Wed, 19 November 2014
Hawai`i is at the crossroads of the Pacific. So it is quite the ethnic “melting pot” – perhaps unlike any place else on earth. These many races and nationalities co-exist – generally speaking – peacefully and harmoniously and even joyously. So while it may be considered less than politically correct elsewhere, ethnic humor was once the order of the day in the islands and was a symbol of the racial accord that may uniquely exist there. This is (almost) as true now as it was 50 years ago. Referring to your friend by their ethnic heritage (“Eh, howzit, Pake?”) is not considered a slur but, rather, a term of endearment.
The inspiration for this Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs composition arose from a show he was producing for his church. They were rehearsing a one-act skit which featured a Chinese-dialect comedian, and as Alvin watched, he dreamed up this humorous scenario and set it to music – all in less than two hours. (This might not immediately be considered a feat considering the length – and repetitiveness – of most pop songs. But when one considers how many unique verses there are to this song – and the fact that Alvin was writing in a dialect – the feat becomes somewhat more amazing.) “No Huhu” (which is Hawaiian for “don’t get angry” or “no problem”) became – quite unintentionally – an instant classic and a popular sensation – especially in the hands of the right performer.
Arguably, to this day, nobody* performed this number with as much flair and comedic timing as Alvin’s son, steel guitarist Barney Isaacs. Not merely because it is an Alvin Isaacs composition and not merely because it was popularized by his son Barney’s performance of it (perfected over time), but because it is an important cultural artifact demonstrating how Hawai`i was (and perhaps still is) different in its racial accord than almost anywhere else imaginable, we owe it to ourselves to hear Barney Isaacs version of “No Huhu” at least once. But here at Ho`olohe Hou, this marks the second time we have featured this song performed by Barney. Previously, when we celebrated the birthday of Barney’s father, Alvin Isaacs, I offered up a version of the song as Barney performed it live with the group led by cop-by-day-entertainer-by-night Sterling Mossman at the Barefoot Bar at the Queen’s Surf on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki in 1961 where Sterling held court every evening for many years making music and merry in his inimitable comic fashion. This time around we see the version Barney performed on a 1965 episode of the Hawaii Calls TV show. If you watch this version and then flip back to the earlier version with Sterling Mossman, you will hear that – just like his steel guitar playing – the versatile Isaacs changed it up a little bit every time he performed the song. The version Barney performed at a Waikiki night club in the wee small hours is clearly the unexpurgated version compared to his performance on such a family-oriented program as Hawaii Calls.
As you listen, you will hear the origins of the local Hawai`i language referred to as “pidgin” – a combination of English, Hawaiian, Chinese, and other languages that came to Hawai`i with its many “settlers.” Note that while locals call the language “pidgin,” that is not, in fact, the name of any language. It is the technical linguistic term for any new language anywhere that was created locally by its people and which likely would not be spoken outside of that region. And, more accurately still, a new language should rightfully only be referred to as a “pidgin” for the first 25 years of existence. As Hawai`i pidgin is nearly 100 years old, it should more appropriately be called a “creole.”
And as you watch, remember to keep this recording in the unique context of place and time that may be required to listen with open, loving, and accepting hearts and minds. Such a recording will no doubt be considered politically incorrect in New York City in 2014. But as I watch for the hundredth time, I find myself wishing that it could be 1965 again and that everywhere could be Hawai`i…
*I wrote that nobody performed this song as wonderfully as the composer’s son, Barney Isaacs. But many who were alive during this period say that there was perhaps only one other performer whose performance of the song rivaled that of Barney’s – his friend and Hawaii Calls steel guitar partner, Jules Ah See. And true to Ho`olohe Hou’s vaults, we will hear Jules’ version of the song when we celebrate his birthday next June.
Next time: A rarity that will solve a long-held misconception about Barney Isaacs… (Hang on as we about to pedal faster…)