Around two years ago Raiatea Helm was invited to collaborate with Keola Beamer for the first time at a Buddhist peace event in Waikiki, performing for thousands, before the traditional lantern floating ceremony, releasing prayers into the sunset.
To mark the occasion Keola decided to adapt John Lennon's anthem "Imagine," translated into Hawaiian, with backing from the Honolulu-based Spring Wind Quintet.
The successful performance inspired Keola to think about a duet recording and their resulting unique collaboration is captured on a remarkable, newly released CD, "Keola Beamer & Raiatea."
Raiatea Helm Records/Starscape Music photo
Raiatea & Keola
Folk Uke — Cathy Guthrie (left) and Amy Nelson — play Stella Blues Friday and Charley’s Saturday.
Guitar great Lee Ritenouer brings his smooth jazz to Castle Theater May 28.
Cast now as "Ina," Lennon's classic opens the album, taking on new life with its Hawaiian lyrics, the melding of two beautiful voices, chant by Charles Ka'upu, and the addition of the distinctive sound of the ancient ukeke, a small stringed instrument played with the mouth, which was resurrected for contemporary times by Aunty Nona Beamer.
"After 40 years the song still spoke to me, and the way the world is going it feels like it's even more relevant now," says Keola. "It's a very powerful compelling piece, and to honor it in our own olele Hawaii gives it a new context. To me that song goes right to the human heart.
"It's probably one of the few records on the planet that opens with the sound of the ukeke," he adds, laughing. "I don't think anyone has done that before."
Keola Beamer and Raiatea Helm perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Maui Theatre in Lahaina. VIP tickets are $35, General admission is $25. Call 877-688-4800 for tickets or more information.
A labor of love that took 16 months to complete, the new work finds both artists in peak form - a master slack key guitarist and a young falsetto star - obviously relishing the opportunity to work together.
Encompassing original songs by Beamer, treasures from his great grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer, some covers including material by Kui Lee and the great British singer Sandy Denny and "When I Look in Your Eyes" (translated into Hawaiian) from the musical film "Doctor Dolittle," "Keola Beamer & Raiatea" abounds with sublime moments. Undoubtedly it will garner Grammy and multi-Hoku nominations.
Under Keola's guidance Raitea has blossomed, attaining breathtaking new creative heights and emotional depths. It's almost as if we're hearing her gorgeous voice anew.
"I really wanted to understand her voice, her gift," says Keola. "I spent a lot of time listening to it and getting a feel for her range and flexibility. I felt if I could really get the light in her voice I could guide her to material that would be meaningful for both of us. She is maturing as an artist and she has the courage to find her own heart and explore her feelings. She's a young woman with a lot to say."
"I had to try new things and open myself and take the risk to try new sounds that he introduced me to," Raiatea reports. "Like the song 'When I Look in Your Eyes,' he said I should try and sing it. I thought, I can't sing this, are you kidding, this is not me. It was like starting from scratch. I've certainly grown as an artist and person."
One of the album's most exquisite tracks, "Our Time For Letting Go," pays homage to his mother, beloved Hawaiian treasure Aunty Nona Beamer, who passed in 2008.
"Underneath the moon, I see the starlight shine," he sings. "And I remember you, When the clouds appear and the wind grows cold, I'm missing you so much, it's time to let you go."
"That was a tough time," he recalls. "I love my mom so much and all of a sudden she's gone. And I'm dealing with this emptiness, and feel lost and alone. It was the worst thing that has ever happened in my life to lose someone who is so central to your being and existence. I felt I had to learn how to let her go, and that song was really helpful in my journey."
Connecting creatively with Raiatea aided the healing process. "Working together somehow I got my love for my craft back," he continues. "I feel a pure love when I'm working and playing music with her. When you begin something you're not real clear on what's going to happen and how it's going to end. I just felt if one was a craftsman and someone gave them a gorgeous wood-working tool they had never had before, what would that do to their cabinet making? So here all of a sudden I had this new tonal palette to play with in her voice. Through that, I kind of fell in love with my craft again. It was an awesome gift to love it again. I'm at the point now where I'm past accomplishment in my life, I don't really care so much about accomplishment. I care about love and trying to do something meaningful."
Hearing about her rejuvenative impact, Raiatea reveals how the teaming also helped inspire her.
"It was pretty big to grasp," she notes. "His hanai brother, Kaliko Beamer-Trapp, told me about it, and how I had brought him back to music. It really made me feel more motivated and gave me a lot of inspiration. I had been in the process of doing my own solo album and was meeting with composers, and I was all ready to go, but something inside said, maybe this is not the right path for you. All of a sudden I felt kind of lost. I didn't know what my intentions were with the CD and my career. I think a lot of artists come to that point in life after you do your first and second and third CD. Are you going to do something different? That's when I thought about maybe doing a duet CD with Keola, and I didn't realize he was thinking the same thing."
Since their initial Waikiki teaming, the two musicians have toured in China together, and played at the Hawaii Theater at Raiatea's 25th birthday concert captured on the Na Hoku-nominated DVD "Raiatea Live!," dueting on "Honolulu City Lights."
"Living on Molokai we always listened to KPOA and they played a lot of the Beamer Brothers' songs," she says. "But I never thought I would meet him and perform with him. It's a big surprise for me."
Probably the most surprising track on the album features the two musicians singing a Hawaiian adaptation of the haunting ballad "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" by Sandy Denny, one of Britain's finest female singer-songwriters, who tragically died at the age of 31.
"It's a great song that resonated with me," Keola says. "It's a pretty sophisticated piece philosophically. That's what attracted me to it. We say things differently in the Hawaiian language, so it gave it kind of a new life, a different, beautiful context."
To bring the album to a close, Keola adopts the simplicity of the solo spotlight, first with him singing and playing guitar on Kui Lee's "Days of My Youth," and then providing a showcase for Raiatea beautifully singing and playing ukulele on Helen Desha Beamer's "Kimo Hula."
"The production is fairly sophisticated on some pieces, and I didn't want to lose track of where this all began," he explains. "It began with her vocal quality. If you look at the pieces (on the album) that my great grandmother wrote, 'Ke Ali'i Hulu Mamo' and 'Kimo Hula,' the first time I heard her sing that, I really felt that there was an older soul present. It was really interesting. I think that's part of what makes this work. She's 25 years old, but there's some older, beautiful stuff in there. That was the final thing that got me to do this. And I wanted people to see that uncluttered, unplugged, real Raiatea."
On Saturday at Maui Theatre in Lahaina, Keola and Raiatea will unite for the first time to present their new album in concert. "We've tested out one or two of the songs before, but this is the first time we will play the majority of the material," Keola notes. "It's pretty exciting."
"I can't wait," adds Raiatea. "I love the Maui energy, it brings out a lot."
They toured with their famous fathers as children, and now Arlo Guthrie's daughter Cathy Guthrie and Willie Nelson's daughter Amy Nelson play ukulele and guitar and sing in the duo Folk Uke, performing at Stella Blues on Friday and Charley's on Saturday. The shows also feature Micah Nelson and the Reflectacles, and Gail Swanson. Plus Portland's bluegrass, country outlaw band, Sugarcane, at Charley's.
Playing together for 10 years, Folk Uke has released a self-titled debut album. It features a bunch of catchy, humorous folky/Americana tunes with some titles and lyrics that warrant a parental advisory sticker, plus a sweet cover of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone." And of course their dads help out.
"You may not hear us on the radio, since our songs have been described as 'inappropriate,' 'off-color,' 'not ready for mainstream,' " they announce.
"Family values would be the common chord in this unprecedented collection of songs, since we let our dads, Willie Nelson and Arlo Guthrie, take the solos and chime in when they were compelled to do so."
"You'd be harder to come by better credentials for a folk duo than Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie considering their parentage and heritage, and their debut album, 'Folk Uke,' does nothing to dispel that belief," praised a review.
* Shows at 9 p.m. Stella's tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door. Charley's tickets $20 at the door.
Jazz guitar great Lee Ritenour plays the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater on May 28. Ritenour will be joined by a band including bassist Melvin Lee Davis and saxophonist Michael Paulo.
Nicknamed "Captain Fingers," Ritenour has produced more than 40 albums spanning straight-ahead jazz, fusion, Brazilian and contemporary crossover styles. And he's recorded with such musical heavyweights as Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Pink Floyd.
* Ticket prices are $35 and $45 with a limited number of premium seats for $75, plus applicable fees, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.
Maui bands interested in playing the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, are invited to attend an informal meeting between 5 and 7 p.m. Friday at Bistro Casanova in Kahului.
Over the past two years, a growing presence of contemporary music artists from Hawaii have played showcases at SxSW. Musicians from Hawaii who were invited to perform this year included Maui's Anuhea and Pimpbot.
Phil Tripp from Australia, the fest's Pacific rep, will host the meeting.
Tripp said that the SxSW folks are scouting for talent as well as delegates for next year's gathering, a combined festival, trade fair, exhibition and conference expected to attract 15,000 industry professionals from 50 counties.
"The music styles best suited for this event are rock, indie, singer/songwriter, pop and more modern, louder styles than slack key, traditional or hula which are more suited to world music festivals," said Tripp.
"There is a wealth of innovative modern artists who combine their culture with new beats, breaking out of the islands to the Mainland and overseas."