REVIEW: Hiyah Fire’s “On The Rise”

Photobucket The mere mention of Hiyah Fire will bring cheers and smiles to longtime fans, and it happened again when the group released their album a few weeks ago, On The Rise (Serious Music).

This duo from Hawai’i have been taking on the islands and the Pacific rim with their style of reggae music that are honest and to the point. They talk about the land, the love, and they’re not afraid to touch on their spiritual beliefs. Vocalist Candida Zulueta (a/k/a Jahpoetress) has the kind of voice that suits this music well, and she sounds like a fun and free spirit throughout this album, while Bruce Zulueta (a/k/a Shaka B) delivers the goods with his guitar work and vocals. Both Zulueta’s have a hand in production and arrangements through the album, and along with the musicians who help them out, they create a recipe that’s irresistible for that Hawaiian isle stylee.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a brief moment. There’s a stigma going around for artists outside of Jamaica who are becoming a success with their reggae music, while those that are home grown find it difficult to be seen and heard unless they change their style or collaborate with someone well known. Hiyah Fire’s style of reggae is very positive, but there are some who might say it’s “safe” and that they play “tourist reggae” or “resort reggae”. Reggae music has always been a celebration of positive vibes, and there are reggae purists who will listen to this and go “none of them are born and raised in Jamaica, so where do they get off singing and toasting with Jamaica patois?” The same can be said for countless rappers who may have the “voice” but have had no experience in the dialect of the cities that they’re influenced from. Would Amy Winehouse‘s odes to ska be criticized, or is it more of value because of how she was raised?

Back to reality. The 12 songs (and bonus track) on On The Rise show a duo who are very confident in what they do and how they do it, and it sounds like decent reggae to me. I would love to hear Jahpoetess sing in styles outside of reggae, as I feel she has the kind of tonality and vibe that would be welcome in any musical context. She sounds “comfortable”, which can be a good and bad thing depending on your perspective. When I hear her in songs like “Anthem”, “Can’t Hold Me Doen”, and “Whoa”, there’s someone who shows a true love of the music and a passion to sing. It’s nice to hear someone who can sing effortlessly. Yet I would love to hear her in a project where she does something else, and maybe that’s a project to come. But within what makes Hiyah Fire work, it works great. I tend to like my ska and reggae a bit more gritty, and I would love to hear the drums be a bit more funky and in the bucket on future releases, but that’s me.

If possible, I’d love to see this entire album redone, remixed, and re-edited into something even more powerful, but is that saying On The Rise lacks the initial punch? Not at all, but what I do here is the strength in this music that will inspire people to go “let me take part”, and they’ll do that by attending their shows. This album could very well become someone’s guilty pleasure, and that’s a plus in my book. I hope to see them soon on future music festival line-ups.

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HAWAIIAN MUSIC CORNER/REVIEW: Maoli’s “Rock Easy

Image and video hosting by TinyPic It has been a few years since Maoli released their album, but this Jawaiian powerhouse are back with a more polished sound in what they call Rock Easy (Pacific Island).

I say polished because these guys look more sophisticated (read “grown”) and the cover design looks a lot better than the Xerox and CD-R burn they did the last time. The music was okay and passable then, but these guys are on a mission to play and cater to their fans, and they do with this brand new, 12-song album. If you listen to their music, they are in truth nothing more than a decent pop band who use roots reggae as their motif. Even at times when it sounds like they may be stuck in the late 70’s/early 80’s, there’s still a passion for what they do, which you can very much hear in the lead vocals and harmonies throughout. In songs like “Whisper”, “Tell Me”, and “Would You Want Me Around”, you’ll hear the continuation of what many Hawaiian musicians have done for years, and that is to embrace the kind of puppy-love songs that are sweet and innocent. That might seem like a step backwards if you were to place the music outside of its context, but there’s something charming about it. They’re not pulling an R. Kelly by any means, they’re simply saying they like ladies, they want to romance her, and maybe hold hands and walk at the beach.

Sometimes the arrangements in their songs are repetitive, as if they love the ingredients in the box presented to them and they don’t bother adding any spices. There’s a moment on this album where it sounds like they were going to get into a nice disco groove, and I welcomed that, I want to hear a band like this play more than the genre they want to be categorized as. The song goes right back into the reggae feel, and it’s feel good reggae, but it would have been cool to have heard them switch up for a full song.

“You In My Life” closes the album with a ballad that could get them a bit of national airplay, and not just as the tropical music moment you’ll catch on NPR. However, I hope if they do more songs like this, they will not remain stuck in it for the sake of being heard and noticed. What I’d also like to hear is this band cover songs that are out of the norm. like King Crimson‘s “21st Century Schizoid Man” or Hammerbox‘s “Texas Ain’t So Bad, Really”, maybe even Dickless‘ “Saddle Tramp”. What I hear in Maoli are a band who can sing and play their asses off, and I want to hear more of that. But I’d also like to hear them do more of that in a different context. Some sounds they used are synthesized (i.e. played with keyboards) and occasionally aren’t as meaty as they could be, although what they do with what they have is done very well.

Rock Steady represents Maoli at a time when the group shows a lot of promise, and while I have my share of suggestions and gripes in the music, it doesn’t take away the fact that the music will make you move and smile, which is what any artist wishes to do.

HAWAIIAN MUSIC CORNER/REVIEW: HHB’s “Still Standing”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic HHB is the name Shane Kahalehau performs his style of Jawaiian music (reggae with a Hawaiian touch) on his album Still Standing (self-released), and after hearing this, what I hear is someone who has the potential to be a greater artist if he wants to be.

He shares his Christian values throughout his music, which may seem at first odd for those who like roots reggae (the general style Jawaiian music takes from), but the market for spiritual reggae that’s not Rastafarian is growing and HHB will definitely make people want to put value in his work. He has a good and healthy voice, and while his spirituality isn’t overwhelming, it is present throughout. It’s a very positive reggae album.

If there’s a downside, it’s that the production is not as powerful as it could be. The vocal tracks sound very spare without much thrill or a punch to it. Add to that Kahalehau’s keyboard work, which I like but I wish he would use more sounds than the ones presented here. The bass work by Makapu Ho’opi’i stands out and I hope Kahalehau and Ho’opi’i will be together on future projects. As for future projects, I think if he is able to find a good amount of musicians and quality producer who can help him become a more powerful artist, he could easily become an influence outside of the islands. Until then, Still Standing has the feel of a nice demo, and I hope he’ll continue with his music and come out with something much stronger on the next effort.

HAWAIIAN MUSIC CORNER: Jahmaka’s “Appetite For Love”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic One look at the cover and I loved it. The guys in Jahmaka are sitting on stairs, on the side of a food bus (!!!) called Kiawe Q. Hui, I was hungry already. But that’s when my appetite lessened a bit.

Jahmaka are a Jawaiian band who want to share their love of reggae, and a few of these songs are decent, but I’d love to hear more than just the default sounds of a keyboard. They got the chops, the harmonies, but I wish for some of these bands to dig deeper and get gritty with how they play. Give it a true Jamaican dig, punch it with a hint of a New Orleans flavor. Yes, I do realize that this is all about keeping it “island style” but when you’re already making reggae your own music, why not perfect it into something that may be enjoyed outside of your core audience?

Now, if I don’t allow myself to get too deep, these songs are decent for parties and baby showers. In “Let’s Dance”, vocalist Stephen Lau tries to enhance his lady friend with talk that’s very tame, he wants to play the gentleman role and he simply ends up asking her to dance. Nothing more, nothing less.

One song that could crossover into the pop or R&B charts if given a new treatment is “Sweet Love”. Not to be confused with the Rufus song of the same name, this could work at a number of jamband and rock festivals if it had a real horn section instead of Lance Motogawa playing it with his keyboards. Also, a helpful tip: please lay off the auto-tune. It’s used sparingly, so no need to breathe for air as you’re overwhelmed by vocal manipulation, but there’s no need for that here, or anywhere.

While the recording is nice, it sounds a bit flat to my ears, or at least every instrument and vocal sounds the same without much added to make each song sound different from the other. It was mixed and mastered by Wendell Ching, who did decently on the album by The Green, so it’s hard to say if he is at fault or if it’s due to the production of Lau and Bill Mousser. Some of the songs also suffer from sounding too routine and mundane. Maybe if you’re dancing at the park or at a concert venue it doesn’t matter, but even non-conscious reggae music had a bit of substance. The songs on this CD do not have enough.

The name Jahmaka sounds great, but I want to hear songs that equal the power of their name. With a title like Appetite For Love, it is known that we Hawaiians are a passionate people. The album sounds like the act of spooning, but I like to entice, tickle, and tease. I hope these guys play around with the emotion of their music a bit more, because they could be something if they push that part of their muse to the forefront.
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HAWAIIAN MUSIC CORNER: The Green’s self-titled CD

Image and video hosting by TinyPic It’s hard to say if Jawaiian music has run its course or people back home are just bored. Regardless of how good or bad these albums are, a good amount of Jawaiian music still reminds me of home, but with with every other release, it seems that bands are somewhat stuck in their holes.

Case in point: The Green. They play roots reggae so that’s always a good thing, but this would have been perfect in 1980. I love old school reggae, and most Jawaiian music gets inspiration from Bob Marley and little else. Even when they try to geev’em, the songs on this CD (SheeHandsomeDevil) about love and relationships still sound like intermediate school scribbles, which sadly has been something Hawaiian artists have struggled with when trying to create pop music. It’s as if all I’m hearing is one variation of another of the Donny & Marie method. A song like “Dearest Sylvia” is about one man’s love for his lady, and I would have liked it if it went deeper than the surface. I’m not speaking of being explicit, not at all, but it’s as if they’re running around in circles and aren’t sure what to write. How to compensate? Speak in a Jamaican patois? Stop already.

What was good about this album is the musicianship from the band (Ikaika Antone on keyboards and guitars, Zion Thompson on guitar and percussion, JF Kennedy on guitar and bass), and vocalist Caleb Keolanui does a decent job at what he does. Bring in Kimie Miner, who sings lead on “How Does It Feel”, and it adds a great element to their developing sound.

To sum it up: decent singing, nice instrumentation, all-too-ordinary songs. To their credit, not a lot of people write this way anymore so even if it feels like innocent “puppy love” songs, it’s something that is not raw or nasty. But one doesn’t have to get raw or nasty to write decent songs today. Perhaps they can develop better songwriting ideas and concepts for their next album, or bring in a songwriter who can write or help them with new material. What is a plus is the production from Wendall Ching, and the artwork by Kamea Hadar is sure to get him a lot of work, I look forward to seeing what else he does. As for The Green, this CD sounds a very polished demo, and I hope they’ll be able to make a few adjustments in the lyrical department.

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REVIEW: Natural Vibrations’ “Ultimate Vibes” (greatest hits compilation)

Image and video hosting by TinyPic If you are familiar with reggae from the Pacific Rim, you will have no doubt heard of the name Natural Vibrations. They have been conquering Hawai’i Nei and the rest of the islands of the Pacific with their brand of reggae and Jawaiian music, and they’ve made enough music to create The Best Of Natural Vibrations: Ultimate Vibes (self-released).

What you have on their album are 15 classic Natural Vibrations jawns, including “Balls Rolling”, “Into Me”, “Mary Jane”, “Okana Road”, “One On One”, “Green Harvest”, and “Freedom Fighter”. Fans will want to buy this for the two previously unreleased tracks, “Man Down” and “Shawty”, both of which are sure to be fan favorites.

Having a “best of” doesn’t mean the end of the group, but it will provide a chance for new fans to catch up (their discography is eleven albums strong) and old fans to impatiently await new music. Just inhale big kine and hol’ ’em.