Loved in the islands for his popular reggae-flavored hits, in recent years Sean Na'auao has won acclaim for his exceptional traditional Hawaiian music.
Performing tonight at the Maui Fair, this multi Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning artist's latest recording finds him exploring his Hawaiian roots with an impressive collection of traditional, hapa-haole and new works, highlighted by his exemplary musicianship.
Blessed with a beautiful falsetto voice, he serenades us with classics such as John Kameaaloha Almeida's "Panini Pua Kea" and Mary Kawena Pukui's "Kipu Kai," and collaborates with friends on three original compositions, including the beautiful "Aia O Waipio."
Chuck Little photo
Maui’s Lily Meola performs “Will You Remember Mine” onstage with Willie Nelson during the recent Farm Aid benefit concert at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Steve Sherman photo
"I wanted to go back to my roots, which is Hawaiian music," Na'auao explains. "Of course I've been a part of groups like Mana'o Company playing more contemporary. I wanted to go back and do more of my culture. And because I travel to Japan a lot, I wanted to do a hula album."
As far as compiling the material, he says, "Uncle Frank Kawaikapuolakalani Hewett has written a lot of mele for me, and so he and other people close to me are included. There are also some hapa-haole songs like 'Aloha Week Hula' that I'm fond of. Back in the day, my dad was the 1970 Aloha Week King. That brought back fond memories from when I was young."
A cover of "I Fell in Love with Honolulu" was also inspired by his father.
"That's another classic song," he continues. "I wanted to record it because it's my dad's favorite song. When he used to perform live he would always sing 'I Fell in Love with Honolulu.' So I recorded it for him."
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Na'auao is kind of like a one-man band on the CD, playing guitar, ukulele and bass, as well as singing all the background vocals. On a few songs, he has some guests contributing steel guitar and piano, including his father, Lani Na'auao.
"It's easier for me," he notes. "I don't have to bring in other musicians and go through the arrangements with them, so I just do it myself. I know the sound I want."
In the liner notes for "Na'auao," Robert Cazimero praises the younger artist.
" 'Na'auao' is like a rainbow," he writes. "The merge of melody, song, words, voice and commitment would be worth the time spent stopping to appreciate the wonder, the moment."
On the album, Na'auao felt honored to play Cazimero's white, acoustic upright bass.
"Robert has been a big inspiration," he says. "My dad and Robert's dad used to play music together. I met Uncle Robert when I was really small."
Na'auao initially found fame in Hawaii as a member of Mana'o Company. Formed in the late 1980s as part of the Jawaiian movement, the band's second album "Spread a Little Aloha," won them Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for Album of the Year, Contemporary Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Released in 2012, a Mana'o Company hits collection won the 2013 Anthology Album of the Year. He eventually left the band to concentrate more on Hawaiian music.
"I didn't want to do necessarily a whole album, but I figured the only way to do it was to do a solo album, because Mana'o Company was strong on the reggae."
"Neutralize It," released in 2000, earned him a Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Song of the Year for the lovely Hawaiian song, "Ka Pilina," composed by Frank Hewett.
"It was really a blessing and opened the doors for me for Hawaiian music," he says.
Reflecting his dual musical interests, in 2001 Na'auao released two award-winning albums on the same day - the island contemporary recording "Progression" and the Hawaiian music project "Holomua."
"We thought a mixture album wouldn't work because there's a fine line between reggae and Hawaiian," he says. "iTunes wasn't popular back then. Nowadays you could probably do that, because people would just download a particular song instead of a whole album. So it was, 'Let's do one for the reggae music lovers and one for the Hawaiian music lovers.'
Having grown up influenced by Hawaiian music legends including Sons of Hawaii, Makaha Sons, Sunday Manoa and Brothers Cazimero, Na'auao feels blessed that he is helping perpetuate the culture.
"All the people who came before me paved the way for us to do what we do now," he concludes. "We're just trying to continue to hopefully push out the Hawaiian music that they did for years. I'm so fortunate to be blessed to be able to perform Hawaiian music."
* Sean Na'auao performs with Halau Ka Hanu O Lehua, under the direction of Kamaka Kukona, at 7:30 tonight at the Maui Fair.
Other Fair entertainment includes Mailani at 7 p.m.; and Nuff Sedd at 8 p.m. on Friday. Saturday's schedule includes Weldon Kekauoha and Halau Kekuaokalaaualailiahi, under the direction of Iliahi and Haunani Paredes at 6 p.m.; Makaha Sons at 7:30 p.m.; and Willie K at 9 p.m. Sunday's entertainment includes Andy Kaina and the Kaina Country Band at 1:30 p.m.; Da Braddahs at 4:30 p.m.; Na Hoa at 6 p.m.; and Kapena at 7:30 p.m.
General admission is $7 for adults and $3 for children ages 5 to 11 today through Saturday; and $5 for adults and $2 for children ages 5 to 11 on Sunday.
Coming up at Stella Blues Cafe in Kihei, Willie K performs at 9 p.m. Friday with the Warehouse Blues Band; cost is $10. Amy Hanaiali'i returns on Oct. 11 for a dinner show at 6 p.m. ($60 for four course dinner, $30 for show only at 7 p.m.) And on Oct. 19, there's a Stevie Ray Vaughn Tribute Benefit night featuring more than 30 musicians playing. Tickets cost $20. Call 874-3779.
Headlining at the annual Farm Aid benefit concert on Sept. 21 at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Willie Nelson introduced a young Maui friend to the crowd of more than 25,000.
"There's a little gal from Maui that's singing up a storm and we have a new song out together," he announced, and out stepped Lily Meola to perform the song, "Will You Remember Mine," which is featured on Nelson's new album "To All the Girls."
Set for general release on Oct. 15, the new CD features the country icon collaborating with a host of female artists, including legends Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Wynonna Judd; newer stars like Carrie Underwood and Shelby Lynne; and our rising young star, a former student of the Haleakala Waldorf School.
Celebrating his 80th birthday this year, in planning the new duets' album, Nelson decided to include the Maui singer on it.
"He asked me if I wanted to do a song on it," says Meola. "And since I'm not very well known and the CD was coming out he thought it would be a good idea to take me on the road with him."
And that's how she got to sing before thousands in New York state and be part of a historic recording.
"It's a pretty amazing feeling," she enthuses. "I feel so lucky."
So how was Farm Aid, which included sets by Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Neil Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson?
"It was so cool," she reports. "There were so many amazing people playing. I got to meet Jack Johnson and Neil Young, and getting up there to sing was incredible."
Besides the tune featured on the new album, Meola was joined by Lukas and Micah Nelson at the festival close to back the country legend on a tune he announced as, "a new gospel song" - "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
Check out videos of the event and you will discover another Maui musician on stage with Nelson, guitarist Tom Conway.
"I just got back from a two-week tour with Willie, played the entire show with him and his band every night," says Conway. "It was an absolute thrill. The best experience of my life."
In August, Conway had played some tour dates backing Meola in Southern California, and the Maui duo ended up opening for Nelson at a show in San Diego.
"After our set, Willie wanted us to play with him," Conway explains. "I played the entire night, and a couple of weeks later I got a text asking if I was available to go out on the road. Willie knows that I know his catalogue pretty well. "
Besides touring with Nelson's band and playing Farm Aid, the guitarist also got to play for an hour before a national audience on Sept. 12 for a QVC TV channel special promoting the "To All the Girls" album.
"It was a great first gig, on national television," he marvels.