Portuguese sailors brought the ukulele to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century, its delightful sounds forever now evocative of island music. Twenty-five years ago, the Hawaiian singer, songwriter and uke player Kaulana Kanekoa began bathing rock, blues and jam music in undulating waves of traditional Hawaiian melody. The Dead’s drummer Bill Kruetzman went as far as to call his band Kanekoa “The Hawaiian Grateful Dead.”
As produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, and featuring him on sax and keys, Kanekoa’s “Songs from the Great Disruption” celebrates life via thoughts and melodies that comfort and enthrall. Eight new compositions and one perfect cover highlight the virtuosic quartet — Kanekoa, Vince Esquire on guitar and uke, “Uncle” Don Lopez on fretless bass, and percussionist and Cajon player Travis Rice —engaging in deep, highly entertaining experiences as if from an open-air lounge by the sea.
“Lightest Load” takes flight on Van Morrison-colored wings. Shimmering, lightly electrified uke strings, Kanekoa’s soothing voice, and the energetic groove altogether mesmerize. “Don’t Let Go” then shakes on a stout Latin beat. The fiery picking, and Berlin’s honking sax put a distinct Los Lobos spin in play. A warm breeze washes over “Dos Amantes,” singer Kaulana exceedingly moving. The dreaminess of the tune becomes the ideal setup for the hand-clapping beat that welcomes “Morning Sun,” which features the one and only G. Love oozing soul and bright renewal. Then comes the perfect cover — Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” Kanekoa takes the monumental Page/Plant elegy, and with help from fellow Hawaiian uke star Jake Shimibukaro, creates otherworldly melodies within it.
Any program of “island music” must of course include a smokin’ hit of reggae. With “New Day Rising,” Kanekoa manage to praise both Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead at once, with fire and flair. While the thorny beat surely springs from Jamaica, Esquire’s fluid figures are straight out of Jerry Garcia’s 1970s San Francisco songbook. And if you want to at least feel like you’re in Hawaii, close your eyes and fade away to the peaceful “Aloha Ka Leo O Kahio Manu.”
The Great Disruption surely was just that, but what a time for great accomplishment in artistic expression, too. Like a tropical flower in blossom, it takes time to fully appreciate “Songs from the Great Disruption.” Take the time. This is one remarkably beautiful record.
- ‘Songs from the Great Disruption’
- Label: Kala Brand Music
- Release: May 1, 2022
- Lake Tahoe appearance: Crystal Bay Casino, June 25; Kyle Ledson opens.