To help foster cross-cultural understanding, every year the U.S. Department of State, in partnership with the nonprofit American Voices organization, sends a bunch of musical groups and ensembles to perform in many nations around the world.
Representing a wide spectrum of American culture, these groups can range from blues, bluegrass, Cajun and country, to Latin, hip-hop, jazz, rock, and R&B musicians. And now, for the first time this year - Hawaiian.
In late April and early May, Keola and Moanalani Beamer and Jeff Peterson traveled to Brazil to introduce Hawaii's unique slack key guitar music and hula to audiences in 10 cities.
As part of a U.S. Department of State and American Voices partnership to foster cross-cultural understanding, Jeff Peterson (from left), Keola Beamer and Moanalani Beamer traveled to cities throughout Brazil earlier this year. They are shown here performing at Teatro Paoil in Curitiba.
PAUL ROCKOWER photo
"It was really great," enthuses Keola, back on Maui. "I didn't realize that the U.S. Department of State has some very interesting programs around the world. They want to be more focused around what they call soft power, with cultural exchanges that help create a bond with people."
"It's the same program that sent Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz to different countries," says Jeff. "In recent years, instead of just jazz music, they present all kinds of music from throughout the Unites States. This is the first time they ever sent a Hawaiian group."
To be accepted into the program, the Maui musicians competed with more than 200 groups from around the country. Fifteen were chosen.
"We played some of our music, and they gave us a list of songs to choose (for the audition) and asked us to arrange a song," Jeff explains. "There was an African and a Middle Eastern song and 'Guantanamera' (the famous Cuban folk song). So we did a Hawaiian arrangement with hula and Hawaiian lyrics of 'Guantanamera.' We had no idea where they would send us."
The trio was supposed to tour Venezuela as well as Brazil, but the death of Hugo Chavez and the subsequent divisive election changed those plans.
"Unfortunately, just as we were getting ready to go, we got a call from the consulate that the situation in Venezuela was very precarious," says Keola. "They had completed their election and there was rioting in the streets. The State Department said they couldn't guarantee our safety. But it's been rescheduled for next April; we'll go to Venezuela in 2014 and possibly Bolivia and Chile."
So how did Brazilians respond to Hawaiian music?
"Brazil is a huge country with a beautiful heritage from different cultures all integrated, and of course, they brought samba to the world, mostly through the works of Antonio Carlos Jobim," Keola notes. "The pieces he composed have a beautiful kind of openness, so I think they really liked Hawaiian music because it has some of that open kind of feel to it. We were very much appreciated, getting standing ovations."
"They really loved learning hula," Jeff adds. "Brazilians are very soulful people very in touch with dance. Moana was a wonderful kumu."
In the city of Sao Paulo, the musicians were surprised to discover a fledgling hula troupe.
"There were about 10 dancers," Keola expains. "They had only learned stuff from the Internet and had created various little routines. So to actually study with a kumu hula was huge for them, they were all crying at the end. We didn't expect it. Most of the places we went, people did not know where Hawaii was or anything about it.
"We went to some inner city schools with disadvantaged children, and Moana did some beautiful hula workshops. When you get kids to do stuff they're much more engaged, so getting them to move their hips teaching them hula was very effective."
All the performances were free and often included collaborations with local musicians. In Salvador de Bahia, the most African of Brazilian cities, they presented a workshop at the legendary Olodum music and dance school, made famous in a Michael Jackson video.
"We'd go in the day before and rehearse maybe three songs in our style and three songs in their style and present that the following evening with a series of concerts," Keola says. "So there was a focus on collaboration with some really terrific Brazilian guitar players."
Jeff was equally impressed by the musicians they encountered. "In Sao Paulo, we worked with a brilliant guitar player, Ivan Vilela, who plays the Portuguese viola caipira, which sounds to me reminiscent of the Gabby band. Another cool instrument was the cavaquinho, their version of a ukulele.
"I found some interesting parallels in terms of the types of instruments played. The Portuguese influence is very strong in Hawaii, and of course in Brazil. The cavaquinho is tuned to an open G chord, which is the most common slack key chord. And the viola caipira has about 20 different open tunings, so they have their own version of slack key."
With high crime rates in most urban areas, one wonders: Were they concerned at all during their travels?
"It was a little scary sometimes," says Keola. "We'd be at a restaurant and take a cab home at 12:30 at night and cab drivers do not stop at red lights. Everybody goes right through them because they don't want to be carjacked. Brazil has a huge problem with poverty, millions of people living in abject poverty. There are some favelas, slums, that the police won't even enter - they're too scared."
While they performed as cultural ambassadors from America, the musicians were informed they didn't have to espouse any particular political perspective.
"We're really not U.S. government people," Keola says, laughing. "They told us you don't have to spout any kind of political rhetoric, be who you are, express your own opinions. A couple of people asked, 'Do Hawaiians have any problems with the U.S. government?' And I said, 'Yes, we do and we're trying to resolve them. We have issues we're trying to work with in terms of our own sovereignty.' It was OK to express that."
Jeff says he felt inspired by the trip to delve deeper into Brazilian music. "I've listened to Brazilian music for a long time, but getting there I realized how little I knew. There's a vast variety of types of music. I've been arranging a lot of Brazilian songs. I want to do a recording of Brazilian music now."
For Keola, the tour was another opportunity to share the beauty of aloha.
"To share love and compassion is huge," he says. "People in Brazil aren't outwardly friendly, it's not like Hawaii where people smile and hug each other, generally they're a bit more reserved. To remind them of these connections that human beings have and that inside each human being is this light of aloha, they responded beautifully to it. It was very meaningful. What a great opportunity to help spread the beautiful philosophy of aloha around the world."
* Keola and Moanalani Beamer and Jeff Peterson have been invited by the State Department to visit Venezuela in 2014, and possibly Bolivia and Chile. Jeff will join Nathan Aweau for a performance in Ulupalakua on Sunday on Maui's Winery grounds.
Great news that funk/soul superstars Earth, Wind and Fire are returning to Maui playing the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Aug. 4. This legendary group has enjoyed enormous success for decades, forging an infectious, distinctive sound with many memorable, chart-topping hits including "Shining Star," "September," 'Let's Groove," "Boogie Wonderland," "After The Love Has Gone," "Reasons," "That's The Way Of The World," and "Sing A Song." Earth, Wind and Fire will release a new album, "Now, Then & Forever" in September.
As part of the Arts Education for Children Group's Jazz Maui 2013 festival, award-winning pianist Tommy James, music director of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, will headline a benefit concert on Wednesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater.
A leading pianist, composer and arranger, besides the Duke Ellington Orchestra, James has performed and/or recorded with Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, Roy Ayers, The Stylistics, Grand Master Flash, The Spinners, and The Temptations.
Also on the bill will be Louisiana-based Louis Romanos Quartet, who play original music based on both traditional and modern jazz, interweaving Latin, bebop, and New Orleans street-beat rhythms; trumpeter Jim Seeley; and alto saxophonist Peter Brainin of the Arturo O'Farrill Latin Jazz Orchestra.
* Preshow music in the courtyard features Gabriel Goebbert & Friends from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Concert begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25. The evening will benefit the Arts Education for Children Group and Mana'o Radio. For tickets visit the MACC box office, call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.
A concert/auction fundraiser will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Casanova Italian Restaurant & Deli in Makawao to support the Mana'olana Pink Paddlers organization. The Maui band, Soul Kitchen, will headline and Mana'o Radio's Kathy Collins will emcee.
Maui's only nonprofit outrigger paddling organization is focused on helping cancer survivors. They acquired their first pink canoe through a donation from McDonalds of Maui. A generous private donation enabled them to order a second pink canoe, which will arrive this summer.
A silent auction includes gift certificates for activities and restaurants on Maui. A $10 donation will be requested at the door.