The closest many people in the continental United States come to the Hawaiian Islands and their music is likely from poor interpretations offered by television shows or old movies. Indeed, for years Elvis Presley’s stereotypical rendition of Blue Hawaii, from the 1961 film, probably was the sound mistaken for the real thing.
Minnesotans who want to hear a more authentic sampling of Hawaii’s rich musical heritage can take heart in the work of the Lau Hawaiian Collective.
The five-member band from St. Paul, co-founded by vocalist Kim Sueoka and guitarist David Burk, grew out of a mission by another Minnesota music group to expand its repertoire.
A few years ago, the Rose Ensemble, also based in St. Paul, won a grant to study Hawaii’s musical tradition. Every year the internationally acclaimed ensemble, which includes Sueoka and Burk, adds new songs, interpreting music that spans 1,000 years in more than 25 languages.
Several of the Rose Ensemble’s members traveled to the islands to scour music archives and to talk with composers and performers. Their research uncovered a wide range of compositions, among them a creation chant and Hawaiian hymns composed by islanders who were influenced by missionaries.
Two years ago, Sueoka and Burk created the Lau Hawaiian Collective to bring even more of the islands’ music to Minnesota audiences. The musicians have found receptive listeners thousands of miles from the islands.
“I sense in the community here a desire to learn about cultures outside of Minnesota,” said Sueoka, who moved to Minnesota in 2000 to study voice at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “When I talk to people I feel like there’s a real love of Hawaii and Hawaiian music.”
They largely settled on a repertoire of Hawaiian folk songs. Born and raised on the island of Kauai, Sueoka grew up surrounded by people who sang tunes with universal themes: “love, loss, things that are so funny, joy, nature.”
One of the Lau Hawaiian Collective’s pieces is “Hano Hano Hanalei,” a folk song about the lushness of the land and how the rain comes down and cuddles with the ferns like a sweetheart.
Burk, a native of Georgia who lived for a time in Ohio, plays a variety of stringed instruments for a range of different musical ensembles. Other members of the collective include bassist Rahn Yanes, glass harp player Dave Kapell and vocalists Shahzore Shah and Andrew Kane.
Much of the group’s repertoire features songs composed around the time Hawaii’s monarchy was fading in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Hawaiian song “Wiliwiliwai” (The Rotating Water Sprinkler), composed by Queen Lili’uokalani, a member of Hawaii’s royal family, grew out of her enchantment with a neighbor’s lawn sprinkler.
“Unusually active sending out sprays like rain,” she wrote, “lessen your speed that I may have a drink.”
It’s a song that owes much to the era in which it was written.
“Composers in the monarchy were still honoring these early song traditions of writing poetry and putting poetry to music,” Sueoka said. “So a lot of the subject material is very rooted in Hawaiian chant and hula.”
Some of the band’s music relies on unusual instruments, such as the rain stick that creates a gentle hiss on “Aihea ‘o ka Lani” (Where is the Royal One?), and the ili ili — smooth, palm-sized rocks held between fingers and clacked like a castanet for the traditional hula, the famous Hawaiian dance form.
Burk says the band adapts and updates some songs. On “Aihea ‘o ka Lani,” Burk plays the oud, a mandolin-like instrument, a sound he later manipulated n the recording studio to create a more contemporary feel.
“We are in the present, and we should reflect that,” Burk said. “And we should be bring this tradition into the present as well.”
Some of the Lau Hawaiian Collective’s songs have a cowboy or country and western feel — influences that reflect the presence of cowboys who came to the island to tend cattle. Some brought their guitars.
For Burk, the highest compliment the band can receive from listeners is that the music takes them to the tropics. He tries to go beyond the notes on the page and find emotion in the music.
“It’s almost more about a vibe, creating an atmosphere, a perspective for yourself or your audience,” he said. “More than a particular rhythm… [it’s] getting to the aloha vibe.”