Sat, 22 November 2014
Continuing a topic we began discussing in this space recently, for a short time around 1965-66, Hawaii Calls made a brief entré into the world of television. Edwards felt that radio was a dying medium and that audiences deserved to see the real Hawai`i. Radio could not capture the spray of the waves, the grace and vivid costumery of the hula dancers, or – perhaps most importantly – a friendly smile. Television was the perfect medium to portray paradise in technicolor, but as the radio program was already too costly to produce, a weekly live television show would by no means better the enterprise’s financial situation. The next best thing: Performances by the stars of Hawaii Calls shot at various locations around Hawai`i including junkets to film on Maui and Kaua`i. As a cost-cutting measure, the music tracks for each vignette were pre-recorded in a local Honolulu recording studio and the show’s singing stars – and often a few hula dancers – flown to various locations to film them “lip synching” to the prerecorded audio tracks. This constitutes one of the earliest forms of what today we call a “music video.”
The next logical – albeit tragic – leap from pre-recording the music might be… Why do we need the singer on location at all? As I mentioned previously, one of the radio show’s female singing stars of the 1960s was Nina Keali`iwahamana. Fans of the show would sit at home by their radios ardently awaiting their favorite Hawaiian singer. But, for reasons completely unfathomable, Nina never made a single appearance on any of 26 episodes of the TV version of Hawaii Calls. But as with the radio program, her voice made several appearances on each week’s TV broadcast – almost always anonymously. This, too, is a pity.
But now that we have worked through how to distinguish Nina’s voice from those of her singing sisters, we can appreciate some of the Hawaii Calls TV show clips which beyond a shadow of a doubt featured her unmistakable voice.
In this first segment, Nina sings a song for children. Auntie Nona Beamer composed “Pūpū Hinuhinu” (meaning “shiny seashell” – say that ten times fast!) around 1950 as a sort of lullaby. Inspired by the cowrie shells found on the black sand beach of Punalu`u on the island of Hawai`i (the southernmost point in the U.S.), in this simplest of songs a child finds a cowrie shell, listens to its song, and then lays it down to sleep. This would make for a lovely scene except for certain cultural inaccuracies that come into play as a result of host and script-writer Webley Edwards’ lack of understanding at times of Hawaiian language and culture. First, Auntie Nona refers to the shell as “hinuhinu” because of its shiny outer coating. Some cowries are so small and shiny that they glitter like jewels – which may be why certain ancient cultures value the shells as currency. But none are over 2-3” in diameter. For some reason, here the young lady in the scene is instructed to pick up a queen conch – one of the largest of the Pacific shells and which most ironically has a dull, rough, chalky exterior. In other words, the conch is nothing like the cowrie of which Auntie Nona wrote. More curiously still, Edwards fabricates a story about the menehune of Hawaiian mythology – a legend about a people of dwarf-like stature who are skilled craftspeople but whom nobody has ever seen or heard. A conch shell can be sawn in such a manner as to be used as a trumpet. (If you have ever visited one of the commercial lu`au in Hawai`i, the evening no doubt began with a ceremonial blowing of the conch.) As one story about these little people goes, there was a chief who would blow on a conch shell to try to control the menehune, and in retaliation, the menehune stole the conch from the chief and trumpeted it at all hours of the night to disturb the locals and try to blame it on the chief whose conch it rightfully was. What the conch shell or this legend – or other similar legends about the menehune – have to do with Auntie Nona’s song is not immediately clear. But it is likely just host Edwards trying to weave a more mystical tale around the song than there really was for mainland audiences.
And as I watch the playback of the video one last time, I dearly wish that they would have featured Nina in the song she was clearly singing.
There are more performances by the disembodied voice of Nina Keali`iwahamana from the Hawaii Calls TV show yet to come. There are also more curious disconnects between scene and song to be examined.
Next time: Nina sings while sister Lani dances the hula…