Hometown Heroes: One of Hawaii’s best-known singer-songwriters turns to social media while pandemic lockdown persists

  • LEHUA KALIMA ALVAREZ

  • Lehua Kalima Alvarez uses Facebook to play music for fans during the state’s COVID-19 lockdown. Followers can watch the video anytime after it’s posted.

Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, the Tribune-Herald is publishing a story about individuals, groups or organizations that have helped make life a little better for others in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to cancellations of concerts and the shuttering of music venues large and small — but it can’t stop the music.

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Musicians have long used video platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo to reach an audience. And with the demise of major record labels, some have even catapulted to fame doing so.

But the trend of musical artists using social media as a virtual venue has intensified in the past couple of months as the COVID-19 outbreak triggered stay-at-home orders in numerous states.

In Hawaii, many entertainers are employing Facebook Live for real-time performances with some playing concert-length shows. But Hilo native Lehua Kalima Alvarez, one-third of the celebrated female vocal trio Na Leo and one of Hawaii’s best-known singer-songwriters, does it a bit differently.

Unable to play her regular gigs because of the pandemic — including a yearly Na Leo Mother’s Day concert in Honolulu’s Hawaii Theater that was canceled — Kalima Alvarez started pre-recording a single song almost nightly and uploading the videos to Facebook. She’s singing solo, accompanying herself on guitar, ukulele or piano.

With more than a month’s worth of songs now on her page, the selections lean heavily toward pop standards, and only a couple are songs she’s recorded.

“The only song that I’d ever played before was ‘Ku‘u Home O Keaukaha,’” Kalima Alvarez said about the Albert Nahale-a composition she played in honor of Prince Kuhio Day and had earlier released on Na Leo’s “Hawaiian Memories” album.

It was a natural choice because she grew up on Hawaiian Homes land in Keaukaha, and Kuhio championed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

The only original composition she’s performed on this social media stage is “Simple as a Sunrise” from Na Leo’s “I Miss You My Hawaii” album. It was a gift of song for a friend’s birthday, she said.

“The rest of them, I’ve never played, at least not on the instrument that I’m playing it when I record it. So every day, I’m learning it brand new,” she said. “I’m familiar, of course, with the song itself and the melody and everything, but I’ve never played any of them. Every one of these songs has been like homework to me, basically. And it gives me something to do, and I can say I know more than 25 new songs that I’ve never played before, so that’s pretty cool.”

A short list of those songs includes: “Smile,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “When I Fall in Love,” “Misty,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “The Nearness of You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “What a Wonderful World” and “Cheek to Cheek.”

Kalima Alvarez talks briefly to viewers, looking directly into the camera, before delivering the songs. Her polished, relaxed vocals without production tricks lend the performances the intimacy of a conversation with a best friend.

Asked if an album of Great American Songbook standards might be in her future, Kalima Alvarez replied, “I don’t know. This is fun, though. These are songs I’ve always loved.”

The musical offerings, which can be accessed on Facebook by searching #ekanikapilakakou, also include hits of a more recent vintage — meaning the last half of the 20th century. Those include: “At Last,” “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Slip Sliding Away,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Reasons,” “True Colors” and “Crazy.”

She’s also covered island classes such as Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You” and the anthemic “Hawaii 78,” popularized by Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole.

Kalima Alvarez said her social media song selection is “pretty spur of the moment, actually.”

“If I happen across a song, I go, ‘Oh, I like that song. Let’s get the chords down,’” she explained.

While renowned as a vocalist and composer — she has won three Na Hoku Hanohano “Song of the Year” awards for “Flying With Angels,” “The Rest of Your Life” and “Saving Forever” — Kalima Alvarez tends to downplay her instrumental ability, especially on guitar. Her skill is evident, however, especially on renditions of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and the Beatles’ “I Will.”

“I’m not really good at any of these instruments,” she said. “That’s why I record them instead of doing it live. Plus, I’m only doing one song. It also gives me a chance to make sure I do it right. It takes a few takes, believe me, for each one to happen, because I do not get it perfect the first time, for sure.”

And while she’s used to receiving and fulfilling requests when singing live with a tip jar nearby, Kalima Alvarez asks her listeners to please refrain — musical pun not intended — during these pandemic performances.

“These are songs that I wanted to play. And if you enjoyed listening to it, I’m happy,” she said. “But please don’t ask me to do something I do for work, because this isn’t work. This is my play time.

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“I love these songs for various reasons, and I just want to play them.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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