Sun, 17 February 2013
Six years ago to the week, when Ho’olohe Hou was in the third week of its first incarnation as a podcast, the show quickly gained acclaimed among musicians in Hawai’i for a two-part episode on the legendary Pua Almeida. You see… Hawaiian musicians owe a debt to Pua for revolutionizing Hawaiian music, and yet few who don’t own an old-fashioned record player have ever heard his music because while he was one of the most prolific recording artists ever, only about a half-dozen of the sides he cut have yet seen the light of day on a CD or MP3.
Flash forward six years… I spent much of this week perusing the reboot of the seminal book on Hawaiian music. Originally published in 1979, Dr. George Kanahele’s “Hawaiian Music and Musicians” has been the bible for fans and students of Hawaiian music for over 30 years. Oddly this veritable encyclopedia of the history of Hawaiian music did not contain an entry on Pua Almeida except as a footnote to the entry on his hanai father, legendary composer and entertainer John Kameaaloha Almeida. It is criminal, then, that the 2012 version of the book - updated by music reviewer and local Honolulu entertainment columnist John Berger - still does not contain an entry on Pua Almeida.
Just as the podcast aimed to do six years ago, this blog will strive - this week, on the occasion of his birthday, and hereafter whenever the opportunity permits - to preserve the memory and the unique sound of Pua Almeida and his many rare talents.
This means I have a lot of work ahead of me. Pua was not the first Hawaiian music I heard as a child. I did not discover him until my impressionable teen years. But what an impression he left on me. Pua’s approach to Hawaiian music was like no other - a combination of traditional Hawaiian, jazz, Latin, dance hall, country, and - frankly - whatever the hell else fancied him or the amazing musician friends with whom he surrounded himself who assisted in crafting his unique sound. So Pua and his group became the template for my own approach to Hawaiian music. From the first moment I heard him, I have spent my lifetime since amassing as much Pua Almeida material as I could lay my hands on - including ridiculous bids some years ago now on an eBay auction of items from Pua’s estate. In fact, I have made discoveries of unreleased Pua Almeida music as recently as two weeks ago in a private collection that has been shared with me.
So with this wealth of material to draw upon, where does one begin? Eventually, I will attempt to cover Pua’s many accomplishments chronologically - indicating where Pua and his fellas wove together past and present to create an unpredictable future and why these inventions were historically important. For example, if you are a fan of Roland Cazimero’s guitar stylings, thank Pua Almeida whom Roland counts among his chief influences on the guitar. Do you enjoy the steel guitar of Jeff Au Hoy? Jeff found his lifelong passion for Hawaiian music listening to Pua Almeida records which often featured the steel guitar of Pua’s sidekick of many years, Billy Hew Len.
So until I sort out all of this music and history to present in some coherent manner, a quick overview of Pua’s music for the still indoctrinated…
The first amazing thing to note about Pua is how prolific his recording career was for having been cut short by heart problems shortly before his 52nd birthday. He recorded hundreds of sides across more than a dozen labels - not only as the featured artist, but also as a much in demand sideman for both his amazing rhythm guitar work and his unique steel guitar stylings. You hear Pua’s steel guitar playing on this first mid-career cut heard here, “Waikiki Is Good Enough For Me.” You also hear for the first time Pua’s penchance for changing up tempos and rhythms - switching abruptly from the opening fox trot to a Latin swing anchored by the bongos during which Pua takes a steel solo that is more bebop than Hawaiian, filled with blue notes and often playing behind or ahead of the beat. Take note also that this was clearly not music intended for the hula. The hula vamp - a chord sequence of a set number of beats and measures which indicates to the hula dancer when the song has begun, when it is about to end, and when the verses will change - has been abandoned for the more inventive, intricately arranged intros, endings, and transitions associated with such mainland jazz aggregations as the George Shearing Quintet. This is not music for the hula. This is music for the dance hall.
On “Waikapu,” Pua hands the steel guitar bar over to his longtime collaborator, Billy Hew Len, discussed on this blog at length previously. Billy went back and forth between pedal and non-pedal steels throughout his career, but the pedal steel is clearly at work here - which was one of the signatures of Pua’s sound as he had been employing Billy since the 1940s, long before Billy had become the much in demand steel player he became by his most prolific period, the 1960s. You also hear the violin - or, more appropriately, the fiddle - the combination of pedal steel guitar and fiddle giving the tune an almost western swing air. The violin was an unusual sound to hear in Hawaiian music during this period or even still today, but it was by no means new to Hawaiian music as there were violins all about the court of King David Kalakaua. You also hear for the first time Pua’s incredible voice. If Pua had been a contestant on “American Idol,” Simon Cowell might have referred to his style as “affected” - meaning somewhat unnatural or forced. You will often hear Pua elongate and contort the Hawaiian vowels. Sometimes the Hawaiian words become almost unrecognizable. He also had a tendency toward excessive vibrato. Some might call Pua’s voice an acquired taste, but it was nonetheless always recognizable - even in the large chorus of the “Hawaii Calls” radio broadcasts of which he was a member for many years. But more about that later…
Finally, what seemed to be a natural transition to me - from a song about Waikapu on the island of Maui to a hapa-haole (or English language) song about the “Maui Girl.” Anchored once again by the Latin American sound of the bongos, Pua’s version of the song would be as at home on an Xavier Cugat album as on this Tradewinds Records release. And now you hear Billy Hew Len on a non-pedal steel guitar.
One of the most charismatic figures in the history of Hawaiian music, Pua Almeida is too good for a place in an encyclopedia. He deserves a place in the hearts of all Hawaiian music lovers the world over. And my goal this week is to ensure that happens - once and for all.
More about Pua Almeida soon… This is Ho’olohe Hou. Keep listening…