Hawaiian-Style Piano

Hawai’i musician Halehaku Seabury-Akaka and I were recently discussing the fine and rare art of Hawaiian-style piano.  And we concur that one of the best today is Iwalani Ho’omanawanui Apo. (You can just call her “Ho’o.”)  When asked who she felt was the greatest on the piano in Hawai’i, Ho’o cited the late, great Leila Hohu Kiaha.

A recipient of the Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 - which she knew she had been granted but regrettably passed away before receiving the honor - Auntie Leila’s unique piano playing is heard on too few recordings.  Most of these were in association with singers Kawai Cockett and Tony Conjugacion, but sadly most of the sides with Cockett have been out of print for decades.

Here is one such example of the great “Hawaiian swing” style of piano playing from Auntie Leila.  Because there are so few practitioners of this piano style remaining today - Ho’o Apo, Aaron Sala, and C. Lanihuli Lee come to mind - we rarely have the opportunity to hear the piano played in the Hawaiian band. But when there is no lead guitarist - such as a steel guitar or slack key player - present, the piano takes the lead - becoming responsible for the vamps that transition one verse of the hula ku’i song form to the next.  As no singing occurs through the two-bar vamps, this is the best opportunity to sneak a listen at the real talents of the pianist.  You will hear that the style - as offered here by Auntie Leila - is characterized by arpeggiating (or rolling the notes) in a chord for rhythmic effect as well as block chords that mimic the strumming of the guitar or ‘ukulele, often in syncopation (or slightly off the beat from) the other rhythmic elements in the band.  This aspect of the style may be rooted in ragtime piano playing.  At the same time, she might play single note “fills” in those gaps of each verse where no singing takes place so that a song maintains its momentum - particular if there is hula to go with the song.  But she is also ever careful to remain tasteful and respectful to the singer and not “overplay.”

This song - “Ha’aheo ‘Oe Maui” - is from Kawai Cockett’s LP simply entitled “Kawai.”  I enjoy this more every time I hear it since it not only features the sounds of the Hawaiian-style piano played as it should be by Auntie Leila Hohu Kiaha, but also the ‘ukulele strummed like nobody else could - or ever will again - by Kawai Cockett.  Uncle Kawai’s contributions to the history of Hawaiian music cannot be underestimated, so you will no doubt hear from him again here soon.

Released in 1981 on the Lohe Records label, it has been more than 30 years since this recording has been available in any format.

This post is dedicated to my friends Kamala Lovena Aina-Cockett and Ha’aheo Cockett.

Direct download: Haaheo_Oe_Maui.mp3
Category:Piano -- posted at: 10:13am EDT