Three stars align in 'Heart of Paradise'

Jan. 1—NUE is short for Na Ukulele Ekolu ("The Three Ukukeles "), and refers to the fact that all three members of the group play the instrument.

"In the Heart of Paradise "

NUE NUE Productions LLC NUE is short for Na Ukulele Ekolu ("The Three Ukukeles "), and refers to the fact that all three members of the group play the instrument. Bryan Tolentino plays tenor ukulele, Halehaku Seabury plays baritone and Kama Hopkins plays bass. All three blend their voices in smooth harmonies reminiscent of the sound perfected by the Invitations in the 1950s, but each member of the trio has a strong lead voice as well.

Almost all the songs date from the 1950s and early'60s when island musicians were creating a new mix of hapa haole Hawaiian music and mainstream American pop. It's a perfect fit.

For malahini (newcomers to Hawaii ), these music veterans all boast impressive resumes. Hopkins has four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards as a member of an earlier trio, Holunape. Seabury has four Hokus for his work as a member of another trio, Na Hoa. Tolentino has two for the albums he recorded as a duo with Herb Ohta Jr.

NUE knocks it out of the park with the first track, "Legend of Lehua." Hopkins takes the lead on vocals, with harmonies from Seabury and Tolentino ; the latter two trade gorgeous instrumental solos during the song. The marvelous musical journey through nostalgia continues with a similarly impressive revival of "Rainbows Over Paradise."

The album's title song is another convincing demonstration of the trio's instrumental expertise. And so are the cuts that follow.

Outside talent is used with good results : Ocean Kaowili lends a fourth voice and ukulele to "Rainbows Over Paradise ;" Sarah Maisel evokes memories of the wahine vocalists of old when she guests on "When You Press Your Lips to Mine ;" Imua Garza, co-producer of the project, sits in with the trio on "Willy the Mynah ;" and Herb Ohta Jr. takes a solo on "Lei Lani."

Jake Shimabukuro performs as their guest on "Na Tutua Heleui." Hopkins wrote the song in 2020 for the ukulele virtuoso after Shimabukuro asked if they had a Hawaiian Halloween song he could use in a television special.

This beautifully presented hard-copy album can be considered the "deluxe edition " of an earlier download-only version that was released with little fanfare on Dec. 30, 2021. After realizing there is a huge market for "merch " at live gigs, the trio created this CD package, complete with lyrics and translations for most of the Hawaiian songs, lots of photos and the trio's thoughts about each selection. Additional notes by Byron Yasui—University of Hawaii professor emeritus of music, and one of the trio's beloved mentors—is value-added.

"In the Heart of Paradise " is an excellent introduction to these three remarkable artists. It is also an excellent introduction to the music of an era that deserves revisiting.