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Waipuna at the Carriage House Theatre

In Music
TRADITIONAL TUNES: For Hawaiian-music trio Waipuna, stories and emotions transcend language.

TRADITIONAL TUNES: For Hawaiian-music trio Waipuna, stories and emotions transcend language.

When mainland music fans think of the Hawaiian islands, they may hear Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles,” Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s famed ukulele arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or Bing Crosby’s holiday classic, “Mele Kalikimaka.”

“There’s so much more to Hawaiian music,” says Kale Hannahs, bassist for Waipuna—a Hawaiian-music trio performing at the Carriage House at the Montalvo Arts Center this weekend.

Waipuna—recipient of seven Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards (the Hawaiian version of the Grammys)—explores the connections between popular music and the traditional sounds of their native Pacific Island state. While he readily concedes that Waipuna’s music is accessible to listeners who have little familiarity with its origins, he emphasizes that “it’s not just for enjoyment. Some people might take it on a surface value, but the songs are very deep.”

Hannahs talks about the multiple levels of meaning in songs like “Na Makani ’Eha,” a standout track on Waipuna’s third album, 2013’s Napili. It’s about a song written by the late Hawaiian musical icon, Reverend Dennis Kamakahi, who also happens to be the father of Waipuna’s ukulele-player David Kamakahi.

“It’s about the Four Winds,” Hannahs says.

But it’s really about a relative of the Kamakahi family.

“As his sailing boat would go into each of the different ports, he would try to woo ladies by using the same lines, saying ‘You are the most beautiful girl,’” Hannas explains. While the song is sung in Hawaiian, he believes the mood of the song transcends language.

“We call the underlying meanings of the songs kaona,” he says. “There’s a surface-level meaning, a secondary meaning and there’s a third level of understanding.”

At face value, a Hawaiian song might be about a flower and a bird.

“But the underlying meaning would be that the flower represents a woman, and the bird represents a man,” Hannahs says. “And the third level would be knowing who those people are and what exactly happened to inspire that composition.”

The three members of the group come from varied backgrounds. Hannahs has played Hawaiian music for 25 years, but his foundation is in classical music. Guitarist Matt Sproat is the great-grandnephew of storyteller, musician and NEA National Heritage Fellow Kindy Sproat.

“Matt has an extensive background playing hula music,” Hannahs says, “but he started off playing heavy metal.”

The group plays all over the world, including monthly concert dates in Japan.

“Connecting with audiences over there is just as important as connecting to people on the mainland when we tour,” Hannahs says. “So I’ll mix in a little bit of Japanese here and there, just to help them understand the songs.”

Between-song narration is an important part of a Waipuna concert, providing context for the music and stories.

“Even some Hawaiian listeners don’t understand all of the Hawaiian language,” he notes. “So adding that extra layer of understanding helps our audiences and our friends to get at least half-way there. And that means the world to us.”

Across their five albums, Waipuna weaves together stories from the group’s homeland, sung in both English and Hawaiian. And the trio succeeds at placing each of those stories into a catchy, heartwarming musical context. Hannahs recalls a conversation with bandmate Sproat during the making of Waipuna’s most recent release, their 2019 self-titled album.

“Matt started saying that the music we were working on sounded ‘too typical,’” he recalls. They agreed that they needed to write every song to be a potential hit.

“No clunkers,” Sproat told him.

“You’ll notice that in a lot of our songs, we do key changes and switch off voicings to help build the story—or just the feeling—of the song,” Hannahs says. “We want to take the listener on a journey.”

Waipuna
Feb 13, 7:30pm, $43
Carriage House Theatre

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