Wed, 3 December 2014
Google “Sonny Kamahele” and the first search result is indeed an oddity. In an entry on “The Best Luxury Hotels on Oahu,” the online version of Frommers travel guide is quick to point out that although most cannot afford to stay at the “money is no object” Halekulani Hotel, one must still drop by some evening at sunset and sip a mai tai at the House Without A Key while Sonny Kamahele serenades them.
But Uncle Sonny left us more than 10 years ago now. This Frommers entry then either speaks to the editors’ inattentiveness or the seeming invincibility of the gentleman with arguably the longest career in Hawaiian music show business. Who ever thought the immortal Sonny Kamahele could ever die? Certainly not me.
Solomon “Sonny” Kamahele was born August 28, 1921 in Honolulu, Hawai`i. I don’t even know how to describe adequately the career of someone who – in a more than 60 year career as a singer, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, and arranger – literally and figuratively “did it all.” Sonny’s was no doubt one of the most illustrious careers in the history of Hawaiian music. He was already a first call musician when Alfred Apaka recruited Hawaii Calls cast member Benny Kalama to be the musical director for his show at the then recently opened Hawaiian Village Hotel in 1957, and Benny turned around and enlisted Sonny for the group that would become known for the hotel where they held court, the Hawaiian Village Serenaders. After Apaka’s passing, the group would stay on at the hotel to support shows by such other legends of Hawaiian entertainment as Hilo Hattie while throughout the 1960s Sonny led his own group at this same hotel’s Surf Room. And all the while Sonny was also an in demand studio musician who appeared on more recordings than one can count (often uncredited except to those who recognize his guitar playing or his voice).
Sonny also toiled largely anonymously as a critically important member of the Hawaii Calls program’s orchestra and chorus – lending his guitar and voice for both the radio and short-lived TV versions of the program as well as on innumerable recordings which found their way around the world courtesy of Webley Edwards’ multi-year contract with Capitol Records. Like so many in the rhythm section of that program – Jimmy Kaopuiki, Sonny Nicholas, and others – Sonny rarely received the credit he deserved. He was too rarely given a vocal solo, but you would occasionally hear his voice pop out of the texture of the chorus – especially if he was singing in his lowest register.
And, oh, that voice! Sonny’s gorgeous pipes ranged from the highest, sweetest falsetto you have ever heard down to his lowest basso profundo which he used to great effect on the Hawaii Calls novelty numbers. And he was the last of a rare breed of rhythm guitarists who played in the real old style – part guitarist, part drummer, heavy on the syncopation, an upstroke as well as a downstroke with the pick. (Today’s Hawaiian rhythm guitarists do not value the upstroke highly enough, I fear.) And many may have already forgotten that Sonny was handy with a steel guitar, as well – mastering the seldom used D9th tuning.
Perhaps because so many of the show’s other stars had either passed away, gone on to greener pastures, or altogether packed it in, Sonny began to stand out more on Hawaii Calls by the 1970s. Here he is featured on two numbers from shows selected from the 1972-73 season – both of which honor Queen Lili`uokalani.
“E Lili`u E” is a mele inoa or “name song,” a song honoring a person – not anonymously like some love songs, but by name. Here the song honors the queen – referring to her as “Lili`u,” for short. But it is not often remembered that the song was not originally for her. The song dates back a little farther to a chant composed for her sister-in-law, Queen Kapi`olani, and was entitled “E Kapi`olani E.”
By contrast, “Anapau” is a mele ma`i, a song composed to honor royalty by honoring instead their genitalia – a uniquely Hawaiian tradition. This should not be considered vulgar for it is these organs which are the source of life. The reference to Lili`uokalani’s life-giving organs here is the song’s title which means “frisky.” But the song was also sometimes referred to by the title “He Mele Ma`i No Lili`uokalani,” and, like “E Lili`u E,” was originally a chant. This is what makes the arrangement you are listening to all the more interesting since the use of instruments on a song that was originally a chant opens up a world of possibilities – arranger Benny Kalama altering the chords for certain verses to use the IV9 (or subdominant 9th chord) where one would usually expect the I (or tonic).
I knew Sonny personally from the final period of his career which he spent at the Halekulani Hotel’s famed House Without A Key. I used to go listen to him play with The Islanders, a group led by steel guitarist Alan Akaka, at the venue local musicians once referred to affectionately as “HWAK” where they performed for nearly 20 years from September 1983 until Sonny’s retirement in August 2003. I miss Sonny in as many ways as he had talents. I not only miss his music, I miss his spirit and his kolohe nature. Unlike some of the other relationships I have had the privilege of forging with Hawaiian music legends, it would be disingenuous of me to call Sonny my “friend.” We didn’t know each other well enough. But we shared many a lovely evening after his performances at HWAK, sitting under the kiawe tree hours after the gig ended until Halekulani staff ultimately had to kick us out or sweep around us. He regaled me with stories of a Hawai`i – and a Hawaiian music scene – that I will never knew. Sonny was my hero, but he also personally knew so many of my other heroes that he was my “one degree of separation.” Despite being a legend, Sonny was a most unassuming presence – dressing to the nines in the all-white uniform he himself conceived of for the Halekulani gig (and which the bands which came after still wear to this day), but playing a vintage Gibson archtop so ravaged by time that it was held together with duct tape. And that pretty much sums up the Sonny I will always remember.
Next time: A Hawaiian Christmas classic that would not have been the same without Sonny…