Photo by Jack Wolford
With a swinging sound and a touch of scat styling, Kahulanui is more hep than hip. The band’s up-tempo music evokes the music of the Jazz Age; frontman Lena Naipo draws the crowd in, feet tapping, bass vocals rumbling through lyrics that are familiar, yes, but at the same time not quite. Naipo is singing Hawaiian classics — such as “Noho Paipai,” “Kalena Kai” —but in a way that Louis Armstrong might have done them.
Kahulanui was founded on the Big Island two years ago, composed of a “core four”—Naipo on guitar, Duke Tatom on ‘ukulele, Pat Eskildsen on bass and Tim Taylor on drums — though the entire band makes up a neat dozen, with steel guitars and a horn section featuring saxes, trombones and a trumpet. Logistically it’s difficult to get everyone together for every performance (the Big Island is aptly named), so you never know exactly what the instrumentation will be. In fact, the entire group didn’t play live together until after the release of its first CD, Hula Ku‘i. That recording was produced by Charles Brotman, an expert in the music of early twentiethcentury Hawai‘i, and Lena knows something about that music, too: His grandfather Robert Kahulanui Naipo was a sax player and assistant band leader for the celebrated Royal Hawaiian Band, which was founded in 1836 and exists to this day.
Lena remembers being six years old and watching his grandfather playing ‘ukulele and singing. “I was a little kolohe [mischievous] when I was a kid, but when I heard him playing I would stop whatever I was doing and listen,” he recalls. “He had a great rhythm thing going on and got me bopping around.” Lena is still bopping. “Everybody calls what we’re doing ‘swing Hawaiian,’” he says. His way of scatting Hawaiian lyrics gives the words a unique phrasing, and the audiences love the band’s big energy. “Watching us is like watching a show from back in the day. We’re a great little Hawaiian orchestra: humble to the world of music and grateful to be playing what we want to play.”