A Chat with Hawaiian Music Singer-Songwriter Mailani

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A Chat with Hawaiian Music Singer-Songwriter Mailani

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Jun 19, 2010

Every now and then, you read a book or catch a live musical performance, and you think, “This author/musician/singer is going some place.” That’s what happened to me when I heard Mailani perform at the Hawaii Book & Music Festival a couple months ago. She was having so much fun on stage that she captivated me. She drew me in. I literally moved closer to the stage for a better seat.

Then, last month, I attended the 33rd annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards Show in Honolulu, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover Mailani was nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year. I was even more delighted to hear her name called as the award’s winner. Congratulations, Mailani.

I used the excuse that Mailani is playing Sunday at Kani Ka Pila Grille as part of a special Father’s Day event to call and interview her. Here’s how that conversation went.

Let’s start with the 2010 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. How did it feel to hear your name for Female Vocalist of the Year?

Initially I was extremely shocked. It was tough category going up against Amy [Hanaiali’i], Raiatea [Helm], Nohelani [Cypriano] and Lorna [Lim] who have done years and years of projects and performing and songwriting; whereas, I’ve been a part of groups for years and years and this is my first solo album [self-titled, Mailani], so I really didn’t think that I stood chance in the category. I mean the talent and recognition that these women have received over the years. So, I was shocked, and I’m still getting used to it. Sometimes I don’t feel like I really won an award. I feel like it was a rite of passage and now there’s much more work for me to do.

Has your career changed since you won the award last month?

Right before the awards, I was starting to get a lot of inquiries about bookings and after the awards, it’s like, “We want Mailani. We want Mailani here, and we want Mailani there.” I also picked up a sponsorship from Noa Noa. I’ve always wanted to wear their clothes, and after the win and they were like we want to outfit you and your entire band, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, thank you, because I’ve always wanted to wear your clothes.”

How do you describe or categorize your style of Hawaiian music?

Some of my songs. like Penei Iho, I wrote in Hawaiian but it’s not considered a traditional Hawaiian song, or a haku mele, because it’s very contemporary. It’s very blunt. In other words there are no hidden messages in my writing of that song. But if you look at other songs like He Mele No Kahalu’u, it would be a traditional haku mele song where it’s written with traditional Hawaiian manao where there are a few hidden messages, or kaona, here and there.

The other thing that separates traditional Hawaiian music from contemporary Hawaiian music is the musical influences or the arrangement of music that takes place throughout the album. The sound on my album is pretty contemporary but with a traditional flair.

What are you working on now?

I have really been trying to stay strong in my haku mele writing—or traditional Hawaiian writing. This next album that I’m working on will be a little bit more aggressive and even little more contemporary [than my first solo CD] but not too far away from Hawaiian music. We’ll kind of push the envelope for some of the traditional songs that are very familiar within the Hawaiian music community. Musically I’ve arranged them to gear toward this contemporary sound that I’m having fun with right now because of the musicians I play with and the sounds that I hear and feel throughout our performances. That’s what’s influencing me. I’m playing with a djembe player, and he gives Hawaiian music a new dynamic. The djembe brings Hawaiian music into a more current form. Also the way I sing it, the way I pronounce it and the way that I arrange it, especially with our base player, we’re bringing a new life to the traditional songs. So far I haven’t really received too much negative criticisms of our arrangements of these traditional tunes, so that makes me hopeful and excited the future of Hawaiian music.

Are you fluent in the Hawaiian language?

I don’t consider myself fluent, because there is a whole world of Hawaiian language that I’m still learning. But I have enough knowledge to carry a conversation with someone. My familiarity with Hawaiaan music really helps my olelo, or Hawaiian language.

I did grow up speaking Hawaiian in my household, but I also took a few classes at my high school and also at the UH Manoa.

You write, you sing, you play the guitar. But what’s your first love?

I consider myself more of a singer-songwriter. My guitar playing is average at best to be honest, and I’m very blessed to have the band that I have. I can keep a beat. I’m a strong rhythm player.

Who are your mentors or who has helped you get to where you are today?

I have to say Teresa Bright, first and foremost, because she’s my absolute favorite. I love her. I grew up listening to her, and she also gave me a few voice lessons while I was recording my first album. She’s a very good teacher. To be an artist and to be a teacher is two different things, but she can do both easily. It flows so well from her.

Also, my manager Tracey Terada who is also my sound engineer and ukulele player. He’s taught me a lot when it comes to recordings in the studio. It’s a different type of performance. Sometimes you have an audience that gives you that energy when you’re performing live but when you’re in the studio, you’re relying on yourself and a sound engineer behind the glass or the microphone to help coach you along and tell you things that will help get your emotions in check for the song.

Having the right people is so important. I cannot emphasize how important it is to have the right players and the right people on the journey with you and as part of your career. It’s been a huge plus for me.

Who are you listening to these days?

Little River Band. I still listen to Hui Ohana and Na Palapalai, especially. These groups are so different from me and how I would arrange music or how I would take a traditional song and arrange it, but they’ve had huge breakthroughs in the industry. They are one of the top Hawaiian groups of all time and I get a lot of inspiration listening to them.

I still listen to Teresa Bright and always will, forever.

Brother Noland is also another favorite of mine, because he took Hawaiian music to the next level, as well. He kind of helped drive the Jawaiian music scene mixing Hawaiian music with a little bit of Reggae beat. He helped Hawaiian music survive in the late 70s and 80s and 90s. He still continues to play music. And he also has so many different community projects here and there that he’s such an inspiration to me as a person. I see his craft light up and enlighten others along his life’s journey. I was actually just listening to him today.

On another note, let’s talk food. If you could eat three square meals anywhere in Hawaii in one day—no matter price, no matter logistics—where would you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

For breakfast, I have to say Merrill’s Place in Kaneohe. [Note:  We are trying to source this restaurant for you.  Our team--that is me, myself and I--will track it down and provide you the details when I--we--find them. Unless you tell us first!] It’s this Korean lady who cooks like she’s my mom. Because when I eat her food, I taste her soul. I don’t taste a recipe when I eat her food. Really small place, hole in the wall, right in Kaneohe.

For lunch, I would love to go to Assagio’s for a salad and wine. I love Assagio’s. Italian food yet great bread and great pasta and great salads and very good wine selection.

For dinner, I really love Shokudo. They have really great selections. It’s family style eating.  It’s got this cool, clubby vibe but not. The service is very good. I like everyone there. They make you feel special, and as a customer when you’re spending money, it’s very important to be treated like your money is being appreciated. I’m learning how very important it is to treat everyone like a guest, like you’re welcoming them into your home.  Because making people feel special resonates.  I try to apply that to my shows, as well, so people will return. 


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