Adult contemporary group
The members of Na Leo were only seniors in high school when they had their first taste of musicindustry success. They have learned a lot since then, sometimes the hard way, and in their journey from starstruck teenagers to music professionals they have accomplished many firsts in Hawaiian music. They were the first group to successfully cross from the Hawaiian music genre to the adult contemporary category; the first female Hawaiian group to make national charts for adult contemporary music; the first Hawaiian group to headline at the House of Blues in Los Angeles; and the first Hawaiian group to enter Japan’s music industry in the pop category.
The group originally called Na Leo Pilimehana—which translates as “voices blended in warmth”—is made up of Nalani Choy, Lehua Kalima-Heine, and Angela Morales, a trio that writes, arranges, sings, records, and markets its unique blend of Hawaiian pop music. The three women attended high school together and sang in the glee club. In 1984, as seniors, they entered the Hawaiian amateur contest called Brown Bags to Stardom, and sang a song written by Choy called “Local Boys” about her preference for the boys of Hawaii. The lyrics originated a year earlier after she tried to convince some nonnative United States servicemen that she and her friends weren’t interested in their advances. Choy’s song helped the trio win the contest, and as a prize they recorded and released the album Local Boys.
In 1985 “Local Boys” won a Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Single of the Year. Known as the Hokus and considered Hawaii’s version of the Grammy, these awards are sponsored by the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts and are broadcast live each year. Although the song caused a bit of controversy because some felt that its lyrics were racist, the single was a hit in Hawaii. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell well enough to earn the group any money. As Choy told David Choo of Hawaii Business, “We were told that the album never covered its costs.… We were 17 years old, we were dazzled by the glamour of the industry and then were brought crashing back down to reality. We decided to take time off from performing after that experience.”
Choy, Morales, and Kalima-Heine went on to college, marriage, jobs, and kids. It would be nine years before a record label convinced them to put together another album. In 1994 they released Friends, the title track of which is a cover of a Contemporary Christian song about being friends through Christianity. The song won the group another Hoku Award for Single of the Year. It also stirred up additional controversy for the group after seniors wanted to play the song at their graduation ceremonies. Complaints got the attention of the state’s attorney general and the Department of Education, and “Friends” was banned. Kalima-Heine told Beverly Creamer of the Advertiser, “Sometimes we laugh about it and wonder which songs now might create controversy.… We’re not afraid of it, but we wouldn’t look for it either.… We try to do more uplifting and positive stuff, so it’s more fulfilling.”
As with their first record, the group was again told that their album had failed to cover its costs. Frustration over the fact that their creative efforts garnered them no financial rewards planted a seed in the women’s minds. As Morales explained to Choo, “We were the artists creating the music but there were other people who were reaping the benefits.… That’s when we decided that if we are going to do this fulltime, we should do it on our own, not realizing what was involved.”
The group did their homework. They talked with producers, record companies, marketers, and many others in the industry trying to understand the basics of running their own label. While still holding down day jobs and raising children, they worked on their new album through their own label, NLP Music. In 1995 they released Flying with Angels, which won the trio four Hoku Awards in 1996. With that album they also began a partnership with Sony-Japan that allowed their records to be marketed and distributed in Japan. The success of Flying with Angels helped convince the women to quit their day jobs and commit themselves full-time to their label.
For the Record…
Members include Nalani Choy, Lehua Kalima Heine, and Angela Morales.
Group formed as Na Leo Pilimehana, released debut album Local Boys, 1984; separated, 1985; re-formed, 1993; released Friends, 1994; formed NLP Music, 1995; released Flying with Angels, 1995; signed marketing and distribution contract with Sony-Japan, 1996; opened a kiosk at Dole plantation in Hawaii, 2001; changed name to Na Leo, 2001.
Awards: Numerous Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts Na Hoku Hanohano awards, including Song of the Year Awards for “Local Boys,” 1985, “Friends,” 1995, “Flying with Angels,” 1996, “I Miss You My Hawaii,” 2000, and “Saving Forever,” 2001; Group of the Year Awards, 1996, 1998, and 2000; Contemporary Album of the Year Award for Flying with Angels, 1996; Album of the Year Awards for Flying with Angels, 1996, and Pocketful of Paradise, 2001; Compilation Album of the Year Awards for Anthology I, 1997, and Na Leo, 2000; Holiday Album Award for A Christmas Gift, 1999, and Best Island Contemporary Album Award for I Miss You My Hawaii, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Na Leo, NLP Records & Publishing, P.O. Box 1013, Waianae, HI 96792. Website —Na Leo Official Website: http://www.na-leo.com.
Na Leo’s commitment to NLP Music has helped the group create consistently successful albums while also allowing members to reap the benefits of that success. Their 1996 compilation album, Anthology I, debuted on the Billboard adult contemporary chart at number ten. 1997’s Colours debuted at number 14 on the same chart and rose to number nine. Their single “Poetry Man” was listed at number 54 on Radio and Records’ Top 99 adult contemporary songs for 1999, made it to number 18 on Radio and Records’ Top 20, and reached the number 24 spot on Billboard’s adult contemporary charts. The trio’s 1999 album, I Miss You My Hawaii, hit number one in Hawaii, while one of its singles, “Hawaiian Eyes,” made Japan’s top 40.
Seeking to broaden their fan base, Na Leo opened a kiosk on the island’s Dole plantation in 2001, hoping to catch the eyes and ears of the thousands who tour the plantation. As Morales explained to John Berger of the Star Bulletin, “The whole idea of the kiosk, as well as other projects, is to see how we can get Hawaiian music heard throughout the world.” To this point, the group shortened their name to Na Leo to help those non-Hawaiians discouraged by the complexity of the longer Hawaiian word.
Choy, Kalima-Heine, and Morales have successfully combined family and business and continue to find satisfaction in both. Part of their secret is a dedication to each other, but also the strong Christian faith all three share. As Kalima-Heine expressed to Choo, “This has been a dream come true.… We’ve been able to play music and make a good living. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Local Boys, Surfside, 1985.
Friends, Mountain Apple, 1993.
Flying with Angels, NLP Music, 1995.
Anthology I, NLP Music, 1996.
Na Leo, NLP Music, 1999.
I Miss You My Hawaii, NLP Music, 1999.
A Pocketful of Paradise, NLP Music, 2000.
Christmas Gift, NLP Music, 2000.
Colours, NLP Music, 2000.
Anthology II, NLP Music, 2001.
Christmas Gift 2, NLP Music 2001.
Hawaii Business, May 2000, p. 14.
Honolulu Advertiser, April 9, 2000.
Star Bulletin, September 14, 2001.
Na Leo Official Website, http://www.na-leo.com (March 27, 2002).
—Eve M. B. Hermann
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