By Hadley Nunes
In January 2016, Lana Lane Studios creative Nicholas Kaleikini came out with two new projects, both envisioned and produced at the Lana Lane Studios recording studio he helped establish in 2014. I met up with Nicholas recently to talk about both projects and explore some of the connections between them.
The first EP he’s released with his grandfather Danny Kaleikini, “Aloooha” combines Hawaiian music with jazz and blues in an homage to his grandfather’s legacy as a legendary Hawaiian singer and performer. The album includes both covers and one original track by Nicholas and Kaniela.
At seventy-eight, Danny Kaleikini—also known as Kaniela—is an iconic figure in the world of Hawaiian music. Proclaimed the official title of “Ambassador of Aloha” by Governor Waihee in 1988, his calling has been to spread the message of aloha to the people of Hawaii and audiences around the world through music. “He’s all about sharing what he believes in terms of aloha as a way to bring people together,” Nicholas said. “He’s a big believer in the idea that aloha spirit is not designated to one race or culture, it’s more universal than that, it’s something we all share.”
“Smile” by Charlie Chaplin is the first song on the album and was inspired by a version the late Phyllis Diller sang with the Pink Martini’s. Nicholas discovered Kaniela had already recorded the track in Hawaiian in the eighties. He described the rendition on “Aloooha” as an “interpretation rather than a translation.” Dr. Larry Kimura a professor from the University of Hawaii at Hilo originally translated the song for Kaniela and revised the Hawaiian lyrics for this project.
As an instrumentalist, Nicholas’ sensibilities toward sound traverse into the abstract, opening up language for a play with its very fundamentals. An original track on the album called ‘Ku’uipo I Ka He’e Pue One’ can be translated, simply as, “I love you.” A song they wrote together, the goal was to focus on the phonetics of the words. “It’s so beautiful how something sounds without any meaning attached to it,” Nicholas said.
There are many reasons why Kaniela has captivated audiences and claimed his honored title as the steward of aloha, but for Nicholas his ability to connect directly with people has had the greatest impact. “I always try to analyze my grandfather in how he interacts with people, because he has this very special ability to make someone who he doesn’t know feel like he’s known you for a lifetime,” he said.
“My Way,” by Paul Anka is the last track on the album and Kaniela sings it like no other. This classic song contains a lifetime when sung by someone who has lived enough to put their depths into it. As a performer what makes Kaniela so incredible is the way he fills the space with the fullness of his sound. In this final track the bigness of his presence in life and on stage comes through a song that speaks to the journey he took to achieve it.
“Firstly, this is a project for us,” Nicholas explained, “and we wanted to share it with others. I wanted to make this EP to make people happy, to put a simile on your face, or empower you to do things the way you want to, the way you envision it.”
Nicholas’ second project with Scott Imanaka is a series of songs available on SoundCloud by The Willards and is another tribute to authenticity. The notion of being a “Willard” goes back to Nicholas’ high school days when “being weird” wasn’t cool. Then, and now, Nicholas embraces it. “I love being weird and strange and knowing that it’s all good.”
Their motto is “Do whatever makes you feel good.” This spirit inspired them to produce a series of songs in different styles; a dialogue between genres with space to express different musical textures and experiment outside the familiar. “The goal of this project is basically to be very diverse and eclectic in terms of our styles and what we’re doing. It’s good for us to try new things. I’ve never recorded a country song before, so it was fun to change it up.” There’s hip hop, country, blues, and poppy groves mixed into the whole of this EP.
“Being in the art realm you come across all types of people and that’s the beauty of humans, not everyone is the same. Socially we’re pushed to all be the same, there is a lot of uniformity in our culture, especially American society, so we’re all about not doing that.”
Through his involvement with the POW! WOW! School of Music, he has been inspiring young musicians to embrace what makes them unique.
“Kids shouldn’t be forced to only play reggae or Hawaiian music growing up here. That’s the strength behind the School of Music, students get to empower each other by seeing their peers play blues, for example, and think: ‘Wow, I didn’t even know a local kid was playing blues.’ Maybe they don’t know about it because he only plays at home, in front of his computer because that’s all he knows. Just being able to not limit yourself, to feel and do what makes you happy, and chances are you’ll be able to transfer that energy to someone else that’s around you.”
The Willards’ newest tracks are available on SoundCloud and you can find more information about the “Aloooha” collaboration on Kaniela and Nicholas’ shared website.
The POW! WOW! School of Music serves as a free two-week program in conjunction with the POW! WOW! Hawaii festival on Oahu and covers all of the basics in professional practice for aspiring musicians while exposing them to international recording artists, facilitating collaboration among their peers, and opening up performance opportunities throughout the year.
Students from the School of Music will be performing this coming Saturday, February 13 at the POW! WOW! Hawaii Finale concert, “Stranded in Paradise”, with performances by The Green, Dilated Peoples, Eli Mac, and more.