Ozzie Kotani,
To Honor a Queen: The Music of Lili'uokalani
(Dancing Cat, 2002)

There's an infomercial running semi-incessantly advertising a CD of "classical thunder" music. It's a fine title for loud, bombastic songs of grand movements and swelling chords. If music can be linked to weather, then Ozzie Kotani's interpretation of Queen Lili'uokalani's songs could best be described as Hawaiian sunshine.

To Honor a Queen is a sincere tribute to Queen Lili'uokalani of Hawaii. Every song Ozzie Kotani plays on this album was written by her, though many have taken on a life of their own. Knowing this, and knowing something of the turbulent time she lived in, I was quite surprised by the sound of her music. I was expecting a bit of turbulence, perhaps some musical tension or sorrow. Instead the sweet notes and slow, gliding melodies summon images of peace. Most of these songs were written as tributes to the sweetness in her life; a royal feast, the life of a godchild, the beauty of the land. The quiet joy of these moments are hard to express, and require an unusual finesse. Here they are honored in grace without being oversentimentalized.

Queen Lili'uokalani may have given these songs their shape, but it's Kotani's lovely slack string guitar that gives them movement. The liner notes carefully detail his innovations. Musicians will probably appreciate the careful record of Kotani's changes, as well as the suggestions for obtaining unaltered versions of the music. However, to a listener who doesn't know the songs in the unvarnished incarnation, it's hard to imagine them sounding any different than they are here. It's a tribute to Kotani's skill that his changes blend so unobtrusively into the music.

It's hard to describe this music in the same way it's hard to describe sunshine. I've listened to it three times, each time vowing to pay attention but I can no more focus on this music separately then I can look at light without seeing what it illuminates. Within minutes, the music skips into the background, becoming a part of the of the atmosphere. The notes gild their surroundings, brightening the time they live in without intruding into my upper thoughts. The end of the CD surprises me like the darkening at the end of the day, as something lovely and helpful slips away. Queen Lili'uokalani's music cannot be said to be stunning or memorable; I couldn't hum any one of these tunes. But they touch the heart with sunshine, and a bit of the grace of their creator.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 4 May 2002

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