Kuana Torres Kahele / As a contemporary singer/songwriter in traditional Hawaiian music, Kuana Torres Kahele is without peer. On Na Palapalai’s stunning 2009 album Nanea, Kahele dazzled with soaring operatic power (“Ka Nae Pakalana”), a trove of pitch-perfect, Territorial-style melodies and, in “Aloha No Kau,” a raw, guttural intensity that called to mind nothing so much as a haa performed by Lono himself. You don’t often hear it said that a traditional Hawaiian singer gets off. Kuana Torres Kahele gets off. He can do anything he wants to do, and the surprise and delight of his apparently boundless virtuosity is a large part of his magic.
On his new solo album, what Kahele wants to do is at once more personal and more dynamic than his work with Na Palapalai. Released last week, Kaunaloa–”to persevere”–is a chance for Kahele the singer to share the stage with Kahele the songwriter, and the results are lush and deeply satisfying.
As Kahele reveals in the linear notes–beautifully designed by Kuhao Zane–Kaunaloa chronicles his personal, creative and family histories, as well as that of his beloved Hawaii island. All but two of the songs are original compositions. Mele of Milolii, Waimea and Waimanu prove to be as rich in lyrical imagery as in Kaheles signature falsetto. “Palisa,” inspired by two visits to France, would seem unexpected from anyone else, but makes perfect sense here. Kaheles cover of “‘Ulili ‘E,” already on heavy rotation on Hawaiian radio, is joyful and rollicking.
The standout track here is also the one on which Kaheles genre-bending brilliance is most transparent. “Na Vaqueros,” which recalls the beautiful women who came to Hawaii with the original paniolo, is a ride through the history of ki hoalu, Hawaiian music and the island of Hawaii itself, in the form of a lilting, playful slack-key Spanish ballad.
“‘O ka wahine ui e hula ana mai,” Kahele sings, “En un bonito traje de luna.”
Like just about everything else Kahele does here, it’s gorgeous; it’s exciting. At once deeply familiar and utterly unlike anything we’ve heard before.