Genoa Keawe Hulas and Hulas Again

With the demise of 49th State Records, Genoa Keawe needed a new musical home. By this time Aunty Genoa had the wherewithal to produce her own recordings – all, that is, but the funding. But in 1965, local entrepreneur and burgeoning record producer Don McDiarmid, Jr. came calling and enlisted Aunty Genoa to record for his up-and-coming Hula Records label.  

Hula Records claims to be the oldest continuously operating record label in Hawai`i. With all due respect, while this may be technically true, it is somewhat disingenuous. Three generations of McDiarmids have made a go at the record business in Hawai`i, but the first attempt was anything but successful. The elder Don McDiarmid (composer of such famous hapa-haole songs as “Little Brown Gal,” “My Wahine and Me,” and “When Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop”) produced an album of eight songs on four 78rpm shellac discs in 1947 for the first incarnation of Hula Records. But fewer than 200 of these 78rpm disc sets made it to stores because the fragile shellac broke in transit. (Whoops!) Another Hula Records release was not offered until more than a decade later.  

The premise for the new Hula Records was the same as for the old Hula Records: Recordings intended for the hula, which continued to grow in popularity. There was no better choice to record some of the earliest records for this label’s revival than Aunty Genoa since she had run her own hula studio and knew the needs of the hula dancer. She stuck to “the standards” – the songs that dancers are called upon to dance in public on a moment’s notice to this day nearly 50 years later. The two records that Aunty Genoa recorded for Hula Records – Party Hulas and Luau Hulas – have been continuously in print since their mid-1960s releases, even through every change in technology and format. I have seen or owned copies of Party Hulas in every format from the LP record to the open reel tape to the 8-track tape to the cassette tape to the CD and now the MP3. In fact, Party Hulas has been deemed so representative of traditional Hawaiian music that Hula had even licensed the masters for release in other countries to such esteemed labels as London Records (better known for being the label home of the Rolling Stones). 

John Berger’s recent edition of Hawaiian Music & Musicians refers to the aggregation involved in making these recordings as a “super group.” That is true, and at the same time it is also a gross understatement. Aunty Genoa brought together four of Hawai`i’s finest musicians in their own right for these two albums. They also just happened to be four of her great friends as well. Violet Pahu Liliko`i was a multi-instrumentalist with a lovely voice, but on these recordings she plays the upright bass. Composer and song-archivist Vicki I`i Rodrigues – already a Hula Records recording artist by that point – handles the first rhythm guitar. Pauline Kekahuna – who led her own group, the Hau`oli Girls, and her own hula studio and who ultimately co-founded the esteemed Merrie Monarch Hula Festival – has the second rhythm guitar chair – a guitar style that is still being emulated today as it is perfect for the hula. (The rhythm guitar provides nearly all of the rhythmic foundation for the hula since the typical Hawaiian band does not employ a drummer.) Aunty Genoa handles the chores on the `ukulele. And the legendary Benny Rogers plays the steel guitar. Benny was Genoa’s “go to” steel guitarist both in live performance and on the 49th State Records releases. (You heard Benny on some – but not all – of the 49th State Records releases featured on Ho’olohe Hou in the past few days.) The “sound” that this group created remains the template for hula music and for every next generation of traditional Hawaiian music groups to this day.  

One other important note for those not previously indoctrinated in the finer points of the hula… The hula is an interpretation of the mele (song lyrics). This is why you have never seen anyone dance hula to an instrumental song. Hula Records and Aunty Genoa believed the same thing: That if the music were really intended for the hula, no matter how talented the musicians in the studio, they don’t get a solo. Because what is the hula dancer supposed to do while Benny Rogers is taking his steel guitar solo? (Go back and listen to Aunty Genoa’s recordings on the 49th State Records label posted over the last few days. Notice anything? Not one instrumental solo. These are vocal recordings from start to finish.) 

Because these two Hula Records recordings remain in print as CDs and MP3s, I encourage you to own both of them if you do not already. But to honor this period in Aunty Genoa’s career, I have offered up three of my favorites from these two albums.  

The set opens with “Hola `Epae” – also known as “The Five O’Clock Hula.” This mele speaks of the gentleman who paid a visit to his lover at the appointed hour – only to discover that someone else had beaten him to it. The song opens with an iconic lick from Benny Rogers’ steel guitar. That intro is still used today by different slack key and steel guitar artists, but the riff remains of undetermined origins. During the period when “Hola `Epae” was recorded, the riff was being used simultaneously by Benny Rogers and slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth. Others have attributed the lick to steel guitarist Jules Ah See. But some say the interesting, almost R&B-like riff goes back more than a decade earlier to a steel guitarist far ahead of his time, Jacob Keli`ikoa.  

“Ku`u Lei Hoku” is one of a handful songs for which Aunty Genoa is known – those signature songs which, along with “`Alika” and “I Ali`i No `Oe,” Aunty Genoa could not get off a stage without singing. In fact, I will throw “I Ali`i No `Oe” into this set for good measure.  

Next time: The entrepreneurial Genoa Keawe goes into the record business for herself…


Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-28-14_-_Genoa_Keawe_Tribute_-_Part_5.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 12:28pm EDT