Hawaii usually conjures up that special sound of the Hawaiian slide guitar, not acoustic blues but Taumei “Big John” Akapo is here to change that perception. This is a breakout record that represents the big vocal sound and adept guitar picking that residents and visitors to Hawaii have heard for decades. These ten songs mix his love for Delta blues and American Samoan DNA for a rather fresh take on the acoustic blues sound. These ten include seven originals as well as well-known covers of Robert Johnson (“Ramblin on My Mind”), Muddy Waters (“I Can’t Be Satisfied”) and Tommy Johnson (“Big Road Blues”).
His path is certainly not of the beaten variety. He grew up in Alaska where he fell in love with the guitar and later began singing a cappella and learned how to loop in American Samoa. He hails from a musical family as his uncles were touring guitarists. His parents tried their best to shelter John and his brother from the rock n’ roll lifestyle that took its toll on family members. So, in a rather clandestine way he would watch VHS tapes or whatever he could find and was struck by Eric Clapton performing his MTV Unplugged set. From there it was a deep dive into the Delta blues originators and the electric guitars of B.B. King and Buddy Guy. His sources ran from records to movies, books and magazines. He was hooked.
Akapo soaked in enough to begin his own career with his original compositions as luau musician, bandleader, solo entertainer, and in recently hip-hop producer and vocalist for 13 years. He claims that when he sits down to right he usually lands on a blues song, commenting, “I think my music is like a tree rooted in traditional blues but sprinkled with Pacific salt water.” He elaborates, “I’m merely telling a story of where I’m from, and how I got here, set a mellow acoustic blues soundtrack. I play the blues because it feels familiar to me. I feel a connection to the story behind the blues and I’m just trying to continue the story from another perspective. Give me a try and see if I can’t make you feel good about being blue.”
Akapo may remind listeners of the early David Bromberg acoustic albums but Akapo isn’t in Bromberg’s league as a guitar player, Instead, while his playing is solid and technically on the mark, it serves as, in his words, more of a ‘soundtrack’ for his clear tenor vocals which are so naturally comforting and infectious, they draw the listener right in. His originals follow the usual acoustic blues pattern and become even more credible when he does the covers. It’s very clear that he knows his way around the music. The album is very even and makes for a good sustained listen but if you’d like to quickly sample some key tracks try “Maui Drive,” “Caramacs” and “Lord Help Me.” You’ll note that the lyrics in his originals often borrow from traditional blues conventions too as the opening to “Caramacs” – “If time were money, I’d be a millionaire.”
Oh, and there’s some acoustic slide too. It’s not a Hawaiian guitar but rather a Hawaiian playing the kind of acoustic slide we usually associate with the blues. Give “Big John” a listen. You’ll be rewarded.
- Jim Hynes