Fri, 12 September 2014
We recently discussed the monumentous 1984 sessions – led by singer/multi-instrumentalist/arranger Benny Kalama and produced by steel guitarist Jerry Byrd – which intentionally or unintentionally paid tribute to Benny’s former boss, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs. The album, He Is Hawaiian Music, faithfully recreated the sound of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders – a group which was conceived of by Isaacs and of which Kalama was a member. But this beautiful album was snubbed at the 1985 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards – signaling, perhaps, the end of an era for this style of Hawaiian music. It would be another decade before the next revival – and you could once again count Benny Kalama in for the event.
Alvin’s son, steel guitar great Barney Isaacs, was already in ill health when he and some old friends went into the studio to record E Mau in 1994. The cover – Diamond Head and palm trees at Waikiki in burnt orange silhouette – visually romanticized Hawai`i and Hawaiian music in a way that one would not have seen since LPs released in the 1950s. (Most LP covers from Hawai`i from 1970 forward typically featured a photo – or occasionally a drawing - of the artist in profile. Not since the era of the Hawaii Calls radio program and its accompanying LPs on Capitol Records did covers feature pictures of grass skirts, a lu`au, or lovers walking in the moonlight.) But the cover belied the purpose and mission of the music and musicians within. If one unfolded the eight-panel CD insert, they would discover that E Mau had a subtitle which did not appear on the front or back of the CD jewel box: E Mau – The Legacy of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs.
Surprisingly the project was not the brainchild of Alvin’s son, Barney. Rather, it was conceived by the solo euphonium chair for the Royal Hawaiian Band, Scott Furushima, who had fallen in love with what he calls the “Waikiki style” of Hawaiian music and who was taking steel guitar lessons from Barney in order to perpetuate this dying style and era in Hawai`i’s history. What an important mission to attempt to tackle, but with tremendous fervor Furushima assembled just the right musicians who embraced – and could play – the old style. Scott would handle the rhythm guitar chores himself, then current Royal Hawaiian Band bandmaster Aaron Mahi would play bass, Alvin’s son, Barney, would play the steel guitar, and none other than Benny Kalama would wield the `ukulele. And, not at all coincidentally, that quartet is the same instrumentation that Papa Alvin utilized in his Royal Hawaiian Serenaders – Kalama again assuming a role he held nearly 50 years previously, as did Barney who joined his father’s group briefly during the late 1940s, replacing Tommy Castro as the group’s steel guitarist. But unlike the Kalama album of a decade earlier, E Mau featured only compositions by Alvin Isaacs – seventeen of them, in fact, including four that had never appeared on record previously by any other artist. But who better than Scott, Aaron, Barney, and Benny – the group known collectively as the Kahala Surf Serenaders – to debut them?
I would love to spin the entire album for you, but I am going to withhold a little for future celebrations of Alvin Isaacs. But here are a few selections to give you a taste of the tremendous success this project was in recreating a bygone era.
This set opens with a medley of two Isaacs compositions – the first of which is one of those that had not been recorded previously. Scott takes the lead vocal on the peppy medley of “Ku`ualoha E Mali`u Mai” and “Kaleponi Hula.” Despite the passing of years and his failing health (Barney required an oxygen tank during the sessions), his steel guitar playing is still as crisp, clean, and inventive as ever. Scott takes the vocal lead on another Isaacs composition that makes its bow here, “Hanahou, My Boy, Hanahou!” (“Hana hou” means “encore” or “do it again,” and Isaacs’s song encourages us not to let a good thing end – especially in matters of love.) Barney takes a fabulous solo and reprises one of his signature endings that fans of Hawaii Calls will no doubt remember having heard time and again. Scott then leads the group through the first ever recording of “The Wahine In The Lauhala Hat.” And the set closes with a stroll through an Isaacs classic, “He Nani Helena,” which Alvin composed to honor the wife of his once musical partner, Harry Owens. The vocal here is by guest artist Doug Tolentino of the group Pa`ahana, and anyone familiar with the original version by the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders will find Doug’s version eerily reminiscent of falsetto legend George Kainapau’s take on this song.
As with Benny Kalama’s He Is Hawaiian Music ten years earlier, we could ask why this beautiful recording received absolutely no love at the 1995 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards (Hawai`i’s local music industry awards program). But in this case the answer is a little more readily apparent and boils down to bad timing: E Mau was released the same year as Keali`i Reichel’s debut Kawaipunahele, as well as what is arguably the best loved of all releases by the Makaha Sons, Ke Alaula. These two CDs absolutely swept the Hōkūs that year.
More importantly, I refer to E Mau as an “OOPs” – by which I do not mean a mistake by any means but, rather, my short-hand for “Out Of Print.” This recording is historically and culturally important for any number of reasons:
(And about this last point, I make the distinction “in the group setting” since Barney would make one last recording of slack key and steel guitar duets with George Kuo entitled Hawaiian Touch. But that was not a last recording of the style of steel guitar for which Barney was known but, rather, a first for him on an acoustic steel guitar.)
That E Mau has not been rereleased in MP3 format is even more distressing considering that the recording is so recent that the master tapes cannot be lost and should be in pristine condition considering that they were made well into the digital recording era. But even if at a loss for recovering the original master tapes, the record company could make a perfect copy of one of the many CDs in circulation and reissue that. But, alas, no. Which is why when I introduced the “OOPs” theme at Ho`olohe Hou, I was very clear to point out that not everything that is out of print is necessarily because the master tapes are too old to be located. Sometimes it is just a grievous error in judgment on the part of the producers, artists, and corporations involved in the recording.
But, worse still, the writer of the liner notes – under the heading “Coming Soon” – promises a follow-up to E Mau. Of course, it is entirely possible that the project was scrapped when Barney left this life – the others perhaps believing that an Isaacs should absolutely be involved in such a project or that Barney’s inimitable steel guitar style would be the cornerstone of it. (And, if this was their thinking, they would be largely correct about that, I agree.) But the liner notes are not at all clear whether or not the project was completed before Barney’s untimely passing on February 12, 1996, and Benny Kalama would be gone not too long after on September 21, 1999 – perhaps once and for all marking the end of an era.
We will hear more from E Mau in the future at Ho`olohe Hou as I personally feel it is one of the great out-of-print treasures that it is an absolute pity to have removed from circulation.
Next time: We wrap up our tribute to Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs with some performances of his classic compositions by today’s popular artists in Hawai`i…