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Interview: The Story of Aura, with Beverly Orbello and Vince Mendoza

Aura has for a long time remained a mystery to me. I first heard their music on the oft-referenced “Hawaiian Breaks” mix that DJ Muro released in 2009. At that time I had no idea who the band was. Thankfully, with the help of a handful of dedicated individuals, I was able to identify the mix’s complete tracklist and learn for the first time the name of this incredible band. But I still had much to learn about Aura.

After identifying the mix’s tracklist, I linked up with local music collector and blogger Kym Miller, who’s been living in the Pacific Northwest for several years. Kym has a complete collection of the Cool Hawaii CD reissues of contemporary Hawaiian albums (Mike Lundy’s The Rhythm Of Life was one of those reissues), released in Japan in the early 2000s by label owner Toshi Nakada (I later interviewed Toshi and met his friend Lance Jyo, a Honolulu musician who helped with contacting the artists for the CD reissues). My friend-in-local-music Kym shared a number of the CD reissues with me. That’s how I finally got my hands on the Aura album — even if it was just in compact disc form. The CD featured a couple of bonus tracks, so it made up for not having the actual LP.

Not long after that, I discovered Aura would be performing live as part of a reunion concert in 2011 featuring local acts like Greenwood, Power Point, Nueva Vida, Pauline Wilson and Lil Albert Maligmat. What a coincidence! It was as if everything was happening as it was supposed to: Muro sharing that mix, me launching Aloha Got Soul and soon after moving back home to Hawaii, and these guys getting back together for another gig. I started doing a lot of research online, and found several articles written by Honolulu music journalist John Berger about Aura. The official 70s Nightclub Reunion website had some potent biographical info on the band as well, and in a short amount of time my knowledge of who Aura is grew.

In December 1975, Stan Richards walks into The Sting at the Princess Kaiulani Hotel to take a “peek” at the “off night” band; they call themselves The Nomads and he was told that they were a very good R ‘n B band. He walks around the disco just once and leaves. The band, although disappointed, hopes for the best because, after all, Stan Richards is the owner of The Point After – the hottest disco in Honolulu with sister clubs in Seattle, Dallas, Boston and Anchorage. They try to optimistic but realize that there has never been a “local” act hired to perform in that club – only bands from the continental U.S. circulate between the sister clubs – and even if they are hired only to do the “off night” gig it would be a stepping stone for bigger things!

Much to their [delight], Mr. Richards decides to have them perform at The Point After in Dallas, Texas for two months, beginning January 1976. Although hoping to land a spot in the Honolulu club, this is still a big break…and there’s the excitement of traveling to unknown territory! The band does so well there, Stan decides to but the gig short and bring them “home” to perform in the Honolulu club. Wayne Harada, entertainment columnist of The Honolulu Advertiser, writes “this is history in the making…the first local act to play that room”. The group went on to receive numerous awards from Honolulu’s entertainment industry, year after year, for their superb talent and ability to “pack the room”. (link)

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Without fail, Aura packed the dancefloor that evening. Everyone I talked to recalled how Aura was the band to see, and The Point After—the legendary nightclub where Aura resided for a decade—was the place to be on any given night of the week. I had only heard of The Point After, and found out it closed sometime in the 1980s.

But while the club’s status as the pinnacle of 1970s Waikiki nightlife remained a mystery to me, Aura’s story slowly started to open itself to me. At that reunion show, the band was selling T-shirts and a retrospective zine. I bought both. Inside the zine were artist promo photos, flyers, stories from the band members, and photos of their mom and dad — as you might know from my previous post, Aura is a family band comprised of eight siblings.

In retrospect, I wondered why the band didn’t play any of the songs I knew that evening. The songs from their 1979 album — “Magic Lover”, “Winds Of Love”, “Short And Sweet” — these were all hallmark tunes of the Aura I knew. But, as I later found out (a recurring theme in learning of Aura’s story) in interviews with Vince Mendoza and Beverly Mendoza, the band rarely played these originals live, save for their popular disco rendition of “I’ll Remember You”.

The following year I decided to blog about a few tracks from the album. In January 2012, I posted three tracks (two of which eventually became the AGS-7003 7″, releasing this month on the Aloha Got Soul label).

I don’t think there’s a Hawaiian funk album as heavy as Aura’s—blazing horns, duo female vocalists, the heaviest dance cuts to ever come out of Hawaii.

But a funk/soul group is only as good as their love ballads. I mean, if a band like Aura can take listeners to new heights with songs like “Let Me Say Dis About Dat”, then you can bet they’ve got just as much talent when the tempo slows down. (link)

In 2013, as the fanbase of Aloha Got Soul grew and the idea of launching a reissue label started to surface, Vince Mendoza — who played sax on the band’s 1979 album and, as I would find soon enough, later switched to drums when Mike Kennedy left the group — coincidentally posted a comment on one of the posts I made the year prior.

Thanks so much from the depth of my Family’s heart. Back in the day we had put our hearts n soul into that album. We will always dedicate our work to our Father, Julian B. Mendoza and our Mom Agnes A. Mendoza. Blessings Mahalo Aloha. Yours truly AURA the Mendoza family : )

Ecstatic, I quickly found Vince on Facebook and sent him a brief message to say thank you. Nothing really came after that, although I did eventually found a vinyl copy of their LP at Jelly’s (now Idea’s), its slightly worn grooves telling me that its previous owner gave it plenty of play. To have the LP in my collection meant I could finally start spinning it at DJ gigs around town.

Time went by. It wasn’t until 2015 that I finally reached back out to Vince to pitch the idea of working on a reissue together. This was right around the time of releasing the first 7″ on AGS, Mike Lundy’s “The Rhythm Of Life” b/w “Tropic Lightning”, so I felt as if I had “something to show” for the blog-turned-label, especially when approaching Aura, one of Hawaii’s hottest bands of the day.

Vince was interested. We hopped on a phone call (“You don’t remember The Point After? …Wait, how old are you?”) and he was happy to learn that a young guy is interested in keeping their music alive for others to hear. “Back then, you could tell what bands were from Chicago, Detroit. Hawaii had its own sound. Now, everyone sounds alike.” I would learn even more about the band once Vince and I finally met in person, in March 2015.

And now, 2016, as we are finally ready to release the first Aura reissue, AGS-7003 — a 7″ featuring two standout grooves from their LP — I’ve had the opportunity to piece more of the Aura story together using interviews with Vince as well as his sister, singer Beverly Mendoza Orbello.

AGS-7003 is available now in the shop on vinyl & digital formats. Also available online June 17th via iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and other major digital outlets.

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The original eight band members: Del in the middle, Vince kneeling bottom left, above him is Christine, above her is Dennis, then next to him is Michael, then Brian, then Beverly and then Clifton kneeling bottom right.

Roger Bong: What are your earliest memories of performing as “Beverly & The Nomads”?

Beverly Mendoza Orbello: The band being named after our Dad’s 2nd pride & joy, his Chevy Nomad! I say 2nd because the band was his 1st! The band needed to have a name change due to “trouble” a couple of Go-Go Girls got into on one of the military clubs & the only name Dad could think of at that moment was The Nomads.

What kinds of clubs were the Nomads playing at that time? Were you gigging in Waikiki? How old was everyone in the band?

B: We started playing at small parties, school functions, battle of the bands & on Filipino Fiesta in 1965 on the local TV station. We eventually started playing the military circuit all the way up to 1973. During the last couple of years doing the military circuit, we also started to do some outer islands (& on Oahu) gigs in small hotel/motel lounges. In 1973, Jack Cione hired us to do an hour show at The Dunes (before his Cabaret Show started) & then a couple of sets doing Top 40 dance music. All of the Mendoza siblings started performing at an early age (between 12-14 yrs.) but the youngest started at age 10 & that was our brother Del. He created Aura’s “sound”, all the musical arrangements as well as vocal harmonies & he was the lead we followed.

When Stan Richards (Point After owner) saw The Nomads at The Sting in December 1975, how long had the band been together at that point? And what was the band’s repertoire like then?

B: The band had been performing together for at least 10 years. Our repertoire was always R&B, Top 40 with a dash of Jazz & Blues every now & again.

Nomads (Aura) Boogie Nights

What impact did your residency at The Point After have on the band and its success? Did TPA help catapult Aura to the top of the Hawaii nightclub scene?

B: The Point After definitely had a hand in The Nomads/Aura rising to the top of Hawaii’s nightclub scene! Stan Richards owned a string of Point After clubs on the continental U.S. & the norm (before we started playing at the Honolulu club) was to rotate the bands every 3 months between the clubs. However, because we had an amazing “draw”, he decided to leave us at the Honolulu club.

There is tremendous energy in Aura’s 1979 LP, it helps young listeners like me imagine what Hawaii was like in the 70s and early 80s. What was the music scene in Hawaii like back then? Would you consider it a special time for Hawaii’s music?

B: It was definitely a special time for Hawaii’s music scene — something that will not likely ever be seen again. It was fun & exciting — Waikiki was lit up! Every major hotel had a Disco Club with live bands performing.

Vince Mendoza: This town was so busy, so many great entertainers, music was everywhere! Back then you could make a decent living just playing music. Aura’s always been a hardcore funk band, [but] when we did this album, there was a lot of jazz influence because you had how many people involved, right? So I wasn’t playing drums on this. The drummer, Mike Kennedy, he loved Tower Of Power so much. And Bill Popaka, the horn player [was into jazz]. So we together a Tower Of Power sound with what we had. We thought we were going to make something more like straight ahead funk, just straight ahead. And the we started doing jazz. Mike was very influential, because he was playing drums at the time. I wasn’t the drummer. When Mike left, then I took over [as the drummer], but that was after this album. Mike played drums for Mike Lundy. He was a good studio drummer.

There’s that bit at the end of “Yesterday’s Love”.

V: Yeah, that’s part of the island sound. There’s a jazz influence. Mackey Feary was a good friend of our family. He was into jazz, like Lee Ritenour. Kalapana always traveled to LA, so they were always into it.

What about “Let Go, It’s Over”?

V: I wrote the music…That’s why this album is a trip. It’s whatever it was, different types of musicians all colliding. We kick back and look at it, that was our first album, so we didn’t have much say.

Who had the most say?

V: [Producer] Gary [Shimabukuro]. My brothers and I, we all tried to work together with Mike Kennedy. Mike played like David Garibaldi of Tower Of Power. That’s a different type of drumming from how I drum. That’s why the direction just goes [into that jazzy funk sound]…

Aura at The Point After

Aura at The Point After

What were the recording sessions at Broad Studios like?

B: It was a truly learning experience, also exciting, stressful/tiring at times & “long” nights…but we wouldn’t have traded it for anything else in the world!

You guys had a lot of creative freedom on this LP?

B: Yeah. Gary would be like, “That was cool! Try that!” So, who do we sound like? What is this sound? I thought some songs should’ve gotten airplay. “No Beginning, No End” should’ve gotten airplay.

Please tell me about the song, “No Beginning, No End”, to which you wrote the lyrics. It’s incredible!

B: Thank you so much Roger! I actually wrote the lyrics thinking of a couple I knew personally who were always in an “on again/off again” relationship. I loved them both dearly & it was just so sad because I knew they truly loved each other but just couldn’t “handle” the relationship — perhaps because they were young & somewhat immature.

Do you feel the album was a true representation of the band’s live performance, or a departure that displayed a different side of Aura’s abilities?

B: I think it was both. Although it was a little more jazz oriented, the musicianship/vocals truly displayed my brother’s/sister’s abilities & talent which was always there in our live performances.

Was the album successful upon release?

B: The album was not marketed as best as it could have been so there was very little air play. Everyone knows if a recording does not get air play on the popular radio stations, it is not going to be successful. There were several good ballads (Let Go It’s Over & Winds Of Love) as well as a couple of good dance tunes (Yesterday’s Love & Can’t Waste No Time). There was also really great R&B, Jazz tunes that really displayed the band’s musicianship/vocalizations/talent (Short ‘n Sweet, our rendition of I’ll Remember You, etc.).

The back cover of the original Aura LP.

The back cover of the original Aura LP.

The liner notes say the band is looking forward to more albums.

V: In every record, the producer has a lot of say. We’re huge fans of Earth Wind & Fire, moreso than Tower Of Power. TofP is more of a musician’s band. They were hard to dance to. EW&F is more commercial [friendly]. TofP, they’re funky, they’re jazzy. EW&F always hit it big, because they made it danceable, and yet the orchestration, the horns, it’s not easy stuff they’re playing. That’s more of our style. We were writing some good stuff, which we would play live. We were at The Point After. Kamasami Kong, the DJ, was doing a live broadcast. My brother has a cassette, I don’t know where it is. It’s all live, one set of us just raw, broadcast live over the radio. That was the peak of The Point After. Anybody who was anybody was there, from celebrities to football players, it was the mecca. Just to get in there was so hard. It’s like a fire hazard, there was so much people in there it was scary sometimes. There was no room. Smoke filled. Crowded. It was crazy. That’s why Kamasami Kong wanted to broadcast. It was at its peak. You’d have Lionel Richie drop in, Stevie Wonder, football players, boxers, basketball players.

What year was that?

V: It was 1979, before my dad died. He died in 1981. My dad was still alive then. That broadcast was after this album—or maybe it could have been before. No, it was after this [album]. After this [album] blew over. We already released it. It didn’t really do very well. “I’ll Remember You”, it’s such a nice song [as the original], Kui Lee wrote it for his wife who passed away. And then we did a disco version. Teddy Randazzo gave us a song, “I Can’t Get Enough of You”. He said, ‘Can you do a version of my song? I’ll just give it to you.’ We made it cool! And another song called “Think About It”. Those two songs were originals on that broadcast with Kamasami Kong.

Why do you think this album didn’t do very well?

V: People didn’t know the sound. In that era, Seawind was still big. They were still out there. People would say, you’re from Hawaii? People were trying to figure out, “What are you trying to be, another Seawind?”

People on the mainland? Or people here were saying this? 

V: People from here. There was too much stuff all in one. We were trying to be like EWF, TP, Seawind, all in one. Maybe it was too intricate, too much musically. It was commercial enough. You know when you have a format, and the record producer is like, “It’s gotta have a hook”.

What was changing about Hawaii’s music scene in the mid-1980s? Did Aura try to keep up with the times?

B: Like I mentioned, Disco Clubs. Aura had no problems keeping up with the times – there isn’t one type or genre of music Aura cannot perform perfectly.

V: The whole of Waikiki was changing, it was a natural thing. Nothing we could do. Even the music was changing — it was like, “What? Why you gonna play this!?” It was also the same time that punk rock, new wave, music videos started coming in. MTV came in. We were like, what are we gonna do? But old school music will always live on forever, it’s something special.

Aura at The Point After

Why did the band’s residency at The Point After come to an end in 1986?

B: Times were changing & club owner’s started realizing they could keep most of their profits having a DJ spinning records (Disco) instead of hiring live bands. Also, Stan Richards suddenly passed away a few years prior so the club was purchased by a Japanese owner & of course with that, came new management ideas.

What do you hope new listeners today will take away from hearing the Aura LP and learning about the band’s story?

B: That Aura has the caliber of musicianship/vocals that allows them to perform/compete on both national & international stages, if given the opportunity.

The band has gone through many changes throughout the years, starting off with all 8 siblings in the lineup to later on having some members leave the band while non-family musicians joined. What values or goals have always remained the same with Aura throughout all the years?

B: Performing music that we feel truly represents/enhances Aura’s musicianship/vocals & doing these songs just as good as the original artists – if not better – or we don’t do it at all!

What is it about performing with family that you can’t get in other bands?

B: Siblings have a special bond/connection & a special way to communicate — even when we’re performing. We “feel” each other & we’re totally in sync with each other & would always have a special blend — whether in instrumentation or vocals — that only siblings can have. We took great pride in knowing each sibling’s talent, seeing them perform & just knowing he/she was your brother/sister was an amazing/exhilarating feeling.

 

1 Comment so far

  1. Steve Kirby

    Wow! I just stumbled on this. These guys were great friends. I was working at Easy Music in Waipahu and got to be friends with Del. He often invited me to sit in at the Point. Which led to playing guitar with White Light at the Tiki. The best times were Monday nights, which was my night off from the Tiki and Kalapana’s night off from the Top Ada Shop. Mackey Feary and Gaylord Holomalia would come in and we would all jam in the last set. Something like EWF’s “Africano” would become a 45 minute long jam. The management didn’t mind as the dancers didn’t mind. Del and I would hand the guitar back and forth, Gaylord would get behind the keys with Dennis and Mackey would grab whatever was handy. Sometimes Alvin Fejerang would come in. There was a space where Mike wasn’t there and Vince was still too young to be in the club and they had another fellow on drums who’s name escapes me, who also sang. Then Vince came in playing sax eventually covering the drums when the other guy left. Those were great days. Rochelle (later Noelani) Cypriano with Golden Throat, Ox (later Seawind) and the disco bands like Krush at the Beef & Grog, White Light at the Tiki, and Nomads at The Point. Eventually the record players took over at the end of the ’70s. The Point installed a DJ and shortened the band’s sets. Alternating between live and records. That was kind of the beginning of the end. But it was great while it lasted. I still have a vinyl of that album. They had to come up with a new name because some band on the mainland was already recording as the Nomads. I lost touch with all these folks when I moved to the mainland in ’80. Thanks for bringing back so many great memories.

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