Interview with Brother Noland (part 1): What does "Speaking Brown" mean?


Brother Noland is a well-spring of inspiration and knowledge. His roots hold deep in both urban and natural environments in the Hawaiian Islands, and his influences comes from around the world.

In preparation for the reissue of Noland's 1980 debut LP, Speaking Brown, we chatted with him about his music, growing up, and what it means to "speak brown". 

Roger Bong: Tell me your name. Where you’re from. Who you are.

Brother Noland: So, you know my name already [laughs]. Pretty much raised in the inner city. And then having the opportunity to be raised also on the outskirts of the Big Island, in ranch country. I had, like that song by War, “City Country City” — I was able to have some of that throughout my younger years. It gave me a really good balance — balance with nature, and also the balance with the nature of human behavior, because when I was growing up in the projects, [it’s a] totally different jungle. So I was raised in two jungles, yeah — the concrete jungle, and the natural world. So I think it gave me a good balance and insight, like 20/20 vision.

You were in this 1980s documentary [Hawaiian Soul] where you filmed walking around the streets of Honolulu. Can you tell me about where you get your influences from?

When you’re in the inner city, the impact is — the heartbeat of the city creates this vibe that’s totally different from the quietness and stillness of the country and nature, so I used to savor the vibe when I get to be on O‘ahu; you’re young and full of energy. The city vibe. All the beats, all the rhythms, all the sounds are out there. It’s so busy. Busy sounds. I would separate the sounds — for example, the trucks, the different wheels and how they would spin in the traffic. They all have a unique sound.

Music is sound, the soundtrack of life. That’s why I used to walk around the city a lot. There was construction going on, people talking, the whole vibe. That’s where I would get my inspirations. There were some places, like that spot in the 80s where I took the videographer into a small little tiny park in the middle of the city, right across of the freeway. There were these quiet spots in a place that’s full of energy and vibe.

Growing up in the inner city, too, it teaches you how to have groove. There’s a lot of people who play music and stuff, but I used to also tell everybody when we perform, especially with the band: we’re a groove band. We groove. We can start off with something and they’ll just go [sounds of a truck engine starting] — sorry, the truck.

That was perfect timing, we’re talking about the traffic and the city [laughs].

Life goes on! What they don’t know is they’re creating all kinds of sounds, and all these sounds are rhythms, syncopations and beats. Actually that’s where you can get your inspiration. I remember listening to a Miles Davis interview, and he was saying that’s why he liked to go to NBA games, he would sit up in the stands and he would listen to the streaking or the creaking of the players’ basketball shoes as they ran across the court [Noland mimics the sound]. That’s where he would get his notes. Then he said, but — even more crazy — he would listen to them when they would back up after they would score, and he would listen to that sound [mimics the sound again]. It was a totally different sound from going forward. He’d take some of those notes, too. Afterward, I was listening to albums like Bitches Brew where he was getting spacy, and I heard those things. He was a big inspiration to how I made my music too, in the early years. I used to listen to Miles Davis so much — stoned, too [laughs]. I would hear things that are all the different [sounds], and I would try to implement them into contemporary music, and even take that a little deeper and crossover into Hawaiian music or Hawaiian sounds.

The album, Speaking Brown, listening back to it, it’s such a mixture. It opens with “Haleakalā”, and then—

You see the mixture, yeah? of each piece. Everything from “Kawaihae” to “Man Of The Island” — it was such a weird chord structure, but then I put a steel guitar in it. I mean, I don’t know if anyone was listening to that shit, but in my head I was listening to [it], that’s the kine stuff I would try to get. I had to get the right steel guitar player who was open to doing something that was rather odd. The topping on that song was when we got the little kids to come in and sing the background. Kinda brings it all together.

I’d like to ask you more about the song choices, but before we get too far away from it, I want to talk about nature, Mother Nature’s influence.

So just being able to have that opportunity to also travel and enter another soundtrack of life, which of course is going into the country, it just — that itself is inspiration. It opened up my whole peripheral of more sounds. I’m looking for sounds. With country music, it’s very acoustic too. Because I was playing the slack key I could see the crossover, too. That’s why even when you listen to the later slack key stuff, it’s almost new age-y. I would do the same thing, take the traditional slack key sound, which sounds like Waimea, and then try to play it in a contemporary fashion. It started to work for my ears, and I’ve never been afraid to charge, so I’d just throw um in there and see if the ting work or not. Some stuff work, some stuff didn’t. Eventually, it became part of my personality, my MO. When you look at it today, you guys reissuing um and people come up to me, “Wow! Thanks so much for paving the way.” Little things like that. I guess I did pretty good. Some of the guys you hang with, that makes the real difference.

Some of the guys I grew up with, hung out with, they were all chargers. Gerry Lopez, guys like that no fool around. They pioneers. Being able to hang with the Pahinui brothers, being able to go to Ledward Kaapana’s backyard, playing up here in Waimea, hanging out with real cowboys. And then you have this sort of craziness that kinda makes you a warrior, not just a soldier. We would attack. I remember going down to Hāpuna Beach when they didn’t even have the pavilions or anything, and the waves were huge, and I’d be following these really good surfers out there, they were so inspiring to me as awesome wave riders, but the hex was so mystical, I wondered, “What da hell am I doing out here”, expressing my Hawaiian bravery. I guess you could say [it’s] like pushing the envelope in life. Then, I found my niche: “I can push the envelope with music”. That’s why if you listen to all the early stuff, I’m definitely pushing the envelope — everyone has said that, “you’re always doing someting that nobody else doing.” But that was never really the intention, it was almost natural. That’s like nature. If that makes sense.



It does make sense, and I think the mixture of growing up in an urban setting and in the outskirts of Waimea, it really shaped you. I remember you talked about how you wrote “Pua Lane”, you wanted to take the vamp and put a twist on it. Taking things and flipping it on its head and seeing what happens.

Yeah, and not being afraid to do that. There’s a certain point in that, too. Some people just remain the same, yeah? Why reinvent the wheel if it’s working? I wouldn’t call it a struggle, but that was always my little thing with Mountain Apple and Jon de Mello and all those guys, because Jack [de Mello] really appreciated the fortitude that I had, that he allowed for me to be Jon’s little crazy artist guy. If you look at the earlier [Mountain Apple] stuff, it’s very conservative, you know. I was always the radical one. Even if you listen to IZ [Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole] and stuff, IZ is kind of like a charming oddity that worked. He didn’t really push anything, but he was like a symbolic symbol of Hawai‘i, or the Hawai‘i that’s struggling out there. de Mello saw that too, so he created an icon out of that.

But all throughout the years, I was kinda like Jon’s plaything: “We gonna do one Noland [album] and it’s gonna be radical and we’re gonna push the envelope, we gon put it out and see what people say.” Luckily, with each one we had a kind of “Coconut Girl” with each album. That’s why I know my daughter [Erika], she grew up with the music and she knows there’s so much more hidden gems, and she really appreciates working with you and you’re able to see that too… 35 years later [laughs].

Speaking Brown was before you started working with Mountain Apple.

What happened was, as soon as it came out, Jon was approaching me. I just didn’t sign. Eventually down the line, years later, [he said] “Oh, you might as well sign the rest of your earlier projects to Mountain Apple.” That’s what happened. As soon as he heard “Pua Lane”, he was on my tail already. So was a bunch of other people, including Henry [Kapono]. Henry wanted to produce me. He was creating a label called Browntown Records. Nobody know those stories! I recall being pulled into this meeting with de Mello, Henry, me, they were all vying for a position, yeah? Trying to get — a very egotistical meeting of who’s gonna take this young guy and, and I’m over there like “eh man, I can do this one my own.” That was those days. Later on I found out, “oh, it ain’t that easy trying to have your own record label, trying to do the business ends of things.” Luckily, Kamasami Kong and Nick Kato, they came from the blindside and said, “Eh man we can get you on a Japanese record label!” Ding! Eventually I ended up with de Mello, because de Mello had the best deal, probably cause he had the most money.

In a place like Hawai‘i, it’s easy to not want to ruffle any feathers. But at the same time, if you’re already flipping things on its head and trying new things out, why wouldn’t you see what happens?

You’re hearing my real story. It’s history. But that’s what happened. All of us ourselves know that when we were younger, we were all more egotistical. Then as life takes a handle over you, you realize “I better humble myself so I can be part of the whole idea of the collaboration or the unified love that we all need, that music provides.”

What was Solbrea?

Solbrea means “sun” — the sun people. I think it’s Spanish. I was gonna call the group The Sun People. We no have to make our group name sound like a hālau. Prior to that, I was in my brother’s group, we were called Mauleomana, which means “The Powerful Voices”. We did all the Hawaiian thing, we go copy the Cazimero Brothers real good. But when it came time to do my thing, it was like let’s take something totally off that nobody would think about doing. Even the guys that played, they liked the idea of how Kirk Thompson has Lemuria, it was the same kind of “Let’s go off to the edge.” I remember having conversations with Jon too, talking about there’s people in life who just go with the grain, and there’s people in life who pioneer things. You just choose your position. Mine kinda just unfolded that way. So I guess it was a position that I wasn’t uncomfortable with. I wasn’t afraid to be in that position — which comes up with that album Mission Position [laughs].

You were younger than Henry Kapono, the Kalapana guys. But they were all your peers.

What happens, back in our time, when the industry or the people notice, they immediately nuture them. That comes from the older guys, Don Ho, Dick Jensen, Rene Paulo. All these musicians, they took care of the younger musicians. Literally, they’d come up to the house and play for us, or play with us. All the jazz musicians would do that too: Richard Kaui, K Kamahele, Loyal Garner. It was a common thing, very ‘ohana. Same thing, when I [came up, they were like] “Eh! Get one boy from housing! From Kalihi, he’s good!” The word gets out, and next thing you know you’re being invited or asked to come along. I was nurtured by the original guys from Country ComfortBilly [Kaui] and Randy [Lorenzo] was always original, but prior to that there was Harvey Low, Sam Goo. Harvey Low just passed. Sam Goo not doing so good. Randy’s still going.

That’s why someone like uncle Donnie [Martin] is so valuable: he was hanging out with everybody! Even though he’s not a musician himself, he was in there. He’s got tons of stories. And he’ll tell you, here comes Noland. He immediately just grabbed me [and took care of me]. Next thing I know I’m playing with Kevin Daley, who was the drummer for C&K [Cecilio & Kapono] back then. Everybody really did take care. I don’t know if that happens now, but with our time, that’s why we’re all close. Not too much of us left. That’s why I still work with Henry, it’s a kind of mutual respect. As soon as Henry saw me, I was going over his house, to his cook-outs back then. All these people surrounded him because of C&K. I was the young guy hanging out. When it came time to jam, I’d be playing with him. The Mossman’s, Pahinui’s. Randy Lorenzo. Mackey [Feary]. It really was different than it is now, but I don’t know cause I’m not in it so much. But the kids that I mentor, I make sure they have the same kind of humbleness. Outside of Henry and us, prior to C&K becoming the gods of Hawaiian music, everyone just take care of everybody. When the music hit big, then everybody kinda dispersed into their sections and became the artists they are.

You were there during a golden era of music in Hawai‘i. Not necessarily Hawaiian music, but music that was being created here in the islands. I would love to hear how you define what is Hawaiian music.

It’s a good question. Hawaiian music comes from Hawaiian inside, the Hawaiian that’s inside of you. From the inside out. Hard to say today, right? A lot of stuff is influenced by the outside, not the inside. For me, and during my time, and the way that we did the music, it was always that stuff first: we’re from the island, we already unique. Like when you listen to Mackey’s stuff you think, “whoa man, he’s world class level!”, but he was just one regular guy, you can see him underneath the tree, with his guitar smoking one joint. It didn’t seem to be the stardom thing. That’s why I said, up until a certain point — if you look at it now, [for] all these young artists, everything’s about stardom. And it’s instant in their minds.

I just lucky that I get up and it’s a beautiful day in Hawai‘i. We still got all this stuff. We still got Hawai‘i. That’s my important part — don’t stray away from the center, the piko, the belly button of what makes Hawai‘i unite. That influencer thing, kids are wired different, they’re influenced by so many outside stuff. Hawaiian music is when you can find that thing that’s inside you, and it’s your own creation, but you don’t lose the essence of the aloha, of the aloha spirit. It’s dwindling, right, because there’s so much other distractions. For me, where I’m at, I always try take care of the young guys.



When I hold Speaking Brown, the packaging has this do-it-yourself feeling behind it. But the music itself is really high caliber — not just the musicianship or the songwriting, but also the recording. Tell me about Speaking Brown and how the album came about, and where you were at in your career when you did this.

It’s so funny that you noticed those stuffs because it really comes down to, “uh oh, maybe I spent too much time and money making sure the recording sound nice and forgot about the cover.” You know like that flower? What is that? It’s like the image or the outline of a flower! It does have that DIY look. Even the photo of Gabby [Pahinui], me, and Kamalu [Rosa] — “man, could you have gotten a little bit more professional photographer to do it?” [laughs]. But it actually symbolizes a time — yeah, nobody wanted to help me, so I just go do um myself. Of course, not me literally myself, but I had to go and approach people [for their help].

In my head, I just wanted to do it. Especially after I went to the [pressing] plant. My first wife was helping me out with making sure I can make one budget sheet. Then she brought in her cousin [to help] with the photo. I remember bugging Mel Mossman, who was managing C&K. I would ask questions like “How do you get this?” They were busy bees doing their thing, and didn’t always have time to help.

You were asking them how to put a record out?

Yeah, I was asking them that kine stuff, but they never got around to it. So then I said to myself, “I can do this.” So that’s why it looks like do-it-yourself. Plenty people do that today, but of course we got a lot more sophisticated graphics and stuff. But that was like cut-and-paste, braddah [laughs]. And that’s why Jon de Mello saw that too — “I better go put this guy in my net! I can spend the money to make him look good.”

With [my sophomore album] Paint The Island, I got a little bit better. Yeah, but they still classic. The back cover of Paint The Island, where I’m in the kimono, that was the first or second [Brothers] Cazimero May Day concert. They invited me to play. That was the big “boom!” — now everybody’s seeing me at the Shell, like “whoa! this the new kid on the block.” Robert and Roland [Cazimero] supported me. They were big back then, they were packing the Waikiki Shell. They put me on their bill [as] their special guest. I played the “Waikīkī” song, too (“Look What They’ve Done”), and just slammed everybody [laughs]. And that’s what motivated Danny Kaleikini to put me on his TV show. Everything rolled into place. But again, you talk about that DIY thing, de Mello is such an artist too, he saw that and thought, “I better help this boy”. That’s why the transition from Speaking Brown to Paint The Island into Pacific Bad Boy, you can see right there [how things came together].

But again, it’s coming from the ghetto — it’s coming from the inside-out, not the outside-in. I look at everything like that. When I was doing my basketball tournament at Palama Settlement, it lasted 12 years. When we first started in 1992, there were only six teams, and they were all housing teams, and they were all housing guys. The whole reason of putting the tournament together was to get the boys off the street. Long story short, by the ninth year we were at the Stan Sheriff Center, our sponsors were First Hawaiian Bank, Boys & Girls Club. At the end, we had 64 teams, a whole week, we used all the gyms in the Stan Sheriff. You gotta start from the bottom first, I guess, and then work it so that everybody can see the picture of what we’re doing, we’re giving them another glimpse.

When people today hear Speaking Brown, what do you hope they take away from it?

All of the above, man.

What does it mean to “speak brown”?

Back then it took on a totally different meaning. Today, I think this generation does it not even knowing how it got to the point that it did. Back then, we were trying to find a voice. It doesn’t necessarily mean speaking Hawaiian, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i; it’s just finding your voice. When I called it Speaking Brown, I was trying to find my voice. That’s when the [Hawaiian] language was coming back, and the musical renaissance, Sunday Manoa was just starting, Peter Moon, all the music was thriving. But we still didn’t have the voice like we have today. Like McKenna Maduli, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, all these guys — you guys, Aloha Got Soul! You’re all speaking brown now. Down in New Zealand, they call it brown music, just like how they call it black music. That was the intention of that, which is what you do already in almost every aspect. All the clothing lines: Manaola, Kamohoalii, Manuheali‘i, Sig Zane — that’s all “speaking brown”. They come in their medium, it comes out in their printing. There’s a Hawaiian story behind each of the prints.

That’s what “speaking brown” meant: finding your voice in the world. For me personally, I was trying to find my voice. Obviously it worked, but it took a while. I used to go to the Nā Hōkū Hanohano [Awards]. I would always be nominated in the years I came out with [a release], but I would never win. My brother [Tony Conjugacion], when he came out with his first [album], he had 11 nominations and won six of them. When I came out with Pacific Bad Boy, I think I had 10 nominations, and I didn’t win one of ‘em.

When I won Contemporary Album [of the Year] for Native News, everybody all clapped and stood up — “alright, he finally got one!” But that was never the intention. By then that was “native news” already, which is the same thing: native news is speaking brown, I’m just saying the same thing — paint the island, that’s speaking brown. They all mean “speaking brown”, finding your voice.

[part 2 of this interview will be available on our blog. Full length interview included as part of the liner notes of the vinyl release of Speaking Brown]. 

Speaking Brown releases June 28th, 2024 on Aloha Got Soul, available in black vinyl and limited maroon vinyl. Order your copy here →

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