Led Kaapana’s mastery of stringed instruments, particularly slack key guitar, and his extraordinary baritone and leo ki`eki`e (falsetto) voices, have made him a musical legend. He has been thrilling audiences for more than 40 years. With easy-going style and kolohe (rascal) charm, he has built a loyal corps of Led Heads from Brussels to his birthplace on the Big Island of Hawaii. Recognition by his peers earned Led 4 Grammy nominations in his own right and 2 wins on slack key compilations.
Like so many Hawaiians, Led grew up in a musical family. In the tiny black sand bay village of Kalapana, there were few distractions. “We didn’t have electricity, no television, not even much radio,” says Led. “So we entertained ourselves. You could go to any house and everybody was playing music.”
Often everybody was playing music at a backyard party, many of which lasted for days. “People played in shifts, taking over when somebody went to sleep,” Led recalls. “You’d fall asleep to the music, wake up….and the music was still playing. That was the best alarm clock I ever had!”
It was at these family gatherings that Led learned to play in the old style, watching, listening, then imitating. Chief among his teachers were his mother, Mama Tina Kaapana, and his uncle Fred Punahoa. “Even today when I play, I still picture all the `ohana (family) getting together and sharing their songs and their aloha.”
Although isolated, outside influences did creep into Kalapana. Like most kids his age, Led loved to rock and roll and also listened to country, jazz, and Latin music. When he’d sneak a riff from a guitar hit of the day, like Pipeline or Walk Don’t Run, into his music his dad would tease, “Hey, that’s not slack key!” But nobody ever stopped him, they just encouraged him to “play what you feel and play with aloha.”
As teenagers, Led and his twin brother Ned and cousin Dennis Pavao formed the Hui Ohana, one of the hottest groups of the 70s and 80s and now legendary among Hawaiian musicians. The 70s saw the blossoming of the Hawaiian Renaissance, and Hui Ohana was a key part of that return to traditional Hawaiian culture and music. Young Hawaii Plays Old Hawaii, the title of their first recording, was also their statement of purpose.
The group produced 14 best-selling albums and made countless hundreds of live appearances, proudly sharing Kalapana’s musical traditions.
Led later formed another trio, I Kona, releasing 6 albums with that group, including Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner, Jus’ Press. He has also released a number of solo albums, including two Na Hoku Hanohano Instrumental Album of the Year winners, Lima Wela and Black Sand. Ki Ho`alu, Hawaiian Slack Key, Grandmaster Slack Key and Force of Nature (with Mike Kaawa) received Grammy nominations.
While recording for Dancing Cat Records, Led produced a number of solo projects, duets, and a project with Allison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and other bluegrass legends called Waltz of the Wind. He has worked with Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins, and many other Nashville notables. Back at home, he has shared his talents on recordings with most of Hawaii’s top talents, including Aunty Genoa Keawe, Barney Isaacs, The Ho`opi`i Brothers, Melveen Leed, the Pahinui Brothers, Amy Hanaiali`i, and countless others. In 2008, Led formed his own recording company, Jus’ Press Productions, and released his Force of NatureCD, with 12-string virtuoso Mike Kaawa. The album earned a Grammy nomination in 2009 and won Led and Mike the Favorite Entertainer Award at the 2009 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.
Led tours the US extensively and has also appeared in Belgium, Germany, Canada, Japan, and Tahiti.
When home in Hawaii, Led can be found on Saturday evenings at Honey’s at the Ko`olau Golf Course in Kaneohe, where local talent and visiting musicians from the four corners of the globe drop in to join the “back yard” party.