It’s hard to put Brother Noland into one specific category of talent. In his lifetime his credits include author, singer, artist, poet, philanthropist, mentor, musician, and teacher. Born and raised in Kalihi-Palama on Oahu, Brother Noland Conjugacion is most famous for his original song, “Coconut Girl,” that birthed the “Jawaiian” contemporary style. He has won numerous Na Hoku Hanohano awards, including Best Reggae Album, and his music is featured in several films. Fluid in both slack key and standard guitar tunings, Noland goes wherever the music carries him.
Last Saturday at the Kahilu Theatre, he performed a concert titled “An Evening with Hawaiian Music Icons.” The three-hour show featured his brother Tony Conjugacion, award-winning musical artist Sistah Robi Kahakalau, Hawaiian slack key master Dwight Kanae, and renowned bass player Kata Maduli. There was also a special segment that featured local celebrity Aunty Penny, dancing the hula.
Besides the great music with so many favorites performed, there were several unplanned comical moments like a fly that seemed to hover around Brother Noland throughout the evening. “Of all the places in the building, why is it right here?” joked Noland. Bassist Kata Maduli then commented that it was probably the reincarnation of late Hawaiian musician Malani Bilyeu. Bilyeu was scheduled to play the Kahilu last January with Henry Kapono, but passed away last December.
Noland’s manager Paul Buckley (who also played cajón at the concert) found a segment in the show when Noland was not on stage and could do this brief interview in the green room.
Can you talk about your current album — His Songs His Stories His Style.
Yeah, that was an interesting adventure. It is more jazz oriented. It was influenced by where I travel and perform… sometimes I have to alter the show to connect with the audience… then I can again bring them into the Hawaiian music so they can get a deeper cultural appreciation for how beautiful Hawaii music sounds. So, one way of doing that is to communicate with songs that are influenced by, you know, different genres. And in Hawaii, we take the genres, mix it up, and explore it. Obviously, the Jawaiian thing, yeah?
You also have a current studio project you’re working on. Can you talk about that?
I’m going to be collaborating with a bunch of different artists this year. I can’t mention any names just yet, but I can say they’re all part of this whole new culture of Hawaiian music, and it stems from paying homage to [my song]“Coconut Girl.” It’s really geared toward the youngsters. We’ve got a couple of people who have definitely made a name for themselves in Hawaii, and we’re going to add them to the mix.
Will you be reviving some of your earlier songs?
Yes, because for most of my career people would say to me, “Your music is ahead of its time.” Well, now, it must be that time, and people have caught up with the songs. What we want to do is introduce the songs to a younger generation too. We want to get them interested in how the musical part is formed.
I understand you’re working on a West Coast tour coming up in May. Perhaps covering Sacramento and maybe Vegas?
It’s a short little one, because I have another [musical]unit up there on the mainland. When I fly up there, they can’t wait to play. Like my guitar player… he calls me every week. [laughs]The various members have played with all kinds of bad dudes up there… like Hiroshima, Peabo Bryson, and Michael Paulo. Keyboard player Kimo Cornwell still plays with Hiroshima. The exciting thing is always to be rotating different players, like even this show tonight, and it’s so much fun. I like to travel. That’s how I roll.
What was the inspiration behind putting tonight’s show together?
I just wanted to see if I could put a team together that can gel with each other. Like I was telling the audience I have friendship and a relationship with them for such a long time, even musical relationships, it feels like we’re telepathic.
You guys seem so relaxed out there tonight, and there’s a real chemistry that connects everyone. There’s no stress, and the music is just wonderful.
Oh, thank you. Thank you so much! That’s the goal, right? The goal is to share that with everyone. It can be the form that’s formless.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming players?
Well, you know, I teach too. I’ve taught a lot of students over the last 20 or so years, and they’re all professionals now, and have pursued a career in music. I would say if you really want to commit and pursue a musical career, then do your “dirt time.” I guess in the music industry they call it paying your dues, yeah? Try and do it all, and fully embrace all of music. Because when you learn, or listen, or study all the styles, the experience will give you a real peripheral vision of what music is and how music works, and how it’s placed. What you develop, eventually, is what I call musicality.
If you watched Kata Maduli tonight, you’d say, “Wow, I’ve never seen a bass player play like that before.” As I said earlier in the show, there are four survival skills I’ve learned and have passed on over the years… Adjust, adapt, embrace, and endure.
An Evening With Hawaiian Music Icons – March 9, 2019
Brother Noland solo: Old Style | Pueo | Mr. Sun Cho Lee | Tropical Baby
Brother Noland with Dwight Kanae, Kata Maduli, and Paul Buckley: Waikiki (Look What They’ve Done) | Opihi Moe Moe | Kawaihae | Kowali | Ka Ipo | Kona
With Sistah Robi Kahakalau: No Ke Anu | Polani | Molokai (tribute to Malani Bilyeu) | Ku’u Hoa |
With Tony Conjugacion: Makua
With Tony Conjugacion: Hawaiian Cowboy | GH Man | Pua Ahihi | Lilikoi
With Sistah Robi Kahakalau: E Hihiwai | Pua Lane | Big Ship | Coconut Girl
Magic Planet | American Pie
For the latest music and concert news, be sure to visit Brother Noland’s official site: http://www.brothernoland.com
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. 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