Wed, 27 August 2014
Rarely do you hear or read a tribute to a bass player in a Hawaiian band. In the jazz world, if a Ray Brown, Slam Stewart, or Percy Heath passes away, tributes abound for each of those gentleman is known – in his own way – as breaking new ground in the art of the jazz bass. But in Hawaiian music, not so much.
But if jazz bassists are constantly trying to break new ground, in Hawaiian music the bass is the ground itself. Except at certain junctures in the story arc of Hawaiian music history, rarely is there a drummer in a traditional Hawaiian band. The core of the Hawaiian rhythm section is often a combination of guitar and bass, `ukulele and bass, or guitar-`ukulele-bass. Notice what all of these have in common? The bass.
Except at a slack key guitar concert, there pretty much has to be a bassist in every Hawaiian music aggregation. And that bassist is fulfilling two roles: They provide the lowest root tone that propels the harmonic structure of a song (i.e., chord motion), and they also keep the tempo and meter (i.e., they are the de facto drummer when there is no drummer). In cases where Hawaiian music is intended to accompany the hula, then, arguably the bassist is the most important member of the band for he/she is the timekeeper that keeps a steady tempo for the hula dancer. Although rarely maligned like drummers (insert your own drummer joke here), there is rarely any praise for the Hawaiian bass player. And yet their role – while not playing one of the uniquely Hawaiian instruments like the `ukulele or steel guitar – is a critically important one.
Which brings me to the unassuming Joe Marshall who spent most of his life and career as the bassist for the seminal Hawaiian folk music aggregation The Sons of Hawai`i. When we think of the Sons, certain icons of Hawaiian music come to mind. There is, of course, the Sons’ founder/leader Eddie Kamae who broke ground with a unique chord melody approach to the `ukulele that allowed him to cross the boundaries of the Hawaiian and jazz idioms (and who is often credited as the first to do this, paving the way for guys like Herb Ohta and – much later – Jake Shimabukuro). And everyone is also aware of Eddie’s meticulous attention to detail in such matters as the Hawaiian language which grounded the Sons and kept them uniquely Hawaiian even as they were blazing new trails in Hawaiian music by injecting the influences of rock, jazz, and even Baroque classical into their new sound. Then thoughts turn to Gabby Pahinui – perhaps for his slack key guitar prowess (the first to be captured on record playing slack key guitar with his seminal 1947 recording of “Hi`ilawe”), perhaps for his lifestyle (fulfilling the promise of one of his most requested tunes, “Livin’ On A Easy,” picking up his paycheck on Friday at 5pm, blowing it on booze before midnight, maybe never going home for the entire next week), or perhaps for his status as Hawaiian folk music icon (a Hawaiian musician who loved Hawai`i and Hawaiian people but who rarely sang a Hawaiian lyric the same way twice). And then you might think of David “Feets” Rogers who created his own singular steel guitar style – laying back in the tune for so long you forgot he was there before coming back in and punctuating the song with his clear-as-a-bell harmonics (sometimes known as “chimes,” which are very difficult to play because they require such a gentle touch). You will think of these three, and maybe you will forget that the Sons was not a trio, but a quartet. What do we talk about when we talk about Joe Marshall? We don’t.
But Joe fulfilled all of the roles of the bass player described earlier and more. If other bass players were the ground – the foundation – of the Hawaiian music band, then Joe was the bass player breaking new ground. He had to. He had to evolutionize or revolutionize something about Hawaiian music since he could no doubt see what was going on around him – the tremendous impact Eddie, Gabby, and Feets were having on the Hawaiian music world. If the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Joe was not going to be the weakest part.
He began his silent revolution with a visual. If The Sons of Hawai`i’s music was to have a relaxed sound and feel, then they needed a look to match. So Joe began playing the massive upright bass sitting down with it across his lap. Now the group had a uniform look – everybody seated, everybody relaxed so that the audience could be relaxed too.
Next came the sound… As recounted in Hawaiian Son, James Houston’s fascinating read on the life of Eddie Kamae, the group was in pursuit of a new sound. Eddie called it the “open sound,” and it hinged on two features of the music: rhythmic technique and innovative tuning. The rhythm – especially on the up-tempo tunes – was like a freight train coming straight at you in a tunnel you could not escape. It was heavy with syncopation. And it was clearly not for the hula. Joe’s bass was pivotal in making these rhythms work. But the innovative tunings were another matter. We are not merely talking about slack key here. The freight train needed to hum along, and the “hum” was literally and figuratively generated by open strings on the guitar and `ukulele. On a stringed instrument, when some of the strings are fretted with the fingers while others are left open or untouched, the open strings will naturally “ring” sympathetically when the fretted strings are played. You don’t even need to touch them: The vibrations of the soundboard (or the top of the instrument) will cause these strings to vibrate automatically. This is the drone that was critical to the Sons’ sound. Gabby’s guitar did this by the very nature of slack key guitar tunings in which strings are loosened - making them more prone to vibration. But Eddie followed suit by figuring out which fretboard positions allowed the most strings to vibrate sympathetically and then keeping a number of `ukulele on stage – each tuned differently – so that he could always play in these open positions by grabbing a different `ukulele to play songs in different keys. (Essentially, Eddie was always playing in the position of the key of C, but if the `ukulele was tuned differently, he could be fingering in the key of C but the `ukulele would sound as if he were playing in F, G, or some other key.) Joe understood that the whole thing would come together if he could capitalize on the sympathetic drone of open strings too. But this had never really been done on the bass. Joe experimented and ultimately achieved the sound the Sons needed by removing the lowest E string from his bass and replacing it with a lighter gauge string that he tuned up to high C. This high C would resonate when left open when Joe was playing in other keys. In other words, Joe arrived at a sort of bizarre slack key bass, and it was just what the Sons needed to complete their sound.
But Joe’s innovations didn’t stop there. Because Eddie and Gabby were the names associated with the Sons, it is often assumed that they were the masterminds of the Sons’ forward-thinking arrangements that incorporated the jazz, rock, and classical influences mentioned earlier. This is not entirely true. The true jazzer at heart was Joe, and some of the most instantly recognizable elements of the Sons’ arrangements were conceived of by Joe. But this should come as no surprise to anyone who knew Joe or who knew that this unassuming Hawaiian boy was also classically trained in the French horn, trombone, clarinet, and saxophone during his days at the Kamehameha Schools.
Finally, perhaps because he was Kamehameha Schools trained, Joe was also known as a stickler for accuracy in singing Hawaiian language songs. This means that naturally Joe was perpetually irritated with Gabby who was not a stickler in this way. Eddie Kamae recounted that Gabby had a made-up word – “skabadooz” – and when Gabby was going to forget the words to a song and call an audible, he would enthusiastically shout, “Skabadooz!” This irritated Joe, and so he began referring to Gabby as “Mr. Skabadooz” – perhaps a passive-aggressive attempt to get Gabby to try harder when it came to what he was singing.
To honor Joe Marshall on his birthday, I wanted to offer a few seldom heard selections from The Sons of Hawai`i that you may have difficulty finding as not all of the Sons’ work has been remastered and rereleased in the digital era.
“Komo Mai Ehea Ke Kanaka” was the opening number from the Sons’ first LP, Music Of Old Hawaii. But that is not the version of the song you hear here. This version was recorded nearly a decade later for the National Geographic-sponsored release The Music of Hawaii, which the magazine’s editors intended to be the quintessential representation of Hawaiian folk music. (This is the same LP from which we recently heard an oli by Ka`upena Wong.) The liner notes credit the song to Eddie Kamae – referring to it as a “new song in the old tradition.” This is not entirely accurate. The mele (or lyric) is actually an ancient chant which Eddie set to music. But Eddie is often credited with composing the song to this day.
One of the most coveted LPs among collectors of Hawaiian music had until recently been Marcella Kalua’s The Girl From Papakolea on which she is accompanied by The Sons of Hawai`i. Despite that this was out of print for more than 40 years, it is available again courtesy of Lehua Records which reissued the album as MP3 downloads. (A word of caution: The sound quality of the MP3s may be questionable since Lehua Records re-released its entire catalog at the same time in 2012. Because the entire catalog – dozens of albums – mysteriously appeared at the same time, it is highly unlikely that any care was taken in the remastering of these albums. They are likely straight transfers from the master tapes or – worse – from an LP.) Sound quality aside, the album itself is a treasure which may be worth adding to your collection regardless of quality. Hearing it again does make one wonder why someone with such tremendous talent as Marcella Kalua stopped at only one LP. Here she sings “Hali`ilua” with the Sons.
A long forgotten gem of Hawaiian music is Bill Kaiwa’s LP Sings At Maunalahilahi which he recorded with The Sons of Hawai`i. This 1960s Hula Records release is somewhat of a misnomer since it was not a live recording and was not recorded anywhere near Maunalahilahi. (The title is likely a reference to Bill Kaiwa’s dear friend, Jack Waterhouse, who made his home at Maunalahilahi when the “world’s smallest mountain” was privately owned by this Matson Lines magnate.) We hear Bill sing “Kuwiliwili Iho Au,” a graphic love song Hawaiian-style composed by the Royal Hawaiian Band’s first leader, Captain Henri Berger. This energetic love-making song would not have worked nearly as well without the Sons’ equally energetic arrangement.
Finally, we hear Joe and the Sons from the third Sons of Hawai`i LP, This Is Eddie Kamae and The Sons of Hawaii, released in 1965. This was the first Sons LP without Gabby Pahinui. A powerhouse of a musician to attempt to replace, Eddie had to enlist two musicians to fulfill Gabby’s role: guitarist/singer Bobby Larrison (who later formed the Lopaka Trio with Hiram Olsen and forged a new sound of his own) and slack key guitar stalwart Atta Isaacs. This made The Sons of Hawai`i a quintet for the first time. This is arguably the Sons’ finest LP; the arrangements are killer and Eddie’s `ukulele work simply stellar. In 1971, Representative Spark Matsunaga named the album in the U.S. Congressional Record as “the best representative of traditional Hawaiian music. And yet it has not made an appearance on CD or MP3 (except in limited edition in Japan, the origins of which may also be dubious). So this recording has taken on mythic status among both those who have heard it and those who haven’t. You hear Eddie and the Sons perform “Na `Ai Ono,” a song extolling the virtues of the delicacies found on the pa`ina (or lu`au) table, composed by Clarence Kinney (who also composed the hula standard “Holoholo Ka`a”).
Joe Marshall played with other groups before The Sons of Hawai`i, but it his role in the Sons that will always be remembered while still somehow being underestimated. I hope this tribute goes a little way toward furthering – and clarifying – Marshall’s legacy while helping us gain an understanding of the importance of the bass player in Hawaiian music. I also hope you enjoyed hearing some forgotten Sons of Hawai`i recordings once again.