George Kahumoku Jr. first met blues harmonica virtuoso Norton Buffalo back in the early 1990s. The two musicians struck up a friendship that blossomed into playing the occasional gig together, collaborating on workshops and over the years, recording a bunch of songs.
As a tribute to the late harmonica great, who died in 2009, George has just released "From Paradise," a wonderful CD that seamlessly blends the talents of two masters of their instruments.
"I met him through Jesse Colin Young," George recalls. "I performed for Jesse's wedding in the '80s and helped him plant about 20 acres of mac nuts (on the Big Island). Eventually he had kids and they went to the Waldorf School I taught at in Kona. He would do fundraisers and Jesse would bring Norton over. We jammed and recorded 'Lei Pikake' for Dancing Cat in the '90s (on "Hawaiian Love Songs" CD). Then we did the "Hawaiian War" chant on our ('The Spirit of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar") album in 2008.
"We recorded together over 15 years," George continues. "We wanted to do some originals by each of us. I had to learn his songs and he had to learn mine. His were easy because they were in English, but he had to learn Hawaiian. He practiced 'til he got it perfect. His pronunciation was impeccable. He was really a musician's musician. He was known for the blues, but he can play anything."
One of the most versatile harmonica players of our time, the acclaimed harpist is best known for his work recording and touring for decades with the Steve Miller Band. Over the years he also recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Loggins, the Doobie Brothers (including the Grammy Award-winning "Minute By Minute") Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers and Elvin Bishop.
He was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2009.
"He had a hard time breathing and found he had lung cancer," George reports. "In less than a month he was gone. He didn't smoke, but he played in a lot of bars in the '60s, '70s and '80s, so a lot of smoking, and as a harmonica player he was breathing extra."
One might not expect to hear the harmonica in the context of Hawaiian slack key guitar, but Norton's warm tone, expressive ability and empathy for the material makes this a remarkable collaboration.
"A lot of people don't realize Hawaiians did everything," says George. "Like the song 'Hi'ilawe' was actually composed on the violin, not the guitar. My grandfather played harmonica and accordion, we had a lot of influences from different cultures."
Opening in paniolo territory with the country calypso of Norton's "Another Day," the album flows into George's "Ku'u 'Aina Aloha o Kahakuloa" moving tribute to his home land and winds through songs by the Rev. Dennis Kamakahi, Kui Lee, the Makaha Sons' 'Moon' Kauakahi and Queen Lili'uokalani.
Besides Norton's wife, Lisa Flores-Buffalo, a gifted guitarist who plays on many of the songs, guests on the album include Dennis Kamakahi, Jeff Peterson, Herb Ohta Jr., and Keoki Kahumoku.
"We all jammed together at my workshops," George notes. "But we didn't have anything recorded together, so when they found out he passed on they all wanted to participate in some way."
Among the jewels on the album, the duo delivers a sublime, 8-minute version of "Amazing Grace," sung in Hawaiian and English. Other songs range from the funky blues shuffle of "Waipahe'e" and Kamakahi's beautiful love song "Kou Aloha Mau a Mau," to the retro /jazzy "Waikiki Hula" and the closing, classic Neopolitan song "Torna a Surriento," performed as an instrumental by Norton and his wife.
"We had about 60s songs," George says. "We tried to do stuff that gave the most soul, as a tribute."
Besides releasing the new CD, George is currently involved in a new documentary on his life, directed by filmmaker Dave Barry. "He's been filming me for about the last year and half," George explains. "Any time we did a show he would put it on YouTube and now we get about 300,000 hits a day on our web site. We've got to do a lot of editing, so we were trying to raise some money."
Funding is being sought through a KickStarter campaign to produce a 90-minute documentary. So far they've raised about two thirds of the funds needed.
George Kahumoku Jr. hosts the weekly Masters of Hawaiian Music shows at the Napili Kai Beach Resort on Wednesday evenings. Led Kaapana next performs at 7:30 p.m. on July 11.
HAPA has a new CD out, "Uakoko" (Earth clinging rainbow),
dedicated to chanter Charles Ka'upu. It will be available online (hapa.com and Amazon by July 1) and currently at their gigs.
"After Charles passed, during morning walks in Manoa I kept seeing all these low lying rainbows," says Barry Flanagan. "And there were rainbows all over the place when his ashes were scattered."
It features all new material focused on, "all of Charles' favorite songs, plus three originals," Barry explains. "He'd be singing these songs driving after gigs. So it's really dedicated to him, something we thought that he would love." The originals include the "Love Theme" from Adam Sandler's movie "Just Go With It." "I think it's the best produced thing we've done since the 'Maui' CD," he adds.
In other HAPA news Barry says they were thrilled that "Hawaii Five-O" closed the second season with a final scene featuring their instrumental "Stars in the Morning Sky."
HAPA has embarked on an extended residency at Stella Blues, performing on Friday nights through the end of July, when they head out for tours of the Mainland and Japan.
Dinner and show costs $60, show only, $30. Dinner seating at 6 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Call 874-3779.
With the music-album industry in free fall, many artists across the Mainland and in Hawaii are reassessing how to more effectively reach fans with new music. Like Brother Noland they're adopting the grassroots approach of marketing at their gigs.
"The market has changed so much, we're experimenting," says Noland. "Mountain Apple is exploring different options too. It's like no one knows where the tipping point is. I've had several meetings with (Mountain Apple CEO) Jon De Mello about where is music going for Hawaii and how is it selling. It's like the Wild West now. It's full circle back to playing live."
Noland will celebrate the release of his latest album, "Greatest Hits 2" at a CD release party at Duke's Beach House on Friday.
"It's on iTunes, but our experiment was to do a project where I could move with it and play with it and people would impulse buy," Noland continues. "I play live so much, but I'm not toting around a product that's fresh. So this is an interim project before I do another one with new songs."
"GH2" offers a sweeping panorama of the many shades of Brother Noland. The 19-song collection covers the gamut from the jubilant Jawaiian of "Are You Native?," the sweet elegy to "Duke" and the romance of "I Love You Girl," to the jazz groove of "Tropical Baby" the fervent folk balladry of "The Many Things," the alt-rock of "Life Feels Fine," and the lovely slack key instrumental "Rainbow Maker." And it includes one of my favorites - the CS&N-like anthem "The Water," from "Mystical Fish," where Noland honors the purifying power of our streams and ocean.
Extraordinary in scope the album is a glowing testament to Noland's depth, his visionary perspective and the diversity of his artistry.
"A lot of it is new because it wasn't played," he notes. "There's a bunch of songs that are breathing new life. 'Coconut Girl' has to be on everything because that is the story. It was fun choosing them. I really like how 'GH2' came out. It's power-packed, all real strong."
In the album's liner notes Noland offers an intriguing observation. "I have always been in a 50th state of mind," he writes. "This is my area code (808). Through the years my musical passion and focus has always been about elevating the contemporary imagery of Hawaii's multi-cultural music . . . It can both enslave and inspire you at the same time."
In amplifying this statement he explains: "When you pioneer and explore you take a risk. You can be enslaved in a sense by tradition so much that you're always concerned about how contemporary you are. Everything for me is Hawaiian music and it's coming from one Hawaiian, and it's coming from my inside not my outside. It's interesting because I'm a wordsmith and words take on a complexion from the reflection of somebody's projection. To be enslaved is like to sing the blues and to be inspired is to sing joyous, hallelujahs and happiness. To me both are trigger points in the pursuit of your art and creation.
"There are so many different fish ponds I perform in. This week it's slack key, two weeks ago I was at the jazz and blues festival at the Mauna Kea playing with Eric Marienthal and Javon Jackson and Les McCann. Two months ago I was playing with spoken word guys and the national slam poet. It's like feeding your amakua, the diversity of the spoken and the melodic word. Last year I did the Lead Belly project in Seattle. I've been doing this for 35 years. And I'm hard to pigeonhole and that's been my enslavement."