Wed, 29 October 2014
This is a story in two parts, and it is only fair that each part have its day in the sun…
Bethel Street at night is a relatively lonely looking street. Not too much seems to be going on except for at the far end of the block, close to Beretania Street, there is usually a line of people waiting patiently to go into a tiny little place called the Aloha Bar and Grill. Tonight, there seems to be a longer line, and the groups of people clustered around the entrance seems to be thicker, all trying to be a part of the action within. It is the farewell night not only for Aunty Genoa and Her Hawaiians, but also for Bob and Nancy Teruya, the owners of the place. It seems progress has caught up with this old bar and grill, and it will soon be torn down to make way for some big new building.
The room inside is jampacked with bodies, and no one minds the heat or the discomfort of being wedged in tight. There’s lots of familiar faces of old kamaaina families, and lots of new faces of malihinis who heard of “this really neat place that has authentic Hawaiian music…” Auntie Genoa and Her Hawaiians are singing all the old favorites, and, as the night goes on, surprise guests from the audience come up and perform for her. The stage is very small, but somehow, there always seems to be room up there… So beautiful and so sad… like the closing of another era.
It reads like a “human interest” article from the tabloid magazine found in the center of a Sunday newspaper. Or perhaps more like an obituary for an era rather than for a person. What it does not read like are the liner notes to a new album. But in any case, it is a familiar story in the history of Hawai`i and its music. Hawaiian Hut. Club Pago Pago. Na Kupuna Nights at the Moana Surfrider. Polynesian Palace. The Blue Dolphin Room of the Outrigger Hotel. The Tapa Room of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Duke’s at International Marketplace. And now the International Marketplace itself. Aku Bone. Big Country Bar & Grill just last year. And – as recently as last month – Corner Kitchen. In Hawai`i, the demise of each venue – whether because of a change in direction by management or as a result of the wrecking ball that signals so-called progress – is more often than not another toll in the death knell of Hawaiian music.
And in many cases – at least those in recent years – this is also a sad form of self-fulfilling prophecy. While once the closure of a formerly popular nightspot meant that the music died with it, today the decision to offer Hawaiian music at a restaurant or club almost assuredly dooms that venue to financial failure. This is why you are more likely to hear Tito Berinobis lead a salsa band at the Sheraton Waikiki than to hear a steel guitar there. In recent years different venues have handled the issue – the need to strike some acceptable balance between pleasing their tourist patrons with the desire to remain true to tradition while possibly teaching tourists about Hawaiian culture – differently. The Waikiki Beach Marriott handled it by moving the music from the easy-to-access first floor lobby bar – where every passerby might hear and discover Hawaiian music – to the harder-to-find third floor pool area. The Halekulani Hotel – once known for hosting the legends of Hawaiian music – simply began telling the musicians to “turn it down,” a little bit at a time, more and more, until eventually only those within 20 feet of the stage could hear (and even then with great difficulty).
It was literally just last month that Hawai`i’s musicians – such luminaries as Hoku Zuttermeister, Maunalua, Waipuna, and Nā Hoa – convened to hold a “thank you” concert for Mitch and Patty – former proprietors of Corner Kitchen in Kapahulu, abutting Waikiki on its Diamond Head corner, where one could hear Hawaiian music seven nights a week for nearly three years. Corner Kitchen had a magic formula: a menu filled with the utmost creative Pan-Asian delicacies that well represented Hawai`i’s multiethnic heritage made fresh by a well-trained chef, a bar stocked with the top shelf offered at reasonable prices, friendly but not oversolicitous service, and the hottest acts in Hawaiian music that you would pay handsomely to hear at a concert venue but which here didn’t even merit a cover charge. It had become the go-to place for my family on our visits, but according to my hypothesis, even this winning formula had to fail. It simply had to. And the hypothesis – and I apologize that I cannot distill it in any fewer words – is that typically tourists do not want to hear Hawaiian music, those that do are reluctant to leave Waikiki to find it, and the locals who love Hawaiian music take for granted tonight (when their favorite artist is performing but when they have had the proverbial long, hard day at the office) that it will still be there next week. Until it isn’t any more.
That was not the fate of the Aloha Grill after all. Its fate was truly predicated on progress. Like Corner Kitchen, the Aloha Grill was a good idea executed nearly flawlessly. It was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what fans of Hawaiian music can relate to is that, regardless of the reasons, losing Corner Kitchen now must have been like losing Aloha Grill 35 years ago. There was usually “a line of people waiting to go in,” and they were there largely to hear Hawaiian music. Where would they go now? Corner Kitchen’s clientele is still trying to navigate that harsh reality.
And I have not yet even begun to talk about the musicians. Not only do they share with the owners and the fans all of the emotions that are wrapped up in this loss, but they may not allow themselves time to mourn while they are pounding the streets trying to find the next venue willing to take a chance on Hawaiian music in order to keep their micro-economies whole. At the end of the day, a steel guitarist or a falsetto singer has to eat.
Aunty Genoa may have been thinking these things when Aloha Grill announced its closing, but still somehow she had the presence of mind to arrange for a remote recording session. Maybe she wanted to capture not merely the sound of her band of that moment (which had only been captured on record once previously, on her no longer available album All Time Hula Favorites), but also that band in the supercharged atmosphere of the venue that had so far best loved her in by then what was more than a 30-year career. That, after all, is what live albums are all about – elevating an artist to greater musical heights when propelled by the Primo-soaked encouragement of their ardent fans, and this is even more true in a smallish venue like Aloha Grill where the artists can practically touch the fans from the stage and where the two rub elbows on their ten-minute breaks once per hour (and Aunty Genoa always did and taught her musicians to do the same as they were not merely the hired help but, in her view, the hosts of a giant party – helping ensure the band would be asked back the following week). But maybe this wasn’t the case at all. Perhaps she had no desire to make a live album at all. Perhaps this was her way of memorializing a venue she loved and the owners/friends who gave her the opportunity. Or perhaps arranging for a live recording was merely Aunty Genoa’s way to mourn.
On April 28, 1979, a remote recording crew made the cramped Aloha Grill a little more cramped still when it joined Aunty Genoa and band to do a live album on the Aloha Grill’s last night of operation. This should have been a magical night with the potential energy to result in what could have been the finest recording of Genoa’s career. But the potential never quite becomes as kinetic on record as perhaps it was in person. Maybe there was a melancholy pervading that room. Genoa and her bands always exuded the utmost professionalism, and that is no less true on Aloha To Aloha Grill. What the live recording lacks is life. Perhaps it is an editing problem. The fade-ins and fade-outs between the songs remove the essence of a Genoa Keawe performance – specifically, the witty banter she exchanged between herself and the audience or her band members, her “talk story” about the song she is about to sing, her greeting of friends, family, and every Hawaiian music luminary that walks into the room, and the natural kolohe way about her – often displayed with nothing more than a smile. Perhaps it is because it is an audio medium and Aunty Genoa’s performances are highly visual – always bedecked in the finest designer aloha wear (a trait shared to this day by her granddaughter, performer Pomaika`i Keawe Lyman), the gentlemen in white pants, white shoes, and matching aloha shirts in the brightest hues, and, of course, an impromptu hula from the crowd, a band member, or – on a particularly lucky evening for the audience – even Aunty Genoa. Or perhaps the album lacks the numerous guest performances – every Hawaiian musician in the audience getting pulled on stage for a song and invariably a hana hou and, when the crowd approves, maybe even more – that made every Genoa Keawe performance – regardless of the venue – a party where somehow she made every audience member feel like the guest of honor. We know there were guest appearances that evening. Sabala references them in her liner notes, and she should know: She was there, serving as assistant recording engineer.
None of that magic was captured on Aloha to Aloha Grill.
Perhaps I’m spoiled. Perhaps this recording falls flat for me personally because I was in the room dozens of times to hear Aunty Genoa and her group live, and I know what magic prevailed on every occasion. Frankly, it was a different magic every time. Because it was spontaneous. The set list was always different, the guest list ever rotating. This live recording lacks spontaneity even though fans know that April 28, 1979 was as spontaneous an event as Genoa ever presided over. The album simply failed to capture that.
It is not that I do not recommend this album. On the contrary. It is a critically important document in the story arc of Aunty Genoa’s career. The band made no discernible mistakes. (Professionals rarely do.) And it is worth the price of admission to hear one of son Sam Aiko’s few golden-throated appearances on record (caressing such songs as “E Ku`u Morning Dew” and “Canadian Girl”) or to hear bass player Aunty Pahu Liliko`i romp through her signature tune (“Piha Hau`oli”). No, if you are a fan of Aunty Genoa and her style of music, you definitely have to own this album, which thankfully she recorded on her own GK Records label and which she ensured saw the light of day again in the digital era on CD.
Still, this recording may not be the “live” album fans hoped for. And this means that new generations of Genoa Keawe fans will never know exactly how it went down at the Aloha Grill when Aunty Genoa held court there. But, actually, they can and they will if I have anything to say about it.
Next time: Part 2 of the story in which your blogger – thanks to his archives – produces an artifact that fills in the essential gap in Aunty Genoa’s career and reproduces the Aloha Grill experience exactly as fans experienced it more than 40 years ago…