As a boy, Lindsay “Keikilani” Lindsey was raised on the likes of Elvis Presley and Don Ho—what he calls “hapa-haole” music. Hawaiian music had evolved to be in English, and he was starved for variety. As a teenager he discovered Cecilio and Kapono, the Brothers Cazimero, Peter Moon, and the new way music in Hawai‘i was transforming.
Then, in his twenties, Keikilani found rock and roll and loved it. His past years of performing in family shows as a hula dancer were behind him. He’d always felt like the awkward tall kid. He could keep that connection to performing through music, and gradually picked up the ‘ukulele, bass guitar, and then standard guitar.
It was his varied taste in music that would later lead him to become a diverse entertainer, interested in providing a true listening experience for all kinds of people.
This isn’t just a story about Keikilani Lindsey, though he says he’s been there, done that. Now, Keikilani focuses his energy on embodying mele‘uhane, something he defines as the spirit of music, or a captured feeling of the energy of all the musicians whose hard work go into the music.
Most important of those musicians is his son, Leo. By name, mele‘uhane quite literally represents this father and son duo, and Keikilani no longer performs as a solo artist. Revamping this identity to become well-known as a duo is one of their current goals.
At just 20 years old, Leo is independent, well-spoken, polite, and a really good lead guitarist. He is one of four boys, all of whom play at least one instrument. Until recently, Leo lived in Hilo with his mother, and now resides in Kailua-Kona with Keikilani and his wife, Lindsey Carol, and the three of them are quite the group. She is “the rock”—strong, understanding, and has a peaceful quietness about her. Keikilani and Leo keep things playful. They often complete each other’s sentences, only to comically bicker about what one or the other meant by what was just said, or who got the last word.
At least for now, dad gets the last word, and it’s for good reason. He’s honing a talent in his son that he first glimpsed when Leo was two and broke in his first drum set in just a couple months. Leo played the drums for many years and picked up the guitar about five years ago.
“We’re a team, and it’s been a gradual process. My whole life I imagined I’d have a son and we’d play together one day. When he picked up the guitar, he was so good at it, and we experimented a bit. I brought him to work and he was learning here and there,” Keikilani says.
Leo interrupts and says he doesn’t think of himself as a lead guitarist.
“He lays down a good foundation, and I just dance!” Leo says.
“That’s what being a lead guitarist is!” his dad scolds.
“I got into Hawaiian music in high school,” Leo says. “Before that I was into rock and all this heavy stuff, but as soon as I heard Hawaiian music I thought, ‘I’m never going back to that.’ It’s just so beautiful.”
To Leo, music is a universal language and a source of inspiration.
“I know that whenever I play with these artists—like John Cruz and Henry Kapono—they bring this energy to the stage that’s overwhelming. They inspire me to want to play and sing better and develop new parts to accompany their playing. Collaboration brings inspiration,” he says.
“Every time I work with dad, it’s like he plays something, and my mind finds the perfect accompaniment for it. When I don’t have something, we reach out to someone else…and they come up with something truly incredible…and then I try to make it into something more. I love working with my dad. The amount of energy we get…we just have the time of our lives right there on stage,” Leo says.
Keikilani is equally fueled by working with his son, even if he does grumble that Leo needs to smile, or speak up more when he’s on stage.
“I’m very proud that my son is up there. I’m honored that I get to live a life where I get to perform with my son. I love that I get to say I did this for a living and that we can do that together. It can be trying sometimes, and yes I’m critical, but only because we have to be not just good enough, we have to be amazing. He’s already shown me how good he can be. When we’ve played with John Cruz and others, I have to look over and make sure that’s my son.”
Father and son play regular gigs in Kailua-Kona and are busy promoting their first album, Mele‘uhane, which first took shape in 2011.
The album explores the evolution of Hawaiian music stylistically, and yet one traditional element exists that was very important to Keikilani during the writing process: that it be written solely in Hawaiian, with the help of native speakers.
“I want the people to love Hawaiian music, but I also want the people that don’t even know they love Hawaiian music [or] don’t speak the language to fall in love with the melody. And then when they fall in love with the melody that was crafted purposefully to have an emotion of its own, then it compels them to find out what the song is about, and when they find out what the song is about, then it hits them again,” he says.
The album consists of 11 original tracks, each handcrafted to evoke a certain feeling. In writing them, Keikilani says he wanted something iconic and unmistakably different than everything else.
“In this day and age people are so afraid they’re going to lose something in the music or the language, when really they should just allow their music to evolve. I was just on fire. Everything I could think of, everything I’d see—how could we weave this into a Hawaiian song? Hawaiian language goes so deep, and sometimes it’s multilayered—add really great melody to that and you just can’t go wrong,” he says.
The album is a reflection of a collaboration of many artists and behind-the-scenes helping hands, especially since Keikilani chose to produce it independently.
When a band signs with a big label they’re instantly in stores, with photos and CDs everywhere. However, when they decide to go independent, it’s an uphill battle to find producers, musicians to collaborate with, and places to promote their music. Fortunately, though, so many have come through to help Mele‘uhane.
Ron Pendragon—well-known for recording Earth, Wind, and Fire—recorded the album in his Kaua‘i studio. Mele‘uhane was on-island to play a gig and met with him with fingers crossed, and explained their situation. They were almost out of money from making demos, had a list of great songs, and just needed someone to believe in them. Ron did, and opened up a large list of musicians to use on the tracks at their disposal.
“I can’t even count how many wonderful people in the industry—just legends—people who have been in it their whole lives, have been so helpful. When you want to be independent it’s super important to have people to reach out for you,” Keikilani says.
Physical copies of the album today also boast a certain little gold sticker: a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award Nomination—well, actually two of them—for “Liner Notes” and “Most Promising Artist of the Year.”
Although they did not win, the nomination has already catapulted the pair towards their goal of changing the face of Hawaiian music. All along, they have never stopped believing.
“Faith is believing in something that you don’t see, and we’re all faced with that all the time in our lives. You have to believe in yourself. It’s the same thing with singing: you’ll never become a good singer if you don’t like the sound of your voice. It’s the mind setting itself on a purpose,” Keikilani says.
The pair are currently anticipating their second album, which tells stories of Kaua‘i and will be released in July. It too aims to share that same spirit that is Mele‘uhane.
“Mele‘uhane is something that many of us have caught on to. The entity of it is all of these people that bring the songs to life. It’s people that hear the concept, hear the songs, get to know us, want to be involved, and who take the songs home and stew on them and put their aloha into every song. It’s not a who, it’s more like a movement that we are lucky enough to spearhead,” Keikilani says.
Mele‘uhane performs most Mondays at Huggo’s On The Rocks in Kailua-Kona. ❖