Keoki Kahumoku
& Herb Ohta Jr.,
Hawaiian from the Heart
(Roy Sakuma, 2001)

Keoki Kahumoku and Herb Ohta Jr. are part of the next generation in Hawaiian music. Keoki is the son of singer and 12-string guitarist George, and Herb's father is regarded as a seminal ukulele player. The duo continue in the path their parents have long trodden.

There is a softness to the Hawaiian language that sounds awkward coming from me. Glottal stops, hard k and p sounds abound, yet on the tongue of someone from these islands, the words flow with the warmth and grace of the waves lapping on the shore on a quiet evening. Hawaiian music reflects the land, the air and the sea from which it comes.

Kahumoku has a harder edge to his voice than many singers I've heard, an expressiveness that seems to punctuate the lyrics without cutting the fluidity of the melodies. Direct sleeve notes provide settings for the songs ("From the Big Island of Hawaii, this song tells of a place where love and passion have no boundaries," or "The carefree and fearless energy of a young boy -- work hard, play hard and eat plenty"), suggesting the story lines, though the soulful quality of the performance gives enough clues.

There is great depth in the instrumental work. A bassist appears frequently providing a strong foundation, while occasional appearances of steel guitar add great color. But most of the work revolves around the pair. Keoki, like his father, is also a powerful guitar player. Whether strumming or picking, he creates a strong atmospheric environment for his singing. But my heart and ears have also been won over by the ukulele playing of his partner.

At times, this humble, underrated (at least around my neck of the woods) instrument takes on the characteristics of a mandolin, at others the similarity with harp is uncanny. Herb Ohta complements the melody lines with some excellent harmony work and the short breaks take tunes to higher levels. But all the while, he is able to sit comfortably behind the vocals paralleling the guitar with runs, arpeggios, rolls and cascades of sound.

Kahumoku and Ohta have chosen a wide range of songs and tunes for this 42-minute long album. They demonstrate the myriad of influences on Hawaiian music -- from Mexico to the blues, with all stops in between. Yet there is no mistaking the provenance of this music.

The album is perhaps best summed up by the song "Po Mahina" ("A song for lovers as they stroll together under the moonlight on the swinging bridge of love") where Keoki sings and plays guitar, Herb plays ukulele and they are joined by Owana Salazar, who adds a delightful harmony line as well as her guitar work. The gentle flow of the melody, the laid-back interplay of the contrasting voices, the weaving of the instruments and the overall beauty of the song all come together making this song high point on an album of exceptional quality.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]