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Messengers of a Love Supreme
Hapa Concert at Merkin Hall
April 4, 2007

Reviewed by William S. Gooch, III



Sunny beaches, lush flora, and welcoming Polynesians evoke images all too familiar to American mainlanders. But, wrap these distinctive images in a package of appealing fusion jazz, bass and slack-key guitar acuity, and traditional Polynesian rhythms and you have the musical group, Hapa. Hapa—which in the Hawaiian language is idiomatic for mixed ethnicity—is currently the Island’s most popular Hawaiian-music group. Currently composed of two Islanders, Charles Ka’upu and Nathan Aweau, and local New Jersey boy, Barry Flanagan, Hapa has taken Polynesian world music to new levels of international acclaim and accessibility.

On April 4 at New York City’s Merkin Concert Hall, Hapa excited and instilled pride in a performance heavily attended by Hawaiian transplants. Scattered through out Merkin Hall were young ladies and a few men attired in leis and hula skirts, humming and swaying soulfully to the well-known tunes.

One of the most successful instrumental pieces of the evening was “Olinda Road,” which is a mix of traditional Polynesian music, pop and Pat Metheny?like stylings. Flanagan is obviously influenced by fusion jazz artists of 70s and 80s, and in “Olinda Road” has produced a work that evokes images of seaside excursions and sun-drenched days.

In “Kaopuiki Aloha,” Flanagan shows his versatility with slack-key guitar. The slack-key guitar technique that is used in this work was originally brought to Hawaii by Spanish cowboy migrant workers (paniolo) of the mid-1800s. Flanagan has taken this style of guitar playing—originally played softly—into the 21st century by employing more aggressive techniques, as well as adding elements of bluegrass and steel drum.

“Lei Manoa,” a beautiful love song by Flanagan, alludes to love found in the misty, azure-colored mountainside. Aweau, singing in a rich falsetto (leo ki’e ki’e), serenades the audience with lyrics that suggest tranquility and loving communion with nature. Aweau, an Award-winning leo ki’e ki’e singer, has one of the most beautiful male falsettos currently heard on concert stages. His falsetto has a sensual, creamy vibrato that that skillfully connects every note and phrase.

Hula dancers interrupt the lyrics and caress the space around them with simple, inviting movements, enhancing this alluring song. This dance idiom doesn’t use pyrotechnical feats or complicated choreography to tell story or entertain, but relies on clear, unadulterated movements that come from a spiritual center, transporting the audience to a welcoming place of tranquility and understanding.

“Kaulana Na Pua” (Famous Are the Flowers) is an anthem composed in 1893 by Queen Liliuokalani’s lady-in-waiting, Ellen Pendergast, while the Queen was imprisoned. This emanicapation song was written to empower generations of Hawaiian children. The anthem tells Hawaiian that they should hold on to their culture and endure U.S. annexation, reject American wealth and look to the land for their strength.

Hapa does a more modern approach to this liberation song by adding slack-key guitar and modern-styled vocals. Charles Ka’upu who humorously narrates through much of the evening’s performance, respectfully retells the story of Queen Liliuokalani’s dethroning and the struggle for Hawaiian independence. In his retelling, the pain and the pride of Hawaiians is made tangible and connects vividly to this famous anthem.

Whether told through liberation songs, instrumental works, romantic ballads, or just plain, old feel-good jives, in essence, Hapa’s message is love: a love that can be found through redemption, freedom or being one with nature and the universe. And a love supreme it is.

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