Hawaii Calls – Sisters

Continuing our look at both the talented Rodrigues sisters and the Hawaii Calls TV show which ran for a scant 26 episodes from 1965-66…

If Nina was known as the singer and Lani as the hula dancer, from this clip it would appear that their respective roles remain intact. But that is only half of the story. Nina has the vocal lead here, but you can clearly hear the Hawaii Calls women’s vocal trio which during this period was all three of original show veteran’s Vicki I`i Rodrigues’ musical daughters – Nina Keali`iwahamana, Lani Custino, and Lahela “Mackie” Rodrigues (who replaced Punini McWayne in the trio with her departure). This means, then, that Lani is accompanying herself on vocals as she dances the hula. All courtesy of the magic of video! The sisters laid down their vocal tracks in a Honolulu studio in advance, and then Lani and the Hawaii Calls hula maids were filmed on location dancing to those audio tracks.

Hey, if it’s good enough for Madonna…

We described Lani’s approach to the hula here previously, and with this video clip she proves she was among the very best of the era – living up to the title of R. Alex Anderson’s song “Lovely Hula Hands.” It was just such a vision that inspired Anderson to compose the song. At a party where a hula was being performed, he overheard someone say, “Aren’t her hands lovely?” And the rest is history. The song was first associated with hula dancer legend Aggie Auld but applies equally well to Lani. For those not yet indoctrinated into the beauty and joy of the hula, it is, of course, a storytelling dance in which the story is told with the hands. Few were better at this than Lani Custino – which is why her hula hands were captured in still frame for everything from travel magazines to hotel showroom posters.

And this raises one of the video’s curiosities. While it may sound like I am repeatedly picking on host Webley Edwards when we are supposed to be celebrating him and his creation, I am not. Or, at least, that is not my intention. I look at it more as ethnographic research – an attempt at putting Hawaii Calls and its players in their appropriate historical and cultural context. Some of the choices the show made – many masterminded by Edwards – would seem inconsistent to some cultural experts, and this is likely because many of the show’s creative decisions were made by a leader who was not Hawaiian and who perhaps did not always seek out cultural experts on such matters. Such thinking is likely rooted in the host’s desire to please his audience more than any desire to please the locals. There is an example of such a cultural inconsistency in this video. After a full run through of the verses and bridge sung by Nina, there is an instrumental section where steel guitarist Barney Isaacs is featured but nobody is singing. If the hula is a storytelling dance in which the hands interpret the lyrics of the song being sung, then when there is no singing, there can be no dancing, right? Sure, the dancers know the words of the song and can sing them to themselves in their heads. But that is not, in fact, part of the cultural tradition. To the Hawaiian people, words have divine or supernatural power – referred to as mana. And for this reason, in the hula tradition, the word comes first and the movement second. Quite literally, there can be no hula when nobody is singing, and so musicians who perform for the hula are well aware that they will not get to “show off” with a solo – at least not during a hula number. The decision to allow the ladies to continue to hula while there are no words being sung is curiously contradictory to the hula tradition.

To add to the curiousness, notice that lead hula dancer Lani Custino disappears from the scene for a full 50 seconds – the camera panning to the two accompanying hula dancers at 2:05 in the video during the instrumental section and Lani ducking back into the scene (from behind a tree, of all things) at 2:57 when sister Nina begins to sing again. Coincidence? Probably not. I have examined this scene a few dozen times now, and my conjecture is that having been trained by renowned hula master Iolani Luahine and fully understanding the power of the connection between word and movement in the hula, Lani very likely consciously objected to the producer’s decision to have an instrumental solo in a song intended for the hula and refused to dance during the instrumental break. And since the song’s tracks were already laid down in the recording studio and could not be changed on location, it would appear that a last minute decision was made to allow Lani to excuse herself from the scene during the instrumental section in order to remain true to the cultural practice and tradition.

There are many more such curiosities among both the TV and radio versions of the Hawaii Calls programs, and we will no doubt examine those in due time. But, for now, it is only to enjoy a scene that few (if any) have seen in nearly 50 years that features Hawaiian entertainment legends who also just happen to be sisters.

Next time: A hana hou from Nina and Lani – this one in Technicolor…



Direct download: Lani_Custino_-_Lovely_Hula_Hands.m4v
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 10:55am EDT