Benny Kalama Pays Tribute To His Old Boss

The year was 1985… My father was a member of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association (HSGA) which held steel guitar conventions across the country and an annual ho`olaule`a in Honolulu (a tradition which continues to this day). HSGA events were recorded and sold to generate operating funds for the association. So not long after the convention (which in those days our family was too poor ever to attend), a box arrived which held in store Hawaiian steel guitar magic – the entire steel guitar concert captured on two cassette tapes, the only vicarious means by which I could experience such an event. 

The ho`olaule`a was hosted by steel guitar veteran Jerry Byrd who, despite being considered by many the greatest who ever touched the instrument, had only relocated to Hawai`i from his Ohio home just over a decade before. He was the new kid on the Hawaiian music scene, but he contributed something invaluable to the history of Hawaiian music: During a time when many thought that the Hawaiian steel guitar would perish with only a handful of the instrument’s legends still alive and actively performing and recording, Jerry decided to teach the art of the steel guitar to a new generation of Hawaiians. Funded in part by grants from the State of Hawai`i, Jerry took some interested youngsters under his wing. One of these was a congressman’s son: Alan Akaka. And fans of the steel guitar know how that story ends. Now Alan (who I am proud to call my good friend) is considered a living legend of the steel guitar – the heir to a lofty throne – and, like his sensei, he, too, has opened a school of Hawaiian music where he teaches any and all instruments found in the Hawaiian band but with a focus on the steel guitar with students learning this uniquely Hawaiian instrument around the world (teaching via the miracle of Skype). The recording of the ho`olaule`a was the first opportunity I had to hear a then very young Akaka play – whipping through Andy Iona’s “How D`Ya Do” at breakneck speed (on one of the most inventive solos I had ever heard on that instrument) and sweetly caressing his friend Sonny Kamahele’s original “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid.” And two things happened to me upon hearing these tapes. Despite that my father had been playing the steel guitar all my life and I had staunchly rejected the instrument, I now felt compelled to take up the steel guitar. And I had to hear more of Alan Akaka. Emcee Byrd mentioned that Alan was playing evenings at the Halekulani Hotel’s House Without A Key with a group that included Hawaii Calls radio veterans Sonny Kamahele and Benny Kalama and that Akaka had just made his recording debut on Kalama’s latest LP, He Is Hawaiian Music. I knew Kamahele and Kalama from the numerous Hawaii Calls LPs in my collection, but I was surprised to hear that these already elder statesmen of Hawaiian music were still “doing it” and that Kalama had made a new recording. Since Kalama was the arranger for Hawaii Calls for many years, I was not necessarily eager to hear anything new by him since I thought it would be reminiscent of the earlier recordings. And in those days, getting my hands on a new Hawaiian music LP was not as easy as it is today. But I did want to hear more from Alan Akaka. A phone call to what was once the greatest source of Hawaiian music in the world – the House of Music at the Ala Moana Shopping Center – had that LP in the mail to me the same afternoon. (Thank heavens for the time difference between Honolulu and New Jersey.) 

Those who know me – or who knew me in my younger days – are likely surprised to know that I was interested in a Benny Kalama record. Performing in my father’s Hawaiian floor show almost from the time I popped out of the womb, at first I resented all things Hawaiian because I felt they were robbing me of a childhood. And because the template for my father’s show was the Hawaii Calls radio program and LPs, I claimed not to appreciate or enjoy that style of Hawaiian music. It wasn’t until local aunties and uncles started bringing me records from Hawai`i and I heard the innovative and contemporary sounds of the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau, Olomana, and Sunday Manoa (and, later, the remnant of Sunday Manoa – the Brothers Cazimero and the Peter Moon Band) that I claimed Hawaiian music for myself and made it my life’s pursuit to perform Hawaiian music myself. I heard steel guitar all the time – great steel guitarists like Barney Isaacs and Jules Ah See. But hearing Alan Akaka for the first time, I realized that I had rejected the instrument – and this style and era of Hawaiian music – because it was the sound of my father, and rebellious as I was, I didn’t want to be a clone of my father. Now I was insistent on hearing more of this style and on following in a total stranger’s footsteps – not my father’s. 

The LP arrived quicker than I possibly could have imagined, and I ripped off the shrink wrap and threw it on the platter of the Kenwood turntable. And to my amazement, despite that the picture on the cover was clearly Benny Kalama, the music in those grooves sounds absolutely nothing like those old Hawaii Calls LPs or radio programs. It was a much smaller group with a consistent swing feel to the tempos but with slightly looser arrangements than the larger Hawaii Calls orchestra and the many voices in its chorus. It was also nothing like the sounds that got me hooked on Hawaiian music – the contemporary sounds of the groups I named above which were very much like the sounds of their mainland counterparts (Seals and Crofts, Orleans, America, or CSN). In short, this was a kind of Hawaiian music that I had never heard before. What I did not understand until much later was that Kalama and crew were recreating a sound that dated back – at that time – nearly 40 years – the sound conceived of by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs when Benny Kalama was part of his Royal Hawaiian Serenaders. 

Although not explicitly stated on the album’s liner notes (more about those liner notes in a moment), Benny clearly went into the studio with the express notion of recreating that bygone era in Hawaiian music, sounds which could not be heard on any recording still in circulation at that time and which could only be heard live during that period at one and only one place: the Halekulani Hotel’s House Without A Key, the historic location overlooking Waikiki Beach where Diamond Head looms to the east and the sunsets are as legendary as the musicians who have performed there throughout history (like the Halekulani Girls featuring Linda Dela Cruz or the Kahauanu Lake Trio). The Halekulani Hotel had not offered music under its kiawe tree since the early 1970s, but under new management, by the early 1980s the House Without A Key was filled with the sounds of steel guitars and falsetto voices once again. And several nights a week the group you would hear would be known as The Islanders, a rotating aggregation of living legends including Benny Kalama, Sonny Kamahele, Walter Mo`okini, Harold Haku`ole, Merle Kekuku, and others. But remember during this period steel guitarists were few and far between. And so this group’s sole young lion was the then still up-and-coming Alan Akaka. Benny’s intention with his 1984 LP He Is Hawaiian Music seems to have been to recreate the sounds of the House Without A Key on those evenings when The Islanders appeared there – the living embodiment of another time and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders.  

And, if that was Benny’s goal, he and his cohort succeeded in spades! But he did it with a different group than the one appearing at the Halekulani. The sessions that led to He Is Hawaiian Music featured the rhythm guitar of Hiram Olsen (who was a regular of Jerry Byrd’s trio at the time), Kalani Fernandes (the other third of Byrd’s working trio) on bass, Randy Oness (another elder statesman of Hawaiian music whose earliest recordings with Pua Almeida and Alfred Apaka date back to the early 1940s), and Alan Akaka on steel. (The Islanders would not be captured on record until a few years later in a series of recordings produced by Akaka.) The recording featured four Alvin Isaacs compositions, another by Isaacs’ frequent musical collaborator, singer/songwriter Mel Peterson, and a handful of songs so old that their rightful composers had long since been forgotten at the time of these recordings. And the LP was – most Hawaiian music fans agree – an instant classic. But, more importantly for me personally, He Is Hawaiian Music was my first exposure to this style of Hawaiian music – the style that became my first love, the style I learned and went on to perform – as well as my first exposure to large doses of Isaacs’ compositions. And I went off in pursuit of more of Isaacs’ songs and sounds – jump-starting my record-collecting passion. And that is why, not merely apropos of our discussion of Alvin Isaacs, I offer up He Is Hawaiian Music as the first of the dozen recordings I will feature in my series 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life. There were other influential Hawaiian LPs that predated the arrival of this one in my home, but Kalama’s classic changed my thinking about Hawaiian music, broadened my horizons, and opened doors to listening to other artists of his era that I had not previously considered such as the Halekulani Girls, Richard Kauhi, the Kalima Brothers, and all of those terrific 45 rpm singles from the 49th State Records and Waikiki Records. And it is the record – even above those by Barney Isaacs and Jules Ah See – that made me want to pick up a steel guitar and play. 

In this set at Ho`olohe Hou we feature the songs from He Is Hawaiian Music written by Kalama’s former boss, Alvin Isaacs – three of which, despite how often recorded and performed Isaacs’ compositions are, made their debut on wax on this LP. You previously heard Alvin Isaacs’ “Ta-ha-ua-la” (by the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus from a 1957 LP which also featured Kalama). But “Hula Mai `Oe,” “Ahea No Ho`i La,” and “My Island Love Song” are the Isaacs originals that were first recorded by Kalama in these 1984 sessions. Prompting the question… What took them so long? 

But the real question involves the remarkable snub this fabulous LP received at the 1985 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards (Hawai`i’s local music industry awards program, voted on strictly by music industry insiders – recording and performing artists, producers, engineers, and the like). It may not be surprising that the album was beaten out for “Hawaiian Album of the Year” by the then very hot Mākaha Sons of Ni`ihau’s Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha. And it may not be all that surprising that it was trounced in the “Album Of The Year” category by perpetual winners the Brothers Cazimero and their Island In Your Eyes. But it is alarming that Kalama’s sweet falsetto was beaten in the “Male Vocalist of the Year” category by Brickwood Galuteria. But He Is Hawaiian Music did win the Hōkū for “Liner Notes” written by the album’s producer, Jerry Byrd. In an era when liner notes for Hawaiian music LPs (going back – at that point – to the Hula Records LPs of the 1960s) were a veritable book in the smallest possible font telling you every bit of minutia about the artists as well as the Hawaiian language lyrics to every song complete with their English translations, this win is the most eyebrow-raising since Byrd’s liner notes numbered fewer than 300 words (or approximately 1/8 of the length of the article you are reading right now) and contained absolutely nothing of substance to aid the listener in their appreciation of this music. (In fact, the liner notes were nothing more than marketing hyperbole – which is unnecessary for a musician of Kalama’s caliber who was already a known entity.) As such, the Hōkū for “Liner Notes” feels almost like a consolation prize for Benny Kalama – perhaps consolation for his other losses, but perhaps more poignantly consolation that his multiple snubs signaled the end of an era for his style of Hawaiian music. 

But that style of music has come around again in the sounds of the still-going-strong Alan Akaka and The Islanders, Pomaika`i Keawe Lyman (Genoa Keawe’s granddaughter), Gary Aiko (Genoa Keawe’s son), Ipo Kumukahi (with steel guitarist Isaac Akuna), Pa`ahana (with steel guitarist Kaipo Kukahiko), Po`okela (with steel guitarist Greg Sardinha), Holunape (with occasional steel guitarist Jeff Au Hoy), the Hiram Olsen Trio (with steel guitarist Casey Olsen, Hiram’s son and another Byrd acolyte), and Palena`ole (led by Casey Olsen). Music this good will never die. 

My only complaint about this record that earns its place on my 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life? The two sides of this LP clock in at a total of less than 32 minutes of music. (An LP record – without modification – holds 22 minutes of content per side.) 

Next time: The next revival of the sounds of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders and Alvin Isaacs’ compositions would not arrive for more than another decade – and would involve one of Alvin’s talented sons…


Direct download: 01_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:57pm EDT