In previous articles covering the modern reggae community, I have noted how the pandemic, despite how awful it had been for numerous reasons, did offer a silver lining for some musicians. In addition to inspiring creativity, the lack of touring allowed people to spend more time with their families and provided ample time to create new music.
Same could be said for Eddie Ha’angana, a Tongan-American independent reggae artist releasing music under his surname, who used the downtime to bring his debut album to fruition. What makes this release, titled, Cheers to the Chiefs — an English translation of Ha’angana — so special, is that its genesis began during his teenage years when he began writing songs such as “Wondering” and “Proud Of,” both released earlier this year, that would eventually make their way into this collection decades later.
“I have family and friends that have been singing these songs from demo tapes for years,” shared Ha’angana. More recently, when loved ones continued to sing his songs while at a family gathering during the pandemic, he realized that these songs have stood the test of time and decided to record them professionally and finally put out an album.
Ha’angana is no stranger to reggae music. Having grown up in the Polynesian community in the western U.S., it was always a focal point. “Reggae was always playing at the family get-togethers, the greats like Bob Marley, UB40, Lucky Dube and Gregory Issacs,” he said. “It was always feel-good music, spiritual, with a positive message about life and living in the struggle. I definitely connected to it, especially coming from an immigrant background with my father coming from the islands to America.”
Ha’angana’s experience as a musician dates even farther back, to when he got his first drum kit at the age of ten. “I remember as a kid always walking around with drum sticks,” he smiled, “I could aways hear the beat.”
Later, as an adult, Ha’angana played in several reggae cover bands, one of which became the house band at House of Blues in Las Vegas, one of the many places he has lived throughout his life. It was there in the desert where he first met Ricky Dread, a producer and reggae musician from a local band named Bonafide.
Ha’angana shared the songs that he had been writing and arranging with Dread, who wanted to record them. They did, but they never finished the album.
From there, Ha’angana moved to Texas, where he met the crew that would eventually help him finish the album that he will be releasing in its entirety in early January. This group includes bass player Jay Arsenault, drummer Johnny Radelat who tours with blues rocker Gary Clark Jr. and Austin “psych dub” outfit, Grimy Styles, who were brought in by producer, P.J. Herrington.
Ha’angana acknowledges his gratitude toward Herrington, who also recruited friend and former bandmate Diedrich “Deke” Jones of Cincinnati reggae band,The Cliftones, to sing raggamuffin on the album’s first single, the ebullient “What I Love About You,” as well as sax player Mark Wilson, who had played with Burning Spear. In addition, Herrington enlisted well-regarded studio engineer Danny Kalb to mix and master the tracks and connected the singer with Rebel Sound Records, the label releasing the record.
Cheers to the Chiefs offers eight original, highly enjoyable tunes reminiscent of 80s and 90s roots reggae. In fact, Ha’angana cites artists popular during that time such as UB40 and Lucky Dube as inspiration, and Dube’s unique sound strongly comes to mind, thanks much to talented backup singer Vicki Carr.
“I always loved the greats from that era,” said Ha’angana. “Roots Reggae was a huge influence on me growing up. During the production of this album, we had a lot of conversations about emulating music that inspired us yet making it our own with an updated, fresh sound.”
Buoyed by the warm reception to the songs he has released to date, including airplay from legendary British reggae deejay David Rodigan, while his first album has yet to officially drop, Ha’angana is already making plans to record a follow-up album with much of the same talented crew.
Today, Rootfire premieres the fourth track to be released from Cheers to the Chiefs, titled, “Trading Bread.” Like the first three singles mentioned in this article, “Trading Bread,” features an upbeat melody, catchy chorus and slick production. Yet, unlike the previously released singles, the song departs lyrically from romantic love, the predominant theme of the album, and instead speaks to economic struggles that most people deal with in the grind of life.
“In our Polynesian Tongan community, we’re always giving each other a little bit of money here and there, but never getting ahead,” explained Ha’angana. “I have always been trying to help out my family with money, but it’s never enough. I grew up in the struggle and it’s so hard to try to help everyone, especially when you come from big Polynesian families. And that’s why we hope that one day we can all be at the beach, having a great time together, because that’s what it’s all about for us.”
“Trading Bread” drops on streaming platforms this Friday, September 30th.