If you’ve ever listened to Hapa, considered to be the most successful group from Hawaii in recent history, you’ll have undoubtedly felt an inexplicable depth living within their music. The LA Times has referred to it as “Beautiful, fragile, spiritual, powerful,” and the San Francisco Chronicle said it “represents the past, present, and future of Polynesian music.”
It’s a music which encapsulates the essence and emotion of both a geological landscape and its people. As if the volcanoes themselves have raised their voices in song, to tell of the millennia consumed with shaping and nourishing rich and majestic islands upon which they would eventually become observers and collaborators of a special culture amid the dance of human history. Perhaps that is Hapa’s song.
When fate and fire burnt Barry Flanagan’s home to the ground in 1979, it was the grace and hospitality of a friend which bound him to what quickly became his new home. The New Jersey native, born in New York, couldn’t have known he was about to change the face of Hawaiian music.
“The early ‘80s were such an exciting time to be in Hawaii working on projects and studying,” Flanagan recalled. “It was a blast making new friends and soaking up as much of everything in Hawaii as possible. Hawaii, like New York City, has a vibe that is completely all its own, and I believe that both places reverberate at the same level of intensity.”
Flanagan became fascinated by Hawaiian culture, lifestyle, and music. Having played guitar for (only) four years prior, he began studying Kiho Alu, the art of slack key guitar, and Haku Mele, the art of Hawaiian song composition. He quickly became an occupational slack key guitarist at the age of 22. Another fateful meeting found him singing together with Keli’i Kaneali’i, and they flowed like waves over a reef. And so was born Hapa.
The word hapa means “half” or “part” in Hawaiian, and usually refers to mixed heritage or “half white,” short for the term hapa haole. The duo fused a mixture of contemporary instrumentation with traditional Hawaiian music. It’s been called Hawaiian music with pop sensibility, and it was a complete sensation.
Their self-titled debut became the biggest selling record by a Hawaiian group of all time. Their records and CDs have gone on to accomplish something considered rare and uncommon in Hawaiian music history: they’ve found their way into mainlanders’ music collections and regular rotations. I myself even grew up with the warmth of Hapa’s Christmas album filling my parents’ home during the holiday season.
Owing in part to the evolution of the outfit’s sound and success was Ron Kuala’au. He was one of Flanagan’s earliest teachers when he arrived in Hawaii, and would also later succeed Kaneali’i in the duo.
“Ron was one of my heaviest musical influences with Contemporary Hawaiian Music and was really kind to me,” recalls Flanagan, who can by now consider Kuala’au one of his oldest friends. “He is such a sweet and caring guy, and went out of his way to help me. It took a while for me to wrap my arms around the whole ‘Hawaiian music with pop sensibility’ thing, but Ron has always been considered one of the best guys at this… referred to by the old-timers in Lahaina as ‘The James Taylor of Hawaiian music.’”
Flanagan cites influences from the Contemporary Hawaiian pantheon, including Sunday Manoa, The Brothers Cazimero, Olomana, Beamer Brothers, and Gabby Pahinui and Ry Cooder’s recordings.
“Oh yeah, and Jack Johnson!” he adds. “What a guy! What an inspiring person. We are all so amazed and proud of him and the message he carries from Hawaii to the world.”
From beyond the islands, Flanagan also looks to Simon & Garfunkel, U2, The Beatles (of course), Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Frank Sinatra, Steve Perry, Harry Connick Jr., B.B. King, Albert King, Lightning Hopkins, Albert Collins, and newer artists like Jack and Colbie Caillat, and The Scripts.
“Eva Cassidy, Wolfgang, and Beatles play in our house daily,” he says. “Really, any music that is from the heart. I like it all, and listen to it all.”
A key figure in Hapa’s initial success was actually Kenny Loggins, who sang background vocals on a song from their first album.
“He really helped get that first CD noticed, and we are forever grateful to him for that,” says Flanagan. “We then collaborated on a song… entitled ‘Hana Aluna Lullabye’, composed for Kenny’s daughter Hana. Hana is 16 years old now. We recently heard her sing and play guitar, and she is amazing. Watch out!”
Hapa has continued to gain worldwide recognition throughout the decades, perpetuating an uncanny ability to appeal to audiences well beyond the pristine shores of the Hawaiian islands.
Kala Koa Entertainment Presents the Hapa 2012 Los Angeles Showcase on Nov. 10 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center (located at 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd). Ticket prices range from $30-45, with VIP available for $65. 6 p.m. See kalakoa.com.