This article originally appeared in 2011. Hapa returns to the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center this Saturday, Oct. 12.
The story of Hapa begins with a house burning down.
Near the end of the 1970s, New Jersey native Barry Flanagan joined a mass exodus of young folks from Bergen County to Boulder, Colorado. He was an aspiring guitarist. He’d graduated in 1974 from Bergenfield High School, which produced a half-dozen professional guitarists, including jazz legend Al Di Meola a few years earlier. Flanagan didn’t start playing until he was 17, but by the time he’d arrived in Colorado he’d already become a performer.
He first heard the call of Hawaii in the form of a record by legendary “slack key” guitarist Gabby Pahinui, who in 1975 achieved some mainland success in a recording collaboration with Ry Cooder. Flanagan was stunned by the music. It possessed an almost ancient power, and the guitar playing –virtuosistic yet warm, not overtly flashy like so much highly skilled playing – deeply impacted Flanagan.
“It really grabbed me,” Flanagan recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, what is this music?’”
Late in 1979, Flanagan received two phone calls that would change the course of both his life and Hawaiian music. The first was a call telling him his home had burned to the ground. The bad news was nearly everything he owned was utterly gone; the good news is he’d be receiving an insurance check. The second call was a friend in Hawaii who’d heard about the fire and invited him to visit for a couple months.
Those couple of months turned into a lifetime. Flanagan knew within a month that he’d found his home in Hawaii. And he knew with a few months that he’d found his passion within Hawaiian music.
His epiphany came, naturally, in the ocean. He was bodysurfing that first winter in the islands in an area known as Slaughterhouse on Maui’s North Shore when it hit him.
“The connection to the ocean, the realization of it being the life support system for the Earth was life changing,” Flanagan said. “I think that this kind of connection to feeling like a South Pacific Islander can only happen when the ocean is involved.”
He’d arrived a propitious time. The 1970s had been a time of cultural awakening in Hawaii, a period known as the Hawaiian Renaissance when the native language, culture, and arts were rescued from near oblivion and transcended the kitschy, Don Ho, grass-skirted version of the islands that had been popularized.
Flanagan began studying Kiho Alu, the art of slack key guitar, and Haku Mele, the art of Hawaiian song composition. Flanagan was taught by a local singer and songwriter named Ron Kuala’au, and befriended by a musician named Jimmie Kaopuiki, who helped him delve deeper into the music, introducing him to such groups as The Sunday Manoa, who were not well known outside the islands but whose formative 1969 recording Guava Jam some credit as the spark of the Hawaiian Renaissance.
The islands were abuzz with music, and in a very short time Flanagan became a working musician, playing slack key guitar. He was only 22.
“It was an unbelievable time,” Flanagan said. “When I got to Maui, I wasn’t an experienced guitar player or musician – I had only been playing four years – and all of a sudden I was doing 500 dates a year. I mean, like 14 gigs a week, seven, eight, nine years in a row really helps you get your chops together, you know?”
At a Christmas party in the early ‘80s, he met a singer named Keli’i Kaneali’i. When the two raised their voices together in song, something clicked, something akin to the famous meeting of David Crosby and Graham Nash and Mama Cass’s house back in the late 1960s. Their harmonies came naturally.
“We just sang and it sounded great,” Flanagan said. “There was something there.”
The duo joined and formed Hapa – the word hapa means “half” or “part” in Hawaiian and usually connotes of mixed heritage or “half white,” short for the term hapa haole. Hapa’s sound reflected this name, infusing harmonies and contemporary instrumentation into traditional Hawaiian music. In 1983, the duo began recording.
“The intent was to do sort of Simon and Garfunkel or Nash and Crosby do a Hawaiin album, with cool instrumentals,” Flanagan said.
It was a project that would take a decade to complete, building a momentum of its own as Hapa’s sound coalesced.
“The idea was to do an album that kind of reflected everything that I had been taking in, because it was really when I moved to Hawaii and decided to stay it was eight hours a day of doing nothing but studying the language, the chants, listening to the music non-stop, and playing as much as possible,” Flanagan said. “So the record was sort of my ten year thesis – we started the record in ’83 and it came out in ’93….Timing-wise, it was like some angel was watching over it.”
The self-titled record, Hapa, exploded like a musical bombshell upon its release, becoming the biggest selling record by a Hawaiian group of all time. It is a widely acknowledged masterpiece in Hawaiian music, winning six Na Hoku Hanohano Awards (equivalent to Grammies in Hawaii). In 1994, Flanagan was honored with the prestigious Haku Mele award by the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts for “Excellence in the Art of Song Composition in the Native Hawaiian Language.”
“Everyone was blown away, including me,” said Mitch Chang, a slack key guitarist and the head of Kala Koa Entertainment, which is bringing Hapa for its first-ever LA area concert on Nov. 13 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. “Barry brought his pop and rock influence and melded it with traditional Hawaiian tunes in a unique way that didn’t compromise the beauty of the songs and their recorded versions of those songs have pretty much become the standard for a lot of people.”
Fusion is a difficult musical task to pull off while maintaining the integrity of the music being fused. For the last 18 years, Hapa has walked this tightrope with remarkable grace, inventiveness and ingenuity, bringing strains of jazz, rock, folk and reggae into a fundamentally Hawaiian sound. Each Hapa release is kind of a Hawaiian festival unto itself, much like the group’s famed performances, which combine dance, poetry, chants, mesmerizing harmonies and Flanagan’s astonishing guitar playing.
While the first record remains a benchmark, each subsequent release displayed a similar adventurousness as the group kept broadening its musical palate. In a sense, Flanagan was following the lead of Gabby Pahinui, who subtly brought modern music references into his playing. And in a larger sense, Hawaiian music has long been a river of confluences. Slack key itself dates back to the 1830s, when a gift of cattle brought to Hawaii’s unifying King Kamehma the Great by Captain Vancouver had grown so large that his great grandson Kamehameha III brought in Mexican and Portuguese cowboys to teach the locals the fine art of cowboying. The cowboys, called “paniolo” locally, brought guitars, and Hawaiians combined the instruments with their traditional chants and Polynesian rhythms to create what we now know of as Hawaiian music.
The music is evocative of a place and a people unlike any on Earth. Flanagan’s love for the music is tied to his love for Hawaii. “This music definitely to me is embedded as a soundtrack for visually what Hawaii is about and what the people are,” Flanagan said. “It’s beautiful music and it tells a story, and it stands on its own, in its individual nature, as Hawaiian. There is nothing else like it.”
Hapa has helped spread the music to a wider audience. The New York Times described Hapa the “most successful Hawaiian group in recent history” drawing from “from a wellspring of Polynesian traditions, but with a sure-footed pop sensibility.” “It’s not an overstatement that Hapa actually encompasses the past, present, and future of Polynesian music,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote.
A longstanding member of the group was Charles Ka’upu, a legendary cultural figure in Maui whose expertise was in the art of ‘oli, ancient Polynesian chants that have been passed down through the generations. The Redondo concert, sadly, will be dedicated to the memory of Ka’upu, who died unexpectedly at the age of 53 in July.
“He definitely was kind of our spiritual leader, and also a dear friend of 18 years of touring with the group,” Flanagan said. “Every time we play, we will just be honoring him, really – just a great friend and really, really beautiful guy. It’s hard to talk about. Words can’t express it.”
It is a time of change. Kaneali’i retired from the group in 2001, and for the last eight years bassist, 12-string guitar player, and singer Nathan Aweau formed a duo with Flanagan, infusing the sound with even more of a jazz sensibility. He has emerged as a star unto himself and amicably left the group to launch a solo career. His replacement, however, is a musician central to the original Hapa sound — Ron Kuala’au, one of Flanagan’s early teachers in Hawaiian music, who has been a close friend since 1980.
“It was almost meant to be, if there was going to be another Hapa after the brilliant Nathan that it would be going back to what the first record kind of sounded like,” Flanagan said. “When I play with Ron, I tell people – this is the guy that taught me. How cool is that? When I met him back in 1980, the only thing we had in common was bad afros. But he kind of took me under his wing, the sweetest guy in the world…There is just this thing there between us, and to it’s great to give exposure to one of our great singers.”
Hapa plays at the RB Performing Arts Center Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. See kalakoa.com for tickets, and hapa.com for more information on the group.