Tue, 16 December 2014
Lest I be accused of unabashedly liking every artist, song, and recording I feature at Ho`olohe Hou or not using the entire rubric in determining which recordings or artists merit such attention, a newsflash: I am not a fan of Hapa. Despite having the privilege of opening for Hapa in my hometown of Blackwood, NJ earlier this year, from the group’s first incarnation and first album, the eponymously titled Hapa in 1992, I have not been a fan, and none of their nearly dozen releases in the more than 20 years since have convinced me otherwise. Surely you’re asking yourself, “Why?” (especially if you are a Hapa fan). I have written many times in this space that there is no clear and agreed upon definition of “Hawaiian music” – even by ethnomusicologists. (Ethnomusicologist and kumu hula Dr. Amy Ku`uleialoha Stillman explored this topic in a series of panel discussions in 2011 when she was Dai Ho Chun Distinguished Scholar and professor in residence at the University of Hawai`i – Manoa.) While we can attempt to define “Hawaiian music” by its sounds, instrumentation, arrangement, or lyric content, the prevailing wisdom is that what makes music Hawaiian is not solely content but, rather, a feeling. And while Hapa has been one of the most commercially successful groups of all time from Hawai`i, when I listen to them, I do not hear or feel the Hawaiian. I have considered my position on this group endlessly because it feels – even to me – disingenuous – that as a musician, I can say that I do not like Hapa but cannot put my finger on precisely why. Hapa found resounding success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds of distance and culture – their leader, Barry Flanagan, not a Hawaiian but a haole raised in Bergen County, New Jersey, falling in love with Hawaiian music and making it his life’s work. This makes my criticism more curious still when you realize that I am also a haole raised in Camden County, New Jersey – a really long stone’s throw away (or a really short drive) from Flanagan’s home – and I also somehow fell in love with Hawaiian music and also chose against all odds to make it my life’s passion. If nothing else, this at least makes me appear fair – picking on my own – but I am not so out of touch that I do not fully realize that my dislike for a group rooted in my home state to an outsider likely reeks of petty jealousy.
For the record, I am tremendously proud of Barry Flanagan as an outsider to Hawaiian culture being accepted into its sacred inner circle and being permitted and encouraged to pursue Hawaiian things, and I aspire to the same. I just don’t like his music.
Then how, you are no doubt asking yourself, did Hapa’s holiday release, the cleverly titled Hapa Holidays, rank so high on a list judged single-handedly by a guy who claims not to like them? Simple. Because my day job for the last 25 years has been in the field of research in the measurement of human potential. In short, I train people on how to judge things. So I like to think I am able to put my feelings aside and use the entire rubric in order to objectively judge something myself. With regard to Ho`olohe Hou, I do not merely present music I like. I present music that is culturally relevant and historically important. And Hapa is. If Hawai`i experienced a first musical renaissance in the 1970s, it went into remission for over a decade. Arguably, there was a less often spoken about second Hawaiian music renaissance in the 1990s – a tide that swept in such contemporary legends as Keali`i Reichel and Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom. But Hapa was at the crest of that wave – somehow gaining not only local Hawai`i favor, but worldwide acceptance, not merely for themselves, but for Hawaiian music in general. They cut a new swath in an uncharted jungle. They made it hip and cool to like Hawaiian music whether you were in New Jersey or Texas or Montana. Would George Winston’s series of slack key recordings on his Dancing Cat label had fared so well if Flanagan’s guitar hadn’t blazed the trail before? Perhaps not.
So, in no backhanded attempt to improve my chances of ever opening for Hapa again, I can honestly say that there are times when I sincerely desire to hear a cut from Hapa Holidays – usually an instrumental at which Flanagan excels. While we could argue all day long whether his brand of slack key guitar is “traditional” or “Hawaiian,” it is an enjoyable listen, and legions of fans agree. While the lineup of Hapa has changed over the years, listen to founder Flanagan with then partner Keli`i Kaneali`i gently rock “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Flanagan’s soulful solo on “Iesu me ke Kanaka Waiwai,” and the almost classical approach to “Joy To The World.” Few can touch Flanagan when it comes to technique with six strings.
No, I am not a fan of Hapa. But Hapa Holidays was important – as was the group’s debut release – in giving Hawaiian music worldwide exposure and opening doors for the artists that would follow. And so it earns its rightful place on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i. You can find Hapa Holidays on such major music streaming services as Spotify and Rhapsody as well as for download to your iPhone or iPod at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Next time: #9 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i…