Waipuna’s future has roots in the past: Successful trio expands contemporary island music
With their 15th anniversary on the horizon, the award-winning trio Waipuna can’t help but acknowledge its rich musical heritage. The Sept. 10 Kahilu Theatre debut marked another milestone in the group’s journey of spreading their blend of neo-traditional Hawaiian music.
“Waipuna takes pride in what we’ve learned from our influencers by evolving it and moving it forward,” explained the group’s co-founder Kale Hannahs. “Waipuna means spring water, and just how rain flows from the clouds to mountains to the rivers and nourishes the people, before repeating the cycle, that’s how we wanted to approach our style of music – taking the knowledge we’ve gained from our kupuna and putting our special twist to it.”
Hannahs (bass) has been playing Hawaiian music for 25 years but has a footing in classical music. Matt Sproat (guitar) is a member of the famous Sproat family from North Kohala and the great-grandnephew of storyteller/musician Kindy Sproat. Hannahs and Sproat formed Waipuna as a duo in April 2008 after realizing something special was happening. “Something was clicking,” recalled Sproat of their early gigs. “Even though we came from two different backgrounds of music, we had the same heart and same style.”
In 2011, they added David Kamakahi (ukulele). He’s the son of Hawai’ian musical icon Reverend Dennis Kamakahi. “Standard Hawaiian music usually comes as a trio,” Sproat noted, “but because we were a duo, we had to make up for that deficiency, so we started to arrange our music differently to make up for that missing third person.”
“I grew up with my dad’s music (Sons of Hawaii), but he’d always throw me a curve ball,” said Kamakahi. “He’d say, ‘Listen to this beautiful Puerto Rican song,’ and got me to listen to opera. When I started playing professionally and touring with my father, there were all these masters on stage like Ledward Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui, and Richard and Sol Hoʻopiʻi, so I’d take whatever knowledge I could get from them. I later learned they did the same thing – Cyril’s influence was blues, and Led’s was country.” Since 2012, the trio has won eight Na Hoku Hanohano awards.
Despite successful tours and recordings, the 2020 pandemic paused the trio’s trajectory and bonded them as musical brothers. “We were performing in Eugene, Oregon, when their Governor announced he was shutting down the border to Washington State, so we didn’t know whether we could get home,” remembered Hannahs. “Once we returned to Hawaii, we started working on a new album and connecting with our fans through Facebook Live.”
Waipuna’s Kahilu Theatre debut concert was a rich experience for both the audience and the trio. Working without a structured setlist and playing off the energy from the crowd, they offered two thrilling sets filled with favorites, and often engaged with the audience. Shortly after they kicked things off, they invited an audience member on stage to dance the hula. Kamakahi and Sproat had a ball going back and forth with solos and fast fingerwork on the fretboards. They even joked about their bright yellow aloha shirts, saying they’d be directing traffic after the show.
Waipuna plans to celebrate its 15th year together with the release of a seventh album in 2023. “We’ll start recording it and shoot for a fall release,” said Hannahs. This year we have three or four more trips to Japan. They are some of the most respectful and passionate people about Hawaiian music. They value the actual (physical) product. So, we put a lot of work into building that product with liner notes, translations of songs, and stories behind the songs. It’s nice that Japan has opened up for musicians!”