Interview with Brother Noland (part 2): "Finding My Voice"

Continuing our interview with Brother Nolandwhose debut LP, Speaking Brown, helped to shape the sound of modern Hawaiian music. 

In part 2 of this interview (read part 1 here), Brother Noland talks about specific songs, getting to know Gabby Pahinui and his three sons, working with Mountain Apple Company, what the musical landscape was like during the 1980s, putting the album together with the help of friends and family, and how he hopes Speaking Brown will be received in the 21st century. 

Tell me what the song "Look What They've Done" is about. 

If you listen to it today, if you’re familiar with Waikīkī, you’re gonna relate it to something, like “wow, I’ve seen that”, lyric-wise. The whole thing about it is, I wrote that in 1970-something and it’s still relevant. When I wrote it, I was in middle school or high school. I was just becoming one man and noticing things and you like scrap; and I’m a native and I’m indigenous, like “look at this shit!”. You radical, yeah? All my friends, because we grew up in the projects, we were all radical. I would play that song for friends, and they all loved that song, because it’s talking about us, “look what we gotta deal with”, you know? Because we come from this place. Like, are you willing to die in this place? And that’s how we feel afterwards: we’re being displaced. 


Even at that young age, it may sound kinda trippy, but I’ve always been kinda trippy. That’s why all the boys used to follow me — somebody can represent us. And because I could do it musically, even more. People don’t know, but these guys, we’re proud of each other. The music represented where we came from. Even the beach, I’m sure it’s the same now with this generation, all the guys hang down at Sandy Beach, down at the wall in Waikīkī, all the local kids. I did that for years. There’s nothing else, you know? You didn’t think you’re gonna be anywhere else [when you’re young]. That’s the kine feelings I get when I’m near Waikīkī. For me, I just know how young I was, and I was a rebel. 

You do know that that was the first song ever banned on Hawaiian radio? 

I’ve been told. 

In the very beginnings of KCCN, this was before KINE, when that song came out — and it came out before “Hawai‘i ’78”, Skippy Ioane’s tune — when [my song] came out, next thing you know they took it off radio.  

Why do you think they pulled it? 

I think it was too radical at the time. 

In what ways? It’s not even that radical.

You gotta look at the time. Mid-1970s, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on that’s beneficial in the tourism industry. It’s growing, it’s looking good, and then all of the sudden here comes this punk, writing a song about “look what you guys did to Waikīkī”. I was addressing the topics as a Native Hawaiian. I had these feelings, but I wasn’t trying to be an activist or anything. It just came out that way. When I came out with that song, one of the first guys it attracted was Walter Ritte. That was right during the Kaho‘olawe thing. He came up to me and told me, “Eh, that’s the song.” Next thing I know, they’re creating an inter-island tour and talk about Hawaiian things, pushing Kaho‘olawe, stop the bombing, George Helm — and next thing you know, I was the young guy in the concerts, playing that song and it was kind of like the lead song. It’s always had that kind of attitude. But I look at the words and it’s not that radical. Look at Bob Marley’s songs! To me, it was more messenger — somebody gotta say it. 

So now, if you move all the way up to [today], 50 something years later where the song is still relevant and [director Chris Kahunahana] puts it in his movie [Waikiki], and it’s at the end of the movie playing while they running the credits — wow, it matches so good. Because that’s what the movie is about: suffering. The girl [in the film] gets consumed by all the pressures of life, single mom, abusive boyfriend, working three jobs, and then pretty soon she’s losing it. And the song comes out and they run the credits. That thing fits. 

It’s taken on a new life. It’s rejuvenated again. Make people think again. 

It shows that a song can carry this burden, this thing throughout generations and continue to speak to people in a later life, and even take on new meanings too. 

Actually, that’s what I try to write: something that’s timeless, that doesn’t have a time element to it. No matter how many times you hear Gabby [Pahinui] play “Hi‘ilawe”, it sounds fresh.

All the songs on here, almost every song is about a place. 

You’re on Maui talking about “Haleakalā”, you’re on Big Island talking about “Kawaihae”, then you’re in “Waikīkī” — and what are you gonna say about Waikīkī? I’m sure there are songs that reminisce about pre-development days, but you gotta write about Waikīkī now, too. 

That’s really cool, but I didn’t look at it that way. Yeah, it’s about different places, but that’s what I’m seeing at that time. Kawaihae, that’s what I’m seeing. Then next thing I’m in Waikīkī… Then Nu‘uanu. They’re all place-name songs. What’s really cool is, when Hawaiians write songs, that’s what they’re writing: either about a relationship or about a place. The metaphors or the ka‘ona has to do with loving it, or a relationship, but they’re always writing about our places because our place is so beautiful. Hawai‘i. Every valley, every beach, every mountain. When you look deep into Hawaiian music, that’s what we’re writing about; it’s so beautiful, why wouldn’t you? Waikā, Kohala…. That’s so interesting that you bring that to my attention — all these years, I never looked at it that way. 


It’s a very “Hawaiian” album, in that sense, but I know that you as an artist were just putting out there what you were feeling.

It goes back to “what does ‘speaking brown’ mean?” Finding my voice. And yet, that’s not what I’m consciously thinking; what I’m thinking was, “I like make one album! I like be famous! I like them play my song on the radio!” right? Yet, it ended up being what it is.

Can you talk more about the time?

When you take a look at the time period, it also was very open — we were coming out the tail end of the Vietnam War, people were a lot more loose about stuff at the same time. If you talk to anybody who grew up in the 1970s, they’ll say that’s when the best music came out, when songs were songs and they all had messages. You never forget the hooks and the melodies of songs from the seventies. So for Hawai‘i, including guys like Kalapana and C&K, we become a part of that byproduct. So we were writing and feeling what’s going on in Hawai‘i, and at the same time at a national level too because we’re affected by all that stuff. On the other side of the coin, that growth — Hawai‘i was going through a transition because we were moving out of the plantation into the tourism. We’re not doing pineapples and sugar cane, we’re making the transition just like cassette tapes to CDs, and then CDs to mp3s. 

So it’s almost a contradiction — people were so open, but at the same time the radio bans your song. 

Even to today, in Hawai‘i there’s always a split. There’s Aloha ‘Āina, and then there’s real estate developers. And then you have the crossover guys who are doing both. From that kind of global awareness, it’s like, everything you have to change you became instead.

What do you mean? 

You gotta survive in Hawai‘i. If you wanna live in Hawai‘i, if you don’t wanna work three jobs, then you sell real estate so you get one good one plaque, and then you can roll the dice again. It’s almost like [Las] Vegas, how everybody from Hawai‘i goes to Vegas — that’s why they call it the ninth island — because they wanna roll the dice one more time, because if they get lucky, you know? I think all of these things converged on this tiny little dot in the middle of the sea. We all get affected by some stuff consciously, and some stuff unconsciously. Unless you have somebody who’s messenger who’s opening that to the world, to the individual, then it might go right past you. You might not even think. 

In Hawai‘i, because it’s such a tiny dot, we’re not a continent, everything is consumed in a small space. And I think that’s why we have so much creative people in Hawai‘i. Even subconsciously, you don’t know just how creative you are just being in Hawai‘i, just by looking at things. 

Also, you don’t realize how radical you are too, especially if you’re born and raised here, you’re trying to protect what you know you’ve been gifted to be someone raised here in Hawai‘i, has that vibe, you know. So, you got two choices: get pissed off, or educate. I like to think that all my music, from Speaking Brown to modern day, it’s always about educating. 110% of my [music] has to do with Hawai‘i. It’s inside-out, not outside-in. A lot of people are influenced by the global world. But I still come from the inside, Hawai‘i first, because I know what they might not know. So, don’t come over here and make like you know, but you don’t know. Let me show you what I know being here all my life.  

It’s an authenticity thing too. “Are you authentic?” When you are so authentic, it’s radical. It’s like Walter Ritte, you never gonna get bullshit from Walter Ritte, it’s always gonna come straight out. It might not be what you like hear. But then there are some people that will do the opposite in order to get into a position that they need to get in to be what they’re trying to do. It becomes very politician-like. That’s what I meant when I said, everything you have to change you became instead.    

If a song like “Waikīkī” came out today, would Hawai‘i be open to it? Ready for it? What’s your opinion of today’s landscape? 

I think we’re gonna see what happens. 

Tell me about the decision to include Gabby [Pahinui] on the cover.

At that particular time, we were kinda in the rising movement of the [Hawaiian] Renaissance, so in my mind it was an opportunity to bridge the generations and the people who at that time were inspiring us and had inspired us through the years. Gabby ended up being one of my mentors, so it was like, catch him before he leaves the planet. It was a passion thing. All of my friends and us, we all grew up listening to the contemporary mainland music, but we were rooted in our Hawaiian music too. All our dads, uncles, grandparents, they all played slack key, the Hawaiian music. So I wanted to see if I could bridge that. 

It worked out with the concept of Speaking Brown, it’s very acoustic but it’s very contemporary. To me, I had to have Gabby in there somehow. That worked out best, because we thought it might’ve been too imposing if we ask him to play on the album. But if he was on the cover! Then when I got together with Gabby, he was so receptive. Once he heard the song “Pua Lane” I remember him telling me, “you kinda jazzy ah you?” That was his words of approval. So then, he let me use his guitar. That’s his guitar in the photo. 

The little boy [on the cover] is Kamalu Rosa. He’s a kinda popular beach boy down at Waikīkī now. Kamalu represented the future, I represented the present, and Gabby represented the kūpuna, the past. It was so crazy, about a year and a half later, Gabby passed. I was one of the last young guys to play with him. That’s why afterwards the Pahinui Brothers, they started to take care of me. 

What did it feel like to get Gabby’s approval? 

It empowered me. It made me even more confident about my concept, also just about my own playing. I was in one of the first slack key festivals, it was my first performance where Milton Lau and Dancing Cat [Records] asked me to play. Milton Lau noticed that when I was playing my contemporary stuff on Paint The Island, I was using slack key tunings. He could hear it. They’re open tunings. He recognized it, but I wasn’t playing it like slack key. I grew up playing slack key. He asked me if I like be on the bill. When I saw the [lineup], there was legendary guys like the Pahinui’s, Raymond Kāne. All the sudden I was nervous! I’m playing with the big boys, plus there was Dancing Cat Records which is George Winston guys documenting all the slack key legends, Sonny Chillingworth, Dennis Kamakahi

So I go to this concert, I was in the beginning [of the lineup], maybe the third person. I was all nervous, so I closed my eyes and just started playing my first song. It was my first day of proving ground. Then all the sudden I hear another guitar playing… I open my eyes and look left and it’s Cyril [Pahinui] playing. He jumped on stage, plugged in his guitar and started playing with me. Then I hear a guitar on the right side of me, and I turn around and it’s Bla playing! Now I got two Pahinui brothers, all the sudden I hear a bass behind me and it’s Martin! So, my first slack key festival I thought I was gonna be alone, but Gabby was with me. All three of his sons came up on stage, plugged in. I wanted for cry in that moment.  Afterwards, I went back stage and hugged all three of them. When Bla hugged me, he whispered in my ear, “Daddy told us to take care of you.” 

Gabby understood what I was trying to convey [with Speaking Brown]: to learn from your kūpuna, to perpetuate as a makua, and teach the keiki.  

The poem on the back cover, do you remember it?

Yes, I remember why I wrote it. I was deeper than just another guy coming out with an album and trying to move myself into the industry. It was more than that. I always had concepts in my head. Connecting the past, present, and future. The whole. That’s why, when you listen to the music it’s like that too. Even some of the traditional songs have a contemporary flair. It’s not like, say, Kalapana — they got pigeon-holed as “surf music”. I was trying to develop a conglomeration of styles focusing on the Hawaiian-ness. Like, I’m Hawaiian. Even when you listen to “Haleakalā”, it’s got electronic drums. People weren’t doing that kind of stuff back in those days. Or “Kawaihae” where there’s a screaming Moog on there! Actually, that’s where I’m going on Saturday to sing a couple songs: Gene Argel, the guy who did the [Moog] solo, it’s his service, he just passed away. 

That’s heavy. 

Timing, yeah? 


There’s such a good mix of the past and present on the album.

Also, “Lalanapunani”, that’s in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, I was showing that I can also write in the Hawaiian language if I wanted to. And there’s the traditional “Manowaiopuna/Kō‘ula”, and that’s showing that I can play the old stuff too. And then, of course there’s “Waikīkī” and “Man of the Island”, that’s like my activism songs. 


That’s for future, and the present. 

And it’s so relevant today, too. But I knew it would be, because sometimes time stands still. Especially in songs. 

That sheds more light on my earlier question about song choices and the arrangements. 

I was very careful about all those aspects, what songs would fit into the concept. Like “Haleakalā”, that was written by Aunty Alice Nāmakelua. She’s the legendary kumu, songwriter, musician, slack key player. She was very revered. 

When I played the arrangement for my brother, he said “wow, you better get approval from Aunty Alice! Make sure the words are right, that she approves how the song sounds because it’s very contemporary.” My brother [Tony Conjugacion] gave me her address, her phone number, he arranged a meeting with her. Then he said, “I gon tell you how to win her heart: what you do is you make her one tuna sandwich, but you gotta use Coral brand tuna cause she know the difference! If you use Starkist, she can taste the difference! And, you gotta use Best Foods mayonnaise.” So I made her one nice tuna sandwich, I drummed up all my courage, went to her place, and knocked on her door. Long story short, it was magical! She was already in her eighties. And then she when tell me, “you’re singing the second verse wrong! I go show you how sing ‘em.” She sat me down, we went through the song, made sure the words were okay. She approved that I played it very contemporary, too. 


That’s the thing I found all the way throughout my life — older people, elders, wisdom keepers: they know when your heart is true. One of my mentors told me, “If your heart is true, all your moves are correct.” So, go in there with a pure heart and they’ll recognize it. Throughout my life I’ve done that a lot. Especially when you making contact with the elders, they’ve been around a long time, it’s not their first rodeo, they can tell right away if you got some lessons to learn. 

I was with Aunty Alice for about four or five hours, hanging out with her, laughing, playing songs, asking her questions. Once she knew my heart was true, she opened up. 


I feel the same way about you being so open to working with us. 

I just came out of the Haole Do It [TV show] meeting and I was telling them, I love everybody! Love everybody! How much love you get inside you? How much aloha you get? Up to you! At some point, people gotta see beyond, that even when you go Democrat or Republican, that’s a form of segregation too. How can we talk about unity and coming together as a country, a nation, as a community, and then you still split yourself in a way?

It’s so abstract too, it’s not like the color of your skin or your gender or anything like that.

That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. We gotta breathe, and then breathe new life into things we know can be possible.  

How do you hope this album will be received today when it gets re-released?

Hopefully that, [if] I’m performing some of the songs, it’ll re-stimulate people. A lot of stuffs can still be relevant today, even though the damn project is like 50 years old. My whole thing is: music is timeless. Any songs I produce and create, I put that essence into it so that five generations down the road, my great grandchildren go, “wow, Tutu was cool! he did some cool stuff.” 

Where I am in my life, with my legacy — that’s why I always seek my daughters’ them wisdom as well, they’ll point out things that an elder might forget. Because sometimes when we’re elders, we think we know everything too, yeah? But when you see a little child and that innocence comes out, you realize: it’s simple. It’s really simple. 

When I was at the survival school, one of the pillars was peacemaking, like peaceful warrior. You train like one Navy SEAL, but it’s peaceful! When you have peace, you can love easier. I don’t know if you can love better, but you can love easier. It’s easier to love when you’re at peace.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. It’s all good to me. This is what I’m doing today, I’m walking my dog out in a beautiful place in the world. And then now what I going do, I gon eat lunch — whatever I feel like eating, you know. People are so… yeah. Coming back [last week] from Lahaina, it’s perspective.



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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