Interview: Al Nobriga, “You don’t choose music. Music chooses you.”

Al Nobriga graduated from high school in Kauai in 1960. Following graduation, he moved to Oahu and attended Brigham Young University from 1960 to 1965. He started playing music in 8th grade. Nobriga’s entire family is musical, and they’d have kanikapila’s (jam sessions) on Kauai often. Nobriga remembers that his uncle had a Gibson Sunburst guitar, and that he was intrigued by it.

“I watched him play it and I loved it. He showed me a couple chords. My aunt had an old guitar that was in the closet. [We] put some strings on it and I started messing around, made some songs on it,” Al told me during an interview we did in 2014.

I sat down with Al Nobriga for the first time on March 17, 2014, at an outdoor cafe in the Ala Moana Center shopping mall. This was just a few days before the inaugural Soul Time In Hawaii event in 2014, where myself and Oliver Seguin promised to spin 100% Hawaiian vinyl for five hours (we ended up spinning 8 hours in total with our special guest, shitzr) in Honolulu, and Cedric Bardawil and Mark Taylor would offer up a similar vibe in London. Nobriga was impressed by the idea: “I really appreciate what you’re doing. Even though my music’s a little different that what you normally do, I think it’s great because you’re open to a lot of different venues and people.”

By “different”, Nobriga was probably pointing out the fact that his earliest love of music was country. His first single as a solo artist, “Hele On To Kauai”, showed this, and his subsequent LPs—At the Top of the Outrigger and They’re Playing My Music—offered a sprinkling of country tunes throughout. Not exactly the funk and soul tip Aloha Got Soul has been on since inception (which is inevitably evolving to include all styles of music from Hawaii), but I was nonetheless grateful to meet Nobriga in person to find out more about his musical upbringing in Hawaii, the success he found early on with his group The Entertainers Five, and the lessons he learned from both Waikiki’s live entertainment scene and his chance at “making it” as a country musician in Nashville.

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In the country: Al Nobriga with Island Company.

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In the city: Island Company.

Roger Bong: How did you start playing music professionally?  

Al Nobriga: In high school we had a band that was quite popular. Combination of covers, some originals. Dion & The Belmonts. Funny thing was, we were really popular. It was called The Universals.

Tom Moffatt used to do a lot of rock n roll shows, and we used to play with a lot of those acts. We played with Chucky Berry, The Diamonds. Used to play in theaters. It was fun. We got to see all these groups that we heard on the radio.

I continued music in college [at Brigham Young University]. At orientation, people went around and found some people who played music. We went around and entertained visitors. We found some guys who really clicked. That’s how we carried over and started playing in Waikiki. We were really lucky.

What was that group like?

We had a nice harmony group, kinda like the Beach Boys but we had our own style. We wanted to hear how we sounded recorded, so we called up Herb Ono. We walked into the studio, he was a really nice person to us. He was responsible [for a lot of our success]. When we first when went to the studio in college, we drove down one night, his friends were inside playing cards, we went in and said, “We wanna find out how much it costs to make a recording”. It was something like $100 an hour. In college that’s a lot of money, but we wanted to do it.

He wasn’t interested in our group. When we finally had the money, we went in and Herb set up two microphones and told us to let him know when we were ready. “Wheneva you ready, just go and I’ll start rolling.” Herb went back to doing whatever he was doing [and didn’t pay too much attention to us].

So when we were ready, we started. Herb immediately stopped what he was doing and started messing with some things. From there, he took us under his wing.

We were The Entertainers Five. Herb did a split album with us and Kaleo O Kalani. There was one original on there that I wrote. One side was us, one side was the girls. It was our first attempt at recording. The song I wrote was called “All Summer Long”, it’s a straight Beach Boys harmony. There was one called “Rain, Rain, Go Away” by Kui Lee, one of the other guys sang that. We did “Hawaiian War Chant”, our version of it. A song called “My Last Farewell”, which is kind of a folk song.

We had fun doing that. But albums didn’t go anywhere.

The Entertainers Five / Kaleo O Kalani Trio split LP

The Entertainers Five / Kaleo O Kalani Trio split LP

What do you mean?

In those days, there was hardly any local music on the radio. It was real difficult—except for the Hawaiian station.

Local contemporary music?

Back then there weren’t many contemporary Hawaiian groups. At the time, Don Ho was popular. The Surfers, Bernie Hal-mann, Melveen LeedMartin Denny, Arthur Lyman. It was kind of old school. Waikiki hadn’t quite changed over to a newer sound.

When we came in, we came in right around the time when that [change] was happening. We were one of the few groups [doing a new sound]. Al Lopaka, Sam Kapu, and some other groups were playing.

After I got out of college, we didn’t start playing professionally until a year after college. I started teaching at Nanakuli High School [in the meantime]. The guys in the band, we still kept together. The school called us up to do church dances and we kept singing.

And then I met a guy from college who became a booking agent. We bumped into each other during the first summer I was off from teaching school, and he goes, “Hey, you got your group together yet? I got a gig. You guys want to play a nightclub?” We never thought of playing a nightclub. We were all Mormon boys, church college boys, so we never thought about going to a nightclub.

So I called the guys up and they said, “Yeah, let’s go!” It was this place called No Ka Oi on Maui. It was a Hawaiian club and they needed a group. We were in there for a weekend. We practiced like crazy. But we had no idea what to play in a nightclub, because we’d never been in one! We learned some Hawaiian songs, and we just did what we did: rock n roll and stuff.

It was pretty well accepted, so they brought us back for two more weekends.

Then, this guy Tom—the booking agent—says he got a place right outside of Waikiki that needs a band for a weekend. Well, it was—I don’t know if you know, but when I was back in school it was called the Peppermint Lounge. It later became the Jade East Lounge. It used to be on Ena Road on the outskirts of Waikiki. There were several clubs there, C&K performed next to that for a while. It was exactly the kind of club it sounded like, [I think] it was owned by the kind of people who owned Club Hubba Hubba down the street. But it wasn’t a strip club or anything.

But we thought, “Hey, anything close to Waikiki was good.”

We went in there and played and they signed us up for 3 months. Don Ho came in one night. He had heard about our group—I guess word got out about our harmony and stuff. So he came in and he really liked it. We didn’t even see him. He called the manager later, and the manager came up to us and said “Don Ho wants to know if you guys would be interested in playing his off nights at Duke’s.”

So here we were, off playing the worst club in town and we got an offer to play at the best club in town, the biggest known club in town. The only thing he said was you guys would have to keep your harmony and add a couple girls, because you have to do a show. So we found two girls and became The Entertainers 5 + 2.

We practiced for about three months and did show stuff. And the we went into this nightclubon Sundays. It was such a change because we were still playing the Jade East Lounge on the weekdays and became kind of a big name thing. In fact we changed our name to The Entertainers Five Band.

We got really good reviews. Wayne Harada was hard to crack in those days, but he gave us good reviews.

Al Nobriga with a copy of "Leimomi" by The Entertainers Five. Nobriga wrote the song for his daughter.

Al Nobriga with a copy of “Leimomi” by The Entertainers Five. Nobriga wrote the song for his daughter.

We played there for three months on Sundays. And then the Hilton Hawaiian Village was looking to change what they had. They came to see us, and they liked our group so they booked us at The Garden Bar, which was a full time gig. For that time, it was good money, advertising and everything.

So we went from Jade East to Duke’s to probably the second best bar in town at the time: The Garden Bar. It was jam packed, especially weekends. Locals used to line up out to the road to get in there. The first night we we opened, we were stunned—we were worried, we thought nobody was gonna come, nobody knows us. We said, “Oh well, we’ll just play“. We parked and went down to the lobby, and the line was all the way down [to the street]. There were a lot of locals on the weekends. There were tourists too.

How did you get into doing your own solo stuff?

The group split up after about three years at The Garden Bar. My friend and bandmate formed his own group and they played at the top of the Outrigger, it used to be called The Moon Room. It was real popular.

I stayed at The Garden Bar a little longer, then hooked up with an agency that’s no longer in existence. We had a good following by then. They wanted us to play at The Moon Room. The funny thing was, my best friend was [still] playing there. I felt bad about that. He eventually left and I ended up performing there for 10 years in various different forms. I had a trio. I had four guys. Randy Lorenzo, Martin Pahinui, Gabby [Pahinui]’s son. A lotta guys came and gone. That’s where we were the Al Nobriga Trio. And then Island Company.

John Schumeister, Bobby [Robert] Kubota, Lenny Farm. Bobby Heirs left and we got another drummer. The first drummer we had… well, The Entertainers Five had a drummer that later became a DJ at KCCN, Greg Nutt, who later became “Kukui” Nutt. He used to also fly choppers for Vietnam. Greg introduces the [At The Top Of The Outrigger] album—I just through that in because I remembered about Greg. [Darryl MacKay was also a member of Island Company.]

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You have a lot of originals on the Top Of The Outrigger LP which I really enjoy.

Yeah, I was trying to do my own thing. You see, we did that but we didn’t know anything about marketing. We didn’t have management or anything. Tom Moffatt produced this album, and it was through Herb Ono.

We recorded this album live in Herb’s studio. What we did was we announced for 3 or 4 weeks that we gonna have this recording live in the Sounds Of Hawaii [studio]. We set it up, brought food and everything, drinks for people, and then we started recording. It was packed. It was like a nightclub atmosphere. You can hear the audience. They weren’t piped in, they were actually there.

We didn’t know how long it was going to take. But we did the whole album mostly in one take. We didn’t repeat anything. We played these [songs] every night, so we didn’t have to fix anything. We put some harmonies on afterwards, but basically what you have here was one take, in the studio live with the audience right there.

I loved it. I was comfortable doing that. More comfortable than singing with nobody there, because I would do that every night. We were more personable, we just pretended we were in our club and did the same thing. When I go into the studio and record now, you’re by yourself, it’s totally different. I like the live setting better.

Al Nobriga signing Roger Bong's copy of "At The Top Of The Outrigger" LP

Al signing Roger’s copy of “At The Top Of The Outrigger” LP, 2014.

What’s the story behind the LP, They’re Playing My Music?

I met a guy from Canada who had money and was interested in our group. I did the first album in 1974. The second one didn’t come along until 1978, 1979. I was working at the Outrigger and this guy came in, he was an engineer from Canada. He liked our music, liked our band. I wrote a song called “Sweet Canadian Girl”. It was quite popular in Canada. He said, “Why don’t you put this song out?” and I told him, “Costs money!” So he said, “Let’s do it.”

The Island Company album cost a lot more than the live album because we hired other [studio] musicians to do it.

What was the reason for hiring other musicians?

I wanted a tighter sound on it. The bass player [Dave Inamine] wasn’t my regular bass player. He was really good. I wanted that sound. All local guys, they played sessions. I knew some of them from The Entertainers Five. Dave Inamine on bass. Glen Goto on keyboards. This guy Scott Kohler on the drums, he was from the mainland. I wanted a tighter sound. We were okay live—we came close live, but I wanted a bigger sound. We used the Honolulu Symphony Brass.

But again, the Island Company LP never got marketed, never got played on the radio. Back then, it was hard to get stuff played on the radio.

Was it more of the local, traditional Hawaiian music that was on the radio?

Well, they had disco and all that stuff on the radio, but that’s what the main station was [playing]. Hawaiian radio would play Hawaiian stuff. But we weren’t considered real Hawaiian, we were kinda in between. It was odd. I did the half album [with Kaleo O Kalani] and then the two full albums, but nothing happened with them.

Island Company was my group. We did all the vocals. We played our own stuff and people couldn’t tell the difference. The only thing we didn’t have with us on the show was keyboards. Once in a while, if we had a show that was big enough we’d put keyboards in there.

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Album premiere party with a "They're Playing My Music" cake.

Album premiere party with a “They’re Playing My Music” cake.

They’re Playing My Music LP liner notes:
Rhythm section: Glen Goto (rhodes), Kimo Cornwell (piano), David Inamine (bass), Scott Kohler (drums, Jimmy Funai (guitar)
Horns: Mike Morita, Mike Lewis (trumpets); Ira Nepus (trombone); Michael Paulo (alto saxophone)
— Strings: Dave Bechtel, Arthur Loventhal, Clair Hazzard, Heidy McCole (violins); Nancy Masaki, Beverly LeBeck (cellos)
— Produced by Gordon Broad
— Executive Producer: Robert Lawrence
— Recorded at Sounds Of Hawaii
— Engineers: Herb Ono, Stan Ono
— Album concept & cover photo: Brian Fong

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You were still mainly at the Outrigger?

Yeah, we were at the Outrigger. That room closed in 1980. They decided to make something else out of it. I was there 10 years. Society Of Seven was downstairs.

Tell me about the song, “My Last Disco Song”. I love that one because you name all the different clubs.

I wanted to do something that everybody was—I thought the radios might play it. So I wrote it about… well, first of all, a girl I was dating, she was from New York. She loved disco. That’s all she wanted to do was go to these places and dance. I’m the worst dancer in the world, that’s why I play music. I get on stage and it’s safer there.

The story is contrived. It’s kind of about her, that’s how the idea came. She used to go, “Tonight we’re gonna go to Spats, tonight we’re gonna go to …” and she would go out with her girlfriends and I’d say, “That’s fine, go where you wanna go.”

That’s how I wrote it. I put it in there: “She was living for the disco… Spats, The Sting…” I named ’em all, as much as I could. Trying to say ’em that fast was fun. The guys in the group were going, “Oh god, we gotta do this?”

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Original handwritten lyrics to "My Last Disco Song".

Original handwritten lyrics to “My Last Disco Song”.

Every one of those was clubs that was happening in town. Back then, I tell you what… I’m saddened to see that entertainment is just not what it used to be. Before then, you know, we came out in 1965, and you’d go down Kalakaua and every place had a club and there were groups playing. You go all night and not catch all the people playing that night. Live entertainment, this town was poppin’.

We’d all go out to a place called Coco’s, which became Hard Rock Cafe later. I don’t know what it is now. It was the afterhours club. All the acts would go here after their gigs. Don Ho would walk in. Two, three in the morning. Almost everybody who played in town [Waikiki] was there afterwards. Talking, hanging out. Don would come in, sit with everybody.

It was really tight back then, everybody knew each other.

Did having all of those acts push you to be better?

It pushed me to do more of my own stuff. I wanted to be a little different. And the songs kept coming to me anyway. I tell people: I didn’t choose music, it chose me.

When I moved to Tennessee 20 years ago. I loved country music, I still do. I don’t play it much any more. I had country western group called Almost Famous.

This was here in Honolulu?

This was here. We had a CD, it was real nice. We played at Coconut Willy’s that used to be in the [International] Marketplace. We had a good following, we played for a lot of country dances. We were about the only band that played country music. So, some guys from Nashville heard me and my lounge act—I used to do solo stuff too—and they heard me do some originals, some country stuff, and they really liked it. So in 1988 they flew me up to Nashville to do a demo. I cut six songs and then came back [to Hawaii].

They said, “We got a really good response to your songs and your voice. We want you to come back up and do another six songs.” So a year later I went back up and did another six songs and met a few people. And I came back, but they wanted me to move to Nashville right then. I couldn’t go, I was playing at the Outrigger and I had a contract for 3 more years. I had guys playing with me, and that was their living for their families. I said, “You know what, I can’t leave. Can’t leave until this is over.”

They said, “OK, well we’ll get you [up here] when you can.”

When I moved up there, it was too late.

The opportunity already passed.

Another thing I learned about music, especially up there is timing is everything. It’s talent, yeah, but it’s being there at the right time in the right place.

And you never know when the trend is going to do a left turn. All the sudden what you’re doing is not popular anymore. I saw that happen there with all these big stars like Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, all these guys. Big names. They couldn’t get their songs on the air anymore cause the radios were going for all these younger artists, your Tim McGraws, Brad Paisleys. Al Jackson. It switched over. Garth Brooks, he wasn’t young but he was different, more show. So by the time I got there, they weren’t looking for someone who was 50 years old, you know?

So you had to find a regular job? 

So I got a job. Well, I started doing writers’ nights. Being from [Hawaii], I wasn’t there yet as far as lyrics and style. But people were willing to help me because they liked my melodies a lot. People said, “You just gotta work on your lyrics because you gotta phrase like they do up here.”

After trying to do that for a while, I decided that’s not me. I don’t phrase like that. So I backed out. The only music I did for 17 years was, there was a guy I met from Hawaii who had a little halau, and every so often we’d go do luaus and I’d sing with them Hawaiian music and stuff. That’s all I did for 17 years. Except at school [where I started working], I started writing for the kids. But that’s kids’ songs.

…I took a break from writing not fully, but pretty much, for about 10 years. Just recently

Like I said, you don’t choose music. Music chose me. I had to get a regular job—that was an experience, because I never had to get a regular job because for 30 years I played music. I was lucky enough to work without having to go hungry for 30 years. A lot of my friends couldn’t do that. And I’ve asked myself, why was I so lucky? And I realized it’s because I was willing to play what the people wanted to hear. I love to write my own stuff, but I realized if you want to work, you have to. We played all the disco songs, we did every kind of—you name it, we did it. Sly & The Family Stone, Bee Gees, whatever was selling, we played it. We stuck our own songs in there once in a while and people liked it.

That’s how I kept working: I was willing to play songs other people weren’t. I thought, I might not like everything I play, but I like this job a lot better than another job that’s not music.

Al Nobriga and Roger Bong. The 7" single features songs Nobriga wrote for a children's TV special, Seasons Of Change.

Al Nobriga and Roger Bong. The 7″ single features songs Nobriga wrote for a children’s TV special, Seasons Of Change.

So what do you miss about being here in Hawaii, the music scene, the energy?

I miss the old music scene. I don’t know what the scene’s like now. I really appreciate what you’re doing. Even though my music’s a little different that what you normally do, I think it’s great because at you’re open to a lot of different venues and people.

Maybe you can bring it back. I think there’s one reason why I didn’t feel bad leaving Hawaii [for Nashville], because I saw groups not playing anymore. Less and less groups doing live music. It didn’t make sense to me because we got so much talent here, and the music was great. It’s just that music went on a different [path]. I learned from Nashville that talent’s not the issue; it’s what they want to market, to sell. You got singers over there making bunches of money, they not good! They sound like everybody else. But they got that young look, they’re in their 20s, some of them are rugged guys and some of them are nice guys, but all the country songs are about the same thing. But you give it a little twist, and you make money. Like this Taylor Swift, she can’t sing really well. I heard her live. At some shows she has to use those voice enhancers things to keep pitch. But she’s making millions.

It’s image. And it’s sad.

Well, first of all I’m biased because I’m 72 years old and it cuts out all those people, because audiences don’t want to watch older people sing. I’m going to change that somehow. But you know what I mean. I’ve often said that if everybody was blind and nobody could see what people looked like, we’d have a whole different cast of stars right now.

It’d be more about music.

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In 2014, Al and I agreed to embark on a small reissue project to release a 7-inch featuring two tracks from his LP, They’re Playing My Music. The songs are “My Last Disco Song” and “Break Away (I’d Rather Be Sailing)”.

We’re happy to officially announce the 7-inch is available worldwide — although some of you might have noticed it’s already been available for a few weeks now! Call it an experiment in running an independent record label: whereas the Mike Lundy releases were announce well in advance of their release dates, I decided instead to quietly get the Nobriga 7’s to distributors in Japan, Europe, and North America before making any announcement here. So far, so good: Japan’s Diskunion is sold out, and Honest Jon’s in London just got their stock to various shops in the UK and Europe.

I have a limited quantity of the release available in the AGS webshop. Pick up a copy here.

My biggest thanks goes to Al Nobriga, who has patiently watched this project come to fruition and whose gifts of original lyrics, newspaper clippings and photographs from the get-go have made this release even more special.

To everyone else: thanks for reading, and thanks as always for your support! 

 

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