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Raising Falsetto to New High

Pop music: Amy Gilliom singer has revitalized ha'i, a traditional Hawaiian style, utilizing modern instrumental arrangements.

May 28, 1999|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Amy Gilliom isn't about to bump Lauryn Hill out of the minds of pop music fans, yet she's generated a Hill-like excitement within the Hawaiian folk music community for her fresh approach to traditional styles.

At last year's Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, the Hawaiian Grammys, Gilliom and her collaborator, musician-producer Willie K. (William A. Kahaiali'i), carried the top categories with their 1997 debut album, "Hawaiian Tradition." It took album, female vocalist and producer of the year awards.

Gilliom has resurrected an almost-lost female falsetto vocal style called ha'i. With help from Willie K., she is combining traditional Hawaiian vocals with modern instrumental arrangements.

"I'm glad to a play a part in keeping this music alive for my elders, but I want the younger generation to be able to enjoy and relate to it, too," Gilliom said by phone from her home in Honolulu. She and Willie K., aided by a bassist and a drummer, headline Sunday at the two-day Aloha Concert Jam in Long Beach, which opens Saturday. "I think the best way of doing that is to wrap my singing around melodies and rhythms that are recognizable and contemporary."

Until about three years ago, the classically trained Gilliom spent most of her time in theatrical work and entertaining at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Kapalua, Maui. Then her grandmother persuaded her to embrace her musical roots.

"She's almost 90 now, is retired and lives with my parents, but she basically choreographed everything Hawaiian that came out of Hollywood back in the '40s," said Gilliom "One day I was just singing around the house, and my grandmother asked me, 'Why don't you take it seriously and sing ha'i? Would you carry on the tradition? . . . because there's none of us left.' "

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Gilliom obliged. But there was one catch: She wanted to bring a contemporary approach to the traditional form made famous by falsetto greats like Genoa Keawe and Lena Machado.

Enter Willie K.

The self-taught musician from Oahu has experience in styles from traditional Hawaiian, Latin salsa and country to rock, grunge and reggae.

In addition to playing practically every instrument on "Hawaiian Tradition"--including guitar, banjo, bass and ukulele--Willie K. produced, composed and arranged most of the music on that album as well as on last year's follow-up, "Hanaiali'i," both released on Mountain Apple Records.

On both, Gilliom, a 30-year-old Maui native, sings entirely in Hawaiian and tackles original songs such as "Kahului," an anthem honoring her hometown, and traditionals including "Pahai Kealoha."

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The genre-bending Willie K. said he's intrigued by the merger of past and present that his collaboration with Gilliom has yielded. It's a dramatically different sound than, say, the pop-flavored material of Cecilio & Kapono, probably the best-known Hawaiian duo and Saturday's Aloha Jam headliner.

"When people hear this talented girl from Kahului sing in this traditional way--only with a sound they're not used to hearing--they become curious," he said in a separate interview. "They think, 'It's old, but it sounds new,' and that's what's exciting about our work together."

Gilliom concurs.

"I wanted to develop my own sound and style, and that's emerged primarily through the combination of Willie's slack key [guitar] and my vocals," she added. "He loves to play slack key [a method of tuning the guitar], and we wrote the vocal lines similar to the slack-key line he was playing on his guitar. So it's a really unusual combination."

The duo's songs touch on matters of family tradition and pride, sacred land and nature, and romantic love and longing. "Hanaiali'i" was written by Gilliom as a tribute to the women in her family, and "Hale'iwa Hula," about growing-up in rural Hale'iwa, Oahu, was penned by Gilliom's grandmother.

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But do mainlanders warm to songs sung in a foreign tongue?

"I introduce the songs with a little story or two, so at least the audience has some idea what I'm singing about," said Gilliom. "But Willie and I normally play so many different kinds of music . . . R&B, jazz, the blues . . . that audiences respond, no matter the language."

"When we played at Tower Records' 30th Anniversary in San Francisco, we were on a bill with Joan Jett and the Royal Crown Revue," she said, "We started out playing some jazz and blues, and then Willie did this rock song that got people involved. The biggest applause, though, came after a slack key tune."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1999 Aloha Concert Jam

Today's Schedule

1:15 p.m.: Kanaka Jam

2:15: Merv Oana & Duane Fieig

3:15: Kalika

4:15: The Shaka Band

5:15: National Anthem/Keiki Parade

5:45: Halau O Na Alii

6:45: Hapa

8:30: Lokelani Fire

8:45: Cecilio & Kapono

Sunday's Schedule

1:15 p.m.: Keni

2:15: Island Breeze

3:15: Kimo Harris & Friends

4:15: Kua'ana

5:15: National Anthem/Keiki Parade

5:45: Tekurio Nui

6:45: The Peter Moon Band

8:30: Lokelani Fire

9: Willie K. & Amy Gilliom

The Eighth Annual Aloha Concert Jam, Rainbow Lagoon Park, Shoreline Drive at Linden Avenue, Long Beach. 1-10:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; gates open at noon. Reserved seats, $29; general admission, $19; children 5-12, $4; children younger than 5, free. VIP box seats, including catered luau, $109. (888) 386-8497.

Los Angeles Times

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