Wed, 29 October 2014
The 1980s were the most difficult period for me to obtain Hawaiian music around my suburban Philadelphia home. Our local music retailers no longer stocked a “Hawaiian” section because they would invariably get stuck with the inventory. Moreover, Hawaiian music artists were printing new releases in smaller and smaller quantities because they were caught in the middle of the “format wars” that began on the mainland. The compact disc (or CD) was introduced in 1982, and the marketing around it marked the death knell for the long-playing vinyl record (LP). But almost nobody owned the still very expensive CD player, and there were very few titles yet available on the new format. Hawaiian music artists were stuck: Should they produce LPs or CDs of their latest release? Some opted to do neither and released their new albums solely on cassette tape which at the time didn’t seem threatened by the format debate. The problem is that – in case you have never heard this – the cassette was developed by Norelco in the 1960s strictly as a medium for taking dictation. The cassette’s limitations for realistically conveying music were never overcome. Children of the 80s likely have hundreds of cassettes in a bag or a box in our attics, basements, or garages. Take one out and listen to it, and then compare it to a CD or MP3 of the same music. The difference is not that a CD or MP3 is so much better. It is that the cassette was never decent-sounding in the first place.
(And if you’re curious about why this is universally true, a physical recording medium like a record or tape relies on a number of physical realities to recreate sound perfectly, and these factors are never truly attainable within the constraints of time and expense. Magnetic tape such as a cassette is the most sensitive medium of all. It largely relies on three factors to reproduce sound with any quality worthy of your home hi-fi system. The first two are the width of the tape and the speed of the tape. The wider the tape, the more content it can hold. Recording studios might use tape up to 2” wide. The retail cassette you purchase is 1/8”, but because it plays in two directions (unlike studio tape which only runs in one direction), one side of a cassette only occupies 1/16” of a cassette. The relationship between tape width and sound quality is exponential: If you double the width of the tape, the sound quality quadruples. So taking into account tape width alone, the tape used in the studio will sound 1,024 times better than the cassette tape you can purchase. Tape speed is another exponential relationship: Double the speed, quadruple the quality. Studio tape recorders typically run at 15 ips (or “inches per second”). A cassette runs at 1 7/8 ips. So the speed of the tape in the studio will result in 64 times better sound than a cassette. When we multiply the factors of width and speed, a cassette is likely to sound 65,536 times worse than what actually happened in the studio. But I have not even discussed the third factor: Alignment of the tape machine head with the tape running past it. Alignment is the most critical factor because it is highly unlikely that the alignment of your head with the cassette you purchased will ever be the same as the alignment of the head of the manufacturer’s duplicating machine. Finally, a fourth nail in the cassette’s coffin: Cassette tapes are duplicated at hundreds of times the actual speed we listen to them at. Since speed is a factor in sound quality, when we purchase a cassette and play it at home, we are actually playing it hundreds of times slower than it was duplicated. I can’t even do the math in my head anymore…)
And this is why my copy of Genoa Keawe’s Ka`alaea – a cassette-only release – sounds terrible, and still more terrible with each passing year since the other factor that a physical medium like the cassette lacks is durability.
In the mid-80s I had heard that a new album by Genoa Keawe had come out, but I could not find it. And just as quickly as it arrived on store shelves, it was out of print. Hence Ka`alaea receives my dubious “OOPs” moniker – not because it was a mistake, but because it is out of print (OOP).
It was not until the 90s and the advent of the Internet that I got a hot lead. An Internet search (this predated Google, and I cannot recall what search engine was then at my disposal) revealed a copy in the Liliha Public Library in Honolulu (very near what has since become one of my favorite breakfast spots, Liliha Bakery, home of their patented “coco puff,” and what the hell was I talking about anyway?…). I rang up a Hawaiian music-loving friend whom I had also met on the Internet (on a Usenet newsgroup forum called alt.music.hawaiian) who agreed to a ridiculous plan: He would check the cassette out of the library in Liliha, mail it to me so that I could make a copy of it, and I would mail it back as quickly as possible, and he would return it to the library before we had even incurred any overdue fines. And it worked! It is a low-resolution MP3 copy of that low-quality cassette copy of a low-quality cassette original that you are listening to now. (And my friend, by the way, asked for nothing in return for his efforts except the joy of knowing that the completeness of my Genoa Keawe music collection remained intact.)
I recently spoke with Aunty Genoa’s son, Eric, about this elusive recording. And it proved so elusive that he had to research it a little himself. What we know is that the project was co-produced by Bob Nelson (Aunty Genoa’s dear friend and composer of the classic “Hanalei Moon”) and the president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (whose name escapes us all). The project was conceived to honor the Chinese Centennial in Hawai`i. And the title song, “Ka’alaea,” was written by Bob Nelson.
From the “Don’t Believe Everything You Read” department, several seemingly reliable sources – including Aunty Genoa’s Honolulu Advertiser obituary – indicate that the recording was made in 1960. Preposterous! The cassette was not popular as a portable music medium until the 1970s, and prerecorded cassettes were not available for purchase until the 1980s. (Prior to that the 8-track prevailed as the portable music medium.) Eric confirmed with Bob Nelson that this was a 1980s production.
I always very specifically list the criteria I use when dubbing (no cassette pun intended) a recording an “OOPs.” And I only need one good criterion. But I have two:
The group alone makes this a once-in-a-lifetime event of a meeting of Hawaiian music legends. (Benny, Sonny, Barney, and even Gary had all shared a stage before as all were members of the Hawaii Calls orchestra and its weekly radio broadcasts. But they had never been joined by Aunty Genoa.) I inquired about this group and why Aunty Genoa chose to record with them on this one and only occasion. Eric responded that these were her good friends with whom she had desired to make a record but simply never had the opportunity previously.
As for the song selection, you hear Aunty Genoa and her friends performing Bob Nelson’s “Ka`alaea,” a new version of “Hanauma” (which she had recorded more than 30 years earlier for the 49th State Record company), Alvin Isaacs “Ahea No Ho`i La,” and a duet with son Gary on a then still relatively new composition, “Ka Wai Lehua A`ala Ka Honua” from the pen of kumu hula Kawaikapuokalani Hewett. If it sounds like Sonny Kamahele may be struggling with the rhythm on this last number, you’re probably right. Kaipo Asing, who performed with Uncle Sonny for many years, often speaks about Sonny’s roots in the swing era of Hawaiian music. And so he always wanted to swing everything! You could get Uncle Sonny to do a modern song like Dennis Kamakahi’s “Koke`e,” but he would say, “But we’re going to swing it!” And Uncle Sonny would proceed to swing a seemingly unswingable song. Here it sounds as if he is trying to swing “Ka Wai Lehua…,” but the rest of the group is keeping him in check. But it is clearly an unnatural rhythm for him. Regardless, it is a treat to hear Aunty Genoa perform a modern song in her classic style.
I am not a rich man, but as you can tell by the lengths I went to (or, more appropriately, urged a friend I had never met face to face to go to on my behalf) to get any copy of this recording, if the master tapes could be located, I would be willing to fund the remaster and rerelease of Ka`alaea so that a new generation of Hawaiian music fans could enjoy this recording that I have held so dear. The recording quality notwithstanding, I hope you, too, have enjoyed this rare glimpse into 1980s-era Genoa Keawe and her reunion with long-time friends in a recording studio that yielded what I consider to be one of her finest moments on record.
Next time: Aunty Genoa transitions from the 80s to the 90s with another fine moment on record – one which you will thankfully be able to find on CD…