The Odd Couple
It may seem an unlikely collaboration, but it sure works for Keola Beamer and Raiatea Helm, who perform here Friday
She’s in the spring of her career, and he’s still peaking in his after 30-some years in the music biz. Their collaboration on a new CD/concert tour has critics praising Keola Beamer and Raiatea Helm for their luminosity, innovative interpretation and instrumentation – you name it.
And lucky we live Kaua’i, because the duo, whose CD entered the World Music stage at No. 7 on the World Billboard Music Charts back in early May, will take the stage here. As part of a statewide tour, they’ll perform on Friday, Aug. 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Kaua’i Community College.
“It’s going to be a multi-textured show,” says Beamer, whose musical lineage extends across five generations. “We’re both established artists, and Raiatea has a very strong solo presence, as do I.
“We want, of course, to showcase the CD, so we have a three-piece band; and as if this wasn’t enough, we have the five-piece Spring Wind Quintet, so you’ve got 11 performers on stage and my wife, Moana, is performing hula.”
The performance will include an arrangement of John Lennon’s Imagine, translated into Hawaiian by Beamer’s hanai brother, Hawaiian language specialist Kaliko Beamer-Trapp, and sung in the leo kiekie, or falsetto, by Helm while Beamer carries the melody as originally composed by Lennon.
There will be a rendering of Kimo Hula as written by Beamer’s great-grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer, a prolific songwriter and hula dancer. It showcases Helm’s voice to a “T.”
And the fact that she’ll be in performance on Kaua’i is a bonus for Helm, whose mother was born and raised here, a member of the Holi family of Hanapepe.
Says Helm, “We’ll do mainly songs off the CD, and we’ll do a couple of Keola’s classics that he did with his brother Kapono, and might even throw in Mr. Sun Cho Lee.”
Helm filled in some blanks about the genesis of the CD, a collaboration on which ran about 14 months.
Beamer lost his mother, Aunty Nona Beamer, about two years ago, around the same time that Helm’s maternal grandmother died. Beamer and Helm met when both were invited to play at the Lantern Floating Ceremony held annually at Ala Moana Beach Park that draws crowds of up to 40,000 people.
It’s a ceremony hosted by Shinnyo-en, a Buddhist sect, and it commemorates those who gave their lives in conflict, allows for reflection on the memories of loved ones and dedicates prayers for a peaceful and harmonious future.
Beamer had been performing at it for a couple of years, and when Cary Hayashikawa, who later became project coordinator on their CD, asked Helm if she would like to work with Beamer at the festival, she jumped at it.
About Beamer, Helm says, “He was very kind, very sweet and great from the start. We ended up performing a Hawaiian hymn, Iesu no Ke Kahuhipa, and it was beautiful. Everyone enjoyed it.
“We decided to perform Imagine for the closing day of the ceremony. A Japanese lady played koto and Keola’s wife Moana played the ukeke.
“Everyone loved it, and then after performing with him those couple of days, we decided we wanted to record together,” continues Helm. “We had a close relationship from the start.”
Helm says she’s been approached a few times to collaborate with other artists, but felt strongly that the timing was right for this collaboration.
She explains, “I think you have to build a really good relationship with the other individual personally. If you make music together, it’s like you’re creating a child.
“Music is music, but when you get with Keola, it’s so sensual, so spiritual – that’s a lot of soul and effort, and I don’t think I could have done a collaboration with anyone today but Keola Beamer. I am open to anything, but Keola Beamer took me out of the box and I’m still growing as a young woman – I’m pretty excited about what will come in the future.”
A look back at the lives of each of these talented musicians and haku mele – composers of songs or chants – shows significant musical lineage, but even so, there was never a guarantee that either might choose music as a career field. In fact, for Beamer, it was almost as if he had to deny his musical side in order to ultimately accept it.
Born in 1951 into the fifth generation of one of Hawaii’s beloved musical families, Keolamaikalani Breckenridge Beamer was raised in Kamuela on Hawaii Island. He is a premier singer-songwriter, arranger, composer and master of the Hawaiian slack key guitar, who today lives in Honolulu.
The Beamers trace their roots to the 15th century and include among their ancestors Queen Ahiakumai Kiekie. Certainly, anybody into Hawaiian music knows of Beamer’s legendary great-grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer, who was one of Hawaii’s most prolific and accomplished singer-song-writers.
Says Beamer, “She had to teach hula in secret, because it was frowned on by missionaries and her own husband. My great-grandfather was a Christian guy and they thought that hula was idolatry.”
His mother was Winona Kapuailohia Beamer, granddaughter of Helen Desha Beamer. “Aunty Nona,” as she was fondly called, was a noted chanter, composer and author who spent her lifetime researching and teaching “Hawaiiana,” a term she coined. She brought back standing hula for women and left a huge imprint on her students at Kamehameha Schools – long after once having been a student there, banned for performing hula.
Her son Keola got his first gig while in the fourth grade.
“I still remember it, because it was quite exciting to get an offer to play for the Honokaa senior prom,” he says. “The kids had heard my brother, a year younger, and I formed a group called the Ghost Riders – I think we got $10.”
He and Kapono became the band for their mother’s halau, so he developed quite a significant repertoire and at the same time learned a great deal about hula, though he never took lessons.
Starting with seventh grade, Beamer attended Kamehameha Schools, where he enrolled in many singing groups. Still, he wanted nothing more after graduating than to get as far away from the Hawaii scene as possible. In what he calls “my rebellious youth,” he enrolled in Goddard College in Vermont, where he majored in philosophy. Hitchhiking to Canada, he got a ride from a fellow who revealed the facts of life – he had a Ph.D. in philosophy and was making a living cleaning pet cages.
“Having a degree in philosophy was not a really marketable thing in those days,” says Beamer.
He returned to the Islands in time becoming a leader in the contemporary Hawaiian music scene when he wrote the nationally recognized classic Honolulu City Lights, one of the all-time best-selling recordings in the history of Hawaiian music.
Beamer has recorded and produced more than a dozen albums, winning numerous Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, a Grammy, and has appeared on Sesame Street and on NBC’s Today Show.
Helm says music didn’t catch up with her until she was in her teens, growing up on Molokai. She focused on hula from an early age and was fairly athletic throughout her school years.
The youngest of three children of Zachary and Henrietta Helm, Raiatea says, “For all local girls, especially my generation, it was always part of our livelihood – learning hula, ukulele, learning all those cute Hawaiian songs and lullabies and all my friends danced to them.”
She recalls starting hula at age 3.
“We could bring our favorite small stuffed animal and I had a Cabbage Patch brown-haired, Hawaiian-looking doll with me,” she says.
Her parents worked, and in her early years Helm’s tutu Olga Holi moved from Kaua’i to help raise her.
“I was very observant and would always listen and be willing to learn and pay close attention to things,” says Helm, who also visited Kaua’i a lot and spent a great deal of time in the company of many kupuna as a child.
“I think that has a lot to do with who I am as a person and as an artist, and why I cling to old traditional Hawaiian music.
“I remember when I was 4 years old, Tutu had a little Kamaka ukulele, concertsize. She was a member of the kupuna program at Waimea Canyon School and knew all those Hawaiian songs that Winona Beamer had written – the first song I learned on the ukulele at age 4 was Pupu Hinuhinu.”
In just nine years, Helm has issued four CDs, won seven Na Hoku Hanohano awards and been nominated for two Grammys.
“That’s pretty big,” she says, adding, “not to say that I make music for awards. I accept awards on behalf of everyone – voters, fans, family, friends, my kupuna – everyone.
“I don’t make music for the recognition, but it’s really great and nice, and I’m honored to receive anything. As Uncle Keola says, my greatest accomplishment as an artist is to reach out to my fans, and I like to see the younger ones, especially, respond to my music.
“All the compositions I do were written in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I love performing these old standards; no one gets them anymore, and I want to make people remember that era and make sure they know Hawaiian music was so big. That old sound has been lost for a long time, and I try to perpetuate that leo kiekie (female falsetto).
“I’m very fortunate and happy with where I’m at.”
Concert tickets cost $24/general audience; $20/seniors and students; $35 at the door, and are available at Aloha ‘N Paradise, Waimea; Banana Patch, Hanapepe; Scotty’s Music, Kalaheo; Island Soap & Candle, Koloa; Kaua’i Music & Sound, Kapaa; Hawaiian Music Hut, Coconut Marketplace and Princeville.