By Léo Azambuja
When the public comes to Nathan Kalama’s concert at Kaua‘i Beach Resort in March, if they are already familiar with this cultural giant’s legacy, they will expect something completely out of the box, “As Only Uncle Nathan Can.”
“This is a celebration of friendship, love and aloha,” said Kalama, a Hawaiian composer and kumu hula whose extensive — and often groundbreaking — cultural contribution earned him the honor of Living Treasure by the Kaua‘i Museum in 2007.
A rebel in his own and many ways, Kalama will be honoring two of his closest friends during the concert — musician Lady Ipo Ferreira and kumu hula Kaua‘i‘iki Olores — both also cultural revolutionaries in their own ways.
“I was there in the renaissance of the (Hawaiian) music, in particular here on Kaua‘i,” said Olores, who was Kalama’s first hula student. “What Nathan did had just boosted the arts and the music and the singing, the dancing; everybody wanted to be a part. I think what he did, he was the inspiration for many, many people who wanted to be a musician.”
Kalama also inspired other musicians to “come out of the box; you could use creativity, you didn’t have to be so kahiko (old-fashioned),” Ferreira said. Back in the 1980s, Ferreira was a habitual featured guest singer in the musical trio Mālie, which included Kalama, James “Ekolu” Panui and Larry Keli‘i Duhaylongsod.
Mālie was formed in the early 1980s. At first it was an odd partnership. “I couldn’t stand the two of them when we first met,” Kalama said of Panui and Duhaylongsod. Kalama liked to sing old Hawaiian songs, while Duhaylongsod would sing hapa haole songs. “He had these eyes, the haole women would just melt,” Kalama said. And then Panui was into jazz and rock. To put the three of them together was just an offbeat combination. But somehow, they found chemistry — and the beat to great music.
Kalama said at that time he was taking hula from Willie Pulawa. One week into class, Panui and Duhaylongsod showed up. “I was like, oh, no,” he said. A month later, Pulawa said he booked them to dance and sing at a wedding in Kalaheo.
“We realized the three of us could sing pretty good,” Kalama said. Then one day, Panui invited Kalama and Duhaylongsod to jam at Lydgate Park. When it started to rain, they got into Duhaylongsod’s yellow van and headed to the old Zippy’s in Kapa‘a, which served food around the clock. “We was hungry,” he said. They played music in the back of the van until 4 a.m.; Kalama in the ukulele, Panui in the guitar and Duhaylongsod in the bass. When they came out, everyone in the parking lot clapped.
“That’s how we started,” Kalama said of the Mālie group.
The three of them would push each other, composing song after song. Kalama realized there were probably others on Kaua‘i who were composing songs, but had no avenue to perform them. And that’s how the idea came up for the first Mokihana Festival in 1984. The festival is still running — this will be the event’s 34th consecutive year.
“Out of it came a lot of beautiful music of all genres,” Ferreira said of the composers festival.
Panui and Duhaylongsod have long passed away. But as Olores said, “They’re with us everywhere I go.”
Kalama’s musical start was quite unorthodox in a very orthodox setting. His father was a Pentecostal Church minister, so each family member played at least one instrument. Without any formal musical instruction, Kalama was picked to play the piano at the church’s services. “How slow I played, how slow they had to sing,” he said, laughing. Kalama also learned to play the accordion, guitar, bass and ukulele. To this day, he doesn’t know how to read music.
Because of his strict religious upbringing, Kalama said anything related to Hawaiian culture that didn’t fit in the scope of the Bible was considered ungodly, mischievous and evil. He and his siblings were not allowed to listen to Hawaiian music or dance hula. At Kamehameha School, the late Winona Beamer, affectionately known as Auntie Nona, was one of Kalama’s teachers. A champion of old Hawaiian culture, Beamer had a deep influence in Kalama. Because of his talks with her, “a woman ahead of her time,” Kalama started questioning his father the reasons why Hawaiian culture was considered ungodly.
“Auntie Nona was the one who allowed me, in her classroom, to feel Hawaiian, to be Hawaiian,” said Kalama, adding even at Kamehameha School at that time, in the 1960s, the only exposure the students had to Hawaiian culture was music. In those days, the girls were not allowed to stand up during hula in graduation; they could only dance kneeling down. Beamer had been expelled as a student from that same school in 1937 for dancing hula standing up. But in Kalama’s senior year, Beamer was responsible for breaking that tabu. The girls were finally allowed to stand up during hula.
Kalama feared if he performed hula at the graduation ceremony at Blaisdell Arena, his father would beat him up in front of everyone. Beamer told Kalama it was his decision, but she urged him to dance because if he didn’t, he would always regret it. After his performance, his father wouldn’t talk to him. Two years later, Kalama told his father he had signed a six-month contract to dance hula on the Mainland and in Mexico. Kalama wouldn’t receive his father’s blessing; instead, he was disowned.
If then he had been shunned by his father for wanting to practice Hawaiian culture, years later, he would be ostracized by the hula community for innovating the culture. In the 1980s, Kalama composed a chant in English, and got deeply criticized for that. But he defended it on live radio; when famed Hawaiian chanter Kaupena Wong called and questioned Kalama, he responded by saying it was how he received the chant. To Wong, it was a good enough reason; to Kalama, it was enough that Wong said it was OK.
The concert, appropriately titled “As Only Uncle Nathan Can,” was an idea from Kalama’s kupuna hula students. They picked the date, found the venue and put down a deposit, and only then told Kalama they planned a concert to celebrate his cultural contribution. The program is all Kalama’s.
The first portion of will include a genealogy chant by Kalama, and an introduction of Olores and Ferreira as honorees. Both grew up with Hawaiian culture as a way of life, but have no qualms about innovating with outside influences. In 2016, Olores added “boom shakalaka” in the middle of the closing chant of the Queen Emma Festival in Koke‘e. Ferreira started her musical career singing at the Fern Grotto and in luaus, then moved to Polynesian shows in Japan. Later, her voice found a home in “Hawaiian music with a dash of jazz.”
The second part will feature four women kumu hula who had an influence on Kalama’s life. The third part will have several chants, including the one who got Kalama into hot water decades ago. Throughout the evening, there will be entertainment from Kalama’s hula halau, as well as the halau from Troy Lazaro, Maka Herrod and Kehualani Kekua.
The evening will also include a lot of talk story by Kalama, about his journey throughout the years.
The concert will be at Kaua‘i Beach Resort March 10 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Call Winnie Smith at 823-1228 or Beverly Muraoka at 822-1451 for more information.