Tue, 9 December 2014
If you celebrate Christmas and you love music, then you likely have your favorite Christmas LPs, CDs, or MP3s. And if you are like me, you probably can think of one artist whose Christmas album you feel was an abysmal failure. (I can think of several.) But you can probably also think of one artist you love who should have made a Christmas record but never did.
For me, that artist is Nina Keali`iwahamana. The singular voice of the Hawaii Calls radio programs for nearly two decades and one of the three singing daughters of musician and composer Vicki I`i Rodrigues, Nina’s career has been guided seemingly by the principle of doing what she wanted to do when she felt like doing it. This is evidenced by a solo career spanning nearly 50 years but which has yielded only a handful of albums under her own name. There are the albums she made with her mother and equally famous brothers (Boyce and Ioane) and sisters (Lani and Lahela). She has been the featured voice on albums by `ukulele stylist Herb Ohta and steel guitarist Bud Tutmarc (the latter of which featured Nina singing the Great American Songbook of Cole Porter and the Gershwins). She has also teamed up for duet releases with both Charles K.L. Davis and Bill Kaiwa. But there has been not a single solo album from Nina since the 1970s when she teamed up for a popular series of albums (produced rapid-fire) with arranger/conductor Jack de Mello for his Music of Polynesia label. So with so little output, it would be presumptuous to expect a holiday album.
But you may have read here previously about a Christmas album which features no names on its cover. Simply entitled Mele Kalikimaka – A Hawaiian Christmas Party (and ranking at #17 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.), the album largely featured the cast of the Hawaii Calls radio program. It simply wasn’t entitled Hawaii Calls Christmas as there was already an official LP by that title. In other words, this is the Hawaii Calls holiday album that few know about. More importantly, Nina and her sisters Lani and Lahela were featured on a half-dozen of the albums selections.
In my previous post about this remarkable album, you heard Nina and brother Boyce duet on “Spring Spends The Winter In Hawaii.” In this set I offer three more from the signature voices of Hawaii Calls. Nina and sisters remind us of the true meaning of Christmas with “Po La`i E” (“Silent Night”) and the Harry Belafonte hit “Mary’s Boy Child.” Then Nina fulfills my Christmas wish – for if ever there was a song I would have wanted to hear her sing that I feel epitomizes this holiday, it would have been Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” from my favorite holiday musical of all time.
Nina mentions reaching down (or over) to another set of islands for the Caribbean-influenced “Mary’s Boy Child.” But the truth is that the song was written by composer, arranger, and choral conductor Jester Hairston who in his time was considered the leading authority on African-American spirituals and choral music. The song was not originally Christmas-themed. A friend asked Hairston to compose a song for a birthday party where the guests would be natives of the West Indies. So Hairston composed a song – “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” – for the occasion in the style that he hoped the guests would find familiar. It would not be until years later that Hairston was commissioned to write a holiday song for Walter Schumann’s Hollywood Choir, and Hairston recycled the calypso-themed tune and rhythm for “Mary’s Boy Child.” It is an interesting ethnographic point that many believe the song to be composed by a native of the West Indies when, in fact, it was composed by a native of Belews Creek, North Carolina. And it makes one wonder whether or not – with appropriate study and practice – a native of New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or even Tokyo could perform Hawaiian music so convincingly that most would believe it was recorded by a native Hawaiian.
By the way, despite his songwriting and arranging background, Jester Hairston would best be remembered as Henry Van Porter on Amos ‘N Andy.
So if you were truly interested in hearing a Nina Keali`iwahamana Christmas album end-to-end, you might purchase the six songs she led from Mele Kalikimaka – A Hawaiian Christmas Party and marry these to the four selections she led on the Hawaii Calls release A Merry Hawaiian Christmas. Those ten songs would make an amazing playlist for your iPhone, iPad, or other music listening system.
In case she is reading, here’s wishing Auntie Nina a happy Hawaiian Christmas and all good things in the year to come.
And now you can tell people you’ve heard “Silent Night” sung by a real live angel.
~ Bill Wynne