Sat, 22 November 2014
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin obituary reads, “Lani Custino, hula dancer from a well-known family of entertainers, died Tuesday in Las Vegas, where she had lived since August 1996. She was 66.”
So this is at least partially true. A more appropriate description of the dynamic entertainer might have been “hula dancer and singer.” But history has painted Lani Custino strictly in her more famous role. For a lengthy period in Hawai`i’s entertainment history from the 1950s through the 1970s, Custino was the equivalent of a hand model for the hula – her graceful hula poses appearing everywhere from iconic album covers to travel magazines to posters for the hotels that dotted the Waikiki strip. So it is understandable that this is what she would be best remembered for. Record producer Jon De Mello once said of her, “Lani Custino sculpted artistic images of this mystical land of aloha. Her graceful hands told the classic story of the song.” The pictorial evidence does not lie. A still photograph of Lani dancing the hula seemed somehow to actually convey the motion of the hula.
Such is the magic that Lani Custino wove with her hula hands.
And why not? Lani was trained by one of the most revered masters of hula kahiko (the ancient hula style), Iolani Luahine, who to this day legend claims was witnessed dancing hula while levitating several inches off the ground. After years of study under such a master, Lani became the quintessential “classical hula dancer,” as one observer described her.
Custino began her dancing career in the hula line of the group led by Dan Wallace at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the early 1950s before taking her rightful place as a hula soloist – first with Haunani Kahalewai at the Waikiki Biltmore Hotel’s Top of the Isle showroom, then with Alfred Apaka in his shows at the Hawaiian Village Hotel, and finally with Danny Kaleikini after Alfred Apaka’s passing. Perhaps it is because she became so well known as a hula dancer that Lani’s parallel career as a singer is often forgotten. Or perhaps it is because she hailed from a family of far more famous singers than her. For this reason I chose to profile Lani Custino the singer before I honor her more famous singing siblings.
You read here previously that singer, musician, composer, and song archivist Vickie I`i Rodrigues was one of the first wahine in the cast when Hawaii Calls bowed on July 3, 1935. Vicki remained part of the show’s iconic ladies vocal trio – as well as its music librarian – until 1951 when one of her talented daughters stepped up and took her mother’s place in the trio. This was the debut of Lani Custino with Hawaii Calls. In Lani the radio program hired a double-threat – singer and hula dancer. But she was more frequently featured as a solo hula dancer – a delight for the live audience, but perplexing for those tuned in at home with their ears pressed tightly against the speakers of their Motorolas. More ironically still, host Webley Edwards – who also wrote the scripts for each week’s program – had a terrible habit of not consistently announcing who was singing which songs. Despite that nobody could see her dancing, Edwards almost never failed to announce when Lani was performing a hula. But he rarely announced when Lani was about to sing. For this reason most casual listeners would have difficulty distinguishing Lani’s voice from those of the other wahine cast members – especially her singing sisters who at various times were also members of Hawaii Calls cast.
So if we can’t tell the players without a scorecard, how do we know when Lani was the vocalist on a number on this program? There are a couple of ways, but it takes well-trained ears (not necessarily those of a singer, although that is no doubt an advantage). First there were the rare occasions when Edwards did announce that Lani was about to step up the microphone, and we can compare those performances to those where he didn’t identify the singer. And we can also compare performances from the radio show with Lani’s many appearances on LP records during that era. She did several albums with her singing sisters – often with the Maile Serenaders, a studio-only aggregation (not a real performing group) with a rotating membership which often included the musicians who were also members of the Hawaii Calls group including Sonny Nicholas, Jimmy Kaopuiki, Benny Kalama, Sonny Kamahele, and the producer’s choice from among steel guitarists Barney Isaacs, Eddie Pang, or Joe Custino (who not at all coincidentally was Lani’s husband). She also made two well-loved albums with her entire family led by matriarch Auntie Vickie – Na Mele `Ohana and Auntie Vickie Sings – on which Lani soloed on such lovely traditional Hawaiian fare as “Ku`u Pua Mikinolia.” Finally, for fans of Don Ho, if you have heard Ho’s Reprise Records debut, The Don Ho Show, on which he sings “The Hawaiian Wedding Song,” Don’s duet partner was lovely Lani. If you have heard all of these performances on which Lani is clearly identified, then you might be able to know when it is her voice featured on a Hawaii Calls song.
The most difficult part of this task is not distinguishing Lani’s voice from her sisters’, but specifically distinguishing it from her more famous sister’s, Nina Keali`iwahamana. But for some this actually makes the task easier because Nina is so widely recorded that her voice is emblazoned on our mind’s ear. Their voices are so similar – but by no means alike – that sometimes the easier method for identifying that Lani is singing is by confirming that it is not Nina singing. When it comes to the singing Rodrigues sisters, if I were jazz critic Whitney Balliett, I might describe the differences thusly… Lahela’s voice is like the `i`iwi bird, flapping occasionally in an effort to remain gracefully aloft in the air and on course. Lani’s voice is like one of its feathers drifting through the air from on high to settle into a comfortable breeze below. And Nina’s voice is the air itself – lighter than either of the other two yet sturdy enough to be able to support both bird and feather. Together, the sisters’ voices in harmony was a symbiotic relationship.
But for now we focus on Mrs. Custino.
Lani opens this set with “Kipu Kai,” composed by the venerable songwriting duo of Mary Kawena Pukui and Maddy Lam in honor of the estate of rancher Jack Waterhouse on the island of Kaua`i. (Waterhouse has another important connection to the world of Hawaiian music. You may recall reading here that at the age of 14 singer/entertainer Bill Kaiwa was hanai – the informal system of Hawaiian adoption – to a family on Kaua`i. Jack Waterhouse is Bill Kaiwa’s hanai father.) Copyrighted in 1956, this would have been still a relatively new song when Lani performed it on this 1957 episode of the radio show.
“Ka `Ano`i” is a very old song that is often attributed to no composer in particular but simply listed as a “Traditional” song. But ethnomusicologist Keola Donaghy researched this song much more thoroughly. From his response to Hawaiian lyrics website huapala.org:
This mele was published in a songbook "Ka Ho`onanea o Nā Home Hawai`i", printed in 1888, by the Honolulu Commercial Advertiser, forerunner of [the] Honolulu Advertiser. The composer is credited as Kamealoha, which may have been John [Kamealoha Almeida]'s adoptive father, Paulo Kamealoha. This song also appeared in the Hawaiian language newspaper "Ke Ko`o o Hawai`i", 29 Augate 1883, Buke 1, Helu 2, pg. 8. It is given as a meleinoa for Kapi`olani, is credited to Kamehaokalani, and includes different stanzas and lyrics from the mele credited to Kamealoha. The melody as it is sung today is different from the way it was sung then.
Published in 1812, the love ballad “Ua Like No A Like” is one of the oldest Hawaiian songs that continues to be cherished and performed by Hawai`i’s contemporary artists. Composed by Alice Everett, a contemporary of Queen Lili`uokalani, it is most often performed as a duet for a male and a female voice. Here, lovely Lani is joined by another Hawaii Calls cast regular, singer/arranger Benny Kalama.
Worry not! We will hear more from Lani and learn about her singing sisters soon. But, first, if Lani was better known for her hula, then we would be remiss in not honoring her hula. And that is not something we can appreciate on a radio show.
Next time: The camera-ready hula of Lani Custino…
Trivia: The three compositions Lani performs here have something most mundane in common. What is it?” (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you are a serious student of the last century’s worth of Hawaiian songs. Medium if you are a student of the Hawaiian language.)