“AAAAAAAAHHHaaaaahhhAAAAHHH!” Sounding like a cross between a buzzsaw and croaking toad, Kamalei Kawaʻa demonstrated the vocal warmup he learned at the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College that is helping to keep his voice healthy. It’s a sound antithetical to the sweet falsetto and mellow harmonies he vocalizes as a member of the Grammy-nominated group Nā Wai ʻEhā.
Nā Wai ʻEhā (“four great waters” in Hawaiian) is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category for their “Lovely Sunrise” album. The winner will be announced at the 2021 Grammy Awards, scheduled for March 14, 2021.
In 2012, Kawaʻa started Nā Wai ʻEhā with his brother Kamaʻehu and family friends Kahikina and Kalanikini Juan (also brothers). A couple of years ago, he decided to leave a good paying job in the construction industry to pursue a full-time career in music. Kawaʻa wanted to use his time wisely to better his skills, and his mother Luana Kawaʻa, director of UH Maui College’s Pai Ka Māna program, mentioned the music program and instructor Karyn Sarring. He took voice and piano lessons from Sarring as part of his work on an associate in arts degree in Hawaiian studies.
“I learned how to use my voice correctly. I learned how to use vocal techniques, and the most important thing to me was how Karyn taught how to do vocal warm ups,” Kawaʻa said.
Warming up to him used to mean singing a song before a gig and he would often end up with a sore throat.
“Now when I sing and I perform I use these techniques to eliminate the straining of my voice and I feel a lot better after a gig now,” Kawaʻa said.
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Decades of experience
Sarring moved to Maui almost 20 years ago, and has been teaching voice for more than 40 years. Through the decades, she has been a vocal coach for students from Hollywood to Broadway, but doesn’t like to name drop. When pressed, she reluctantly mentioned Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and Fall Out Boy.
She still has mainland clients, but enjoys working with her diverse UH Maui College students both on- and off-island, who range from rising local talents to lullabye crooning parents, and have included Nā Wai ʻEhā’s Kalanikini Juan, a 2017 UH Maui College graduate.
“My biggest goals are that they sing healthy and that they have an authentic singing voice,” said Sarring. “There’s so much going on now where I call them ‘mynah birds.’ They mimic singers and they really don’t know their true voice.”
Elevating his music
Besides teaching him vocal techniques, Kawaʻa also credits Sarring with helping him to become a better piano player and increasing his appreciation for a broad range of musical genres.
The multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano award-winning artist is passing on what he has learned as the director of the He Haʻupu Aloha Program at Seabury Hall, a private high school on Maui. He said his goals after graduation from UH Maui College are to keep pursuing and perpetuating Hawaiian music.
Kawaʻa said, “I plan to continue to use the things that I learned through my time at UH, especially in the music courses that I took, and to continue to elevate those skills and continue to utilize those things to help elevate my music.”