By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Kuana Torres Kahele has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season. The Hilo-born singer’s album “Kaunaloa” garnered seven Na Hoku Hanohano awards earlier this year, tying him with Kealii Reichel for the most awarded to a single recording project. In addition, his “Hilo for the Holidays” CD has already sold more than 15,000 units, an astonishing number for any local album, let alone a Christmas album, in its first month of release.
There are four originals among the 10 songs on the CD, including the first two songs the Na Palapalai mainstay has composed in English.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking doing this album, because I’d never done anything outside of Hawaiian music,” Torres Kahele said Tuesday. “So when it came to creating a more Christmas sound instead of a Hawaiian album, which I’m really more used to, I didn’t know really where to start.
“’Hilo for the Holidays’ and ‘I Guess It’s Christmas’ are the first two Christmas songs I ever wrote. When I wrote those songs, I didn’t know if they would be too Hawaiian or if they would sell in the category of being Christmasy. I’m only used to playing guitar, ukulele (and) bass, so I didn’t know what else to add to that Christmas sound, and I asked a few friends to help me out to get that sound.”
Those friends include Alan Akaka on steel guitar, Bryan Tolentino on ukulele, Dave Tucciarone — who engineered the project — on keyboards, and Honolulu Boy Choir Choral Director Kale Chang on vocals.
“Those guys, they really helped me out in making this album a real Christmas album,” Torres Kahele said. “I think for this being my first Christmas album and my first non-Hawaiian album, it turned out pretty great.”
Torres Kahele said that when he decided to do the project, he “got on the computer and Googled Christmas songs.”
“I tried to stay away from what’s been done and overdone. I looked at Hawaiian Christmas songs, more contemporary holiday songs,” he said. “A couple of the songs on there — those other than the ones I composed — are somewhat reminiscent of my childhood, like ‘Silver Bells.’ My mom used to sing that to me.”
Another song that can be linked to just about everyone’s childhood is “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” a Hawaiian-English version of “The Chipmunk Song.”
“I tried to get the Chipmunks to be on that one, but no can do,” he quipped.
One of the melodies wasn’t a Christmas song in its original form. “Hallelujah,” a modern classic penned by Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and popularized by the late Jeff Buckley, is a stunningly lyrical but ultimately cynical view of the affairs of the human heart. Instead of translating Cohen’s verses, Torres Kahele wrote his own Hawaiian lyrics to glorify the birth of Christ. He also Hawaiianized the title to “Haleluia.”
“I decided to take my concept for the title and make this a more Hawaiian spiritual type of a song,” he said. “That’s something that people in Hawaii can really relate to, and the tune, of course is familiar to everyone. I was worried a bit about what some people would think, but I guess everybody likes it.”
One song, the Hawaiian spiritual “Iesu E Komo Mai” has a special meaning for Torres Kahele. Proceeds from the song go directly to Hi‘ipoilani Kanahele Vakameilau, Kanoewai Ka‘aumoana Morton, Kahikiu‘i Kanahele and Naniwaiu‘i Kanahele, four Ni‘ihauan girls who sing with him on the record. Their grandmother, 82-year-old Mama Ane Kanahele of Ni‘ihau and mother of Volcano resident Kele Kanahele, wrote the song. She and many of the Kanahele ‘ohana make the shell leis he collects.
It may not be surprising that Torres Kahele included the hapa-haole holiday staple “Here Comes Santa in a Red Canoe.” What might surprise, however, is that he uses his soaring falsetto to yodel on the song.
“A lot of people were caught off guard on that one,” he said. “My father’s side is all cowboys, so I had a few uncles who used to yodel. And when I was younger, I used to yodel a lot. I’d never yodeled on a record before. But sometimes, when I get together with the family, I’ll do it.”
“Hilo for the Holidays” is in more than 300 stores statewide, including Walmart, 7-Eleven and Martin & MacArthur, with downloads available at iTunes and Amazon.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.