Young Genoa’s Humble Beginnings

Genoa Keawe’s career began with a dare. Young Genoa was known to run home from school at lunch to hear Johnny Almeida’s program on KGMB radio. One day Uncle Johnny asked listeners to come down to the station and sing a song. Genoa took him up on that offer and ran down to the station and sang “For You A Lei” – dedicating it to her niece, Momi B. (who would go on to become an entertainer in her own right, first with the famous “Bee Sisters,” the group that debuted “The Hukilau Song” on record). Genoa sang, and as the expression goes, a star was born. Johnny asked her back to the show over and over again and eventually made Genoa a permanent member of his group. 

At about this same time, George Ching – a record store owner with an entrepreneurial spirit and an ear for good music – decided that he was going to have to start supplying the store with new recordings himself to meet the demand for Hawaiian music from the servicemen returning home to the mainland who desired musical keepsakes of their stay. Ching would have to become a record producer. He enlisted John Almeida as the musical director, arranger, and – of course – talent recruiter for the fledgling label. With so much talk of Hawai’i becoming the 49th state in the union, the forward-looking Ching named the label 49th State Records. The label would be long defunct by the time Hawai’i became, in fact, the 50th state.  

In 1946, Genoa recorded the first of nearly 140 singles for 49th State. I own more than 100 of these sides, and I am going to serve up a few of these over the next few installments at Ho’olohe Hou. Some have been remastered for the digital era by Michael Cord for his Hana Ola Records label since Cord purchased the entire 49th State Records catalog, and so many Genoa Keawe sides remain in print. But not all of them. As recording and playback technology evolved rapidly in the 1950s, Ching frequently repackaged the original 78rpm singles and released them again – first as 45rpm singles and single “booklets” with four or five discs to a package, and then as 10” long playing records with four songs to the side (eight per disc), and then finally again as 12” LPs. Cord has focused on remastering and rereleasing the LPs. This means that there are numerous 49th State singles that have not yet seen the light of day as a CD or MP3. I am going to give new life to some of those out of print recordings from Aunty Genoa over the next few articles. 

This set opens with Genoa’s first 49th State release – which is also the first ever recording of a now classic Johnny Almeida composition. “Maile Swing” refers to a beloved poetically as the maile vine. Many Hawaiian mele (song lyric) utilize nature – and, in particular, flowers – as references to lovers and loved ones. The maile is a vine that twists around the other wildlife on which it grows. So it is a popular metaphor for two people who become tangled up in each other (so to speak). Almeida also uses a popular poetic technique among the Hawaiian haku mele (composers) – the inclusion of foreign words in the Hawaiian lyric. He writes:  

Sweet and lovely / Sweet and lovely

Ke onaona o ka maile / Is the fragrance of the maile

Ho’oipo ke `ala ho`oheno / A delightful scent 

Sure i ka pili poli / That clings to the bosom

Finally, it is not merely by accident that Uncle Johnny referred to “swing” in the title. Not only does the song swing and sway in a jazzy style, but it also borrows its unusual chord structure from the jazz idiom. While much Hawaiian music up to this point was of the hula ku’i form (a simple, somewhat repetitive style intended primarily for the hula with a repeating verse and a “vamp” to signal the coming of the next verse), Almeida here employs an unusual bridge to tremendous and startling effect – transitioning from the tonic G to Eb. One might say that “Maile Swing” marked the coming of an exciting new, swinging era of Hawaiian music.  

Genoa then offers us “Mahalo E Hilo Hanakahi” from the pen of falsetto singer, composer, and hula master John Pi`ilani Watkins (who would himself become a popular 49th State Records recording artist). At first blush, the song seems to extol the virtues of the town of Hilo on the east side of Hawai`i island (often erroneously referred to as the “Big Island”). But listen to the poetry – referring to “aloha poina`ole” (unforgettable welcome), “me ke aloha o ka makamaka” (friendly and loving people), and “me ka maile `ala onaona / po`ina `ole ia” (the fragrant maile / unforgettable). This could be a song about Hilo’s hospitality, or it could be a song about… Well, I will leave it to your imagination and to the Hawaiian linguistic experts. (For assistance in your interpretation, revisit the poetic symbolism of the maile used in the previous song.) 

Like Johnny Almeida, Lena Machado was known for incorporating jazz, blues, Latin, and other idioms into her Hawaiian compositions and arrangements. A popular Hawaiian entertainer – one of the first to do around the world tours – Lena would get melancholy away from home, away from family, away from her husband, Luciano, whom she adored. She and Lu called each other “Ei Nei,” a contraction of “E Ia Nei,” meaning “You, there” but which has come to mean “my darling.” On these tours, Lena would experience many sleepless nights (as evidenced in her other compositions such as “Aloha Nō). The melancholy she experienced in the wee small hours resulted in songs which in any other idiom would be called the blues.  

As evening shadows fall 

I hear your sweet melody 

It brings back fond memories of you 

“Ei Nei” is the Hawaiian blues not only in lyric content, but also in chord structure. There are few other examples of Hawaiian song in which the bridge ends with a sliding dominant chord (in this case, F7 – F#7 – F7). In a few years’ time, that riff would become a staple of the doo-wop playbook. Here Aunty Genoa gives us Lena Machado’s classic “Ei Nei” – a recording that remains out of print.  

Also known as “The Stevedore Hula,” “Kipikoa” – a Bina Mossman composition – pays homage to the skill and prowess of the dockworkers. But what does she mean by “skill?” This is but one of so many Hawaiian songs which employ the clever poetic technique known as kaona, multiple layers of hidden meanings and double-entendres worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet. For example, “lulu lima” literally means “shake hands” but is often taken to mean something even friendlier. But especially revealing is the line “ha`awi ke aloha  me ka `eha koni / me ka Hawaiian hospitality” (“giving aloha until it hurts / with Hawaiian hospitality”). I must stop for I fear I have already said too much… But notice again how – like Uncle Johnny before her – Auntie Bina utilizes English words in the Hawaiian lyric. Aunty Genoa’s version of “Kipikoa” is a classic, but sadly it, too, remains out of print.  

Next time: More rare Genoa Keawe on 49th State Records as we continue to explore the earliest part of her music career…

Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-26-14_-_Genoa_Keawe_Tribute_-_Part_2.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 11:19am EDT