Why We Love Naleo
Working on their second 20 years together, the ladies of Na Leo celebrate their 17th album and expand their fan base into Europe
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Old friends: Lehua Kalima Heine, Nalani Choy and Angela
Morales performing at Andrews Amphitheater last weekend
It is a rare distinction to be on the cover of MidWeek twice. It happens when one reaches a new plateau in news worthiness and deserves public recognition, again.
Na Leo, Hawaii’s top female vocal group, first appeared on our cover in July 1996. At the time, they had received four Hoku Awards and a new Sony contract. Na Leo was indeed, as the headline stated, flying like angels.
Ten years and 22 Hokus later, the ladies are still making great music together with a fine-tuned vocation and lifestyle. Along the way they have learned many lessons that prepare them to hit even higher notes.
Na Leo appears on our cover to mark two decades of growth and achievement that started modestly from a high school talent contest. Long before there was American Idol we had our own Brown Bags to Stardom.
But it’s what Na Leo did with that opportunity and how they have woven themselves into the tapestry of Hawaiian and American music that is noteworthy.
Fans love Na Leo.
We have purchased a million of their recordings over the years. We have applauded them enthusiastically at many concerts. We download their songs to our iPODs.
We’ve watched “the girls” grow up and, in a sense, we feel we own them.
Just why do we love Na Leo? Let us count the ways.
Ready for Prime Time
Nalani Choy, Lehua Kalima Heine and Angela Morales - Hawaii’s own Dream Girls - are ready for prime time. Can they cross over and capture the hearts of North American, European and Asian audiences?
After Hawaii and Japan, can they conquer the world?
We catch them just before a performance at Andrews Amphitheatre, a benefit for the University Lab School. It’s a sultry afternoon - 85 degrees and 75 percent humidity outside - but the ladies of Na Leo are cool and confident as they respond to our questions.
What a difference two decades makes. The giddy high school seniors who won Brown Bags to Stardom in 1984 are sophisticated ladies and mommies with kids ranging in age from 3 months to 20 years. The voices of experience and wisdom ring out.
“It’s our second 20,” Morales says, labeling the next era of Na Leo.
A lot has happened to bring them to this milestone. In the first
20 years, it was a discovery and building process.
Just a few of the 27 Hoku Awards Na Leo has taken home
since ‘Local Boys’ won Best Single in 1985
“In the beginning, you feel like the music industry tosses you around,” Choy says. “You go wherever the wind blows.”
“When we started, we thought this was a hobby,” Heine recalls. “We never thought this could be a living.”
The trio played gigs so low-end that they hauled their own sound gear. The group was then known as Na Leo Pilimehana - voices that blend beautifully. Their soothing three-part harmony brought them attention, both as students at Kamehameha School and as neophyte performers.
Their original composition Local Boys earned a Hoku for Single of the Year in 1985 and became the best-selling single in Hawaii’s history, a record that still stands today.
Despite early success, they didn’t make a dime and decided to head off to college. That was followed by marriage, starting families and getting “regular jobs.”
Choy studied business at University of Denver, then became a bank manager. Morales studied at Leeward Community College and worked at Lualualei Naval Undersea Warfare Center for 10 years. Heine pursued double majors in Hawaiian studies and communications. She completed a master’s degree in ethnomusicology.
Urged by a music producer to return to recording, the songbirds took a leap of faith, quit their day jobs, and dove into a full-time music career. They missed singing together and composing music.
In 1993, they recorded their second album, titled Friends, another Hoku award winner. In 1996, they were back at the Hokus, accepting awards as Group of the Year and for Flying with Angels as Song of the Year, Contemporary Album of the Year and Album of the Year.
They also made the cover of MidWeek. They had arrived.
Sony Records signed them to a contract and thereby broadened their horizons to an overseas market. The group simplified its name to Na Leo, making it easier for non-Islander fans.
“Then there came a turning point in our career when we said, wait a minute. If we want to do music, how can we do it in a way that is even more fulfilling and rewarding,” Choy says. “We took the time to set our course.”
Na Leo started their own record label and music corporation. They then became truly self-contained, self-directed and self-motivated.
Heine says, “One of the main things we learned is that we are capable of creating our own careers and not rely on other people. We realize that we’re three smart women, and that we could make this work if we put our heads together and affiliate with the right people.”
“We didn’t have any women-group role models to follow,” Choy adds. “We tried different things, but now we are focused
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