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Up-and-coming Maui trio stays true to its roots

Ka Pilina hopeful for Hoku wins for debut album ‘Na Wahi Pana’

Shania Lee (from left), Kamakana Kawa‘a and Emalani Kekauoha-Schultz make up Ka Pilina, a young up-and-coming Maui trio that has been nominated for three Na Hoku Hanohano Awards this year. — KAIMILOA VISUAL ARTS / ISAAC MORALES photo

When the nominations for the 2021 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards were announced in May, Maui’s Ka Pilina was overjoyed to discover their debut album “Na Wahi Pana,” had received three nominations — for Hawaiian Music Album of the Year, Hawaiian Language Performance and Most Promising Artist(s).

“When we first heard the news, the three of us were shocked,” said Shania Lee, 19, who plays bass with the female trio. “We hoped to be considered, but we were in categories with nominees who were more experienced than us. We didn’t expect to be nominated for as many categories as we were.”

In the Hawaiian Music Album and Hawaiian Language Performance categories, they are competing against previous Hoku winners Kainani Kahaunaele, Ho’okena and Kumu Hula Kamaka Kukona. Most Promising nominees include Maui’s Makamae Auwae.

Still, they are hopeful of a measure of triumph.

“We’re all very hopeful of winning,” said Lee. “Hopefully three,” she added, laughing.

With its debut album, “Na Wahi Pana,” Ka Pilina uses music to pay tribute to “the stories of our home.” — KAIMILOA VISUAL ARTS / ISAAC MORALES photo

“We’re just so thankful for the opportunity to record and have the music shared and considered.”

Because of rising COVID-19 cases, plans were cancelled for a live Hoku ceremony in September with the 2021 nominees. Now it will be held remotely on Oct. 7.

“We were all pretty excited to be there in person,” she said. “But it’s really important to all of us that we are protected, especially with COVID so high in numbers.”

Resplendent with three lovely voices, the trio sounds so assured and accomplished on “Na Wahi Pana,” listeners would imagine they have been recording and playing together for years.

Only founded in late 2018, the group also features Kamakana Kawa’a, 19, on guitar, and 17-year-old Ke Kula Kaiapuni o Maui ma Kekaulike senior Emalani Kekauoha-Schultz, on ‘ukulele. Both Kawa’a and Kekauoha-Schultz are fluent in Hawaiian.

“All three of us grew up in Wailuku, but it wasn’t until 2018 that we connected and formed Ka Pilina,” Lee explained. “In 2016, Kamakana and I started playing together in a pop group with some of our peers. After that group ended, Kamakana and I continued playing together, and we started to focus on Hawaiian music.

“Through Kamakana’s parents, we were introduced to Emalani.”

A former member of the Maui High School marching band, Lee plays piano, trumpet, guitar, ‘ukulele and bass.

“I’ve always wanted to be a musician ever since I was little,” she said. “Initially, I just played ‘ukulele and piano, but when I started playing with a band with Kama in middle school (Iao School), I had to be really versatile. We would switch instruments, and I learned a lot from Kama. I like to arrange music, and I have a lot of experience from school band and performing on my own. So I’ve had the opportunity to arrange and create the music and help the other girls with their skills.”

Initially playing together for fun at small private gigs for family and friends, they were getting ready to take on the world when the pandemic hit.

“In 2020, we had a lot of gigs coming up that would have put us in the public eye, but because of COVID, performances got canceled,” she noted.

For their debut album, these gifted young musicians carefully selected compositions that would express their love for Hawai’i.

“As much as we want to share our music with the world, we understand that within our music are the stories of our home here in Hawai’i, and ultimately we share our music to serve the community and Hawaiian culture at large,” said Lee.

These special songs include Queen Lili’uokalani’s “Paoakalani,” featuring Kaulike Pescaia on piano and steel guitar, and a beautiful version of the classic “Puamana,” celebrating the Farden family’s Lahaina home.

“The theme of our album is centered around connecting to our roots,” she explained. “The mele we chose speak of different places and features of Hawai’i. One of our favorites, ‘Paoakalani,’ holds special meaning as it was written by Queen Lili’uokalani while she was imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace.”

Other highlights include Aunty Helen Lindsey Parker’s “ ’Olu O Pu’ulani,” with Nuff Sedd’s Joshua Kaluha on guitar, which was composed for her sister’s guest house overlooking the Kalaupapa Settlement on Moloka’i.

Two new songs came from Kumu Hula Hokulani Holt, as chants arranged by Liz Morales. “Na Kanaloa” honors Kaho’olawe, and “Hinaulu’ohi’a” references the goddess who brings the ua loku rain, especially when ‘ohi’a lehua is picked. Both tracks are embellished with the traditional sound of the ipu heke and ‘ili’ili played by Pohai Dias. Morales also contributed the album’s title song, co-composed with Joni DeMello, which pays tribute to the beauty of Waikapu, Wailuku, Wai’ehu and Waihe’e.

“During the process of creating our album, we had the opportunity to work with Kumu Hokulani Holt,” Lee said. “She graciously provided us with two of her oli, which Aunty Liz Morales arranged and turned into mele for us to learn and perform. Kumu Hoku provided us with her mana’o so we could have a deeper understanding of the mele and present them better with that knowledge in mind.”

As their manager, Morales mentored the women and encouraged them to record in time for 2021 award consideration.

“This opportunity came as a surprise as we expected recording to come up later in our journey after gaining more exposure,” said Lee. “She contributed to our growth by teaching us various playing styles and performance techniques.”

Looking to the future, Lee said, “the three of us are interested in sharing our music with people from different cultural backgrounds, but, at the core of what we wish to accomplish as a group is to serve as preservers of Hawaiian culture, language, history, values and traditions through our music. Our goal is to share and perpetuate our Hawaiian culture not only in our own communities but to the world with our music.”

The 44th annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards ceremony will be broadcast on K5 on Oct. 7, KGMB on Oct. 9 and KHNL on Oct. 30. All broadcasts begin at 7 p.m.

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