Ihilani Miller – The Composer

Although she wrote very few songs, Ihilani Miller wrote intricate melodies with harmonic structures (i.e., the chords) that showed a sensibility for jazz and the American musical theater. This means that by their very nature, then, they were not easy songs to sing. They require (as they say in the singing business) “chops.” And perhaps this explains Auntie Ihilani’s advice to me: “Just sing the song.” For if the song is well written, then it should require no embellishment from the singer.

The best known of Auntie Ihilani’s compositions is, of course, “Kuhio Beach.” Because of the unusual huge intervallic leaps in melody, the song long ago became a favorite of falsetto singers – most notably Sam Bernard whose signature song this became. But more recently Hoku Zuttermeister recorded the song for his first solo CD, `Aina Kupuna, and while it is only one man’s humble opinion, I think this is now the quintessential version of the song (and everybody else should just stop singing it). It has become among Hoku’s most requested numbers, and he follows Auntie Ihilani’s first tenet of vocal performance: He just sings the song. But his voice combined with Auntie Ihilani’s ethereal melody become a vocal tour de force.

Auntie Ihilani recounted the story of composing “Kuhio Beach” time and again… She attended school with a young lady who would go on to become a Hawaiian music legend herself – her friend Linda Dela Cruz. On the bus on the way to school one day, Ihilani spied some beach boys and felt this song coming on. Linda said, “I guess we’re going to play hookey.” And although Ihilani shook her head “no,” when they got to their stop at McKinley High School, they stayed on the bus all the way to the end of the line. On the reverse trip, they passed the school yet again and got off at Ihilani’s house where she unabashedly explained to her mother that she couldn’t write music with school interfering. But there was too much noise at Ihilani’s house too. So they made for Linda’s house, and in the peace and quiet there, Ihilani banged out this classic in a half hour.

Like “Kuhio Beach” before it, “Pakalana” has become another favorite among falsetto singers. In recent years Auntie Ihilani’s composition has received beautiful treatments from two Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest winners – Kalei Bridges and Kalani Bernanua. But, as with Hoku Zuttermeister and “Kuhio Beach,” all others should stop singing “Pakalana” since none other than Raiatea Helm recorded it on her second solo CD, Sweet & Lovely. Raiatea sought out the assistance of Auntie Ihilani in order to ensure her performance was just right, and she enlisted an all-star supporting cast to assist in the recording: Bryan Tolentino on `ukulele, Casey Olsen on steel guitar, and (surprise!) Hoku Zuttermeister on bass.

If “Kuhio Beach” and “Pakalana” have become staples of the Hawaiian music repertoire which continue to increase in popularity among younger performers, then the sleeper among Auntie Ihilani’s compositions remains “Nohelani.” As recounted in a previous post, the song was composed to honor the birth of a daughter to one of Auntie Ihilani’s dear friends and musical partners, Lei Cypriano (of the Halekulani Girls). The daughter in question, Nohelani Cypriano, went on to become a superstar of Hawaiian entertainment in the 1970s and 80s. Few have performed “Nohelani” besides Auntie Ihilani, and nobody has recorded the song since Ihilani herself on her one and only LP, Ihilani, Voice of the South Seas in the 1950s. Because Auntie Ihilani was a dear friend to me and had just passed away a few weeks before I was to perform at The Willows as part of the Pakele Live concert series, I chose to honor her by reviving this forgotten song which – selfishly – I feel is the most beautiful thing she wrote. And because by no means do I belong in a class with Hoku Zuttermesiter and Raiatea Helm as an artist, it is with great humility that I give you here my own version of “Nohelani” recorded July 10, 2011 at The Willows and performed with my longtime musical partners – Halehaku Seabury-Akaka on guitar, Ocean Kaowili, and Jeff Au Hoy on steel guitar.

I hope you enjoy this tribute to one of my dearest friends and mentors. We miss you, Auntie Ihilani…

- Bill Wynne

Direct download: Ihilani_Miller_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:17am EDT