When Kuana Torres Kahele releases an album, it shoots to the top of the world music charts.
His new release, “Hawai‘i Keawe,” dropped Tuesday and debuted at No. 1 on iTunes World chart. And though digital downloads are the state of the art in music, the CD itself, which features the artist’s lei-making skills in the cover photography, is also flying off store shelves.
“We’ve already gone through about 7,500 physical CDs. We’re on a re-order right now,” Torres Kahele said Tuesday.
The release is the first in a six-album series for the Hilo singer-songwriter featuring original music for an island. As the title suggests, the theme of this one is Hawai‘i Island, known by Hawaiian speakers as Moku O Keawe. The plan is for a three-year project with two album releases a year.
“We’re going down the island chain, new songs, new music for the islands of Hawaii. This year, we’re concentrating on this island, my home island. And, on Sept. 8 will be the release of ‘Niihau’,” the multiple Hoku award winner said. “I wanted to stay away from traditional, known songs because every Tom, Dick and Harry has recorded those songs. But for musicians such as myself and for hula dancers, we need new stuff and nobody out there is creating new stuff about the islands, in particular. And this is where the idea came from. I wanted to do a whole series for the islands of Hawaii, all new music.”
The CD is self-produced with the bulk of the music featuring only him, steel guitarist Casey Olsen and pianist Les Ceballos. Nalani Kanaka‘ole makes a guest appearance, chanting on the final track, “Na Pana Kaulana O Hilo.”
Torres Kahele is looking to feature one legend per island as a guest on each of the CDs. Mama Ane Kanahele of Ni‘ihau will be a part of the next CD, which he started recording Tuesday.
“That’s the only island no one can go to,” he said. “I can’t get material. I don’t know places; I don’t know names. I only know what I can hear from the families. Even that, in itself, is sort of subject to a kapu system. So, it’s really, really hard to come up with songs and chants for that island.
“So, what I had to do was really do my research and dig deep for that island. I came across a family who didn’t have a kapu on their songs. These songs are old songs written back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, composed but there are no melodies for the songs. They were given to me by the caretaker of the songs and I put all the melody to these songs. Not all of the songs are from the family but a handful of them.”
Merrie Monarch week starts April 20 and Torres Kahele noted the timing of the new CD’s release is “perfect.”
“We didn’t time it so it would revolve around the Merrie Monarch; it just ended up being that way,” he said.
For years, Torres Kahele has been a fixture as a musician at the Merrie Monarch Festival’s vaunted hula competition, as a halau musician for Johnny Lum Ho and backing up other halau as part of the traditional Hawaiian duo Na Palapalai and with others.
That won’t be the case this year.
“I’m finally taking a break after a nine-year streak,” he said. “It’s partially due to my schedule. I have a really crazy schedule. But I guess this year, some of the kumu probably guessed I was playing for nine or 10 halaus, that’s kind of what I’ve been averaging. This is the first year nobody asked. It’s kind of good for me because I’m already busy.”
Torres Kahele has a halau in Japan and is usually there a week or two each month. He’s just returned home from a monthlong stay in Japan, a country with an immense appetite for anything and everything Hawaiian, especially music and hula.
“I think Japanese people love something new, something different,” he said. “Hula was that for them maybe 20 years ago. It started off really small, but it’s grown exponentially, and that’s all due to the revitalization of Hawaiian music. I think it started out here at home and as it grew here, it got bigger in Japan.”
Torres Kahele’s absence from the musicians’ pit alongside the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium stage will leave a void. He will, however, play music in and around Hilo during Merrie Monarch week.
• Noon April 23 at the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, and 3 p.m. at Basically Books in downtown Hilo.
• 11 a.m. April 24 at the Kapalana Craft Fair.
• 1 p.m. April 25 at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.
• 11 a.m. April 26 at the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, and 2:30 p.m. at Basically Books.
“I can’t totally run away from the Merrie Monarch,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.