Sat, 22 November 2014
In 2004, while preparing for the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest, I was seeking out the lyrics to a song composed by Ida Alicante, “Ku`u Ipo, Ku`u Aloha, Po`ina`ole” (often referred to simply as “Ida’s Hula”). Tony Conjugacion made the only previous recording of this forgotten but still relevant song, but he and I had lost touch years before. But in the liner notes to Tony’s CD, he remarked that the lyrics to the song came from the songbook of Vicki I`i Rodrigues who had performed with Alicante long ago. Now, in Hawaiian music terminology, “songbook” rarely means a thing you order from Amazon.com. More often it means an archivist or performer’s personal collection – notes (often handwritten) scattered across three-ringers, boxes, and filing cabinets, sometimes orderly, but more likely in a state of disarray. It was my understanding that Auntie Vicki’s daughter was the keeper of her mother’s archives. But I had no idea how to reach her either.
Using my “Phone-A-Friend” lifeline, I rang up revered steel guitarist and music teacher Alan Akaka, and I simply asked, “I need to learn a song. Any idea how I can reach Auntie Nina?” And despite that we are friends, I could sense that Alan was hesitant to give out a celebrity friend’s contact information. But he did the next best thing. He said, “Let me see what I can do.” And about 45 minutes later, an email arrived in my Inbox with the subject line, “Aloha from Auntie Nina!” That was the beginning of a decade-long pen-pal-ship. Not necessarily a friendship since, interestingly, we have never been in the same room together. No, that’s not true. I have been in the audience where she has performed, but my attempts to get backstage to chat with my pen pal have been in vein.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a friend of Auntie Nina’s.”
“Sure, you are.”
(I knew I should have said “nephew.”)
But this is just the way things have turned out for Auntie Nina and me. I will email to tell her I’m coming to Hawai`i – only to discover that she is spending the same month in Las Vegas. She has invited me to events where other Hawaiian music notables would be present, but I was either already committed to paying gigs or other plans that breaking would simply be a social faux pas. So it is with me and my pen pal, Auntie Nina.
But even receiving an email from Auntie Nina still stirs incredulity in me. Nina Keali`iwahamana is one of those celebrities whose portrait (from the cover of an issue of Honolulu Magazine, the image you see here) has graced the wall of my home studio for nearly 20 years. I first heard that voice as a small child, and I thought she might as well be an angel and every day Christmas for it is truly a gift when Nina graces you with a song. Little could I know at the time that the lady whose voice was like the heavenly host incarnate was, in fact, born on Christmas Day.
As I mentioned here previously, Nina’s mother, noted musician, composer, and song archivist Vicki I`i Rodrigues, was with Hawaii Calls since its inception in 1935 until 1951 when daughter Lani took her place in the ladies chorus. Five years younger than her sister, Nina did not join the cast of Hawaii Calls until 1957 – several years after her. But while Lani made the most impact as a hula dancer, Nina sent spines tingling across the Hawaiian music-loving universe with her elegant mezzosoprano. For Nina, singing sounded as effortless as breathing and so you could not help but be put at ease at the sound of her voice. The addition of Nina to the cast was quite a coup for host Webley Edwards, one of whose primary goals for the program was to promote tourism. That voice was like the genie awakened from the lamp but willing to grant your three wishes – perhaps one of these to come to Hawai`i someday and soon to hear the voice in person.
And it’s still just like I remembered it! Nina is still active on the Hawaiian music scene – not with a regular weekly thing in Waikiki or anything like that, but when the project suits her and comports the appropriate sense of historical and cultural importance. Often this means a modern-day recreation of the Hawaii Calls program for live audiences from Japan to New York City. The radio program has been off the air since 1974, and Nina was with it from 1957 until its bitter end. But despite that this was 40 years ago, Nina’s voice has not suffered the ravages of time that some singers’ pipes have through misuse and abuse. Nina took care of her instrument, and it is as glorious as ever. We will explore her recording career when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates her birthday around the holidays. But, for now, keeping with the spirit of our theme the last few weeks, let’s look at Nina’s early years with the Hawaii Calls program.
I have remarked previously how the engineers for the Hawaii Calls radio broadcast – which, during this period, would be Bob Lang – strived to capture the entire experience with the limitation of using only audio. On the opening number here, you can hear the hula dancers using their ipu, a hollowed out gourd that is carefully prepared for use as a percussion instrument for the hula. Nina sings “Miloli`i,” a song which strays quickly from the Big Island town for which it is titled. The song relates composer John Makuakane’s travels from one island to another – including a quick pit stop on the mainland – and the unusual sights he encounters along the way. In Miloli`i (a town on the island of Hawai`i, south of Kailua-Kona and not far from Kealakekua – the town spoken of in “I Want To Go Back To My Little Grass Shack” – or Honaunau – in ancient times a place of refuge during war), a most stubborn donkey. In Waikiki, an elephant (a reference to Daisy, the pachyderm resident of the Honolulu Zoo in the 1930s). In San Francisco, a jet airplane. Of course! How else would he get home? Perhaps on the steamer ship he saw in Honolulu. I have written here previously that Hawaii Calls suffered at times from a limited song library. Even among the few Hawaii Calls broadcasts in the Ho`olohe Hou archives, I have versions of “Miloli`i” by Nina, Jimmy Kaopuiki, and Benny Kalama.
I have also commented here previously that host Webley Edwards’ lack of understanding of Hawaiian language and culture at time perhaps hampered his ability to communicate truthfully about the songs performed on his show. Nina’s performance of “Pōhai Ke Aloha” is a case in point. Edwards refers to this as a “love song” – a mistake made throughout history, even by some singers of the song. But this is not entirely accurate – unless Edwards meant a love song for a family. You have read here previously that early in her career Lena Machado was a featured singer with the Royal Hawaiian Band, and although she would eventually leave over a dispute with bandmaster Frank Vierra, the beginning of her association with the band years earlier under then bandmaster Mekia Kealaka`i was a wonderful time for her. Despite her very tumultuous and pubic separation from the band, Lena continued to look upon Kealaka`i fondly as mentor and friend, and he saw her as a daughter. Lena composed “Pōhai Ke Aloha” (which means “surrounded by love”) in honor of Kealaka`i, his wife, and his son and their home in the `Ewa Beach area of O`ahu. When the home was built, three hau trees were planted in the front yard. The trees grew to different heights – which, in Lena’s poetic mind, symbolized the three members of the Kealaka`i `ohana (or family). She references the trees in the second verse as “Kamanui, Kamalani, Kamaiki” – one for the father, one for the mother, and one for the son. It is this sentimentality that has confused many listeners – and performers – into believing that “Pōhai Ke Aloha” was written by Kealaka`i as a eulogy for his wife. For this performance, Nina is joined by sister Lani and the third member of the ladies vocal trio of that era, Miriam Punini McWayne.
When I introduced the short-lived television version of the Hawaii Calls show, I mentioned the curiosity that the show often featured performers one would never hear on the radio show, and because of the air time afforded these special guests, the TV program never got around to showing certain members of the radio program’s regular cast. Because of her graceful hula, there was nary an episode of the TV show that didn’t feature Lani Custino. But one of the repeatedly slighted was sister Nina whose voice could be heard on one song after the next on the TV programs, but whose face was never shown once in its 26 episodes. Nina could be heard, of course, because the audio portion was pre-recorded in a Honolulu recording studio and then lip-synched by the guest soloists. Nina can be heard as one of the backing vocalists for the show’s guests as well as on a few solo numbers where no singer is shown on screen at all – just scenery or scripted vignettes. So we have the exact opposite problem with Nina and the TV program that we had with Lani and the radio program: You have to really be able to tell their voices apart to know who is singing when they cannot be seen and when the host fails to announce the performers.
Next time: The uncredited voice of Nina Keali`iwahana on TV (sort of)…