Backstage with Na Palapalai at the Hilo Palace Theatre

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With almost 25 years of entertainment to their credit, the multi-award-winning Hawaiian supergroup Na Palapalai reunited for a special Hilo homecoming concert last Saturday at the historic Palace Theatre. The trio were also celebrating their latest album, a 20-song, two-disc set released on April 22, Back to the Patch. It isn’t available in stores, on iTunes or other popular online retailers. Instead, members of Na Palapalai have partnered with about 30 local hula Hālaus that are selling the CD, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to Hālau fundraising efforts. You can find a list of participating Hālaus here.

Faithful fans started lining up outside the theatre an hour before showtime. Even sound tech Pepe Romero was so thrilled about the show he had his wife deliver a prized Na Palapalai t-shirt he bought at one of their early concerts. “I knew Kuana [Torres Kahele] when he was this high,” said Romero, gesturing four-feet tall with his hand. “It was a talent show – he could really sing!”

To say that band members Kuana Torres Kahele, Kapulanakehau Tamure, and Keao Costa, have paid their dues over the years would be an understatement. In the liner notes for the latest CD, they described their early struggles: “We were determined to hit it big and started with every seedy bar, backyard pa’ina, Tuesday fundraiser and funeral we could get our hands on. We were young, thirsty, and ready to take on the world.” The hard work eventually paid off. Na Palapalai have recorded seven albums. Several have charted in the top five on the Billboard Top World Albums chart, and the group has won a large number of Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, including Group of the Year.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Na Palapalai backstage at the Palace after their soundcheck. We talked about the new album, the concert, and future plans. I also asked what sage advice they’d pass to up-and-coming musicians. This interview was edited for space, clarity, and continuity. If you’d like to hear the full audio interview, click on the play button below.

What can you tell me about tonight’s concert?

Kuana Torres Kahele: Tonight’s show is all about us giving back… a little bit more since two of us are from Hilo. It’s about not only giving back to our fans but giving back to Hilo for all the years of support. It’s also about celebrating the return of Na Palapalai. I guess we’ve been out of the scene for 16 to 18 years, so we’ve just got back together. We’re going all around the islands basically giving free concerts and letting everybody know we’re back.

Can you talk about the 16-18-year gap in performances?

KTK: About 16 to 18 years ago we all parted ways. We decided to concentrate on ourselves. Everybody had their own thing and 16 to 18 years later we just got back together… got bored of ourselves. Our first one was in Kauai almost a month ago and that was the kicker. And in Hilo is number two in this series of shows that we’re doing.

Justin Puaʻiliahi Paredes

What are some of the highlights in tonight’s show?

KTK: There are several. The first is we’re featuring a lot of new music from our brand-new album release. It’s a double-disc CD, something people probably haven’t seen since the ‘90s. Nobody really does that anymore. It’s all studio work. Also, we have a “little duckling” from the island of Maui. His name is Justin Puaʻiliahi Paredes. He’s the Master Keiki Hula Winner from a recent competition. We had a Christmas show on Oahu last year and that was the first time we featured him. We couldn’t take our eyes off of him. He’s so cute! He knows his hula and is super energetic. I think we have him on future shows that we’re doing in Hawaii.

Would you like to talk about some of the music you’re playing tonight?

Keao Costa: We’re going to open with one of the songs from our first album. It’s called “Pili Kāpekepeke” It was written by Julian Ako. We have a lot of brand-new music that will be featured throughout the show. If you didn’t hear anything familiar tonight, it was probably a new song.

Kuana Torres Kahele

Tell me about the new CD, Back to the Patch.

Kapulanakehau Tamure : With the new CD, our goal was to record things that we’ve always wanted to record that we sang through the years… like favorites of other people… that’s why we ended up with 20 songs.

KTK: When we sat down to kind of hash it out in terms of what we were going to do, what we were gonna sing on the album, we had a lot of favorite songs we didn’t get around to in the previous albums in our earlier years. So, Kehau had a plethora of ideas, and we were like, “Oh that’s a good one, and that’s a good one!” We turned around and looked at the paper and there were like 18 songs on there. So, we ended up doing two discs and that’s how we got the 20 songs.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

KTK: Well, we’re pretty much booked through next year, now that we’re back on the scene. We have a bunch of tours that we’re also doing in the US mainland as well as Asia and Japan. That takes us all throughout this year.

Kapulanakehau Tamure

What advice would you give up-coming Big Island musicians?

Kehau: Don’t give up and learn your craft. It shows your passion when you sing.

Keao: Keep practicing.

KTK: Hone your craft. You really gotta get out and do the legwork. Don’t rely on a computer. Don’t just don’t just sit at home and let it be at the tip of your fingers. Go out there. It’s all that sweat, blood, and tears that really factor in to you becoming what you want to become. You gotta pay your dues. You gotta get out there and you gotta hustle and you gotta learn. That all factors in, and you need that.  As a musician today, we want to bypass that, and, you know, just get there. But you need that. It really really factors in. Going through that is the hardest part.

Keao Costa

What’s the best way to find your music?

KTK: Go to kuanatorreskahele.com. All of our music and merchandise is on there. We also have a promotion that goes through local halaus on all of the islands. They sell the CDs, and receive a certain percentage. It’s our way of giving back to hula because that’s one of our main crowds – the hula community.

Listen to the audio interview.

Na Palapalai at the Hilo Palace Theatre: June 8, 2019

Set I
Pili Kāpekepeke | Ke Anu O Waimea | Laupahoehoe Hula | Nani Nani / Nani Venuse | Hamoa Hula | Milolii | Ho’ola Lahui Hawaii | E Ku’u Hawaii-Ka Beaute O Ka Pae Aina | Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai | Lei Kula Na Ali’I | Makakilo

Set II
Hilo Medley: Mahalo E Hilo Hanakahi & Hilo |  Keaukaha Hula | Ulupalakua | Manu Mele | Lepe ‘ula’ula | Aloha ‘la ‘O Wai’anae | Pualeialoha | Kulaowi | Henehene Kou Aka | Maui Medley | Promises Of God’s Love| Hawaii No E ka ‘Oi


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

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