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The Best Gifts For Eric Lee

Angel We Have Heard On High

Lee’s first ukulele wasn’t the only thing that couldn’t carry a tune. For a while there, neither could he as a singer.

“Definitely my weakest instrument,” he sheepishly admits, when recalling his vocal inabilities as a teenager. “Nobody sang in my family, which is probably why my voice took the longest time to develop. But, yeah, I couldn’t hold a pitch — I couldn’t hold a tune.”

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Eric Lee has played with some of Hawaii's best bands, yet remains rather anonymous to many. That's about to change. This is a story of the gifts he's received in his life that have led him to giving a gift of his own just in time for Christmas, a new three-disc ‘Anthology' album PHOTO COURTESY ERIC LEE

His raw singing style might have been perfectly OK for the rock music kick he was on during his middle school years at Kamehameha, when big-hair bands such as Bon Jovi, Poison and Motley Crue ruled his world. But that approach wasn’t going to save him once he began transitioning into the traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music scene — a move largely attributed to a classmate’s conversional gift: a mixtape featuring the soothing sounds of Dennis Pavao and Country Comfort. As for the criticisms surrounding his vocal imperfections, well, let’s just say they were everywhere by the time he reached high school. To his credit, though, Lee took all the negativity in stride.

“Sure (the comments) bothered me,” he says. “But truthfully, I never saw a need to strengthen my voice back then because I was so much into the instrumentation part of music, and singing was just something that came along with the package.”

In time, the package would include vocal refinement from choral classes and two gift-wrapped coaches: former Kamehameha music director Les Ceballos and “Hawaii’s Voice Coach to the Stars” Neva Rego. Yet despite all the training he received from these well-respected instructors and the noticeable improvements he made in his overall technique, Lee kept his singing completely under wraps as a member of The Kanile‘a Collection — a mid-’90s traditional Hawaiian outfit fronted by Brian Mersberg and Jay Kauka, and the group that released his first Hawaiian composition, Na Nalu Hai O Ma‘ili. In fact, it wasn’t until he and Mersberg formed two-time Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning band Na Kama that a slightly more confident Lee began showcasing his abilities behind the microphone. Still, he didn’t pull the curtains back entirely on his vocal repertoire until 2009, when in launching his solo career with the album Crossroads, he got an unexpected kick in the pants from songstress Natalie Ai.

“We were performing a few songs together and I was making excuses like, ‘Well, I’m going to try my best, but I’m not really the best singer, you know?’ Natalie just sort of looked at me and said, ‘Brother, just own the moment and do it!'” recalls Lee. “That kind of woke me up. So, I decided to shut up with all my whining and start singing.”

Today, Lee is appreciated as much for his vocal chops as he is for his compositional and instrumental work. Perhaps no song better captures his angelic voice and acoustic guitar magic than the moving rendition of O Holy Night that he performs with Peter Milo each Christmas during mass at St. Elizabeth Church in Aiea. “It’s become a Christmas tradition with Peter and I performing this as a duo, both in English and Hawaiian,” explains Lee, who’s served as music minister at churches in Waianae and Aiea for more than two decades. “Lots of people look forward to hearing it every year and we enjoy doing it — all in honor of the Lord’s birthday.”