Mon, 27 October 2014
Genoa Keawe’s relationship with Hula Records was short-lived because she realized back then what is still true today. Simply put, the one who fares least well financially in the record business is the one whose creative blood, sweat, and tears is critical to that process: The artist. But Aunty Genoa possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, and so she believed that she could run an entire record business herself. As it turns out, she was right.
In 1966, with the help of tourists who became Aunty Genoa’s great friends, Phil and Edith Helsley, she started Genoa Keawe Records. And from the start, as she related to journalist Lynn Cook shortly before her passing, Aunty Genoa was the producer, distributor, bookkeeper, and head of public relations. And with her taxi driving experience, she used to joke, she didn’t mind delivering a weighty case of vinyl LPs personally. Genoa went on to produce several up-and-coming artists in the world of Hawaiian music as well as some veterans deserving of being heard again, but her first two recordings on her own label were of her own music. And these first two Genoa Keawe LPs on the GK Records label have also become classics.
The same “super group” that participated in the Hula Records sessions were on hand again for the sessions at Commercial Recording Studios at 333 Cooke Street in the Kaka`ako section of Honolulu. With engineering wunderkind Bob Lang (of so many sessions yielding innumerable unforgettable and historically important recordings, as well as the weekly Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts for more years than one can count) at the mixing console, Genoa was joined by her friends Violet Pahu Liliko`i on bass, Vicki I`i Rodrigues on guitar, Pauline Kekahuna on the second guitar (she is still considered one of the great rhythm guitarists in the history of Hawaiian music), the legendary Benny Rogers on steel guitar, and – at the second sessions – relief steel guitarist Joe Custino (of Hawaii Calls fame). (It is still unclear why Benny sat out some of the sessions for the second LP.) Together this group laid down an additional two dozen classic tracks as a companion to the previous two dozen classics from the Hula Records sessions – resulting in the LPs entitled Hulas of Hawaii and By Request. Despite that the music Genoa and crew would make on her own label was of the same caliber – and staunch traditionalism – of their previous efforts, the artists at Neiman Advertising added to the appeal – and, dare, I say, class – of the proceedings with a new kind of album cover for that period. The latter LP, in particular, sees Genoa in an aqua and gold brocade holoku – the likes of which I had not seen before and have not seen since – and bedecked in about 100 pounds of precious Ni`ihau shell leis. “Class” with a capital “C.”
I thought I would share with you just a few of my personal favorites from Aunty Genoa’s GK Records years…
“Mana`o No`u `Ia `Oe” was composed by Danny Kua`ana, an `ukulele player, falsetto singer, and bandleader who spent most of his career on the West Coast (but who did – as you may recall from reading here – a brief stint at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York City in the 1940s with the group led by Lani McIntire). He composed the lovely but rarely heard song for his daughter. To date, the song has only been recorded three times: once by the composer, once by Aunty Genoa, and most recently by Na Hoa’s Ikaika Blackburn.
Often misattributed to Genoa’s mentor, John Kamealoha Almeida, “E Ku`ulei, E Ku`uipo” was, in fact, composed by Kalei Kaluna. The sultry song seems to be the only written by Kaluna, and yet it is one beloved and oft performed and recorded by generations of Hawaiian musicians. The English verses are not a translation of the Hawaiian (they rarely are), so the listener will need to piece together this short-but-sweet love story. Although the song is usually taken at a somewhat snappier tempo, here Aunty Genoa delivers the song like a bawdy backroom ballad – like a secret only you and she will ever know.
“Moku O Keawe” is another of those songs that is often misattributed to the wrong composer. In this case, falsetto legend and prolific composer Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln usually receives the credit. But Uncle Bill only wrote the music at the urging of a composer friend, Mary Kawena Puku`i, who brought him the words of this song that is so old that its original melody had long been forgotten. It was, in fact, written by Emalia Kaihumua, a hula dancer in the court of King Kalākaua during his reign. “Moku O Keawe” is the Hawaiians’ affectionate name for the island of Hawai`i (so called for its ancient chief, Keawe, and often erroneously referred to as the “Big Island”). There is an entire sub-genre of Hawaiian songs about being homesick for Hawai`i when one is far away. This might be the earliest of those. Composed when Emalia was away from home on the mainland in the 1890s, she compares Hawai`i to places she visited and clearly prefers home as evidenced by such assertions as “`Ike I ke hau ho`opua kea `ili” (“See the snow that bleaches the skin”).
“Lae Lae” might be the Hawaiian poetic equivalent of “tra-la-la” (or perhaps Sinatra’s “shoo-bee-doo-bee-doo”). Or perhaps – in some cases – “lae lae” beckons the listener to fill-in-the-blanks or read-between-the-lines. Composer Bina Mossman used all of the kaona (layers of meaning and metaphor) in her composer’s toolkit to craft this classic song which carries on the tradition of allowing the protagonists to remain anonymous – referring to them instead as flowers.
If you’re wondering why we’re listening to these recordings from my scratchy old LPs in low resolution 128 kbps MP3s, it’s my subversive way of encouraging you to run out and pick up these two recordings (Hulas of Hawaii and By Request) in digital remastered CD format. You deserve to hear these beautiful tracks in all of their hi-fi splendor just as Aunty Genoa and engineer Bob Lang intended us to. And, besides which, Aunty Genoa was a businesswoman, and that business lives on and cannot continue to live on unless we support it – ensuring that GK Records will be able to share Aunty Genoa’s music for generations upon generations to come.
As a somewhat bittersweet epitaph to the GK Records story, after 32 years at the same location Commercial Recording Studios at 333 Cooke Street in Kaka`ako (where these iconic recordings were made) would lose its lease and close its doors in 1997. On October 31st. Aunty Genoa’s birthday.
Next time: The performer steps out from behind the microphone and becomes a record producer…