Hawaii Calls - Haunani Kahalewai

While Hawaii Calls creator and host Webley Edwards was known to recruit well established stars of the local Hawai`i music scene for the show, Haunani Kahalewai was – as accurately recounted by cast member Nina Keali`iwahamana in a 1980 interview with KCCN Radio – a product of the radio show. Born in Hilo on the island of Hawai`i, Haunani largely lived and worked in obscurity. But eventually her voice was used for the soundtrack of a movie filmed on location in Hawai`i, and when Edwards heard the soundtrack and that voice – ranging from her pure contralto to a soaring mezzosoprano, which was used to full effect on that soundtrack with her voice soaring well above the chorus – he simply said, "Find that voice!" Hawaii Calls longtime arranger/conductor Al Kealoha Perry found Haunani working at a small resort on Kaua`i and recruited her to join the cast.

Edwards was right about his hunch, and Haunani quickly went from regular cast member to one of Hawaii Calls superstars – in terms of her popularity, becoming the show’s female equivalent of Alfred Apaka. Whether singing in the contralto or the mezzosoprano range, audiences immediately recognized her rare and unique voice, and she became known worldwide simply by her first name. She first appeared on record on the fourth LP in the series spawned by Webley Edwards’ contract with Capitol Records, Waikiki!, released in 1957. As there is little documented history about Haunani Kahalewai and her time with Hawaii Calls (or, for that matter, as the successful solo artist she became), the release of this recording likely marks the approximate year she joined the cast of radio show. The Ho`olohe Hou archives corroborate this since she does not appear on a Hawaii Calls radio broadcast until that same year.

That we must take educated guesses about such matters is a pity. As influential as Haunani became as a local Hawai`i recording artist, as critically important as she was in spreading Hawaiian music across the country and around the globe with her national recording contracts with Capitol and Decca, and with a voice like no other with a supernatural three-and-a-half octave range, Haunani does not merit so much as a Wikipedia page (Alfred Apaka does) or a personal fan site. She does not even warrant an entry in the seminal work on the history of the music industry in Hawai`i (Kanahele and Berger’s Hawaiian Music & Musicians) – not even as a footnote to the entry on Hawaii Calls. There are no commercially available CDs of her music, and a quick glance at iTunes reveals that there is only one MP3 download available. In other words, Haunani remains as obscure now as before Webley Edwards discovered her on that movie soundtrack. And this, after all, is why Ho`olohe Hou exists: To preserve the memories and voices of the entertainers who defined Hawaiian music over the last century. So it gives me great honor and pride to use this space to give new life to songs Haunani performed on Hawaii Calls in its heyday and which have likely been heard nowhere else in the 50 years since their original broadcast.

At first listen these radio broadcasts will sound like time-worn LP records complete with ticks, clicks, pops, and even the occasional skip. This is because Hawaii Calls programs – because of the limitations of technology and time zones – were never really aired “live.” In the earliest days of the program, the only means of long-distance transmissions of such broadcasts was shortwave radio. But by the Haunani era of the program in the late 1950s, the show employed an elaborate system of transcription recorders which cut the radio shows direct to disc as if they were in a recording studio. These discs were sent out to radio stations and played over the air like the records they were. Most of these transcription records were tossed or destroyed by the radio stations because Hawaii Calls was never in reruns – offering a new program each week. The Ho`olohe Hou vaults maintain instead open reel copies of these shows – likely preserved by the radio stations or private collectors on tape before tossing the shellac or vinyl originals. Hindsight being what it is, we now know this was a huge mistake since in the long run tape is a far more fragile medium than vinyl or shellac – subject to differences in temperature and humidity that sturdier media are not. In a best case, climate subjects magnetic tape to expansion and contraction that results in occasional variations of speed – known as “wow and flutter,” which to the ear sounds like the music randomly speeding up and slowing down or changing pitch. Sometimes the tape merely becomes brittle and snaps – requiring a “splice” where the tape is rejoined together, resulting in some loss of music at the splice, which to the ear will sound like a “skip.” But in a worst case, I spooled up a 1950s show on open reel tape that was so fragile that the magnetic particles of the tape were unspooling and falling to the floor like so much brown dust before they ever crossed the tape machine head. In other words, I was watching the music disintegrate before I ever got to hear it. I have no idea what was lost to the ravages of time on that particular reel. Suffice it to say, I have pulled together an hour of material by Haunani Kahalewai, but the remastering of that material has taken nearly five times as long. Trust that this was an absolute labor of love, but the upshot is that in this digital era where there is little tolerance for less-than-CD quality recordings, we will have to agree to tolerate subpar sound quality in order to appreciate these lost recordings again. As I know how difficult it was to attain my copies of these recordings – and now that you see why so few copies continue to exist – in some cases we may be hearing the only copy of a recording still in existence.

I usually subscribe to the show biz axiom “save the best for last,” but I open this set with one of my favorite moments from the Hawaii Calls radio shows. Haunani has been known to perform and record in languages from Hawaiian to English, Tahitian to French, even Fijian. Here she opens a late 1950s episode of the program with the Tahitian aparima “Marcelle Vahine,” in an arrangement that features everything you could hope for in a Hawaii Calls production number: an a capella cold open from Haunani and the ladies trio comprised of sisters Nina, Lani, and Lahela before the men’s chorus led by Benny Kalama chimes in and Jules Ah See’s steel guitar sets the tempo for the musicians. This performance reminds us of what Webley Edwards was trying to accomplish with the program and so often did successfully: Convince audiences that heaven is in Hawai`i.

Fans of Hawaiian music are likely familiar with the iconic recording of “Blue Hawaiian Moonlight” by Gabby Pahinui from the 1970s – one of the few recordings in circulation on which the slack key guitar folk hero plays his first instrument, the steel guitar. So it is an interesting contrast to hear the song played here nearly 20 years earlier by steel guitarist Jules Ah See with Haunani taking the vocal lead. In this typically Hawaiian arrangement, it is difficult to believe that this hapa-haole tune that is a favorite of all Hawaiians was written by the Nashville songwriting duo of Al Dexter and James Paris.

Similarly, it is almost as inconceivable that the beautiful but rarely performed “Hawaii Sang Me To Sleep” was composed by a pair of guys from New York City and New Jersey. Matty Malneck was primarily known as a string player specializing in violin and viola, but he was known to write a few good tunes (such as “Goody, Goody,” a staple of the repertoires of such pop and jazz icons as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald). Frank Loesser is probably the more famous of the two, having earned multiple Tony Awards for writing both the lyrics and music to such beloved Broadway hits as Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The pair teamed up to score the 1939 Universal Pictures release Hawaiian Nights which featured an orchestra led by steel guitar great Sol Ho`opi`i. Few performers in Hawai`i have touched the song (and it has rarely been recorded since the 78 rpm era). But Haunani touches it here and makes magic with it.

This is just the beginning of a lengthy tribute to Hawai`i’s “First Lady of Song. This is Ho`olohe Hou. Keep listening…

Next time: More forgotten classics from Haunani and Hawaii Calls…



Direct download: 01_Hawaii_Calls_-_1957-1962.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 10:37pm EDT