Holding the High Note
Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Sue Hudelson
In April 2009 a young African- American musician took the stage at the I Love Kailua street party in windward O‘ahu. Dressed in a stylish aloha shirt and dark sunglasses, he bantered with the crowd. “We’re going to play something traditional,” he said. “Bring out your stopwatches if you like.” Who knows what the scattered festival-goers expected as he started to sing. But when Kamakakehau Fernandez let loose an angelic, perfectly pitched Hawaiian falsetto, people set their plate lunches down to listen. As his voice soared thrillingly into the upper octaves to linger on one ethereal note, which he held … and held … and held … for a full thirty seconds, his awestruck audience erupted in cheers and whistles.
Twenty-eight-year-old Fernandez never had to try to be different. From the time he arrived in Hawai‘i as an infant, he occupied the tiniest demographic. Less than 2 percent of the state’s population is African-American. An equally small fraction speaks Hawaiian fluently, as he does. On top of that, he’s adopted. And on top of that, he was a hyperactive child— the kind that exasperates teachers and prompts doctors to write prescriptions. A Venn diagram—one of those illustrations that uses overlapping circles to show common elements — might include just one person at its center: himself.
But when Fernandez sings, stereotypes come undone. Now an ascending star in Hawai‘i’s music scene, this unlikely falsetto phenom managed to marshal his differences into major assets. He may not have Hawaiian koko, blood, in his veins, but he emanates pure aloha — and was raised by a family with ties to King Kamehameha.
By the time Fernandez’s adoptive mother, Robyn Nae‘ole, was 30 years old, she knew she couldn’t bear children of her own. The Native Hawaiian social worker had tried to hanai, or informally adopt, a child from within her circle of friends and family—once a common practice in Hawai‘i — but to no avail. So when she heard a Catholic deacon talking about foster children in the southern United States who needed parents, her heart opened wide. She talked it over with her husband, and everything fell quickly into place. She hadn’t even finished filling out the paperwork when she got the call: A newborn was waiting in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks later she was on a plane bringing her son home to Maui.
“She came back with this pohaku of a baby, this solid rock of a kid,” laughs Robyn’s brother Iokepa Nae‘ole. “I picked him up by his forearms, and he came up in this warrior stance. I’ve never seen a baby that strong.” Robyn named the boy Kamakakehau, “heart’s desire,” and introduced him to a large, extended family that was in the midst of a cultural reawakening.
The Nae‘ole clan is huge and hugely influential in Hawai‘i. Being adopted by a Nae‘ole is akin to being inducted into royalty— there are protocols, expectations and scores of relatives to remember and respect. Robyn and Iokepa’s eldest brother, Clifford Nae‘ole, is the Hawaiian cultural advisor at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. He presides over the resort’s annual Celebration of the Arts, one of the most prominent Hawaiian arts festivals in the state. The opening ceremonies involve a formal procession, ho‘okupu (symbolic gifts), ritual ‘awa drinking and royal Hawaiian guards. At the festival’s closing lu‘au this year, the Nae‘ole family filled three long banquet tables.
But back in 1985, when Kamakakehau arrived, the Nae‘ole siblings were just beginning to discover who they truly were. They weren’t raised in a traditional Hawaiian household, and it wasn’t until their paternal grandfather’s passing that their indigenous lineage came to the forefront. At the patriarch’s funeral, an aunt shared the family mo‘o ku‘auhau (genealogy). She had discovered that their ancestor, a Kohala chief named Nae‘ole, had long ago been entrusted with safe- guarding King Kamehameha as an infant. According to oral histories, Nae‘ole traveled across steep mountains during a torrential storm, carrying the future ruler of Hawai‘i to safety and later educating the child in the traditional arts.
“Our job is to find a great chief,” says Iokepa, viewing his family’s ancient kuleana (responsibility) through a modern lens. “We look at our kids and see who will be a good leader, whether they come from here or not.”
Those are big shoes for any kid to fill — but for little Kamakakehau Fernandez, they must have seemed enormous. As a youngster he was bursting with energy, always moving, humming and tapping on things. “My son had music in him since he could stand up,” says his mother. But he had little interest in schoolwork. Fernandez describes his younger self as kolohe, or naughty. Luckily, his relatives didn’t share that opinion.
“When Kamaka stepped into my classroom for the first time, he was piha ‘eu— full of excitement,” remembers Iokepa. Along with his sister Leihua Nae‘ole, Iokepa helped launch the first Hawaiian language immersion school, Kula Kaiapuni, on Maui. It was a way to give their children the Hawaiian upbringing they missed.
Starting in kindergarten, Fernandez joined the small cohort of Kula Kaiapuni students. They attended regular public school but took separate classes with instruction entirely in Hawaiian. Far more than just the same academic lessons taught in a different language, the program offered a full-on cultural immersion. Along with history, hula and chanting, Fernandez learned to embody Hawaiian values: humility, cooperation and respect for elders.
After school, Fernandez found an outlet for his excess energy down at Kahului harbor when he climbed into an outrigger canoe and dug his paddle into the water. His grandfather Joseph Nae‘ole was a charter member of the venerable Hawaiian Canoe Club, and his family carries on the tradition. “I love paddling,” says Fernandez, who has much less time for the sport these days. “I’m a competitive person, so I enjoyed the challenge. It helped me understand how to strive for what I want.”
But it wasn’t until Fernandez got his hands on an ‘ukulele that what he wanted started to become clear. The ebullient kid had an obvious gift for music. With a little coaching from his teachers, Fernandez quickly mastered the ‘ukulele. Soon he was volunteering to lead song class every Friday, his hyperactive energy channeled into a skill he could be proud of. He leveraged his musical talent at his first job, as activity leader at Hale Makua senior center. By that time he possessed enough patience to give the kupuna (elders) ‘ukulele lessons, paint the ladies’ fingernails and monitor bingo games.
He discovered his falsetto voice by accident. “I did a big stretch,” he says, “and out came that vibrato note.” Later, his uncle Clifford overheard him practicing and encouraged him to pursue the traditional art form.
Falsetto is a centuries-old European style of singing that accesses the highest vocal registers. Spanish and Mexican cowboys brought it to Hawai‘i in the 1800s, and local songsters transformed it into something unique to the Islands. While Western falsetto singers aim for a smooth shift from the lower register to the angelic high notes, singers of leo ki‘eki‘e, Hawaiian-style falsetto, emphasize and even exaggerate the transition. Masters of the art, such as Richard Ho‘opi‘i and the late Genoa Keawe, employ the same vocal fluctuations used in ancient Hawaiian chants.
Leo ki‘eki‘e came naturally to Fernandez, who’d been chanting oli since he was a child. Rather than take formal lessons, “I went to my favorite studio … the bathroom!” Fernandez laughs. He logged many hours in the privacy of the loo mimicking recordings of his favorite singers—who, in addition to the Hawaiian legends, include Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé and Bob Marley.
The teen’s practice regimen paid off. In eleventh grade he was chosen to represent King Kekaulike High School in a talent contest on O‘ahu. His family rallied to help him prepare, collaborating on an original tune. He didn’t win, but the experience primed him for the next competition, the Richard Ho‘opi‘i Falsetto Contest in 2003. Auntie Genoa Keawe herself was the judge. After Fernandez won, the reigning queen of Hawaiian falsetto acknowledged that his performance had been good but not great. “I took that as constructive criticism, meant to encourage me,” says Fernandez, a model of Hawaiian humility. “It was an amateur contest, after all.”
A few years later the grand dame’s tone softened when she and Fernandez performed together for a local radio station. “I couldn’t believe it was him singing,” Keawe commented. “I said, ‘Boy, he’s sure got a beautiful voice.’”
One of Fernandez’s first public performances was at Celebration of the Arts. Nothing major — just a little concert for two hundred of his closest friends. Unused to the spotlight, he stopped the show when a band member broke a guitar string. He waited in awkward silence while his friend restrung the instrument. His uncle Clifford — the event’s emcee— whispered from the wings, “Keep playing! Keep playing!” Later, Uncle Clifford gave him some pointers. Rule number one: The show must go on.
Unfortunately, that night went from bad to worse for Fernandez. The legendary entertainer Don Ho happened to be in the audience and expressed an interest in meeting Fernandez after the show. A very nervous young man went to shake Ho’s hand and knocked the celebrity’s wine all over his suit. “No big deal,” Ho reassured him. Then he offered a word of advice to the aspiring performer: “Watch out for piranhas in the business.”
Fernandez hasn’t met many piranhas, but he has experienced the usual vacillations of the music industry. His self-produced debut album, Wahi Mahalo, contains barebones liner notes but not a booklet of his song lyrics; he couldn’t afford to add one. It’s a shame, because ten of the twelve songs are originals. His fluency in Hawaiian allows him to compose and sing with subtlety and genuine emotion. “It comes from way down deep,” he says. “I just naturally express what I’m feeling.”
He’s continuing to hone his stage persona while playing five nights a week in Waikiki. The crowd’s reaction is always the same: curiosity, then awe. Still full of energy, Fernandez lets his flamboyance loose on stage. Those who don’t speak ‘olelo Hawai‘i can perceive the meaning of his lyrics when he bats his long, flirtatious eyelashes or flashes his stadium-lights smile. “I get that from Beyoncé,” he admits. “I’m a huge fan of her performance style.”
His aunt Rochelle Nae‘ole-Adams encouraged him to move to O‘ahu to advance his career. She put him up at her Kane‘ohe home while he recorded songs for Wahi Mahalo. For a first attempt, the album caused quite a stir, netting multiple nominations for the 2013 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards — Hawaiian music’s equivalent to the Grammys. At the ceremony Fernandez took home the award for best EP, or extended-play release.
Wahi Mahalo means a place of thanks; it’s Fernandez’s lyrical thank-you note to his family for their love and for the opportunity to carry the Hawaiian culture forward. One song in particular captures this sentiment. “He Leo Nani ‘Ia” (“It’s a Beautiful Voice”) describes how a small green forest bird guided ancient Hawaiian canoe carvers: If the ‘elepaio pecked on a koa tree, the carvers knew the wood was too rotten to become a canoe. “The bird is my mother, guiding me,” says Fernandez. “As I get older, I learn to trust her voice. Without my mom I’d still be kolohe.”