Bla Pahinui,
Guava Soul
(Mountain Apple, 2001)

Bla Pahinui comes from an illustrious Hawaiian musical family. His father is Gabby Pahinui, the father of modern slack key, and his brothers, Cyril, Martin and Philip, have also made their mark. He performed as part of his father's Hawaiian band in the 1970s and was a founding member of another legendary band, Sunday Manoa. But of all the Pahinuis, Bla has been the most adventurous in terms of styles.

The exquisitely titled Guava Soul is the perfect description of his approach to music: a touch of the tropics, a touch of the blues, full-bodied and deep -- this is Bla having fun and at his best. He delves into an eclectic musical assortment, yet still retains his distinctive style. His gentle voice, his strong instrumental accompaniment and his dynamic sense when choosing material which is perfect for him: these elements come together to create a warm album that reaches back to the past while leaning forward.

To start with his voice, he falls into a select group of singers which includes Aaron Neville, Sam Cook, Otis Redding -- so soulful, so moving. He is perhaps not as polished as some, but his emotional voice is totally captivating.

As a guitarist, he is a left-hander playing a right-handed instrument upside down. This instantly gives him a different sound. For the most part, his guitar work is hidden behind the backup band, but when it peeks through, it is like a ray of sunshine.

The accompanying musicians include Chris Planas, himself an excellent guitarist who also plays ukulele and requinto, James Ganeko (drums, percussion), Bailey Matsuda (piano, keyboards) and Milan Bertosa (bass, accordion). They are joined by special guests Roland Cazimero playing bass on "Ei Nei" and the legendary steel guitar player Jerry Byrd on "Makapu'u." This tight band is perfectly in tune with Bla's approach, adding elements of slack key, calypso, reggae, country and more, exactly to the right degree as and when needed.

Finally, the songs. Bla has chosen well with songs from the past and present. He revisits songs from the '70s. "Wahine U'I (Beautiful Lady)" once again springs into life, this time with a blues-tinged-with-Latin arrangement. And his bilingual tribute to the beach at "Makapu'u," with just the right amount of falsetto, demonstrates the lasting quality of the song and the singer. Byrd's steel subtly glides behind the melody creating a second voice and he more than proves his worth with the understated solo.

Other standards include "No Ke Ano Ahiahi," with its chant-like melody, rolling guitar accompaniment and cool ending, and "Ho'oheno Keia No Beauty (Beauty Hula)," which features an Afro-Cajun accompaniment behind the vocals and ukulele.

"Manuela Boy" shuffles along with Bla recounting images of people and day-to-day life -- definitely the strongest singing on the album and, if forced to choose, possibly my favorite track. Without doubt, the track with the biggest punch has to be "Hawaiian Kick Boxer," a fast-moving rocker that leaves you breathless.

Bla Pahinui, while not a prolific recording artist, is one who enjoys his music and chooses it well. His involvement carries over to his audience. Whether reaching into his traditional past or into his affinity with soul music, he gives everything he has. Instrumentally, Guava Soul presents a tight, focused group of talented musicians. The result is a recording which connects. Just one question -- when is the next one scheduled for release?

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]
Rambles: 9 February 2002

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