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Kuana Torres Kahele: In His Prime

Kuana Torres kahele
Kuana Torres Kahele

  Kuana Torres Kahele was born in Hilo, and raised by his grandmother;  close to nature, with music, hula, and Hawaiian language in his everyday life.  As part of NaPalapalai, and now in his solo career, Kahele invigorates Hawai‘i’s music scene with energy, tight harmonies, and new compositions.  HPR’sNoeTanigawa takes a look at his latest project, original songs and chants for each Hawaiian island.

To find artists at the height of their powers is an exciting thing.  To understand how Kuana Torres Kahele has come by his mastery, check this extended interview.  I think you'll enjoy him.

Kuana Torres Kahele talks about his upbringing, the roots that are the foundation for his current work. He also shares how he managed the strict kapu for his Ni‘ihau collection. At every point, reminiscences paint an inside picture of Hawai‘i.

The edgy harmonies, the harnessed energy of Big Island style, are what propel the music of Kuana Torres Kahele.   It has all the attack and swing of Hilo Kumu Hula, Johnny Lum Ho, with whom Kahele studied for 19 years.  I asked how he thinks Lum Ho stays at the top of the game?

“I think kumu hulas’ schedules, you have no time to age, you have no time to think about yourself.  After a while you develop a callus for this kind of thing and it becomes really easy to do, yeah?  It’s amazing, it’s a great ride.”

noe tanigawaKuana Torres Kahele maintains his own Hawaiian Music & Culture Schools in Japan. He teaches in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka with over 200 combined students. He offers courses in voice, haku mele, mele hula, fresh lei making, ?ukulele, and guitar. He performs and teaches cultural workshops all over the world.
Credit noe tanigawa

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Kahele could be talking about himself.  He runs three schools of Hawaiian culture in Japan, and is a top performer there as in Hawai‘i.  Rooted in hula, lei making, chant, and stories Kahele’s latest project is new music celebrating each of the Hawaiian islands.   

“I totally didn’t see myself recording seven albums over seven years, that’ll kill me.  So I said, ok, I’m going to release two albums a year.  Hawaii needs new stuff.  I’m in a position to do that.  I’ve been blessed to be able to just crack out a song right here and then.”

How?  Earlier this week Kahele was in the forest with Australian TV.  While they were setting up, he wrote a song, and performed it for the interview.  Pretty wild.

“It’s been working, it’s been really amazing, even for myself.  If I rewind five years or so, I was never like this.  Maybe I’d crack out a song here, and maybe another one four months down the road or something.  Not like on the spot or anything, so…”

What helped prime the pump? 

“Paying dues, so to speak.  Working to where I got.  l wasn’t made like this overnight.  It took me years.  When I first arrived here, in O‘ahu, even before I got here, I started from the bottom up.  I was a hula dancer first before I was a musician, through hula I met so many musicians, both old and new.

Kuana Torres kahele
Credit Kuana Torres Kahele
Close up of Ni'ihau shell lei featured on Kahele's "Kahelelani Ni'ihau" CD. They exemplify the glistening, almost iridescent sheen that charaacterize shells from Ni'ihau.

  And when they found out what I could do, the k?puna, they’re very eager to m?lama or h?nai, they wanna grab you and want to teach you.  That kind of style of teaching is not just, Here’  s the paper and here’s the words, this is the melody or something.   They’ll kind of beat it into your head, whether you want it or not.  They’re very eager and fast to correct you.  So that’s the kind of upbringing I had, both with music and hula.  Anytime you embark on some kind of Hawaiian cultural journey, whether hula, music, literature, ‘?lelo, anything, they’re all intricately entwined with each other.  So if you go on one, that one path will take you through everything else."

Kahele says there are many paths into Hawaiian culture, nature’s gifts, lei, delicacies, special places, all these are celebrated in his island portraits.  Kahele has a special connection with Ni‘ihau--- he teaches a h?lau there and his h?nai mother is Niihauan.  Of course, he took his Niihau tribute for her to look over and give her blessing. 

“She told me, Maika‘i ke mele, which means everything is good, perfect…but this, this, this, that, this, this, this and this and this and there’s a lot of things she was pointing that I couldn’t put on.”  Ni‘ihau’s kapu extends beyond the physical to cover songs, place names, chants, stories, and more.

This was overcome, in a satisfying way, for Kahele’s Ni‘ihau collection.  Check the extended interview for the full story.  The CD honoring Hawai‘i island is fresh and full of references to flowers and places familiar to islanders.  Maui’s tribute is a holoholo kaa tour of famous sights around the Valley Isle, while Kaua‘i’s tribute celebrates little known gems of places.  L?na‘i’s tribute is due in the fall.   The Hawaiian islands series will conclude with Moloka‘i and O‘ahu next year.

Kahele has a particularly ambitious plan for an upcoming event August 7, 2016, at Palik? Theater in collaboration with 

Kuana Torres kahele
Credit Kuana Torres Kahele
Lokelani, roses, are the flower of the Valley Isle. Maui is known for the vision and valor of its most famous ruling Chief, Pi'ilani, remembered in the title of Kahele's Maui CD, "Pi'ilani Maui."

  Hawai‘i Public Radio.  He will feature songs for Hawai‘i Island and Ni‘ihau in an afternoon concert followed by an evening concert of music for Maui and Kaua’i. 

In addition, for the afternoon concert, Kahele has invited dancers from Ka Hula O Kealamailani under the direction of Kumu Hula and Miss Aloha Hula TeHani Pimental to present new work, new dances for the new compositions. The evening concert, with music for Maui and Kaua?i, will be accompanied by Merrie Monarch winners the k?ne (men) of H?lau N? Mamo O Pu?uanahulu under Kumu Hula Sonny Ching and L?paka Igarta-De Vera.  Again, it will be a program of new work from this venerable halau.

Tickets to the double concert bill Sunday August 7, 2016, at the Paliku Theater are available online at http://bit.ly/Kuana (case sensitive) and must be purchased for each individual concert.

Kuana Torres kahele
Credit Kuana Torres Kahele
Kahele extolls the natural beauty of each island, its scenic features, landmarks, wildlife and foliage. Extolling the foliage on Hawai'i Island, he celebrates pandanus, ohi'a lehua, maile, and a'ali'i, and many others, including the winds and rains that nurture their abundance.

  Kahele maintains a busy concert schedule and will be performing several more times before summer’s end.

July 21-23 at the 41st Annual Queen Lili’uokalani Keiki Hula Competition 

Sunday, July 24 DFS Galleria 

Friday,  August 5  Paradise Park

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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