Amy Hanaiali'i
& Willie K,
Hawaiian Tradition
(Mountain Apple, 1997)

Every now and then, something special comes along, something so special that I find I have pressed the repeat on the CD player and spent hours listening to an album over and over. It only happens rarely and it's happening now.

Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom has the kind of beautiful voice that crosses the border between formal and traditional with ease. She has control and precision, but she also a deep passion that bursts through, so well suited for the material she chooses for this album. And she has the ability to perform a variety of Hawaiian songs naturally, enveloping the listener, conveying meaning even when the words are not understood.

Hawaiian Tradition features 13 tracks placed in different settings: one moment, you could be in a smoky, dim lit club, the next sitting at the bar sipping a mai tai, and then you could easily find yourself in a backyard, enjoying a gathering of family and friends.

She introduces folk elements pioneered in the '60s but is comfortable interpreting the Hawaiian traditional style of 30 years earlier. (In the 1930s and 1940s, her grandmother, Jennie Napau Hanaiali'i Woodd, was in fact one of the Royal Hawaiian Girls who were partly responsible for the popularization of music from the Islands in the world at large.)

Ever present on all tracks with guitars, ukulele, bass, mandolin or percussion (and also with song-writing credits on five songs) is Willie Awihilima Kahaiali'i, the mainstay of the instrumental line up, which also features Sam Ako (piano), John Koko (bass), Hector Serrano (percussion) and Bobby Ingano (steel guitar). Along with Amy's sensitive vocals, the musicians' sympathetic playing places this album among the ranks of the classics in any genre.

The album opens with "Hale'iwa Hula," a song written by Amy's grandmother. To the accompaniment of ukulele, steel guitar, bass and guitar, she sings with relish, a dancing vocal style which incorporating falsetto perfectly. Yet on the closing song, a simple arrangement featuring a finger picked ukulele, building up with the addition of piano, Amy has such warmth and depth as she pays tribute to the goddess Kihawahine. And on the tracks in between, she demonstrates her astounding range and her strong understanding of falsetto singing.

Amy is writer or co-writer of eight of the songs, and her lyrics are particularly poignant. (Along with the Hawaiian original words in the sleeve notes, translations in English are given.) She tells of the palace of tears, where Queen Lilli'u was overthrown; her love of her home; relationships. She also creates melodies which ebb and flow with the ocean, and sway with the winds. Her music is so image-laden, she transcends linguistic boundaries.

But finally, it comes down to interpretation, and at this she excels. And on "Kaulana Waialua A'o Moloka'i," the penultimate track, she reaches a peak. Producer Willie Kahaiali'i creates a rolling guitar accompaniment to his own melody, and Amy's emotional singing sweeps you into another world -- her old-style way of holding notes leaves you holding your breath. The sound is completed with Willie K echoing her words, leaving you with goose bumps.

Hawaiian Tradition deservedly won the Hawaiian Album of the Year award at the 1998 Na Hoku Hanohano celebration (the Hawaiian "Grammies") as well as Album of the Year. Amy was voted Female Vocalist of the Year at that ceremony, too.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]
Rambles: 24 November 2001

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