From Dancing Cat Records
The year 2000 marked Led Kaapana's thirty-seventh year as a professional musician. In that time, Led's hard work and easy going attitude have earned him a reputation as one of Hawai'i's most beloved traditional musicians. A master of ki ho'alu (slack key guitar), Led is also accomplished on 'ukulele, autoharp, bass, steel guitar and other plucked string instruments. He plays the slack key guitar in at least eight tunings. He is a fine, emotional singer as well, in both baritone and leo ki'eki'e (falsetto). Perhaps most importantly, Led blends his virtuosity with an infectious joy for performing, a generous spirit and a kolohe (rascally) sense of humor. This makes him not only a pleasure to hear, but also good fun to be around.
Born August 25, 1948, Led grew up in a very musical family in the tiny village of Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawai'i. His brothers and sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors all played something. "We didn't have electricity, no television, not even much radio," he says. "So we entertained ourselves. You could go to any house and everybody was playing music."
Kalapana parties were famous for kanikapila (playing music), that sometimes went on for days. "People played in shifts, taking over when somebody went to bed," Led recalls. "You'd fall asleep to the music, wake up and the music was still playing. That was the best alarm clock I ever had! Even today when I play, I still picture all the 'ohana (family) getting together and sharing their songs and their aloha."
Like most Hawaiian musicians, Led learned to play at a young age by watching, listening and imitating. Encouraged by his kupuna (elders) and disciplined about practicing, he developed a seemingly inexhaustible ability to improvise. Led says that, from the beginning, improvisation came natural to him. "I was doing it before I knew what it was," he jokes. He adds that, as he sees it, the best improvisation is based on two things: the song itself and the mood of the moment, which changes each time you play the song. "Everything you play, every time you play, there's a mood, an energy. If you plug into it, the music just flows. Even in a simple song, there are so many different ways to play the melody, the rhythm, the harmony. It never stops if you stay open to it."
Led's improvisational skills help him fit in with a variety of musicians and styles. He is a favorite of singers, especially leo ki'eki'e singers such as Aunty Genoa Keawe, Uncle Joe Keawe, The Ho'opi'i Brothers, David Chun and others. He also likes to team up with other slack key guitarists, especially Cyril Pahinui, with whom he has toured Europe and the Mainland. Under the auspices of the National Council for Traditional Arts, Led has toured nationally three times with a host of top country, blues and jazz guitarists. Many performers make a point of catching Led's act when they're visiting the islands.
Led's flexibility has also made him a regular in the local media. Producer George Winston says, "Led plays with great soul, happiness, gratitude, virtuosity, respect for his influences and peers, and love of his audiences. He enjoys playing more than anyone I've ever seen. And to see him with the reunion of the original members of his trio I Kona, with the equally joyous Bernard Kalua and the great supportive rhythm guitarist Alika Odom, is so exhilarating."
Led cites his mother, singer Tina Kaapana, and his uncle, slack key guitarist Fred Punahoa, as his main influences. "I feel a strong connection to what they and the other kupuna shared with me," he says. Despite the isolation of the town of Kalapana, he also heard and absorbed many outside sources. "I've always listened to country, jazz, Latin music, even rock and roll. Sometimes back in Kalapana, I'd sneak a little Pipeline or Walk Don't Run into the Hawaiian music. My dad would say 'Hey, that's not slack key.' But nobody ever stopped me. They just said to play what you feel and play with aloha."
In 1972, Led formed Hui 'Ohana with his twin brother, bassist Ned and his cousin, falsetto singer and rhythm guitarist Dennis Pavao. Through fourteen albums and countless live appearances, they proudly maintained Kalapana's musical traditions. Afterward, Led stayed with the trio format, creating I Kona, which has released six albums to date.