Wed, 12 November 2014
Because Ho`olohe Hou is planning a month-long tribute to Hawaii Calls next June on the occasion of its 80th anniversary, my goal this time around is simply to share as much music from the program as possible with enough information and historical context to aid listeners in the appreciation of it.
As ethnomusicologist George S. Kanahele pointed out in an early edition of his Hawaiian Music and Musicians, the music of the Hawaii Calls radio programs was often accused by its critics of being “too slow and old-fashioned.” This is nowhere more evident than on this program’s arrangement of “Maui Moon.” Often taken at a much peppier hula tempo, such performances are misinterpreting the song based on the seemingly cheerful opening line, “You taught my heart how to love, Maui moon.” But the opening stanza belies the heartache that is uncovered if we listen carefully all the way through to the second stanza:
You made me dream once again, Maui moon
Dream of a love that I lost all too soon
Love haunts me yet like a gay gypsy tune
Where is my sweetheart now?
If you know, tell me, Maui moon
So while it may be true that Hawaii Calls was heavy laden with ballads for a period of time, I think the arranger may be one of the few – if not the only – who ever appropriately captured the mood of this melancholy mele.
For many, the signature sound of Hawaiian music for the first half of the 20th century was the steel guitar. And the “intermission” (as it were) of every Hawaii Calls program usually featured its steel guitarist. For 15 years of the program’s nearly 40-year run – from 1937 through 1952 – the man of the hour was the legendary David Keli`i. I have written here before that the steel guitarist must have an understanding of physics since unlike other guitarists who can place their fingers practically anywhere they can reach without hurting themselves, the steel guitarist is confined to a single straight line across the strings – as dictated by the steel bar with which the instrument is played (which is the origin of its name). A steel guitarist can slant that bar forward or backward but must ever be careful to keep it in line with the frets, and the frets get closer and closer together as we move up the fretboard – meaning that the degree of the angle is ever changing. Or, alternatively, to achieve different chord formations or combinations, the steel guitarist can change the tuning (or order of the pitches of the strings) on the guitar. Keli`i was known as a master of countless tunings. He often achieved this by keeping a number of different guitars around – grabbing a different one for each different song depending on the chords he needed for that song. But many who saw him in action claimed that Keli`i could also retune a guitar with tremendous accuracy on the fly in the middle of a song without missing a beat. On his solo here, “Tiare O Tahiti,” you also hear Keli`i’s mastery at harmonics – often referred to as “chimes” – which are typically played with the pinky finger to achieve the lightest touch on the strings. But harmonics are a feat of physics too since the string must be plucked exactly 12 frets above where the steel bar is placed, and the distance between the bar and the picking hand will constantly change as the frets grow closer together or farther apart.
This is merely to give the listener an appreciation of steel guitar technique and the difficulty in mastering this instrument. And we will hear more of this master over the next few days.
The “intermission” ends with a single measure from the familiar voice of the cast’s resident “boy singer” – none other than Alfred Apaka who begins to sing “Hawai`i Calls,” the song composer Harry Owens wrote when he was the musical director of the program when it debuted. I commented previously that this particular cast relied largely on its ensemble – not on star power – since few in the cast would be known outside of the islands. The first cast member to achieve nationwide recognition was likely Haleloke Kahauolopua who was discovered by Arthur Godfrey who whisked her away from the islands a few years earlier, made her part of his weekly TV program, and – in his free time – married her. But Apaka was also known on the mainland from his appearances a decade earlier in the famed “Hawaiian Room” of the Lexington Hotel in New York City and – more recently – from his national recording contract with Decca Records signed the same year – 1951. Apaka was a voice that Hawaii Calls relied upon heavily, and so you will hear much more from him before this tribute is over.
Next time: More about the early 1950s cast and the conclusion of the July 21, 1951 broadcast…