compiling a documentary on Aunty Nona, culled from 80 hours of material. He hopes to complete the project this year.

Aunty Nona had been working on a Hawaiian healing meditation CD which will likely be released by the close of the year.

The Maui Film Festival presents a unique new doc “Africa Unite” celebrating Bob Marley’s legacy, at 5 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Castle Theater at the MACC. The film features footage of three generations of Marley family members on a historic first journey together to the capital of Ethiopia, to take part in a 12-hour concert event in front of 300,000 people.

“It’s our aim with this documentary to further Bob Marley’s eternal message of hope and struggle across continents and generations,” said director Stephanie Black.

Produced to commemorate Marley’s 60th birthday, it includes performances by the Marley clan and Angélique Kidjo.

• Contact Jon Woodhouse at

Article Photos

Hapa in concert, featuring Charles Ka‘upu (from left), Nathan Aweau and Barry Flannagan photo

Fact Box

Hapa in concert, featuring Charles Ka‘upu (from left), Nathan Aweau and Barry Flannagan
Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
$10, $28, and $37 plus applicable fees, half-price for kids 12 and younger, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or



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