By the time the 80s rolled around, Billy Hew Len was the elder statesman of the local music scene – having known, played with, or recorded with every shining star in the small constellation of Hawaiian music luminaries. He continued to work the Waikiki hotel lounges as well as the evening lu’au which catered to tourists – making him one of the most heard steel guitarists ever and a sound instantly recognizable with Hawai’i.
The recordings slowed, but then so, too, did almost all recordings of traditional Hawaiian music by all artists of an era that seemed to be slipping away – the 80s leading way to reggae beats and synthesizers, all but abandoning the steel guitar. But Billy continued to do a few noteworthy recordings in these last years before his passing.
The set begins with a most rare selection. Violet Pahu Lilikoi is known primarily as longtime “sidekick” to Hawai’i’s First Lady of Song, Aunty Genoa Keawe. Violet worked in Genoa’s bands from the 1940s until her passing. But in one shining moment in the 80s, she broke out on her own on a self-produced LP entitled “The Lilikoi Family Sings Contemporary and Hawaiian.” This very limited private label pressing is found in few collections today – even in Hawai’i – and has never been released on CD or MP3. Billy performs the steel guitar chores on Auntie Violet’s version of “Polynesian Rhythm.”
Kealoha Kalama has generated far too little recorded output in her time – three long players, to be precise, or too few from someone of such unparalleled vocal talent and who knows so many songs that others have long since forgotten. My favorite dates to the 1980s – the beautiful “Lei Puakenikeni” on which Billy Hew Len again guests. In an earlier blog post I bemoaned the “Best Ofs” and “Greatest Hits” that somehow seem to leave the real hits on the cutting room floor. Selections from all three of Kealoha Kalama’s LPs have been remastered and rereleased on CD under the title “Encircling Love.” So you can hear some of Billy Hew Len’s work there (as well as the steel playing of a legend we have yet to explore: David Kelii). But the selection you hear here – “Hilo E” – has never been rereleased.
We recently heard from the Kekua Fernandez recording “Ka Momi O Ka Pakipika” elsewhere on Ho’olohe Hou (with his version of “Makapu’u Lighthouse”). We hear from that group and that recording again here as singer and hula master Leilani Sharpe Mendez leads the group and Billy in her rendition of “Ka Leo Manu O Hawai’i.”
Finally, from the same documentary film which opened our retrospective on Billy a week ago, we hear from the invaluable Robert Mugge film “Hawaiian Rainbow” which is still available on DVD for you to marvel at Billy’s playing. Although you hear footage not included in the original film, it was included on later DVD releases as a “bonus” selection. Among the many Hawaiian music legends with which his name is often asscociated, Genoa Keawe may by now be the most famous around the world. Billy and Genoa had a long musical friendship, and we should be grateful to Mugge for capturing a brief moment of their shared joy on film for posterity. He leaves us with that staple of all steel guitarists’ reportoires, “Hilo March.”
There is much more we could say about Billy Hew Len, but his heroism speaks through his musicianship which many more capable musicians have yet to match. You can still hear his style live on through such acolytes as Jeff Au Hoy and his own grandson, Casey Olsen who still drags out the same frying pan steel guitar you see in the Mugge film. And there are many, many more recordings available to us to evidence Hew Len’s greatness. But that is for another year – for my hero and inspiration, Billy Hew Len, has a birthday every year. And we are going to celebrate it together again…and again.
In Hawaiian, hana hou means “encore” or – literally – “do it again.” Hana hou, Billy. Hana hou…