The VIDEO below shows about the last 45 seconds of Vana Liya singing her song “Feelin’ Good” at the Sugar Shack live acoustic sessions. Watch the whole, flowing, good-vibe thing HERE.
You may recognize her guitar player and backup singer, too. It’s Dan Guzman in one of his latest gigs!
To my knowledge Vana Liya isn’t Hawai’ian—she’s of Caribbean descent and grew up just outside New York City—but she’s one of the young talents carrying on and perfecting that island vibe I associate with Hawai’i. It’s a unique mix of pop and reggae I learned to love the two times I spent many weeks there at National Endowment for the Humanities seminars in the early 2000’s.
Back then you heard two songs in particular all the time. Mana Kaleilani Caceres’ “Couldn’t Take the Mana”—a mid-tempo, horn-driven, reggae protest jump—that starts: “Another road built on sacred land / One more hotel up on our birth sand / Where have all our ali’i gone / Maybe they will return when they hear this song.” It’s a call to the old nobles, who ruled by mana—a divine power derived from the spirit of ancestors—to come back and stop all this modern, touristy, build-out stuff. The chorus begins: “They took the land, they took Aloha….” On just about the opposite style end of this song was John Cruz’s “Island Style.” There’s a sexy double entendre in the title, of course, but that’s damped down by the song’s ultra flowing, gentle nostalgia. Grandma’s cooking stew on a Saturday night, and—awww!—the singer loves his Grandma “every minute, every hour.” That’s island style, too: family, love, respect, gentleness.
In Hawai’i they don’t end concerts with a bang, but with a strong gentleness. I mean, that gentleness doesn’t mean they go out with a whimper. The gentleness isn’t just full of nostalgia, but a total feeling for the Islands: their beauty and spirit, their people, and a sense of what needs defending, which often tinges things with sadness. I witnessed this several times. You’d have a six-piece rock band tearing it up, then the finale: and it would be the ever-popular Jake Shimabakuro coming out with just his ukele.
One evening I decided to go to the Waikiki Bandshell for a free concert, and when I stepped off the bus I heard what I thought had to be the finale. I’d missed it! A hot soul band with blaring horns was winding up to a fever pitch, but as I made my way in, none of the applauding, whistling crowd was leaving. “And now,” the announcer said, “our headline act: Makaha Sons!” and out walked three guys, all acoustic, one on upright bass, one on guitar, one on what looked like a bass ukulele. The crowd released a sigh, and settled in, many swaying to the some of the gentlest songs I’d ever heard all in a row. I had found a place between two, stereotypically large Hawai’ian men. I hoped I wouldn’t be crushed if their swaying got out of sync, but I also saw, too, that both were crying softly at the songs.
I love those songs by Mana Caceres and John Cruz—partly because of their strong Filipino connection—but I’ve grown to love Makaha Sons most of all. The soaring harmonies in the transition between the songs “Eku’u Morning Dew” and “Ke’ala,” one of their most popular medleys, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. You can catch some of it Here, on an old, scratchy recording of the medley done when they started out as Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau. Someday I’ll find a way to edit and post the version I listen to lots, the one done by the current Makaha Sons, the trio of John, Moon, and Jerome.
Which brings me back to Vana Liya. I know her music connects maybe more to her Caribbean roots, but because she does play lots of ukelele she reminded me of my Hawai’i experiences right away. More than the instrument and music though, you sense she’s a strong gentle, too. It makes me feel that the island vibe and all the good things it means are in good hands.