Tue, 25 November 2014
Benny Kalama is probably the least publicized entertainer in the superstar echelon in Hawaiian musical history. True – everyone knows about his musicianship, but he does everything so well he is simply taken for granted. Similar to movie stars who perform with excellence but are never nominated for an Oscar.
When it comes to arrangements for Hawaiian songs, Benny is incomparable. He plays all stringed instruments as well as any musician. His mellow baritone and smooth falsetto vocalizing should rate him as one of Hawaii’s greatest singers. Benny’s conducting is absolutely flawless, and his pleasant demeanor makes his actions seem effortless.
For as long as I have been writing about Hawaiian music, I am fairly certain I have never quoted from this book. With no offense intended to the author – a transplant to Hawai`i who became one of its most beloved composers of hapa-haole songs – his tome about the history of Hawaiian music is filled with hyperbole as it focuses primarily on Todaro’s personal friends (or, at least, entertainers he considered friends or perhaps just entertainers he hoped would be his friends if he wrote the utmost complimentary things about them). But I quote him here because I have heard every moment of Benny Kalama’s work on record, and, quite frankly, Todaro’s description paints the perfect portrait of a musician I have admired since childhood and who I count among my heroes. I fancy myself a writer, but I admit that I could not have put my sentiments about Benny Kalama in writing any better than Todaro did.
When it comes to Benny Kalama, words like “incomparable” and “flawless” are the furthest thing from hyperbole. They should be considered understatement.
When writing previously of such Hawaii Calls stalwarts as Sonny Nicholas and Jimmy Kaopuiki who were not the “stars” of Hawaii Calls but who might otherwise fall into the category of “They Also Served,” I asserted that the rhythm section is too often relegated to anonymity – that a good musician in the rhythm section not only knows his instrument but is content to spend his career making others sound good. It is a support role that must be fulfilled admirably, and this is what Todaro means when he compares Kalama to those actors who make the film more special but are “never nominated for an Oscar.” Kalama’s name may have been slightly more recognizable than the others, but he made few recordings under his own name – remaining content to arrange and conduct and make the artists with whom he collaborated sound even better than they knew they could sound.
You have read about Kalama here before when I paid tribute to one of his earliest musical aggregations – the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders, led by his friend Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs. And I also tribute him when I began my series on 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life. But we have not yet spoken about Kalama in the context of perhaps his most famous role: arranger for the last few years of the 40-year run of the Hawaii Calls radio show.
This was by no means Benny’s first stint on radio. He had previously performed on “The Voice of Hawaii,” a weekly broadcast from Honolulu station KGU beamed on a national hook-up. During this period he worked off and on with Alfred Apaka, and around 1955 Kalama backed up Apaka in his show in Las Vegas. So when Henry J. Kaiser appointed Apaka the Entertainment Director of his newly opened Hawaiian Village Hotel in 1957, Kalama was Apaka’s first choice to join him there as a musical director and arranger where he spent the next nearly 15 years – staying even after Apaka’s death and working with (among others) Hilo Hattie. Although it is little documented, Apaka credited Kalama with helping him achieve his tremendous success – Benny coaching Alfred years earlier in developing his vocal style and unique phrasing.
And here is where the history becomes less than entirely clear. Benny joined the Hawaii Calls cast in 1952, but we cannot know if it was Apaka (already a cast member) who recommended him to show creator/host Webley Edwards or if Edwards recruited Kalama directly based on his already two decades of credits on the local music scene. But it matters little how he got there. Kalama was the perfect addition to the cast as he could play any instrument handed to him (but listen closely and you will hear – not just in this segment, but in any of the segments previously featuring any of the Hawaii Calls singers – Kalama’s rhythmically exciting `ukulele style). He was also adding his arrangements fairly early on with Apaka performing on the radio show arrangements Benny created especially for him for their evening shows at the Hawaiian Village. (Listen again to Kalama’s arranging touch on the Broadway classic “Bali Ha`i” which I posted earlier.) With such effortless talent, Kalama would eventually become musical director and arranger for Hawaii Calls in 1967 with Al Kealoha Perry’s retirement. But as we are not yet there in our chronology, let’s first take a look at Benny Kalama the singer.
The set opens with a song rife with kaona (Hawaiian-style poetic double-entendre). “Lepe `Ula`ula” hails from the Waimea area of the Big Island which is home to one of the nation’s largest ranches. So our protagonist is a cowboy who claims to have caught his lover with a lasso. The composer writes “`Elua wale iho ho`i māua / Ka hau hāli`i a`o Waimea” (“Just the two of us covered by the dew of Waimea”), and those who understand kaona will tell you that typically whenever rain, mist, or dew are mentioned, it is a not-so-veiled reference to love-making. Because the song is cowboy-themed, it is usually taken at a peppier clip than the relaxed tempo Benny takes here. He is accompanied by the ladies vocal trio of sisters Nina Keali`iwahamana and Lani Custino with Punini McWayne. (The third sister – Lahela Rodrigues – would not join the cast for a few more years.)
If the lei is the most precious symbol of affection the Hawaiians can give, what could be more precious than a lei of flowers? A lei of stars, perhaps? In 1949, composer R. Alex Anderson published the now classic “I’ll Weave A Lei of Stars,” but a few years later, another composer extended Anderson’s analogy to outfit the object of his affection with a lei of stars, a gown woven from the skies, and a rainbow for a shawl. Benny sings that oft-forgotten follow-up, “To Make You Love Me, Ku`uipo.”
Finally, a novelty number with which Benny will forever be associated. With his best Scottish brogue, Kalama weaves a medley of the traditional Scottish folk song “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” with the song of the “Hawaiian Scotsman” composed by Hawai`i’s own Solomon Kekipi Bright. Benny performed this song many times both live and on record, and it became one of his most famous and well-loved performances. Listen here also as steel guitarist Jules Ah See mimics the sound of the bagpipes with his Magnatone steel guitar.
There’s still much more to come from one of my musical heroes – including a glimpse (or three) at Benny Kalama on video.
Next time: Benny sings another novelty tune… this time in Hawaiian… for TV!...
Trivia: “To Make You Love Me, Ku`uipo” was composed by a future Hawaii Calls cast member. Can you name him? (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you have Google.)