Fri, 12 September 2014
There are some composers whose songs die with them. Perhaps it is because they were never written down or formally published. Perhaps it is because they were never recorded, and so they were too easily forgotten. Or perhaps it is because the next generation of artists cannot relate to the material. The music of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs has fortunately not suffered this fate. The songs Papa Alvin wrote are in a sense timeless, and so they continue to be performed and recorded over and over and over again to this day. I could spend another week (or two or more) in tribute to Isaacs by simply featuring the covers of his songs recorded in the 30 years since he passed. But, instead, I am going to share with you a few of my favorites in the hope that you will hunt down still others. (Feel free to ask me for recommendations.)
The Mākaha Sons combined Alvin Isaacs’ “`Auhea `Oe” in a medley with “Ka Ua Loku” (written by once poet laureate of Kaua`i, Alfred Alohikea). Although you heard Papa Alvin sing his own composition before in concert with his sons Norman and Barney, I did not tell you much at all about what the song means. But do I really need to? Like so many of his compositions, here Alvin again dabbles in kaona (layers of poetic meaning or metaphor) to craft a song which reminds us where cuddling can lead. Except for the most part the kaona is not so discreet after all:
E huli mai ‘oe / You turn to me
Kūpono iho / Rise up and go down
I luna i lalo / Up and down
ʻIʻo ia nei / This is true love
Āhē nani ʻiʻo no / True love so beautiful
The English-language lyric – with its “yacka hicky” gibberish and reference to Chattanooga, Tennessee – is obviously not a translation of the Hawaiian. But, more surprisingly, its focus on the hula – still a curiosity on the mainland U.S. when this song was written – belies the original Hawaiian lyric’s more intimate nature. The song is a natural for the Mākaha Sons who are as naturally funny as they are musically talented. And so while this staunchly traditional group once refused to perform English-language songs, “`Auhea `Oe” – recorded on their Kūikawā album – eventually became a staple of their live shows. The song is a natural fit for a medley with “Ka Ua Loku” which – perhaps more poetically than “`Auhea `Oe” – also speaks of cuddling but using the metaphor of the rain (almost always a symbol of love-making in Hawaiian poetry) caressing the laua`e fern.
In all of our lengthy tribute to Papa Isaacs, shockingly I have not yet unveiled one of his most enduring compositions. In the wake of the imprisonment of Queen Lili`uokalani and the annexation of Hawai`i as a U.S. territory, Isaacs composed “E Mau” which encourages the Hawaiian people to strive to keep the Hawaiian language alive and preserve all that was good about the Kingdom of Hawai`i. (He even invoked in his lyric a slight variation on the slogan of the Hawaiian people – “Ua mau ka ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono” or “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness” – which, although now part of the state seal of Hawai`i, was once a symbol of Hawaiian self-rule since it was first uttered by Kamehameha III on July 31, 1843 when the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was restored by Great Britain.) Although it was likely not his intention, because of its message “E Mau” has since become an anthem for self-governance and Hawai`i’s independence from the United States. Although written in 1941, the song did not appear on record until Alvin recorded it a first time with his sons on the LP Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs & Sons in 1978. It is here performed by Teresa Bright from her wildly popular and multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano award-winning 1990 CD Self Portrait.
Like “E Mau,” another song has thus far managed to elude inclusion in this tribute to Alvin Isaacs. Remedying that, take a list to “Leimomi” which was revived after a long absence on record by Weldon Kekauoha on his 1999 debut CD Hawaiian Man. The song was not debuted on record by a group led by Alvin but, rather, did not make its first appearance on LP until The Surfers covered it on their late 1950s LP On The Rocks. Originally intended as a ballad, here Weldon is not paying tribute so much to Isaacs as he is to beloved kumu hula Darrell Lupenui who recorded the song on his 1970s eponymously titled release Darrell Lupenui. Those familiar with Darrell’s version know that Weldon copied Darrell’s arrangement note for note and took the song – as did Darrell – at a peppier swing tempo than perhaps Alvin intended (but would likely not object to).
Even Israel Kamakawiwo`ole managed to cover Papa Isaacs’ songs. From his last release, In Dis Life, Iz sings “Aloha Ku`u Pua” – the lyric content of which is sort of a companion to “`Auhea `Oe” in that it speaks to how close two people in love can really be. But Alvin tackles the task slightly more poetically here, using the common metaphor of the flower to symbolize a special someone, writing, “Aloha ku`u pua pili i ke kino” (“Love for my flower that clings to the body”). You heard Alvin debut his composition on record in a late 1940s Bell Records release here, and it was seldom recorded again – except for one 1970s recording by The Hilo Hawaiians – in the 50 years until Iz would reprise it.
Finally, Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom is among the most recent to honor Papa Alvin by recording one of his originals – in this case, “Kau`ionalani” from Amy’s 2006 Mountain Apple Company release Generation Hawai`i. Not to be confused with Isaacs’ similarly titled “Kau`iokalani,” we do not really know who “Kau`ionalani” was written for or about as its generalized metaphor could symbolize a lover or a grandchild. Here Amy kicks it old school in a version reminiscent of Auntie Agnes Malabey Weisbarth’s recording of the song from her 1971 LP Sunset At Makaha – the most notable difference being that Auntie Agnes’ group was largely `ukulele-led, while here Amy has the able assistance of steel guitarist Bobby Ingano.
Still a force in Hawaiian music too strong and ever-present to be ignored, we could continue to pay tribute to Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs for weeks upon weeks. But, rather, Ho`olohe Hou will reprise this tribute next year and expand on it with still more great recordings of Papa Alvin’s compositions by other great voices of Hawaiian music of the last 50 or more years.
Until then, you would be hard-pressed to find a Hawaiian music LP or CD that doesn’t feature at least one Alvin Isaacs composition. And whenever and wherever an Alvin Isaacs song is sung, it is indeed a world of happy days…