Hawaiian music legends: Together one-on-one for first time

Sistah Robi joins the Wild Hawaiian at next Artist 2 Artist showcase

Robi Kahakalau (above) joins Henry Kapono at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Artist-2-Artist series at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the McCoy Studio Theater in Kahului. Tickets are $35, $45 and $65 (plus applicable fees). For tickets or more information, visit the box office, call 242-7469 or go online to www.mauiarts.org. Photo courtesy the MACC

Over the years, Robi Kahakalau has performed at a number of concerts featuring Henry Kapono, but the two acclaimed musicians have never teamed before in an intimate setting like the Artist 2 Artist showcase at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului.

“It’s very exciting because this is my first one-on-one,” says Robi. “He’s done them in the past with Jerry Santos, Malani Bilyeu and Keola Beamer. They all bloomed in the ’70s, and I’m the first one not from that era. I didn’t get there until 1980 — but knowing me, we will have a lot to talk about.”

One of Hawaii’s most popular entertainers, Sistah Robi first achieved fame with the Hawaiian Style Band and went on to have a successful career releasing a number of Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning albums.

A featured singer on various albums by some of Hawaii’s leading musicians, she has recorded with Keali’i Reichel, the Makaha Sons, the Ka’au Crater Boys and HAPA. This versatile artist also released a brilliant version of Bob Marley’s “Do It Twice” with Brazilian singer Ceu on the Putumayo collection, “Tribute to a Reggae Legend.”

At the MACC show, Robi will be accompanied by a few musician friends.

Derek Gripper, South African classical guitarist, visits the McCoy Studio Theater tonight. Photo courtesy the MACC

“I’m not comfortable playing by myself,” she says. “So I will have this wonderful Maui boy, Josh Kahula from Lahaina, play with me. He’s an amazing musician; and I’m also going to have another friend play, retired firefighter Jarret Roback, and there will be a couple of others.”

As yet, Robi and Kapono have not officially recorded together, although she sang on the “Together Hawaii: A Song for Japan” single, which benefited the 2011 Japan Earthquake & Pacific Tsunami Relief fund.

“That’s one of my dreams,” she says about a possible recording. “It’s not out of the question.”

While she became widely known singing with the Hawaiian Style Band, Robi had previously spent about 10 years playing local clubs on Oahu.

“I hooked up with the Hawaiian Style Band through the Ka’au Crater Boys,” she explains. “I would sing every week with them, and one night Ernie (Cruz) said these guys from the Hawaiian Style Band needed help with Hawaiian pronunciation — and the rest is history.”

Studying at the University of Hawaii, Robi graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian language.

“It was so close to being extinct,” she notes. “Now we have keiki and their first language is Hawaiian.”

Hawaiian Style Band founders’ Wade Cambern and Bryan Kessler initially only employed her Hawaiian language skills — until they discovered her vocal talent.

“I ended up singing for them in order to teach them how to pronounce a song,” she continues. “The producer wanted me on the CD, and it was my luckiest break ever.”

Their Hoku-winning debut, “Vanishing Treasures,” featured such highlights as the Robi-sung gems “No Ke Ano Ahi Ahi” and “Kaimana Hila,” along with Brother Iz’s [Israel Kamakawiwo’ole] anthemic “Living in a Sovereign Land” and the joyful reggae of “Live a Little.”

After two more classic albums with the band, Robi set off on a solo career, attracting an amazing roster of island musicians to back her on popular, award-winning albums like “Sistah Robi” in 1995. Special guests on her albums have ranged from Roland Cazimero, Ernie Cruz Jr., Sean Na’auao and Fiji to Keali’i Reichel, John Cruz, Cyril Pahinui and the Makaha Sons.

“Because I played with so many different people when I would record a song, I would think who would sound the most appropriate for it, and that’s how I picked all the different people,” she explains. “It was not because they were a big name. They were good friends.”

Typically, Robi closed her albums with a jazz instrumental by her father, a prominent jazz bassist.

“He never got the acknowledgment that he should have gotten,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite parts of having CDs out — hearing him.”

By the time of her third album, she highlighted her broad range with some contemporary Hawaiian songs mixed in with covers of favorites by Bob Marley, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Wonder.

“My sister wrote every Hawaiian song on the CD,” she notes. “My producing partner said, ‘We need some English songs to keep up your “my mixed plate thing.” ‘ I said, ‘I’ve got my favorites.’ ‘Blue Bayou’ was for my mom, because she really likes that song. The covers are favorite songs of mine and requests I would get.”

Her latest album, “Robi Calling,” continues to showcase her singing across genres, from the Makaha Sons “Ke’ala” and the Tahitian “Tera Mai Te Tiare” to Beres Hammond’s “Reggae Calling,” John Denver’s classic “Sunshine On My Shoulders” and the Sinatra torch song “One for My Baby.”

“Usually people are connected with a genre, and here’s Robi who goes from traditional Hawaiian to jazz to Stevie Wonder and Linda Ronstadt. I like different stuff, it’s who I am. I enjoy so many genres of music. My dad always said, ‘There’s good and bad music, never close your mind.’ So I learned to have an open mind about any type of music.”

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Tonight there’s an opportunity to be awed by the guitar wizardry of South African musician Derek Gripper performing in the McCoy Studio Theater at the MACC. A classically trained guitarist, Gripper has dazzled audiences around the world with his extraordinary ability to interpret on a guitar complex songs that are usually played on two koras (the 21-stringed West African lute).

“In theory, this should not even be possible,” marveled a U.K. Financial Times’ review. “The South African guitarist has arranged an album’s worth of kora duets (“One Night on Earth“) for solo acoustic guitar, essentially transposing somewhere between 44 and 46 strings onto six. The result is a triumph of rapid-fire fingering.”

Classical guitar legend John Williams reported he thought it was “absolutely impossible until I heard Derek Gripper do it,” and Malian kora star Toumani Diabate was equally amazed.

The guitarist’s most recent album, “Bach Sonata and Partita I,” features Bach’s solo violin works transcribed for guitar.

• Tickets are $40 (plus applicable fees). For tickets or more information, visit the box office, call 242-7469 or go online to www.mauiarts.org.