By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The words “late bloomer” have never been used to describe Lehua Kalima.
The Keaukaha native left for Honolulu in the seventh grade to become a boarding student at Kamehameha Schools Kapalama Campus. While there, she joined forces with friends and classmates Nalani Choy and Angela Morales to form the musical trio Na Leo Pilimehana. Their senior year, they won Brown Bags to Stardom, and their song “Local Boys” was an immediate hit.
Almost three decades and 20 Na Hoku Hanohano awards later, Na Leo is still going strong and has just returned from Japan, where they played the “Billboard Live” show in Tokyo and an Osaka engagement. As for Kalima, she’s added a second act as a successful solo artist to her list of accomplishments. Her debut solo CD “Rising in Love,” which was released last November, won a Hoku in May for Contemporary Album of the Year.
“I was going through a hard time personally, and I just wrote a bunch of songs that, to me, didn’t fit the Na Leo mode,” Kalima said, explaining that the album was inspired by the dissolution of her nine-year marriage. “I needed something to occupy my time and my energy. So I finally got the nerve up to ask the other girls if they thought it was OK. I think they sort of felt sorry for me (laughs), and they said it’s OK, just go start working on it. It actually took me three years to do from start to finish, because we took our sweet time working with it and sort of just let the songs evolve.”
Kalima will be performing Aug. 25 at the Big Island Biker & Family Fest at Laupahoehoe Point, a benefit for Hawaii Island United Way. Gates open at 11 a.m. and the family-friendly outdoor event is from noon to 7 p.m. Also on the bill are Willie K and the Warehouse Blues Band, Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom, Tomi Isobe Blues Band, Ol’ School Band and Kanakapila. There’s a motorcycle contest with numerous categories, a water slide and bouncing castle for the keiki and food and craft booths. Free shuttle service will run between the concert site and Laupahoehoe Pubic Charter School. Tickets are $20 advance, $25 gate, with ages 10 and under free. Advance tickets are available at Ellsworth’s Custom Cycles and CD Wizard in Hilo, Big Island Harley Davidson in Kona, all Music Exchange locations, 50s Diner in Laupahoehoe and Taro Patch Gifts in Honokaa.
She’ll also play a more intimate set at 10 a.m. the same day at Basically Books in downtown Hilo.
Kalima, who graduated from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said she “can’t remember” the last time she played an East Hawaii show and is looking forward to it.
“It’s always fun to come home,” she said. “I actually come home every year for Merrie Monarch and maybe every other year, we have a big family party for New Year’s in Hilo. And the good thing about Hilo is it really hasn’t changed much. … The feeling’s always the same every time I go home. I just reconnect with family and friends, hang out and just be normal again.”
This trip home will also serve as a family get-together, as her dad, Square, is celebrating his birthday on Aug. 25.
Kalima, a songwriter as well as a performer, has won the Song of the Year Hoku, a composer’s award, three times: in 1996 for “Flying With Angels”; in 1999 for “Rest of Your Life”; and in 2001 for “Saving Forever,” co-written with six-time Grammy winner Daniel Ho. She’s especially proud that all of the music on “Rising in Love” is original.
“People kept telling me radio wasn’t gonna play it because you needed a cover (remake of a hit), blah blah blah. Yeah, I understand that, but this is a more personal thing than trying to get on the radio,” she said. “I’ve been on the radio for years. These are songs that I think people can connect to, and people that know me already, hopefully will like. And it got on the radio, anyway, so that’s a good thing.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.