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Ears Wide Open

Always a student, Nathan Aweau puts his mastery of Hawaiian mele on display at this week’s music series

Before Nathan Aweau became a virtuoso bassist and guitarist, not to mention a Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning singer and songwriter many times over, he was a fledging just-out-of-college musician with The Aliis, learning career-shaping lessons at the hands of one of Hawaii’s greatest entertainers, Don Ho.

These were the 1980s and Aweau had just left another successful act, Ka’eo, to join the second coming of Ho’s legendary backing group. Perhaps because of his background in heavy metal music, Aweau believed the only way to handle his bass and guitar was to do so with speed, complexity and, well, more speed.

“I thought it was more important to play as many notes as I could as fast as I could,” he recalls. “But then one evening before a show, Don pulled me on the side and said, ‘Eh, Natan. You know tonight? I like you just play whooole notes through the whooole show.'”

The request rocked Aweau. “It was tough for me to hear that, and I was hurt. But eventually, I had to put my ego aside and accept the fact that I still had much to learn.”

To his credit, Aweau maintains this “always a student” mantra today. In many ways, he is the metaphorical sponge continually sopping up useful bits of knowledge, thirsting for self-mastery.

“My whole approach to life as a whole is this: I need to feel like I’m learning something all the time,” says Aweau, who spent the last decade pursuing solo projects, including Kaneohe (2007) and I’o (2011), after a long relationship with Hapa. “Till this day, I consider myself a student of music. Whether I’m playing by myself or with others, my ears are always open and tuned to what others are doing.”

Tonight (Sept. 18), fans can open their ears to Aweau’s sweet whole notes at the series Music of Hawaii, which happens every third Wednesday at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre. The performance begins at 7:30 p.m.

Here’s what else Aweau told Musical Notes:

MN: Did music come naturally to you?

NA: Pretty much. My father was a music major, my mother was a pianist and organist. But the main thing was they would constantly praise me, and the more they did that, the more I wanted to practice and learn.

MN: What local artists are you listening to and learning from these days?

NA: One of them is Sean Na’auao. His bass playing is solid. There’s nothing fancy to it, but the pulse is always there and I’m always like, wow! Jeff Peterson is another. I never get tired of listening to him. He’s a perfect example of someone who is always learning.