Ben Ka‘ili has been a staple on the local music scene for decades, playing local venues including Hilo Town Tavern, Hilo Burger Joint and Banyans Restaurant and Bar.
His career started when he was 8, playing Hawaiian music with his ohana, which included his uncle, the legendary George Na‘ope. He learned slack key during his youth and played in the group Likelike with his good friend Ipo Kumukahi. Then, at 17, he joined Da Blahlas of Keaukaha, playing at Rosie’s Boat House and performing at various events around the island.
Ka‘ili, who was nominated for a Na Hoku Hanohano award in 2009 in the Slack Key Album of the Year for his first instrumental album “Kaowahi,” is celebrating the release of his long-awaited follow-up, “Huanani.” He’ll play a CD release concert at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 in the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center’s planetarium.
The show is part of the ‘Imiloa After Dark program, and will also feature a talk-story session.
“I like ‘Imiloa. My grandchildren and my nieces and nephews are really into it,” Ka‘ili said.
He said he’ll be backed by his band, Kanakapila, which features Victor Chock on ukulele, J.J. Ahuna on bass and Dwight Tokumoto on steel guitar. He’ll also have dancers, including Matthew Kamelamela of ‘Ohana Serenaders fame and the wahine of Ke Olu Makani O Mauna Loa.
“That show’s going to be stacked, I mean big-time stacked. We’ve got a lot of Hilo talent going on there,” he said.
“Huanani” is named after Ka‘ili’s second daughter, as his 2009 release “Kaowahi” was named for his first. It was recorded at Red Moon studios, with Rob Yamanoha as producer-engineer.
“It took me this long because I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, because I was just traveling and playing Hawaiian music, spreading the aloha,” Ka‘ili said. “With this album, I knew what I wanted to do. I went in and nailed it down. Robbie was the biggest help. He has a good ear and a nice vision.”
Ka‘ili said nine of the songs on the 12-song CD are slack-key music, in keeping with Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts’ requirements for nomination in the slack-key category.
“I have three songs on it, ‘Mahina O Hoku,’ ‘Kealoha’ and ‘Ka Lehua I Milia,’ that are traditional Hawaiian-type songs — hula music,” he said. “I wanted to do hula type of music because I travel to Japan and I go to the mainland and I wanted hula music. They love Hawaiian music in Japan and they love hula.”
The album, which features Ka‘ili’s rich baritone voice as well as his guitar, also contains local standards, such as “U‘ilani,” “Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi” and “Maori Brown Eyes.” In addition, there are three originals: “Just Crusin’”; “Huanani Swing”; and “Big Island Slack Key Blues.”
Ka‘ili said “Just Crusin’” was written while he was in Santa Cruz, Calif., to play music.
“The hotel I was staying at, you can see the boardwalk there,” he said. “And I just was kicking back in the hotel on the lanai and waiting for the guys to pick me up to take me to the show that evening. I was looking at the boardwalk and thinking of home, because I had been three or four days up there. So, I’m sitting there on the lanai and playing.”
He described “Huanani Swing” as “off the top of my head.”
“I was in the studio with Robbie, and Robbie was telling me, ‘One more song. One more song. Anything you wanna do; just do one more song,’” Ka‘ili said. “And you get that mood in the studio. It’s quiet in there, only you and your guitar. And I started to play this thing, and now it’s on the album.”
“Big Island Slack Key Blues” was recorded before, with Kanakapila.
“I thought I heard something like it from Sonny Lim,” Ka‘ili said. “So, I called Sonny and said, ‘Eh brah, I’m doing something almost like what you’re doing. But I like you listen to ‘em. I gave him one copy and he listened to it. He said to me, ‘Eh brah, it’s your stuff, not even like mine.’ So I said, ‘OK, that’s what I wanted to hear from you.’ So I named it ‘Big Island Slack Key Blues.’”
Ka‘ili said he likes the finished product, but he has to put some distance between recording and listening to appreciate his own music.
“When I hear my own thing, it has to grow on me. It won’t happen with fireworks right in the beginning,” he explained. “After I was pau with the album, I went to Japan, and I didn’t listen to ’em. Robbie gave me a final copy of it and even when I went to Japan, I didn’t listen to my stuff. And then when I came home and I did Hawaii News Now Sunrise, I played it that morning in my dad’s truck’s stereo, and it turned out to be good, man.”
Admission for ‘Imiloa After Dark is $15 for non-members, $12 for members. Advance tickets are available at the ‘Imiloa front desk. Credit card purchases can be made at 969-9703 during regular business hours. Tickets are non-refundable.
The CD will be available for $15 at the show and is also available at Basically Books, One Gallery and Hilo Guitars &Ukulele, and online at Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.