Blind Hawaiian rocker and multi-instrumentalist, Dayan Kai, heats up with sixth album
It’s not uncommon to experience a sense of déjà vu, when listening to Dayan Kai’s songs “Right Your Wrong” and “Give Free Your Love.” While the former is a classic rock anthem carried by distraught, raspy vocals, and the latter is a piano- and organ-laden, gospel-like number, both contain the same lyric: “Yesterday is just a fantasy.”
This is in no way due to a lack of songwriting material, though. For as long as Kai can remember, the succinct, anxiety-filled revelation that “Yesterday is just a fantasy,” has plagued him. Born blind, he admits, “I had to develop my memory because I couldn’t write them down so much.” Kai recalls the popular childhood game of Telephone—“By the time it gets back to you it’s something completely different from what you said,” says Kai. “Everything we think has happened is just our own perspective on what has happened … when will my perspective no longer be valid?” he often wonders.
Even without the ability to see, the multi-instrumentalist’s depth of perception is stronger than most, showcased in his heavily textured tunes and enviable mastery of Americana, blues, and rock music.
“It’s in my nature,” Kai explains. “I love so many different things. I love jazz and classical. I’m an American boy—I love rock and reggae music,” says the Beatles- and Bob Marley-influenced musician. “I almost feel that genres are a construct of the industry [and] sometimes I feel that they’re unclear to me. I don’t have a specific genre … I feel that part of my pursuit in life is musicology. I go in and out of stuff—I get fevers for certain sounds.”
A Maui native, who grew up in San Juan Bautista, Calif., Kai (actually his middle name, which is Hawaiian for “ocean”) sums up his unique repertoire of instruments as “keys, strings, winds, and skins”—“skins,” of course, referring to percussion and skin-headed drums.
He caught the musical fever at age two. “Some of my first memories are probably [with] my grandmother, Paulina,” he reveals. “She played piano and guitar. I remember her teaching me the notes and telling me I had perfect pitch. I remember playing things on the piano that I heard on records, before I knew what I was doing [and] being really satisfied with that feeling.” Kai was also formally schooled in drums, beginning at age four, when his grandfather bought him his first set.
His diverse inspirations—Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Claude Debussy, Ray Charles, and Miriam Makeba, to name a few—shine through when he’s jamming with his bandmates and when he’s performing at First Congregational Church’s jazz mass on Sunday mornings.
With five solo albums under his belt and a sixth in the works, Kai and the Kookaburra—the title affectionately refers to his two children—scheduled to be released in June, Kai is looking forward to his Saturday performance at Kuumbwa Jazz, as it marks a first in his career. Although he is no stranger to the venue by any means—he has performed there several times with other projects—this weekend, Kai will finally play his own original material. Several longtime friends and locals will join him onstage: Steve Uccello (bass), Jimmy Norris (drums), Art Alm (piano), Mike McKinley (mandolin), Sharon Allen (vocals), and his wife, talented ethnic folk dancer Angell Estrada.
For Kai, Estrada’s presence is essential. “In most cultures, the word for music and dance is the same thing—only in English and a few others do we make the distinction,” he explains. “Part of my message is just unifying that … music and dance are a part of what makes us human beings.”
Lately, Kai has been listening extensively to music by contemporary Hawaiian musician and slack-key guitar specialist Keola Beamer—a style which will no doubt infiltrate his upcoming show. A sneak peek of material off his new record could also be in store. Kai promises the album will be just as eclectic and entrancing as ever, due to it containing “a stronger world influence: Samba, reggae, African, Haitian, [but] still American music for sure.”
Dayan Kai plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320 Cedar St. #2, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18. For more information, call 427-2227.