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Ekolu singer gives solo act a shot

Lukela Keala, bandmates up for multiple Hoku awards

FIRST PHOTO: After years of releasing popular reggae albums with his Ekolu bandmates, Lukela Keala pursued a longtime goal of recording his first Hawaiian language recording, which is now up for multiple Na Hoku Hanohano awards. Lukela Keala photos

• EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui News is featuring some of Maui’s Na Hoku Hanohano Award nominees in the lead-up to the ceremony in September when the winners will be announced.

Listening to Lukela Keala’s self-titled debut album, one could imagine he had been singing Hawaiian music for years. His sweet vocals combined with a gift for the language, artful instrumental backing and arrangements and obvious love for the classic tradition make it one of the most memorable releases of the year.

So it is a surprise to discover it’s his first Hawaiian language recording and a project he has been contemplating for more than 20 years.

“It’s been a goal of mine from the very beginning,” the Maui-born musician explained. “But I could never get to it because I was always recording Ekolu albums.”

As a founding member of the island reggae trio, Keala has been releasing popular, award-winning albums for years. Now stepping out with Hawaiian music, his efforts have also been widely lauded.

SECOND PHOTO: Popular Maui-grown reggae band Ekolu is up for Group of the Year and Reggae Album of the Year for their latest recording “2020.”

“Lukela Keala” was honored with five 2021 Na Hoku Hanohano nominations for Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, Island Music Album, and Hawaiian Single and Song of the Year for his original composition, “Uilani.”

“This is my first solo Hawaiian album, so it’s nice to be acknowledged in a different category other than reggae,” he said.

Keala was also nominated as a member of Ekolu for their latest recording “2020,” in the Album of the Year, Group of the Year and Reggae Album of the Year categories. Full of upbeat, positive songs, “2020” included the Hawaiian language reggae flavored “Hualalai,” and a nod to pandemic distress with “Wicked Rona.”

“I thought that was pretty cool to have two albums nominated in multiple categories,” he continued. “I just really wanted to do something different, something that nobody was doing. Now everyone is heckling me to do three albums in a year. I said to them, ‘Go and support and buy these two albums first, then I’ll think about it.’ ”

Covering familiar songs on “Lukela Keala,” including Robert Cazimero’s “Pane Mai” and Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake’s “Aloha Kaua’i,” he settled on some Hawaiian favorites, generally keeping with tradition, while updating John Almeida’s “A’oia” with a touch of Ekolu-style reggae.

“Originally I had almost all slow Hawaiian songs lined up for the album,” he explained. “But as I was recording each song I felt there need to be a switch up and so I grabbed songs like ‘Pane Mai’ and ‘A’oia,’ and gave it a little Ekolu/Valley Boys twist.”

Among impressive original songs on the album, he paid tribute to his Maui home and to his wife.

“The song ‘Kapuna’ was written for the valley that I grew up in,” he said. “It basically speaks about the love I have for this land. ‘Uilani’ was written for my wife. It speaks of her strength and incomparable beauty, both inside and out. My niece, Nene Telona, helped with these two songs. I have been singing Hawaiian music for a long time, but only recently started getting into the writing part with my niece who speaks fluent Hawaiian. It’s very different from writing Ekolu songs. Ekolu songs are easy because it’s second nature to me. It’s what I’ve been doing for more than half my life.”

Growing up, he was mostly exposed to popular music from the 1960s through ’80s.

“I was around that type of music daily,” he recalled. “If you take a listen to just about every Ekolu album, you’ll find those oldies but goodies tunes. On our first album there’s ‘Bye Bye Love’ and ‘Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.’ On the second album there’s ‘Now or Never’ by Elvis, and the third album there’s ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac. I absolutely love ’80s music with a passion.”

Forming Ekolu with Akoni Dellomes and Makapu Ho’opi’i while all three were students at Baldwin High School, Keala credits his uncle, former Waiehu Sons musician Kevin Brown, with providing invaluable guidance.

“He was our music teacher in high school and was a very important role model,” Keala said. “He taught us how to play slack key guitar and how to play ‘ukulele, and how to blend when we did harmonies. He basically taught me everything I know. Most people play the standard guitar tuning, but everything I play is in the slack key tuning. I never got to learn the regular tuning. I didn’t have the patience for it.”

As for any initial vision for the band, he laughingly reported: “We had absolutely no vision. When you’re 18 years old, you don’t think of that. You just want to play music and impress the chicks.”

Over time Ekolu became one of Maui’s most popular bands with local hits like “Stuck on You,” “Just Like That” and “Someone Loves You Honey.” Their albums include “Back to The Valley,” “We Are Hawaii’s Finest” and “Ekolu Music 3: For Hawaii,” which won the Reggae Album Hoku in 2019.

They also won Hoku awards in 2020, for Anthology of the Year for “20 Year Anniversary Timeless,” and Single of the Year for their powerful song “Desecration,” about the Mauna Kea protests.

“For the most part we mostly talk about love, but when I saw what was happening on the Mauna, it drove me crazy,” he said. “It built up a lot of negative emotion in me at the time, seeing my people, especially our kupuna get arrested for something that rightfully belongs to us as Hawaiian natives. This was heartbreaking for me. I wrote this song in an hour and 20 minutes, pacing back and forth in my home, frustrated to see what was happening.”

Sharing the stage at concerts with reggae stars like Bunny Wailer, Luciano, Alpha Blondy, UB40 and The Wailers, highlights for the band include touring the Mainland and traveling abroad.

“It’s been such a great experience to see and learn about different cultures and taste their foods,” he said. “There’s nothing but love when we go on tour.”

Ekolu recently sold out three shows at da Playground.

“It was our first gigs back in Maui since the pandemic hit,” he noted.

While there are no dates set at this time for any future Maui gigs, more music is on the way as Keala spent time during the pandemic composing new songs.

“I have them all set and ready to be recorded on Ekolu’s 12th album,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back into the studio.”

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