Behind the Scenes with Na Pali Trio

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Behind the Scenes with Na Pali Trio

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Sep 13, 2013

"How do you spell "awesome?"

"A-W-E-S-O-M-E." I say.

"Now what?"

"Push 'post'."

Ikaika Leoiki taps my iPad screen and sits back. He rubs his hands together, a smiling spreading across his face. "This is fun," he says.

Sitting next to him, Albert Makanani giggles in response.

"We'll have you playing that computer keyboard in no time, the same way your fingers run up and down the ukulele," I say.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat in the lobby of Outrigger Reef on the Beach, one skinny Hawaiian and one big Hawaiian and me jammed together at a desk, laptops and iPads bumping heads. This was our informal command center, where we conducted our live "Talk Story" event on Glenn Poulain--I was sitting at my desk on Kauai and Glenn was at his chiropractic office in Honolulu.

But I flew into Honolulu yesterday to listen to Ikaika and Albert, along with Ikaika's brother, Kaniala, play at Kani Ka Pila Grille last night. The three perform as a band--Na Pali Trio--and won the recent Hawaiian music talent contest sponsored by Outrigger Reef on the Beach. Their award: a paid gig at Kani Ka Pila Grille for Thursdays through September.

I'd already asked a few questions--how do you describe the kind of music you play, who influenced your growth as musicians, when their forthcoming CD would come out, that kind of thing--when I looked at them over our keyboards and asked, what question would you like me to ask that never get asked.

I got blank looks in response.

I tried another tact. What question do you get asked the most?"

That was easy. Albert responded first. "Will you play Over the Rainbow?" While Ikaika nodded.

Ah, yes, Bruddah Iz, formally known as Israel Kamakawiwoole, whose medley "Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" was featured in several Hollywood films, television programs and televisions commercials. The exposure rocketed Iz to stardom beyond Hawaii--and beyond death.

The thing I like about Iz--besides his iconic song--is when he sings falsetto.

It used to seem strange to me to see a big Hawaiian man singing at the high-end of his register. That is, singing like a little, old lady. Like my Grandma used to sing in church, me standing next to her, staring up, wondering where that sound was coming from.

In Hawaii, there are public schools called, "immersion," where children speak the Hawaiian language, starting from day one, all day, not for just an hour during language class.

Ikaika and Albert grew up in their own kind of immersion school--hearing, singing, playing Hawaiian music alongside parents, grandparents and extended family.

All three members of Na Pali Trio sing falsetto. It's as comfortable to them as running barefoot across lava rock down to the beach.

Albert said his kumu (teacher) told him the falsetto tradition in Hawaiian music got its start a couple generations back when boys would flirt with girls by imitating their higher-pitched voices. And it stuck.

Ikaika just shrugged, like it was odd I'd even be singling our falsetto as something different. Clearly, it wasn't something he'd thought about much. It was just natural. "I grew up singing falsetto," he said. "My grandma and grandpa sang it."

"Write that," I said and Ikaika found the letters he needed on the keyboard, as he sang along to whatever Hawaiian song was playing over the entertainment system in the hotel's lobby.

A few minutes later, a question popped up on Facebook: "Were you guys influenced by Israel Kamakawiwoole?"

"See," Albert said.

"I see," I said.

We finished our online Facebook chat talking about Hawaiian food--you should have seen Albert's face light up when I mentioned food. He went right to the keyboard listing all his favorites and where to find them. And, then, Kaniala showed up, and the three went to play some Hawaiian music for a packed crowd at Kani Ka Pila Grille.

And, yes, they played "Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World," getting the falsetto just right.

To read my online chat with Ikaika and Albert of Na Pali Trio, visit

You can watch the archive footage of Na Pali Trio performing at Kani Ka Pila Grille here.

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