September-October 2007  

ARTIST: RAIATEA HELM

TITLE: HAWAIIAN BLOSSOM

LABEL: MOUNTAIN APPLE COMPANY

RELEASE DATE: JUNE 2007

BY MICHAEL MACHERET

hawaiianblossomcd_cover.jpgIt seems that Raiatea has grown up. Not to say that her voice has changed - she still has the sweetest voice you can imagine. Raiatea's first CD was recorded in 2003 when she was 17 years old. While that may be the norm for pop bands, the Hawaiian traditional music scene is usually dominated by more seasoned musicians. This makes it even more remarkable that she has captured numerous prestigious awards from the start: receiving the Na Hoku awards for her debut (given by the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Artists) for both Most Promising Artist and Female Vocalist of the Year in 2003. Her second CD Sweet and Lovely released in 2004 again won her the Na Hoku Female Vocalist of the Year plus Favorite Entertainer of the Year in 2005 plus four other Na Hoku awards. When she was nominated for a Grammy for her second CD, the New York Times called the recording "poised and utterly elegant."

It's been a long three-year wait for the next release Hawaiian Blossom. She is joined on this CD by two prominent up-and-coming stars, guitarist Hoku Zuttermeister and pianist Aaron Sala, plus three legends of Hawaiian music: Makaha Sons co-founder Louis Moon Kauakahi, the outstanding vocalist Robert Cazimero, and Grandmaster Slack Key guitarist Ledward Ka'apana.

Lei Kukui was written by Moon Kauakahi especially for Raiatea when they were touring together in 2005 and he joins her on vocal and guitar in this beautiful song. Kukui is the name of a tree that produces a nut that is used frequently in making a lei. Although commonly seen now, the kukui nut lei was once reserved only for the ruling class. The white flowers of the kukui tree are also strung as lei representing the island of Molokai which is Raiatea's home, and it is the kukui flower lei that is referenced in this song. Uncle Moon sings along with her on this song:

An everlasting beauty

My precious lei kukui

Ledward Ka'apana provides very tasteful accompaniment to Raiatea on the song E Ku'u Sweet Lei Poina ‘Ole. Having played for years as lead guitarist for the legendary Hui Ohana, Led has a special feel for playing his guitar behind the lead vocal. He provides exquisite accompaniment without overpowering the singer.

One of the most touching songs on this CD is the song Poi ‘Awa'awa. The lyrics say (in English translation from the Hawaiian in which it is sung):

Well up in me

As an irresistible craving

Is the taste that I always long for

The flavor of sour poi.

In the CD liner notes the meaning is interpreted this way: "we sometimes embrace friends (and even lovers) into our lives despite their salty demeanor. Like sour poi, which can complement many other foods, we can learn to acquire such a taste and with time come to enjoy the tart flavors they bring into our lives." Hawaiian music is full of what we call double-entendre, those references to the intimate by means of more colorful expressions. So if you think you might be put off by songs in a foreign language that you can't understand, consider the richness of language in these songs that tell a story in a way that is truly untranslatable as is all great poetry.

This CD has a dozen great traditional-style Hawaiian songs including some written by notable composers such as Mary Kawena Pukui, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, Lena Machado, Puakea Noglemeier and Helen Lindsey Parker. The final song, however, is - I suppose it would be called a "standard" from the American Songbook - Taking a Chance on Love. Occasionally, Hawaiian musicians and singers branch out into American pop music, and in this case Raiatea has really broken the mold. She handles the song as though she has spent a career singing jazz standards. I really hope she stays with traditional Hawaiian music, but there is no doubt after hearing her rendition of this song that she can sing anything she wants to and make it her own.

Let's hope Raiatea does not make us wait for another three years before the next CD. But if we have to wait, these Hawaiian Blossoms will remain fresh and sweet for a long, long time.