INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Stories Behind Kalapana’s Hits and Sparky Matsunaga’s Take on Their Name

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By GUY AOKI

When Kalapana plays their “greatest hits” at the Aratani Theatre this Saturday night, they’ll bring back fond memories of the more innocent ’70s, but it’ll inevitably be sad because Mackey Feary won’t be around to sing his songs (they’ll be performed by guest vocalist Zanuck Lindsey). 

It’s even more bittersweet when you consider what inspired many of his hits on the first two Kalapana albums that we’ve come to know by heart.

In order to make it, in 1975, the group had to move to the Mainland (Huntington Beach, then Malibu) to write and record material for their first LP. Feary, the youngest member, was missing his high school girlfriend and Hawaii.

Remembers co-lead singer Malani Bilyeu, “He came close to not even making it with us just because of his youth and having to leave everything that he knew behind.”

Consider the lyrics of “Moon and Stars”: “Moon that is shining tonight/Moon, do you see her and what is she doing? / Oh ho moon/Stars, is she thinking of me / Oh, how I hope I will be with her one day / Oh stars.”

“Nightbird”: “Here, it seems so cold now / How I miss her arms around me / Soar, nightbird of love / Make her wait for me.”

“All those songs, if you read those lyrics,” Bilyeu points out. “‘What is she doing, what is she doing back in the islands? Nightbird, fly on.’ — It’s all about trying to relay through song his feelings of homesickness and lovesickness. ‘What Do I Do’ (sings): ‘Here I am so far and I can only think of [her].’

“But he was such an excellent writer at his age, it just came out in spite of what the story is, came out to be beautiful music. Like I said, my favorite song is ‘Nightbird.’”

The late Feary was known to be a prolific songwriter who was inspired by anything in his sight to come up with material. Guitarist and original member D.J. Pratt reveals that another popular Feary song, “Juliette,” wasn’t about a girl. “It’s about a tape recorder.  Mack had this cassette tape recorder. The name of it was Juliette. He would record a lot of his playing on it that he did by himself in his room to remember the parts or whatever and so that name, I guess, stimulated him to write ‘Juliette.’ If you listen to the lyrics, it’s actually talking about a cassette recorder!”

The original line-up in 1976: Malani Bilyeu, Mackey Feary, D.J. Pratt, and Kirk Thompson.

Keyboardist Gaylord Holomalia quotes part of the lyrics: “Soldering my wiring,’ that kinda stuff…”

“If you look at all Mack’s lyrics,” says Holomalia, “that’s his life. All his songs. I wrote [a]music track and gave it to him and [he]came back the next day with the lyrics [and called it]‘No Light of Day.’ It talked about a nuclear holocaust, but it sounded like a dance tune.

“And I watched this thing on PBS the night before and I asked him, ‘Mack, did you watch that show on PBS?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, I did!’ And right away, I knew he watched the show, and he wrote the lyrics.

“On one of our trips to Japan, JAL airlines, we got this fortune cookie with our meals.  And I was watching him, and he read the fortune, and then he started writing real small some lyrics on the back of it. And the next album, he brought a song, it was called ‘Riding on a Fortune.’”

When I interviewed the band for a Los Angeles Times profile in 1988, Feary revealed that “Lullabye,” a gorgeous, yearning ballad from the first Mackey Feary Band album in 1978 — which sounds like a love song — was actually written about his niece!

Bilyeu, the other strong songwriting force in the band, wasn’t lacking for inspiration for great material either. Holomalia says that Bilyeu wrote his most famous song, “Naturally,” while living in a house with original member Kirk Thompson and his girlfriend and watching Waimanalo hang gliders. 

“Lotta guys died,” Holomalia remembers, as this was before there were ramps and people just jumped off of cliffs. “And every other day, an ambulance would come because some guy got blown into the cliffs.”

The impetus for another popular Bilyeu song, “You Make It Hard,” will raise some eyebrows. The author says it was partly about an estranged girlfriend and a prostitute. In the late ’60s, he was a beach bum. One of the guys in his surf club had a girlfriend in Waikiki who was a prostitute.

“We were welcomed to just hang out on the porch and sleep in the living room, but when she had a customer, we had to leave the house for an hour, hour and a half. So that’s the basic story of the song… On the other hand, I had a baby girl from my high school girlfriend. And when I went to Vietnam [six months into my tour], I got the ‘Dear John’ letter. So when I came home, she had married, and through her parents, they asked me not to come around to see my daughter because she only knew the other guy as her dad. So it was a dark time for me.”

Bilyeu had expected to come home in late 1971 and get married. So the title “You Make It Hard” was about her letter. “A friend of mine that was in my unit, he had the same kind of letter a week before, and he committed suicide. And so I told myself, ‘No way!’ So instead of killing myself, I wrote the song.”

“But how else can I tell you / After leaving me behind / Time can’t heal a broken heart / So I’m laying it on the line.” Chorus: “’Cause you, you make it hard, babe / You make it hard on me.”

“I write music subconscious[ly]like probably most musicians do,” Bilyeu said. “They take a little of their personal life affairs, and they kind of add on situations with other people, other friends, you know, whatever, to make the story complete and stuff.”

The final verse ends: “Men buy your touch while / I’m in love with you.” Bilyeu wrote it for his friend. “He was in love with her, but he was just one of the boys, and that was her job. We used to tease him.”

The original members — Feary, Bilyeu, Pratt, and Thompson — first met in late 1973 at Jolly Rogers in Kahala. At Pratt’s grandfather’s mansion (he owned a car lot), Bilyeu remembers they chose War’s “All Day Music” as the first song to sing together, “and after we heard the harmony blend, that was it. The group was what it was.”

Coming up with a name proved to be more difficult. Pratt recalls Thompson wanted “Dove” or “Albatross.” Pratt was looking for a geographic name. Bilyeu explains how they finally settled the matter:

Today: Gaylord Holomalia, Malani Bilyeu, and D.J. Pratt. Missing: Kenji Sano. (Honolulu Star-Bulletin)

“We blindfolded [D.J.] and spun him around like playing [pin the tail on the]donkey, and we brought him over to the map [of the entire state]. And he pointed out to this little name on the Big Island called Kalapana. Then we kinda thought about it, and we thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool, actually, you know?’ It had a nice little ring to it, you know, it was a Hawaiian name.

“Then after we researched it, we found that it means ‘the sun band.’ ‘Kala’ is like ‘money,’ yeah? So it can [also]be ‘the money band.’” (It depends on where the accent is placed on the word.)

Pratt denies he thought it meant “black sand” (somebody notify Wikipedia!), though Thompson wrote a song with that title.

When one of their early tours found Kalapana in Washington D.C., Bilyeu remembers that Sparky Matsunaga, the Senate whip at the time, “took us on a personal walking tour of the Senate. And we had lunch at the Senate dining room with all the senators, and it was really cool… What makes it really interesting about Sparky, he asked us if we knew the meaning of ‘Kalapana.’ And from what we knew of, [it]was ‘the sun band,’ that’s pretty cool. ‘La’ means sun, [but]he said, ‘No, ‘Kalapana’ means ‘the free beat of music!’ I don’t know where he got that from! We went, ‘Oh wow! That’s really cool!’

“Oh, he was big time there, man! We had so much respect [for him]. One of the bigger moments in my life with Kalapana was just meeting that man, you know?”

And all of the definitions of Kalapana work, too! “Yeah, they all work! You know, except ‘money [band]’! Hey, I got buffalo! What am I worried about?” (See later for more details.)

Despite getting record deals with Japanese companies in the ’80s and ’90s, none of Kalapana’s studio albums were available in Hawaii or the rest of the states. Bilyeu admits that was due to “a little bit of misdirection. We didn’t have a manager, we were just running on our own power, you know?…  Everything was kinda cloudy back then again. Then Gaylord picked up the ball for us to get situations taken care of, licensing from the Japanese to bring the albums here, the CDs here.”

Still, Holomalia says their popularity abroad has allowed the group to perform in Japan every summer for probably the past 23 years. And the biggest international audience they ever had was in the Philippines, where they sold out a 10,000-seat arena twice in 1992 or 1993.

“Everyone Knows,” a cut off 1987’s “Lava Rock,” was an obvious-sounding hit, which Feary originally recorded with his Mackey Feary and Nite Life band around 1983. It was written by NL member Maurice Bega, who later served as the first guest vocalist replacement for Feary after he committed suicide in early 1999.   

The last performance Feary did with Kalapana took place in my hometown of Hilo in November or December 1998 at the Naniloa Crown Room during a private company party for Big Island Candies. Holomalia remembers Feary coming to his house to get a paycheck with shady-looking people he’d never seen before in his life.

Bilyeu admits he’s had his ups and downs as well on Kauai. “I came out of some hard battles just recently, and the Lord just told me, ‘Hey you know what, just do what you gotta do. Take care of your family, take care of whatever work you have, your business.’ And I even quit playing music here on the island because of the bar scene, yeah? I work on a ranch out in Hanalei that raises buffalo. Yeah, that’s what I do now. It’s 250 acres. And the old man just made 90 years old, so I do run the crew for him and take care of the needs for the ranch and stuff.”

For the Aug. 17 show, expect an 80-minute set with classics like “When the Morning Comes,” “(For You) I’d Chase a Rainbow,” “Black Sand,” “Kona Daze,” and “The Way I Want It to Be.” Bassist Kenji Sano will be flying in from Japan (he divides his time between there and Sherman Oaks), Holomalia and Pratt will come in from Honolulu, with Bilyeu arriving from Kapaa, Kauai.

Call (213) 628-2725 for tickets ($40/$50) or go to www.jaccc.org for more information.  Carlos the Experience opens the show at 7:30 p.m.

Holomalia, who was recently in L.A. to attend the Grammys, says he always makes sure he goes to Little Tokyo to eat, so he’s excited about playing there.

Bilyeu says, “I’m really happy with the sound we have right now. We have a really good band, excellent musicians.  Last tour, we had encores to where we just ran out of songs.”

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

 Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Thanks for a wonderful article! The back stories truly open the heart to a new way of listening to all the cherished Kalapana songs.

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