Around 2,000 bands descended on Austin, Texas, last week for the annual SXSW convention and music festival. Thousands of groups from around the world apply for invitations to the prestigious fest, and for the first time this year, Hawaii (with help from the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism) was officially represented - by John Cruz, David Tamaoka, Pimpbot, One Right Turn, and Maui's Anuhea.
SXSW offers artists an invaluable opportunity to perform before droves of record company execs, booking agents, promoters, managers and club owners who travel from far afield to check out the assembled talent.
"It's the first year any artists from Hawaii have been invited to participate in the official showcase," explains Nalani Choy of Na Leo, who attended the four-day extravaganza in her capacity as co-founder of OneHawaii Music, an independent record label promoting quality music from Hawaii and the Pacific region.
Na Leo features Angela Morales (from left), Nalani Choy and Lehua Kalima-Heine.
We're talking by phone as her niece, Anuhea, debuts songs from her forthcoming CD at Roy's Restaurant, one of a dozen gigs scheduled around Austin during SXSW.
"I have a record label that I co-own with Warren Wyatt (of WorldSound based in Seattle) and some of our musicians were invited to perform," she continues. "Anuhea is one of them, and she's blowing it up out here. Her sound is very current and polished, MTV meets Maui."
And then there's One Right Turn featuring Imua Garza of the Opihi Pickers and John Cruz's sisters, Connie Cruz and Tiffa Cruz Garza, who released a superb debut album last year, and have been recording a follow-up at Memphis' famed Sun Studios where Elvis produced his early hits.
* Na Leo performs at 7:30 pm Saturday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $12, $28 and $37 plus applicable fees, half-price for kids 12 and younger. Pre-show festivities begin at 5:30 p.m. in the courtyard, including entertainment and vendors with Hawaiian arts and crafts and food.
"One Right Turn and Anuhea are really making a name here for the Hawaii music scene," Choy reports. "Out of the nearly 2,000 bands, One Right Turn was picked (by the Austin Chronicle) in the top 10 'Sleeper Bands' that you have to check out tonight. That's huge. They're being called Hawaii's Fleetwood Mac.
"After all the trials and tribulations with Na Leo, the idea with OneHawaii Music is that I can take what I learned over my career and help young local artists. We've created a safe environment where the artists own their own masters, and we're trying to protect them from being used and abused by the business."
Besides running OneHawaii Music, Choy is president of Na Leo's record label, NLP Music. She's overseen all of her group's business, marketing and promotions since its inception in 1982.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Hawaii's most famous female trio is taking the unprecedented step of marking the milestone with three new music releases.
"One is a 25th commemorative live concert DVD and CD, which we've never done," she explains. "We're also working on a follow-up to 'E Hula Mai Kakou,' which we released last year. We had tremendous success with it in Japan. And then for our loyal Na Leo fans that like our eclectic bend of originals and covers and contemporary Hawaiian and pop, we're going to put out one of those, too."
After 25 years together Choy feels their longevity is based on an enduring friendship. "If things got difficult, we remained friends, that's how we resolved conflicts because we liked being with each other before the group," she says.
"And we like being a group and traveling together. There's a very strong connection between the three of us. It's so easy to sing with Angela (Morales) and Lehua (Kalima-Heine) because we just know each other; we don't have to communicate with words. And we're fortunate that we've been primarily a recording band, so we don't perform so often that we get tired of it. It's just frequent enough that we enjoy every minute of it."
First teaming while attending Kamehameha Schools, the trio performed as Na Leo Pilimehana ("voices blending in warmth") in their early days. Winning the Brown Bags to Stardom talent contest in 1984 singing their own composition "Local Boys," the song became a smash hit. It won them a Hoku for Single of the Year in 1985, and became the best-selling single in Hawaii's history, a record that still stands today.
Unfortunately they soon soured on the music business after being informed that their "Local Boys" album didn't earn them any money - supposedly sales were less than production costs. After taking a long break, they finally re-teamed to release "Friends" and again were informed sales didn't meet costs. Consequently they vowed to take control of their own career and set up their own label.
"It was critical, a turning point," Choy says. "None of us were interested in continuing with the music business without being able to control our own destiny."
In 1995, on their NLP label, they released "Flying with Angels," which won the trio four Hoku Awards, including Group and Song of the year. The album's success convinced the women to quit their day jobs and just focus on music.
A year later, their compilation album, "Anthology I," sold so well it debuted on the Billboard adult contemporary chart at No. 10. Subsequent recordings like "Colours" also charted high, and their remake of Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man" was listed among the top adult contemporary songs of 1999.
In 2005, after two successful decades together, the trio launched a stylistic makeover with "Feel the Spirit," an album directly aimed at America's mainstream. With production by Keith Olsen, who has worked with Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, Pat Benatar and Santana, the recording focused on individual vocalists rather than their trademark three-part harmonies and featured only English lyrics.
Then it was back to basics for their album "Where I Live, There Are Rainbows," a charming, nostalgic collection of Hawaiian or hapa-haole standards.
Last year they released their 19th studio album, the hula collection "E Hula Mai Kakou." This popular recording saw the musicians returning to their early roots.
"A lot of people don't realize that when Na Leo got together, prior to Brown Bags, we had joined the Kamehameha Schools Glee Club choir and they needed musicians to accompany the hula dancers," she explains. "So the three of us got together to do that. Our roots are really in hula music. We thought 25 years, maybe we could get back to that, and we tour in Japan a lot and people there are always asking us to record hula songs. There are songs that people want to dance to, but the versions available are not quite hula friendly - they have the wrong tempo, or they don't play all the verses, or they have instrumentals in the middle. So people were asking us to record and we had a desire to go back to our roots."
* Contact Jon Woodhouse at email@example.com.