Na Leo brings three decades of music

Thursday, March 31st, 2011
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North Hawaii News

Their musical resume speaks for itself.

After a career that spans three decades — which has included 18 albums and nearly two dozen Na Hoku Hanohano awards along the way — Na Leo Pilimihana has been one of the most successful Hawaiian musical acts ever.

The trio, which is made up of childhood friends Nalani Choy, Angela Morales and Lehua Kalima, will be bring their large catalog of songs to the Big Island tomorrow night beginning at 7 p.m. at the Waikoloa Bowl Queens’ Gardens. Gates open at 6 p.m. with tickets $20 for adults and $5 children 5-12 years of age.

“I’ve never been there but from the pictures I’ve seen, it looks like a beautiful venue,” Kalima said last week. “We’re totally excited to be playing there — it looks awesome.”

The group started their career while still in high school on Oahu. They got together their junior year to compete in the Search For Talent competition which they won. The following year (1984) they took home top honors in the Brown Bags to Stardom. There, they sang an original song entitled “Local Boys” which according to their website, is still the largest selling Hawaiian single of all time. The song remained No. 1 on local stations for months.

“It was a pretty crazy time,” she said of the success of the song. “We were more shocked than anything. All of our friends were like, ‘Wow, we just heard you on the radio.’ It was crazy but at the same time, a lot of fun.

“The thing is, the three of us were ready to go off to college. Our parents told us that they wouldn’t let us throw those plans away just because we had one hit.”

But a year later, the three teens were encouraged to reunite and put out their first album which featured “Local Boys.” The song would earn them their first Na Hoku award.

Around that same time, they began appearing weekly at an Oahu restaurant and quickly realized that the music industry wasn’t the path they wanted to take. After all, despite the success of their first album, they made no money from it.

“It took its toll on us,” she said. “We really got taken advantage of (when it came to money) which left us all pretty jaded.”

So, they decided to call it quits. Over the next seven year they started their careers as well as families and would occasionally sing together at parties.

“During that time I ended up moving to Hilo and going to college there,” Kalima said. “I missed the music so much that I’d sing at different locations just to satisfy my own desire to perform.”

In the early 1990s they were approached about getting back together and putting out a new record. She admits that had they not had the success early on with “Local Boys” chances are they probably wouldn’t have gotten back together. But after tasting success and establishing a fan base, they decided to give it another shot. That shot came in the way of the song “Friends” which was released in 1993.

“”Friends” really helped to put our name back out there and put us back on the map,” she said.

But their new hit didn’t come without controversy. Several schools in Hawaii wanted to play the song at graduation but some were opposed since it has the words God and Lord in it. It even captured the attention of Washington, D.C.

“We were in Seattle and once we got back to Hawaii, it was all over the news and we really didn’t know what was going in. Attorney General Janet Reno even called to find out who these rabble rousers were,” she said, laughing.

Despite success the second time around, Kalima said they still weren’t making money and all three kept their day jobs. That would change in 1995 when they started their own record label and since then, performing has been their full-time profession.

When it comes to the Na Hoku awards — Hawaii’s version of the Grammy — Na Leo has heard their name called 22 times over the years including for Best Album in 1996 and 2001.

“I have 16 or 17 of them on a shelf at home. I’ve also given two away. Some are so old that the plaques have fallen off so when people ask what those were for, I have to tell them that I have no idea,” she said, laughing. “But it is a big honor to have won all these awards over the years. It’s very cool.”

Two of their songs — “Poetry Man” and “Rest of Your Life” — made it onto the top 20 R&R (Radio and Records) charts. In fact, she said they still have the recording of Casey Kasem announcing their songs on the radio.

Over their long career, Kalima said there have been several highlights but one sticks out the most. About nine years ago they performed in the Hollywood Bowl, the famed Los Angeles outdoor venue which seats more than 17,000. During an encore, she said the majority of the crowd opened their cell phones so all the members of the band could see were thousands of tiny lights.

“Because of how the venue was shaped, it looked as though we were looking up into the heavens,” she said “I still get chicken skin just thinking about it. We were trying to sing and not scream because it was so exciting.”

Now, 16 years since starting their own label and 28 years since first forming as a trio, Kalima said they’re having more fun than ever.

“We’re still good friends and we all love to play music,” she said. “Plus, it’s still fun and there’s still people who enjoy listening to us. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

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