Wed, 26 November 2014
In my last article I explained that as musical director and arranger for the Hawaii Calls through the 1960s until its unfortunate demise in 1975, Benny Kalama’s work was the backbone of both the radio and TV versions of the program. But despite that his voice was heard constantly on the TV show, he was rarely seen. Despite this, his vocal performances are worth hearing once again, and the hula that he accompanies is exquisite – as you are about to see.
Like “Miloli`i” before it, “He Mana`o Ko`u Ia `Oe” has long been associated with Benny. He performed it many times on the radio program, here again on the TV program, and reprised the song 20 years later for one of the few LPs released under his own name, He Is Hawaiian Music (which you have read about previously here as I count it among the 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life). It is a song in which Kalama gets to show off his one-of-a-kind ethereal falsetto. The song is intriguing for its meandering melody and wandering harmonic structure – making it a challenge for novice musicians to navigate. It’s a song you really have to know (and heaven forbid the singer ask to sing it in a different key than you play it in). If the lyric sounds somewhat repetitive, that is completely intentional on the part of the composer. This is one of a family of songs which celebrate the major islands of the Hawai`i archipelago by naming each island’s most famous flower. But here the composer puts a twist on that model by bringing into play a woman on each island. Poetically speaking, then, this song is a little confusing. Taken together, the woman and the lei could be symbolic of the hospitality of each island. Or it may be about another kind of hospitality – like certain other Hawaiian songs, involving someone with a wandering eye (or heart) who has a different special sweetheart wherever they roam.
This has always been one of my favorite hula performances, too. Notice how the hula has been choreographed to feature only one dancer at a time – one for each woman on each island Benny sings about – and then the four ladies come together for the final verse in which the women are sung about collectively. The costumery and presentation have the feel of the type of hula we might have seen had we been alive during the reign of King Kalākaua. As the Merrie Monarch Festival of hula was inaugurated only a year before this clip was filmed, and because in its 50-year history the festival has often featured performances of hula in the style presented during the monarchy, one can only wonder if the creation of the festival influenced the Hawaii Calls performance here or vice-versa.
From the “Don’t Believe Everything You Read On The Internet” files, certain popular Hawaiian song lyric websites indicate that we do not know who composed this beautiful mele. But many believe we do. The song is often attributed to legendary steel guitarist Sol Ho`opi`i who introduced the song when he performed it first in the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding starring Bing Crosby. (We discussed Ho`opi`i previously here in the context of his work with Lena Machado.) Kalama clearly concurs with this assertion since he credits authorship of the song to Ho`opi`i on his He Is Hawaiian Music release.
As I am enjoying this tribute to one of my heroes, why stop now?...
Next time: A hana hou from Benny Kalama’s radio days with Hawaii Calls...