Sat, 22 November 2014
Continuing our look at Haunani Kahalewai and the Hawaii Calls radio program…
I have mentioned here previously that at various periods in its history Hawaii Calls was hampered by a shortage of material. With a song library of approximately 1,500 titles and with the cast performing no fewer than ten songs for each weekly episode, the show could not go more than three years without repeating a title. Fortunately or unfortunately, Edwards favored some songs more than others – often featuring the same song twice within a few weeks of each other but by two different singers (which demonstrates, I think, a particular disdain for his mainland audiences which did not speak Hawaiian and which he probably felt “would never know the difference”). This was particularly true with any brand new composition which the show would cling to desperately until they rung the life out of it. Such is the case with the comic hula “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands,” a new song published in 1957 and composed by Mary Johnson (often credited as “Liko Johnston”) and Tony Todaro (the songwriting duo responsible for such hapa-haole favorites as “Somewhere In Hawaii” and “There’s No Place Like Hawaii”). It made its debut in the 20th Century Fox film The Revolt of Mamie Stover in which it was sung by Jane Russell. But less than a year after its film debut, “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands” was performed twice on Hawaii Calls within just a few weeks of each other – first by Sonny Nicholas (a version heard here earlier), and then again by Haunani. Fortunately the cast had not rung the life out of the number by the time Haunani got around to it. And, if anything, the cast breathed new life into it for their then new girl singer with the addition of the “doo-wop” background vocals by the show’s male chorus led by Benny Kalama and the jazzy steel guitar of Jules Ah See. (Listen as Jules uses his steel to emulate a “wolf whistle” in the bridge.)
Mary Jane Montano composed the lyrics for “Old Plantation,” a song about the elegant estate of Curtis and Victoria Ward at the corner of King and Ward Streets (the site of what is now the Neal Blaisdell Center). David Nape set the lyric to music, a melodic and harmonic wonder which should be considered – like Nape’s other compositions (“Pua Mohala,” “Ku`u Ipo,” “Ku`u I`ini”) – advanced for the period in which it was written. (According to one copy of the sheet music, “Old Plantation” was copyrighted in 1906.). The primary song form of that period was hula ku`i – in which a single chord structure and melody are repeated over and over again (without a bridge or chorus) strictly in the service of supporting the lyric content. (This song form was – and continues to be – the primary song form for accompanying the hula, and the name of the form is simply translated as “to string together a hula.”) But Nape was writing a more complicated song form which deviated from the I-IV-V chord structure and repetitive melody to more meandering melodies and unexpected harmonic shifts. “Old Plantation” has at least three distinct sections – each having its own melody and unique chord structure which does not play upon or borrow from the other two. The middle section, in particular, demonstrates that Nape was thinking about other song forms that were not native to Hawai`i – one of the earliest Hawaiian songs to venture into a related key center in the bridge (in this case meandering from the tonic – here, the key of C – to its relative minor – Am – and then to the dominant – G.) And, in an interesting twist to the arrangement, Hawaii Calls arranger Al Kealoha Perry complicates the song even further – unexpectedly moving to the unrelated key center from C (when Haunani opens the song solo) to A (when the ladies chorus joins her). The combined voices of the ladies of Hawaii Calls stir the heart – even for those who do not understand the Hawaiian lyric – and the harmonics from Jules’ steel guitar are like stars shining over the Ward estate.
Finally, Haunani and the cast reach back 20 years to a song from 1937, the popular “Song Of Old Hawaii” with lyrics by Gordon Beecher and music by composer/publisher Johnny Noble. This chestnut of the Hawaiian music canon epitomizes the hapa-haole idiom – songs about Hawai`i’s unique charms but written in English for all the world to understand.
As we listen to Haunani’s voice again together, it makes me long to actually see Haunani perform just once. If only there were video of her from this era.
Oh, but there is.
Next time: Haunani Kahalewai in motion again for the first time in nearly 50 years…