Interview: Nohelani Cypriano, Ahead Of Her Time

You all know Nohelani Cypriano. She’s probably the reason why you love Hawaiian funk music. Her LP, Around Again, has been on your list of most-wanted albums for a long time because no matter how many times you listen to “Lihue”, you keep coming back for more. I can gratefully say that today I had the special privilege of asking Nohelani some in-depth questions about her music career. What I’ve learned from our conversation is this: Nohelani was ahead of her time. But I’ll let her tell you about it.

You all know Nohelani Cypriano. She’s probably the reason why you love Hawaiian funk music (see: “Lihue”) and why you’re a fan of Aloha Got Soul. Her debut LP, Around Again, has been on your list of most-wanted albums for a long time because no matter how many times you listen to “Lihue”, you keep coming back for more.

I can gratefully say that today I had the special privilege of asking Nohelani some in-depth questions about her music career, reaching back all the way to her band Golden Throat up to her most recent release, Pulelehua.

What I’ve learned from our conversation is this: Nohelani was ahead of her time. She’s a pioneer of contemporary Hawaiian music, one of the first artists to truly push the boundaries of local music in the 70s. But I’ll let her tell you about it.

Nohelani Cypriano - Hawaii

Nohelani Cypriano – Hawaii

Let’s start with the basics: where are you from, what is your ethnicity, and how did music first become a part of your life? 

I’m from Honolulu and my ethnicity is Hawaiian, Spanish, Portuguese, Filipino, German, and English. I grew up around music—my mother, Leina’ala Simerson, was a long-time Hawaiian entertainer. She was a vocalist and musician who played piano, ukulele, and upright bass. She managed a Hawaiian show at the old Waikiki Sands Hotel and Billie Holiday was also performing jazz there at the time. They shared many dinners together during their breaks and not too many people remember Billie Holiday having a jazz show in Waikiki. My mother later performed with the Chuck Machado luaus for many years and formed her own Hawaiian group.

Having grown up around music, I became very interested in it myself and when I started attending Sacred Hearts Academy, I began taking music classes, piano (for 7 years) and joined an all girls’ band.

What is your full name, and what is the meaning of your name in the Hawaiian language? 

My name is Nohelani Cypriano and the closest English translation for Nohelani is “heavenly mist”. My mother meant to name me Nohealani but there was a typo on my birth certificate at the hospital and it became Nohelani–I don’t think there were any Nohelani’s at the time, but my mother liked how it sounded and kept it.

Has traditional Hawaiian music played an important role in your life?

Traditional Hawaiian music played a very big role in my life through my mother, though my father also sang and always thought he was the entertainer in the family! She formed a group called “Leina’ala and Her Ladies” and they played cha-lang-a-lang Hawaiian music all over Waikiki. In her group were Aunties Genoa Keawe, Iwalani Kahalewai, Ihilani Miller, Nora Santos, Ethylynne Teves and Mona Teves.

I traveled with my mother to Japan during the summers to perform and went to many of her gigs at hotels. My mother loved all styles of music and was a wonderful pianist. I always received musical instruments for gifts and learned to play the piano, guitar, bass, drums, and steel guitar. I played instruments at an early age, but didn’t start singing until I was in high school.

“I owned so many records growing up—that’s all I did was listen to music all the time.”

I grew up listening to traditional Hawaiian music, but ultimately contemporary music affected my style and I loved to incorporate the contemporary with Hawaiian. I also began infusing Hawaiian into mainstream contemporary songs, such as “You Are So Beautiful” which I recorded on my first LP.

It’s the norm now, but back then it wasn’t really being done yet and I have continued to do it in my later recordings, such as “Imagine” with Robert Cazimero released in the 90s.

Nohelani Cypriano Band, 1979. Photo by bassist Joe Hubbard.

Nohelani Cypriano Band, 1979. Photo by bassist Joe Hubbard.

Hawaii is unlike anywhere else in the world, a paradise of natural beauty and a melting pot of cultures. In your perspective, what makes the music of Hawaii so unique.

Hawaii’s music is unique because of the infusion of styles that are  incorporated into our music. Every musician or entertainer learned different styles of music from their kupuna/family members and added their own twist to the sound they learned, as well as incorporating sounds from artists all around the world.

Most Island contemporary songs have a simple, backyard/kanikapila feel to it, then you have the Jawaiian music, incorporating both Jamaican and Hawaiian that is unique to Hawaii’s music. We also have Hawaiian jazz, Hawaiian country, contemporary Hawaiian—our music encompasses all types of music.

The music in Hawaii is diverse and constantly changing, but we also have music that keeps to our roots of traditional Hawaiian and Hawaiian language that will always be associated with the Islands. I personally love the cha-lang-a-lang style that moves and grooves with great vocals and harmonies. I grew up listening to it through my mother and love hearing it now with an upbeat twist from musicians who think outside the box!

Your music has a modern sound inspired by a contemporary island lifestyle.  How has life in Hawaii influenced you as a musician? 

Honestly, I have always loved pop and contemporary music, so when I was working on my first CD, we tried to create a new sound for the Islands and came up with songs and arrangements that incorporated funky beats and vocals, toere, drums, slack key guitar and blended them together.

“We tried to create a new sound for the Islands.”

John Berger reviewed my first LP and labeled my music “Hawaiian funk”, which to me meant putting together current and new music styles with a Hawaiian flavor.

I wrote a few of my early songs (such as “Livin’ Without You” and “In The Evening”) while I was living in Lanikai and looking out at Mokulua islands and the beautiful beaches. I don’t write typically Hawaiian songs, but definitely living in the Islands has influenced my music and writing. I don’t think Hawaiian music is only traditional, Hawaiian language based songs, but a wide range of contemporary styles.

How could anyone in Hawaii not be affected by our beautiful landscape and uniquely wonderful Island lifestyle! We are truly blessed to live in Hawaii.

Nohelani Cypriano "Around Again"

Nohelani Cypriano “Around Again”

When I first started listening to your music, I had no idea that you were in groups like Golden Throat or Rock Candy during the 1970s. It must’ve been an exciting time to perform with so many talented musicians who were just starting their careers. The music of that era is filled with so much energy, what was the local music scene like during those days?

Being in the music scene in the 70s was an exciting time. There were many nightclubs and bars that featured live music, everyone was working and the locals would be out full force! Almost every corner in Waikiki played live music and there were so many top musicians who were playing at the time. Mostly everyone started out in high school gyms, school dances, military clubs, nightclubs, and doing concerts.

Golden Throat opened for many headliners at Conroy Bowl and the NBC Arena and played in any Waikiki Clubs, such as the Sting, and Waikiki Beef n’ Grog. Some of the members of Golden Throat continued with prominent careers in music and played with Billy JoelJohn Lennon, Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Cher, Ray Charles, and other top headliners of the time.

Golden Throat crafted a fusion of jazz, psychedelic rock, folk, and soul, it’s an interesting sound. Later on, Around Again presented a mix of R&B, pop, Hawaiian–and you continued to explore various styles, like rock and disco, with each release. What local artists have influenced you in your career? What artists from the mainland and around the world have inspired you?

I wouldn’t say music from the Golden Throat LPs were my niche but were certainly influenced by the music styles of the time.

I was experimenting more with my style of music with Around Again—I took a few older, classic songs like “Bali Hai” and “South Sea Island Magic” and funked them up for a different, updated sound. My mother, Leina’ala Simerson, as well as Loyal Garner and Melveen Leed were local artists that influenced me.

I would say that mainstream artists greatly influenced my music. I was a big Beatles fan, as well as Chaka Khan, Steely Dan, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Gloria Estefan, Donna Summer, Eagles, Joe Cocker, Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, and the list goes on.

I enjoy all  types of music and was considered more of a contemporary vocalist…but subliminally influenced by my mother’s love of traditional Hawaiian music.

How did Golden Throat come to record an LP?

I was performing in different bands when I met Michael Cord from a group called Sun and the Moon. They were a rock band and performed at the Civic Auditorium and other venues. He wanted to start another group and was looking for a female vocalist and Golden Throat was formed.

We had a great group of musicians, played in many venues and opened up for a lot of major groups coming to town for concerts at the Blaisdell Arena and Conroy Bowl. Golden Throat opened for the Pointer Sisters, Doobie Brothers, Joe Cocker, Santana, Sha Na Na and others and we eventually decided to record an LP.

You and Dennis Graue co-wrote “Lihue”. What’s the story behind the song? 

At the time, Dennis Graue was playing keyboards with Cecilio and Kapono and I would travel with them to some of their gigs. While we were at the Kauai Surf, Dennis and I started writing “Lihue” and finished writing it when we returned to Oahu.

How did the Home Grown contest affect your career?

It was one of the best decisions I made that really affected the beginning of my career.

At the time when Homegrown II was getting off the ground with musicians writing and submitting their songs to be chosen for the record, I was already working on my first LP in a “school bus turned music studio” in the back of Hawaii Kai. The bus was filled with recording gear, so after our nightclub gigs, Dennis, our engineer Willy Martin and I would work on demos and arrangements and write songs for my LP.

I wanted to see how “Lihue” would do and in what direction we should continue to write or produce music before the first LP actually came out, so we recorded a demo and submitted “Lihue” to the radio station for Homegrown II. We almost didn’t make the submission deadline and was one of the last songs to be submitted as they were closing the doors!

Having “Lihue” picked to be on Homegrown II was a catalyst for my recording career.  The song became an instant hit on the radio stations and was on high rotation—it made my first LP very visible from the TV special and radio airplay.

I love Kauai, and to this day many people think I’m from that Island because of “Lihue”. The song to me has a timeless feel to it and I hear has gained popularity in Europe and underground music/DJs. I still receive many requests for it at live shows and never tire of it.

Do you remember the music video for “Lihue”? It looks like you had a lot of fun shooting it. (I’m still trying to figure out where it was filmed.)

The music video for “Lihue” was shot at Paradise Park in Manoa and I remember it well! The day of the shoot the ground was muddy and my heels were sinking in the mud while we were filming–when we were done, my feet and clothes were covered with mud!  It was a lot of fun.

Around Again is such a strong release, every song stands out. The album as a whole works together so well. Did you realize that time that you were creating one of the best contemporary albums ever released from a Hawaii artist?

Wow, thank you for the compliment! I knew we were creating a different sound and no one at the time was recording that type of music.

The songs on Around Again were a mix of originals, classics, and experimentation. On this LP, I wrote/co-wrote “Livin’ Without You”, “Island Boy”, “Lihue”, “Simple and Free”, “You Are The Reason”, “O’Kailua”, and “I Don’t Mind”.

I was writing a lot of music at that time and really enjoyed collaborating with other musicians. My love of diverse music styles is evident on that LP…from country (“I Don’t Mind”) to classics (“Moon” and “South Sea”) to mainstream (“Dancin’ in the Streets” and “Having a Party”) to experimentation (“You Are So Beautiful” – infusing Hawaiian language into mainstream music).

I think you could tell I loved it all and also included it all! I was just hoping that my mother would enjoy our recording and had no idea that it would do so well.

“Lihue” has become a cult classic among today’s DJs, music collectors, and listeners interested in “rare groove” from the 1970s. What is it like to have a new generation of fans who are discovering your music.

It’s great that this song survived from the 70s! I always thought that song was a little “before it’s time” with it’s unusual style…kind of like jazz meets Martin Denny bird calls with a little bit of Island groove.

This song means a lot to me because it was the first song I co-wrote and was different than all the other songs. Who would know that over 30 years later it would become a cult classic! How cool is that!

Contemporary music wouldn’t be the same without Mackey Feary. How did you and Mackey Feary come to record, “Let’s Do It” and “We Both Waited Too Long”? 

Hana Ola Records asked Mackey Feary and I to record that song together. We had fun recording it and also did some shows together. Those were the good, old days!

Years later, after recording my latest CD, Pulelehua, My Precious Butterfly, I met up with Mackey’s sister, Dancetta who has a butterfly farm. We had a connection through the butterfly—my mother’s sign to me is the butterfly and Mackey’s sign to his sister is through the white monarch.

Was Mackey a big influence on you? What were your impressions of him and his music? 

I loved Mackey’s music so it was great to be able to record with him. He was so talented and down to earth–he was easy to be around, easy to work with and his music will always live on.

Your latest release, Pulelehua, is described as music that “will touch your heart and speak to your soul. It is a loving testament to all Mothers and to anyone who has lost a loved one…it is a celebration of life, love, and soul connections.” The album is a beautiful dedication to your mother, who passed away in 2000. I feel that all your music celebrates life, love, and soul. Was there a different energy in recording Pulelehua? Did you feel a stronger connection to the soul, as if you were reaching for something much deeper than ever before?

There was definitely a different energy recording Pulelehua. I have never felt the kind of love, emotion and soul connection before, so Pulelehua is the most personal CD I will ever record because of it’s significance to me.

My mother was very ill and we knew she wasn’t going to make it after her last cancer treatment. While she was in the hospital, I told her we would be okay and that she didn’t need to be afraid to let go…she is a beautiful soul. I also asked for a sign when she made it to the other side so that she could validate that she was okay. She passed on January 8, 2000 and since then I continued to get so many butterfly signs from her!

She showed me that our souls never die and that love is eternal—she never misses out on special events and always lets me know she is there.

Nohelani Cypriano and her mother, Leinaala Simerson

Nohelani Cypriano and her mother, Leinaala Simerson

My mother recorded with other vocalists, but always wanted to record her own CD and never fulfilled that wish. As I was recording Pulelehua in her memory, I remembered I had some of her music she recorded in my studio just for me to listen to and I realized I would be able to use her tracks and release it for her—so Pulelehua includes three of my mother’s songs with my added background vocals.

All the songs have a connection to her—“Pulelehua” was written in awe of her butterfly signs to me, ‘O Kalani” was written years ago for my son who had a very special place in her heart. “Mama, I Love You” was written by Loyal Garner who also passed away from cancer (Loyal was one of my mother’s favorite), plus many other songs celebrating love connections.

This CD made me reach deeper, appreciate unconditional love, and to vocally release my feelings of love, honor and respect for a woman who means everything to me. So yes, this CD means a lot to me and this CD is ours together.

“I feel that my music celebrates life, love and soul because if you don’t sing with your inner feelings, then the emotion doesn’t reflect in your voice.”

I hope that my music conveys a deeper meaning and feeling because that should be the intent of music…to make others move and to feel.

To me, I have no better way to convey my  love to my mother than through song and she always validates it with a blessed sign. My mother is unbelievable with signs from the other side–one of the signs shows through on my “Pulelehua” video to her…at the end of the video when I sing “Pulelehua, you’re smiling down from Heaven tonight…” my mother’s digital image is to the left of me and a patch of sunlight just happens to come through the thick trees (it was so rainy that day, too) at the same moment on the right. No where else during the video does that light shine through…

You’ve enjoyed a very successful career, having won multiple awards, served as entertainment director and headliner of a cruise ship, performed in all the top Honolulu nightclubs and venues, touring the world, and continuing to write and perform. In retrospective, what can you say about the path you’ve traveled? 

I’m very thankful and blessed with my music career and to be fortunate enough to still be singing. Entertaining has taken me to so many places and gave me the opportunity to meet so many interesting people in my lifetime.

Music is such a powerful thing…it has the ability to soothe and to heal, to move, to touch and to bless not only those on the receiving end, but also to the one delivering the notes.

Yes, there are a few things I would have changed looking back, but overall I would say, my career path has led me to where I am supposed to be. Many years ago I was about to be signed to a major mainland label and was hoping to break into the national music scene, but my agent on the mainland passed away from a sudden heart attack and my deal fell through since it was not finalized before he passed.

I always wondered what would have been if I signed to a major label, but I know everything happens for a reason… I am just grateful to be doing what I love and to have experienced all the things I have been through in my career.

What can fans expect from Nohelani Cypriano in the near future? Maybe a “Best Of” release? A complete discography on iTunes?

Definitely a “Best Of” will be released and hopefully a complete discography on iTunes as many of my past music is out of print. I will continue to write, produce and record music and continue to perform since I love the interaction with people.

Thank you for our time, I really appreciate it! 

Mahalo, Roger for all of your support!

Read more artist interviews here.

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