BWW Reviews: Soaring with Mark Yamanaka, SUNSET SERANADE at Hawaii Kai Center


Welcome to my column! This article is the first of a series of reviews brought to you from Hawaiian Paradise. I hope you enjoy my perspective on the ever-unfolding cultural renaissance taking place in the center of the Pacifc Ocean. This first is a review of a rising star on the Traditional Hawaiian music scene, Mark Yamanaka, who performed Satrurday evening on the Southwest shore on the Island of Oahu. Marked kicked off  a series of summer musical events taking place in the Hawaii Kai Town Center.

Think: if Elvis where a Japanese, Fillipino, Buddha with a Hawaiian soul... and you begin to get an appreciation for Mark Yamanaka.

I take my seat, one among the many rows of folding chairs set out in the lovely Hawaii Kai plaza; an open air courtyard on the water surrounded by palm trees, and with a gorgeous view of Kokohead Crater as a backdrop. The stage is a  canopy designed to look like the hulls of canoes atop sturdy pillars, with the stage open to the breezes on all sides. The crowd (aproximately one hundred) were made up mostly of families from the community of Hawaii Kai on the South Eastern shore of Oahu. Many had plate lunches on their laps from sponsors like Sushi Man, and Fish Tacos., and I believe there was some delicious Korean food as well. (What's remarkable is that this event brings this calibre of talent  free to the public all summer long.)

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The D.J Randy Hudnall from 105 KINE Radio kicked off the show calling this performance “the brightest and most awesome of local Hawaiian music.”

Randy then proceeded with a fun round of “local savvy” trivia questions with prizes of CDs and future local shows and movies.

Mark Yamanaka has experienced a meteoric rise since winning multiple accolades at the  prestigeous Na hoku Hano Hano Awards, and is now “a diificult catch” in Hawaii between international performances from Japan to California to Tampa... and even Iraq.

Following the intro., we receive a great oceanic swell of acoustic guitar, and the concert is underway. Yamanaka's voice immediately spans his remarkable range, flowing from a deep, rich tenor to falsetto in a series of effortless vocal slides.

One feels in this trio, power that rivals the “oomph” of many more aggressive electronic combos. His accompaniests are Bert Naihe on acoustic guitar and Eddie Atkins on Bass.

Mark mentions after the first number that he, “Just got off the plane from Hilo and is feeling a little 'jet lagged'.” bringing laughter as he speculates that it's about a fifty minute flight.

“How do you like 'English' songs … ?” He asks the audience (bringing more laughter).

He talks about the next number as something Stevie Wonder covered called, “Purple Raindrops”. It is a sweet doowop-inflected number with lyrics like “day dream for hours, the bells ring, I hear angels sing.... you changed things.”

In between songs Mark invites us to share his plate lunch from Sushi Man sushi, saying “there's some left over”. He then gives us a little back ground about himself (born in Kaiser Hospital in Honolulu, but raised in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii).

The next song is called Rain Li'ili'i and is about the last reigning Queen of Kauai, sung in Hawaiian. Some subtle, complex finger picking at the break, and a cascade of lightly descending melodies with harmonies reminiscent of the Everly Brothers.

Yamanaka's performance is showcasing his award winning CD “Lei Pua Kenikeni” named after the richly fragrent yellow blossums that are so popular in Hawaiian Leis.

Naihe's driving rhythm guitar's bell-like tone both contrasts and complements Yamanaka's.

For the next two songs Bert is given the lead, beginning with Sweet Memory Kualapuu. As with his guitar, Naihe's vocal contrasts pleasantly to Yamanaka's, and has a more country inflection. Together they weave complex harmonies remiscent of both Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers. And then Mark's other worldly falsetto soars again, giving goosebumps.
This group relies heavily on harmonies, and with good reason, the two distinctive voices play well off each other, and the song closes softly on acoustic guitars.

The next song is an uptempo Hawaiian number about a rocking chair, again featuring Bert's punchy vocals, concluding with a boisterous duet, this time in union.

Mark then talks about how “crazy it's been” for them since (sweeping) last year's Na hoku Hano Hano Awards.

Then another song featuring Mark's soul-piercing falsetto.

Mark has one of the purest voices I have ever heard. Even the wind blowing through the palm trees seemed to add a subtle percussive accent, a perfect accompaniement to that angelic voice.

And, he is so funny and down-to-earth: “I went to Alamoana [shopping centre] to get shoes... hard 'cause I got 'luau' feet ... triple E's ! I wish my shoes would walk for me.”

They then invited their friend and professional Hula Dancer, “Crystal” to the stage to perform the Hula for a few songs, which she did beautifully. Crystal then kissed all The Players and descended
the stage.

Mark: “I get this question all the time, 'Are you Hawaiian ?'... The answer is 'no' (pointing to his chest), the answer is in here . It is a state of mind, just so long as you have 'Aloha' for everyone.”

These are some of the most relaxed, at-ease live performers I have ever witnessed, so comfortable in their own skin.

Mark: “A big Mahalo to KINE 105 and unbelievable Randy for playing traditional Hawaiian music, for playing my music.”

There is a little Cecilio and Kapono inflection to the vocals when Bert takes the lead on the next one, some nice loose slack key jams on the breaks.

Mark: “Any requests... that's all we practiced!” (More laughter.) Anyone like country music ? I listen to Collin Raye a lot... I like a song with a lot of story to it.” and then launching into a country-inflected version of “Loving, me”:  “If you get there before I do, don't give up on me… I'm not gonna let you down, darling wait and see... between now and then, till I see you again, I'll be loving you. Love, me..” A strong delivery, but (to me) sounding a little too much like Mark singing Collin; I would love to hear him take this song the next step and make it his own, conveying the meaning of the lyrics with his signature light, warm Hawaiian touch.

The sun is setting now, turning the clouds and the slopes of Koko Crater gold and pink.

Mark: “Joke: What do you call an alligator wearing a vest ? [Answer: an investi-gater]”

The “high humor” point of the night took place when he invited a guest up from the audience who spontaneously told an endlessly long joke about Japan airlines... and  carried it off ! (Sorry, not going to repeat it here.)

Mark: “Here's a pretty song...” And takes wing again on soaring falsetto, soon joined by Bert, with Eddie keeping it simple and tasteful all along on bass.

Listening to these relaxed and accomplished troubadours, as the sun sets in Hawaii Kai... singing about the simple things that matter in life, puts things back into perspective for me.

Mark closes with a lovely, sweet song about his seven year old daughter, then encores with a lively shuffle slightly reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter's “Tennessee Flat Top Box”.  The song increases in tempo and ends with splendid duelling yodels.

One last soulful ballad, “How Great Thou Art” sung mostly in Hawaiian brings things to a close.

You would be wise to include the Mark Yamanaka “Lei Pua Kenikeni” CD in your collection, to be brought out in moments when you need to have a little peace in your heart and well being in your soul; for those times when you have trouble remembering what really matters.

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