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Richard Ho’opi’i, Leo Ki’e Ki’e, and Memories of Kahakuloa Village

April 18, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

When I recently met Hawaiian musician Richard Ho’opi’i*, he chuckled when I mentioned that I read that his beloved Kahakuloa Village was the last place in Hawai’i to get electricity – in 1959, the Year of Statehood. Although the village is barely 15 miles from Wailuku, probably even as late as the 1960s a person living in Kahakuloa would have been challenged to commute daily to work via winding cliff-side roads to Kahului every day – most people in the picturesque beach-side village in the rugged Maui northwest coast must have felt like on a different island than the hustle and bustle of near-by Lahaina or Kahului.

One advantage of isolation was that you were by the ocean like a backyard and also surrounded by the kupuna or elders. Imagine children surrounded by the kupuna daily teachings, Hawaiian language, stories – and traditional music. It was like living in a tiny laboratory, of a cultural timelessness that is hard to imagine for us now: a sparkling, joyful Polynesian utopia – in this age of Nintendo, satellite TV, and Internet.

Even Richard Ho’opi’i’s singing is like hearing a musician who dropped in through a time warp, from the 19th century. Although he speaks in a normal tone, Uncle Richard sings in the style of leo ki’e ki’e or falsetto, technically in singing, one tone level lower than a “whistle” where the singer, usually male, emphasizes the break between registers (a singer may repeat this high note with a “yodel”). Historians point to the origins of Hawaiian falsetto to the songs and yodeling of Mexican cowboys who were contracted to teach Hawaiians cattle ranching in the early 1800s.

Currently a solo act (he featured his wife Ululani’s singing in the CD album of the same name in 2003), he was half of a duo most famously known in the golden age of the 1980s and into the 1990s as the Ho’opi’i Brothers. Sadly, his brother Solomon passed away in 2006. In 1997 – two years before Solomon would retire from professional performances due to illness -- the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts honored the Ho’opi’i Brothers with the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship, America's highest honor for traditional artists, or in other words, a "living treasure". Amazingly, from humble, rural roots in an isolated village on Maui, the Ho’opi’i Brothers had preserved a unique folk style, with origins in the early 19th century Hawaiian paniolo culture, into the 21st century.

Uncle Richard was also featured on four Grammy Award-winning CD Hawaiian song compilations. In his signature song “Alika”, his ukulele strumming is so free and casual, and his falsetto voice projects with each sound, each syllable enunciated very clearly, his mouth moving in sheer delight of singing that the audience is mesmerized. Technically, Uncle Richard is a virtuoso, very aware of the movement of his mouth, his voice, his instrument, and his intimate connection with his audience. He can also sing falsetto songs in English, as in “Susiana E”, a slow, evocative romantic “ballad”. His unique yodeling style is highlighted in “Medley: Kupa Landing/Hawaiian Cowboy”, a raucous, fast tune that can bring couples to dance on the showroom floor.

Lastly, in a recollections-filled conversation, Uncle Richard spoke of music as a “gift” from God, and if one does not take time to “hone” the “gift”, it may go away. He recalled his childhood and his love of singing, and joining the Maui Choir (which meant travel out of his Kahakuloa village), the youngest one in the ensemble. He said that once as a child he was caught peeking at a group of kupuna, and somebody asked him why he was there, and he replied that he wanted to sing songs with the adults. Another adult asked him what he wanted to sing, and he replied “God Bless My Daddy”. And he sang the song, and everybody in the house had tears flowing down their eyes, and ever since then, he was free to play instruments and sing in his beloved village of Kahakuloa.

This traditional, sentimental song’s lyrics – popular during the 1940s and 1950s (among many revival renditions, probably the best-known recorded version is by Dennis Pavao of the Hui ‘Ohana group) -- are below:

God bless my daddy

Who's over there

Said a tiny little boy

In his tiny little prayer

That is my daddy

So please take care

Said a tiny little boy

In his tiny little prayer


For this is the night

Mommy turns off the light

Oh, how I wish you were here

So I could kiss you goodnight

I hope in dream land

We'll meet some day

Said a tiny little boy

In his tiny little prayer

*September 25 2009 was declared "Richard Ho'opi'i Day" by the then-Maui Mayor. Keeping Leo Ki'e Ki'e alive, the next 11th Richard Ho'opi'i Falsetto Contest will be held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Kapalua on September 15, 2012.

See a review on an album by Stephen Inglis and Dennis Kamakahi about Moloka’i: The Falling Teardrops of Kalaupapa

See a review on George Kahamoku’s slack-key style: George Kahumoku’s Unexpected Grammy Nomination

See a review on George Kahamoku’s contributions in various fields, and the Hawaiian music renaissance: My New Friend George Kahumoku Jr.


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