New release: Brother Noland's Speaking Brown - contemporary sounds, Hawaiian music


I wasn’t alive when Brother Noland released Speaking Brown. The year was 1980, and the influences of artists like The Sunday Manoa, Gabby Pahinui, Olomana, and Keola and Kapono Beamer resonated throughout the islands as they heralded a new sound of and for modern indigenous peoples, part of the cultural revolution known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. On the other side of 1970s island life, bands like Kalapana, Country Comfort, and Cecilio & Kapono were shaping a contemporary sonic identity for locals — indigenous and otherwise — blending rock, soul, country, and jazz into a pleasant pop blend that continues to inspire musicians today.

In the middle of it all was Brother Noland.

In a catalog that now spans more than 40 years, Speaking Brown is Brother Noland’s magnum opus. Listen to the album in full, and you’ll instinctively understand this as the songs unfold. The music — all originals, save for “Haleakalā” and “Manowaiopuna/Kō‘ula” — melds Hawaiian music with contemporary styling, but not in the way that The Sunday Manoa or the Beamer Brothers had done in the previous decade. Close comparisons are Chucky Boy Chock’s folksy explorations of Hawaiian music on his Oahu Brand and Brown Co. Vol 1 albums, and Nohelani Cypriano’s 1979 debut LP, which married Hawaiian instruments with modern genres. Cypriano’s effort was much more pop-centric than Noland’s; her recordings nod to current and past eras (like Motown and hapa-haole), whereas with Speaking Brown each song is place-based or in tribute to a loved one, a typical quality of Hawaiian mele. The album grew from modern and ancestral Hawaiian identities, and from Aloha ‘Āina, the love and respect for Hawai‘i, its land and its people, which remains a core belief Brother Noland practices to this day.

The album opens with an original arrangement of “Haleakalā Hula”, composed by Alice Nāmakelua. The first 30 seconds of the song indicate how Brother Noland does things: the rocking rhythm and disco syndrum propel the layered guitars and vocal harmonies into a fusion of old Hawaiian music with modern day attitude. Sung in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, as a listener you might think you know what to expect herein, but so far it’s unlike anything you’ve heard. This is the way Brother Noland does things: familiar, but different.

(The original liner notes mistakenly credit Helen Desha Beamer for “Haleakalā” — a “rookie move”, Noland told me. He met with Aunty Alice K. and received her permission to record his arrangement, but missed the credit on the original LP jacket. “By the time I worked it out right with Aunty Alice, she said it was alright and leave um”. Additionally, the first seconds of “Haleakalā” sound warbled, and halfway through “Pua Lane” there’s an audible issue that didn’t get resolved before it was too late — “It’s called, ‘No more “budget” for fix’”, Noland told me. These show us how Speaking Brown was a do-it-yourself effort, lacking the support of a major label. Noland also told me how he visited the pressing plant himself — as the youngest of his island contemporaries, few were willing to share their knowledge of how to make a record or how to break into the business. He had to carve that space for himself.)

The “hits” on Speaking Brown were limited to “Pua Lane”, which today remains a staple in Noland’s live performances, and “Pueo, Tara and Me”, which is currently part of Hawaiian Airlines’ in-flight music video programming. Both songs, coincidentally, represent Noland’s upbringing: in the urban projects of Palama Settlement in Honolulu, and among the rolling hills of Waimea on Hawai‘i Island. Another cut, “Look What They’ve Done”, would’ve made an impact if not for local radio stations banning it, fearful of repercussions from broadcasting its criticism of development of Hawaii’s iconic (read: “profitable”) tourist destination, Waikīkī. But Noland wasn’t looking to make hits or political statements — he wanted to make an album. Noland recognized the need to have recordings of his own so that he could stand alongside his industry peers. (Following Speaking Brown, Noland and his band self-released Paint The Island, and his efforts paid off: a bidding war of sorts ensued, with producer Jon de Mello signing Noland to his empire, Mountain Apple Company, for a string of releases and a relationship that has lasted into the 21st century.)

By the time “Kawaihae” kicks in on the B-side, the album has gently woven itself into your heart and soul, its roots reaching to the soil, sky and sea, its vision looking to past, present and future (“future primitive, I like that phrase” Noland once told me). But you have to let this happen. There’s no hurry on Speaking Brown; you need to be present to understand its power. Like the gradual unfolding of a morning at Haleakalā, it’s not possible to look just at the sunrise — you inherently take in the mountain’s magnificent shadow, which stretches across the cloud layers, the small towns below, the majestic sea surrounding Maui, the infinite horizon. (“Nānā” comes to mind, meaning attentive observation. It’s one of the several words in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i that Brother Noland has imparted in our conversations.)

I’m so happy that Speaking Brown is available once again, and I’m honored that uncle Noland and his daughter, Erika Conjugacion, have entrusted Aloha Got Soul with re-presenting the album to the world. I do admittedly have concerns that with our impossibly short attention spans nowadays, Speaking Brown might get overlooked. My hope is that instead of celebrating it simply for the cuts that eventually made the 1990 Greatest Hits collection, listeners can enjoy Speaking Brown for what it is: a whole greater than the sum of its parts; a cornerstone of Brother Noland’s life’s work; and one of the most innovative albums of modern day Hawai‘i, which has shaped contemporary island music in a way that’s familiar, but different.

Listen now on Bandcamp:

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