Everyone who’s heard Hapa’s self-titled 1992 debut release knows that Barry Flanagan and Keali’i Kaneali’i created a unique sound filled with heartfelt harmonies and breathtaking guitar work. The record still remains the number-one selling recording by a group or duo in the history of recorded Hawaiian music. Last Friday’s Hapa concert at the Kahilu also marked a historical event — the first time the original duo performed at this Big Island venue.
The evening was filled with musical memories of the group’s origins. It started with New Jersey native Barry Flanagan’s journey to Hawaii to study slack key guitar for a month. The visit turned into a new home after Flanagan fell in the love with the culture and beauty of the islands. At a party in 1983, Flanagan met Honolulu-born Keli’i Kaneali’i and began a 15-year musical partnership, but it took them nearly 10 years before they recorded their first album.
Their signature blend of Hawaiian and European folk-and-pop styles was delivered with 12-string guitar and traditional slack key tuning. After their debut release, popularity followed with a grueling tour schedule, averaging 500 shows per year over their 10 years together. In 2001 they parted ways for 17 years. Flanagan found other musical partners and carried on touring as Hapa, while Kaneali’i pursued a solo career and married his wife Elisha.
After their long separation, you might say a higher power reunited them. In an interview I did with the duo a few weeks ago, they mentioned that their paths mysteriously started crossing again – “It definitely felt like the hand of God put me back together with my brother,” recalled Flanagan. The original Hapa has been performing for the past two years and has plans to tour the mainland and Japan in the months ahead.
You could tell the moment Kaneali’i and Flanagan hit the stage that they were in a joyful mood and at times broke into spontaneous laughter. In their first set, in sequential order, they played most of side one of their debut release, and as Flanagan joked that it received a “Cassette of the Year” award, an audience member shouted out, “And the bugga still plays!” Flanagan’s guitar style is spectacular, especially when he takes the well-worn instrument and plants it upright on his lap. Swaying the neck back-and-forth in a frantic motion, he achieves an impressive tremolo effect. From my vantage point, I noticed he kicked off one shoe to tap an amplified block, producing a bass drum effect.
During the 15-minute intermission, Flanagan went out to mingle with the lobby crowd, and several people let him know that they had attended their concerts, such as South by Southwest and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. At the latter concert, they met their idol, James Taylor. In tribute to the acoustic guitarist, Hapa played his blues parody “Steamroller.”
Flanagan described the second half of the show as their “Roots Set,” and opened with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s hit “The Boxer.” “This is the first song we learned in 1983, and we both had mullets,” Flanagan fondly remembered. The audience had fun joining in on the “Lie-la-lie” parts, some even did the “Shoop” sound effects.
After a few of these early musical influence songs, each musician did separate mini-sets. Kaneali’i did a trio of songs and brought out his wife Elisha who danced hula. Her performance during “Lei Pikake,” with lei in hand, was stunning.
The duo rejoined for a few songs that closed out the show. In the batch was a song about the Big Island that they had never performed before called “Kaulana Kawaihae,” written by Aunty Alice Kailihune Alama Naʻai, who was born in Waipiʻo Valley. It tells the tale of an islet off the shore of Kawaihae, and how the tsunami of 1946 took back the island when it subsided into the reef.
Hapa fans, thrilled with their brilliant performance, lingered in the theatre’s lobby for a chance to talk story with the dynamic duo.
Haleakala Ku Hanohano | Kaopuiki Aloha | Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai | Anjuli | He’eia | Pu’uanahulu | Ku’u Lei Awapuhi
The Boxer | On the Wings of a Nightingale | Steamroller | Pualena | Lady in Red | Lei Pikake | Redemption Song | Kaulana Kawaihae | Pride (In the Name of Love) | Wahine ‘Ilikea | Pu’uanahulu|
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in The NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby