Sun, 7 September 2014
Hawai`i is at the crossroads of the Pacific. So it is quite the ethnic “melting pot” – perhaps unlike any place else on earth. These many races and nationalities co-exist – generally speaking – peacefully and harmoniously and even joyously. So while it may be considered less than politically correct elsewhere, ethnic humor was once the order of the day in the islands and was a symbol of the racial accord that may uniquely exist there. This is (almost) as true now as it was 50 years ago. Referring to your friend by their ethnic heritage (“Eh, howzit, Pake?”) is not considered a slur but, rather, a term of endearment.
The inspiration for this Alvin Isaacs composition arose from a show he was producing for his church. They were rehearsing a one-act skit which featured a Chinese-dialect comedian, and as Alvin watched, he dreamed up this humorous scenario and set it to music – all in less than two hours. (This might not immediately be considered a feat considering the length – and repetitiveness – of most pop songs. But when one considers how many unique verses there are to this song – and the fact that Alvin was writing in a dialect – the feat becomes somewhat more amazing.) “No Huhu” (which is Hawaiian for “don’t get angry” or “no problem”) became – quite unintentionally – an instant classic and a popular sensation – especially in the hands of the right performer.
Arguably, to this day, nobody performed this number with as much flair and comedic timing as Alvin’s son, steel guitarist Barney Isaacs. (I say arguably because Barney’s friend, fellow Hawaii Calls radio program steel guitarist Jules Ah See, also did a wildly popular version of the song.) Not merely because it is an Alvin Isaacs composition and not merely because it was popularized by his son Barney’s performance of it (perfected over time), but because it is an important cultural artifact demonstrating how Hawai`i was (and perhaps still is) different in its racial accord than almost anywhere else imaginable, we owe it to ourselves to hear the Barney Isaacs version of “No Huhu” at least once. Although I have many versions of this song performed live by Barney in the Ho`olohe Hou archives, I am choosing the earliest – and still quintessential – version as Barney performed it live with the group led by cop-by-day-entertainer-by-night Sterling Mossman at the Barefoot Bar at the Queen’s Surf on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki in 1961 where Sterling held court every evening for many years making music and merry in his inimitable comic fashion. Every member of the group – Barney, his brother, Norman, Louis Akau, and the sole wahine, Varoa Tiki – were equally as funny as they were musically gifted. In their collective hands, “No Huhu” becomes a set piece pretty much as Papa Alvin envisioned it.
Click play and Sterling Mossman will give you the rest of the backstory and some essential translations of the Hawaiian and Chinese words you might not otherwise understand. And as you listen, remember to keep this recording in the unique context of place and time that may be required to listen with open, loving, and accepting hearts and minds. Such a recording will no doubt be considered politically incorrect in New York City in 2014. But as I listen for the thousandth time, I find myself wishing that it could be 1961 again and that everywhere could be Hawai`i…
Next time: You haven’t heard all of Alvin Isaacs compositions yet…