Scott Hirsch on Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau – Keala


The last Scott Hirsch album hit me unaware and lingered long after, a mix of bittersweet country contemplation and JJ Cale permanent midnight vamp. It remained one of my favorites of that year, and pretty much any other, and now his approaching follow-up threatens to dominate the turntable much in the same way. As this new release swung around I got a chance to ask Scott for a pick in the Hidden Gems series as well and, as usual, I’m always delighted by the picks that come from RSTB mainstays. Check out Scott’s dive into a Hawaiian deep cut. Check out how this one came into his life below.

“It must have been around the year 2000 or so,” recalls Scott. “A typical stoney Saturday with some friends in the North Bay. We had been hiking earlier to the German beer chalet — a bizarre little beer hall called Nature Friends in the Mt. Tamalpais woods. It was was one of our favorite getaways from the crowded Mission, where we lived on the other side of the Bay in San Francisco. After the hike, we followed our record habit to one of our favorite shops in Mill Valley, the now defunct Village Music. There, in the back of the shop, I sniffed out a peculiar looking record in the world music section. The cover had five very large men in head-to-toe yellow sweatsuits playing a variety of acoustic instruments. The largest man, wearing a matching yellow headband was playing a very tiny ukulele. The already small instrument appeared even smaller in contrast to the man playing it. Apparently not present at the time of the photo, the lap steel player was featured high school year book-style via a cutout oval in the bottom left corner. The title of the record: Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau – Keala. Not one to let a wild record cover like this waste away in the cheap bin, I brought it up to the front, where the kind hippie behind the counter muttered “Good choice, maaan” as he rung it up.

“Aside from the fun cover, I wasn’t prepared for the music to be more than a private press curiosity. Now knowing that the Makaha Sons was the first band of famed Hawaiian singer Bruddah Iz, Israel Kamakawiwo`ole, along with his brothers and cousins, I should have expected to hear magic on this record. But I was unaware of any of this and very pleasantly surprised when I played it. Keala has seldom left the fifteen or so records I keep in my recently played pile for more than twenty years. I cherish it like it was a rare metal, only because in over twenty years I haven’t ever seen another copy of it. I don’t think it is a particularly sought after record among collectors (I could be wrong), but I connected so deeply to the sound, that I consider it one of the most important records I own. Makaha Sons’ brother-enhanced harmonies and melodies float over an impenetrable wall of stringed acoustic instruments — not just acoustic guitar, but upright bass, ukulele, even banjo — that chorus against one another, all the strings phasing in and out like the tide. Over the top, the lap steel rings out true just like you want it to, connecting your mind and body to the slowed down island life.”

“When people think about “roots music,” they typically conjure bluegrass, hillbilly music, delta blues, and later, groups like The Band — generally musicians who are looking to get back to the origins of the music traditions of their upbringing. We typically associate this with the music traditions of the American South. But once you expand the idea of roots music, you can include bands like Fairport Convention, Los Lobos, and even Harmonia and Popol Vuh—because all of these examples make an effort to connect with the traditional songs and sounds of their upbringing. Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau are no different. The group’s explorations into traditional Hawaiian music inform their sound deeply, yet they still manage to carve their own path. Besides some stunning renditions of traditional Hawaiian songs, one tune penned by Israel Kamakawiwo`ole on the record is “Pakalolo,” a song about the joys of smoking a doobie. I had not previously thought of marijuana as a tenet of traditional Hawaiian culture, but the way it appears here, maybe it is? Whether it is a customary Hawaiian refrain, or not, I can’t argue with Bruddah IZ crooning, “Pakalolo will tickle your feet,” One of life’s greatest mantras. So I offer to you one of my favorite “hidden gems” Makaha Son’s Keala. I am aware that this record is not on streaming services (some songs are on YouTube). If you are interested, please get in touch privately so I can share this great music with you.”

This one is indeed hard to come by, making it another of the true hidden gems of the series. There’s always crawling Discogs and eBay, but to pick one up like Scott did, organically feels rare. One of the charms that makes this feature interesting to me, and hopefully to to you as well. Scott’s album Windless Day is out October 8th on his own Echo Magic imprint.

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