By approaching the country-folk genre with a nod to the sounds of traditional Hawaiian music, Dagan Bernstein (pronounced Day-gun Burn-steen) is becoming a new voice in the contemporary acoustic music scene in Hawaii. But before he started performing around Hawai’i Island and recording albums of original music, it was his dad’s Bob Dylan records that first inspired Dagan to pick up the guitar and to start putting words to music. So it was only natural that he would blend the sounds of acoustic folk and traditional Hawaiian to create his own version of American roots music. An honest love of the land, an appreciation of the simple ways of island life, and a respect for the people that make Hawai’i special - these are the topics that form the foundation of his original songs.
Dagan’s newest album Song for Waimea delivers a unique “Hawaiian meets country” sound that feels old yet surprisingly fresh at the same time. The opening track Ha’aheo Na Kanaka Paniolo is a minor key jaunt through upcountry Waimea where Dagan sings about the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) who “rides through the pastures as an ocean”. Got Palaka? is an bouncy acoustic jam that tells the story of the palaka, “the real Hawaiian shirt”. And the song Aloha Freely Given and Returned will take you back to those simpler times when “life was slow and easy and we’d talk story all day long”. Each of these songs stand alone in their own special way, yet when put together they weave a tapestry about life in Hawai’i from a contemporary perspective.
“I have so much respect for all the songwriters that have shaped the music of Hawai’i” says Dagan who wrote all the lyrics and music for the nine original songs on his latest album. By supporting his stories with upright bass, ‘ukulele, steel-string, and lap steel guitar, Dagan ensures that the sonic texture clearly expresses that this is a Hawaiian music album. “I wanted to make sure my love for traditional country music and my upbringing around the paniolo of Waimea was reflected in the use of the pedal steel guitar and fiddle”, the songwriter adds. “A lot of people forget that the lap steel guitar was originally from Hawai’i, and that it was the Hawaiian musicians in the 20s and 30s touring the mainland that brought the slide guitar to hillbilly music in the South. So I’m just bringing things full circle by integrating it back into my music.”
It is this desire to share his love of the music of Hawaii with the broader American Roots music audiences that motivates Dagan to continue to perform and write original songs on Hawai’i Island. Having been raised “in the boonies” and by interacting with Hawaiian musicians at birthdays, family parties, and other gatherings, these experiences exposed Dagan to the old-school backyard style of sharing music called kanikapila. Later, through the guidance of former member of the Sons of Hawaii Braddah Smitty, Dagan was encouraged to start out on his own solo career. “Play from your heart, tell your own stories” was what Smitty would often tell Dagan after sitting in with him on his legendary jam sessions, where he was known to play for over six hours and never repeat the same song twice.
“I just feel blessed to be in the position I am in” he reflects. “My music is definitely influenced by traditional Hawaiian music, but it doesn’t quite fit into that mold. And I have a deep love for all the old school country stuff, but even when it comes to that style, I interpret it with a little island flair that sets it apart from what you’re used to hearing. So I feel like I can take the best of both worlds and put them together into my own musical blend.”
And on his new album Song of Waimea Dagan serves up a satisfying cup of his own signature blend.
Dagan Bernstein has a new album of original music!
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