Kahulanui was just about to take the stage at a special event at the Four Seasons Resort Hawaii at Hualalai, when bass player Pat Eskildsen got the call from producer Charles Brotman that, yes, the band was nominated for a Grammy award in the Best Regional Roots Album category for its 2012 debut “Hula Ku‘i.”
After the cheering subsided, leader Lolena Naipo remembers thinking, “Oh, no! My job has just started.”
Naipo took on the responsibility to get the entire nine-piece band to Sunday’s Grammy ceremonies (and subsequent mini-West Coast tour, its first mainland jaunt), so with the help of supporters, CDs were sold and a fundraiser was organized, and enough funds were raised to make the trip a reality.
It’s Naipo’s baritone voice that carries the band through its Hawaiian swing-influenced repertoire that has made it a favorite on Hawai‘i island over the last couple of years. A professional musician over the last three decades, Naipo is part of a long family line that began with his grandfather Robert Naipo, who played with the Royal Hawaiian Band. Naipo took the elder’s middle name to start a new phase in his music. In fact, the two lead tracks on the album, “Ku‘u Home I Waimanalo” and “Na Papa Ne‘e Nalu,” originate from sheet music Naipo found in his grandfather’s belongings.
Naipo and Eskildsen have gigged together as a duo for near 15 years, and it was at one of their earlier gigs years ago — playing more contemporary material — that Brotman first heard them. Brotman was willing to offer them some recording time in his Lava Tracks studio, the place where a couple of Grammy nominated and award-winning music have been recorded.
After Naipo finally took up Brotman’s offer starting in December of ‘11, Brotman said “one day, I heard Lena messing around with some old-style music, and together, we decided it was worthwhile doing this instead of the more contemporary stuff. But it was so different, we were wondering how Pat and the rest of the band would react to it. Besides, down the line, we could always do the contemporary songs if doing the swing music didn’t pan out. But the swing music was working, so we recorded and released the album. The label push got us some Na Hoku Hanohano nominations last year and it created a buzz among the musicians who saw us play at the ceremony.”
“It was always Lena’s idea to bring back that swinging big-band sound of the 1920s-‘40s,” said Eskildsen. What became Kahulanui — with the “core four” of Naipo, Eskildsen, Duke Tatom and Tim Taylor — was augmented with a four-piece horn section led by arranger Jesse Snyder and a guest steel guitarist, whether it be Paul Kim, Greg Sardinha, or Dwight Tokumoto, the latter of whom is accompanying the band on its Grammy trip to Los Angeles.
“When I decided to play more in the swing genre in the studio, I thought the change of band name from Hawaiians Unlimited to Kahulanui had to happen as well,” said Naipo. “It was a totally different mindset.
“I remember my grandfather as a grouchy old buggah,” he said with a laugh. “When the family was on Oahu, he and my grandmother would babysit us kids after school. Actually, the only time I saw him do music was when I was around 5-6 years old, he would play the ukulele when he got bored. I was the kolohe one, so I would hide behind a chair and mimic the way he played and sang.
“If he were around now and saw what I’m doing because of him, he would be freaking out!”
Naipo has taken his father’s advice to heart, which is to create something his very own. Even though the music of Kahulanui sounds very much like the heyday of local swing legends like Alvin Isaacs, Sam Koki and Ray Kinney, “it would be music of that time, but with a twist. A younger copy, but trying to be better. And the music sounds so beautiful.”
The album “Hula Ku‘i” has made for a more effective “calling card” for Naipo and company than the originally planned one for the then-Hawaiians Unlimited to sell at their gigs.
“I like to bend the rules,” Naipo said. “Everything is exciting and new, and everyone in the band is playing like energized bunnies.” After the Grammys on Sunday, Kahulanui will do upwards of four dates on the mainland, with sponsorship help from OluKai footwear, who’s headquarters are now based in L.A.
“I’m happy to say that we’re all going to the Grammys,” he said. “It feels frickin’ great!”