Falsetto Heroes - Joe Keawe

Josaiah Keawemauhuli was born September 10, 1918 in Holualoa, Hawai`i. But almost as soon as he left his home on the Kona Coast and landed in Honolulu, he became the protege - as many young Hawaiian music artists did in that era - of the legendary musician and composer John Kamealoha Almeida. Joe first performed with Uncle Johnny on radio station KGU's Playground Quarter Hour. He soon after went into the studio to record for the then brand new 49th State Records company for which Uncle Johnny handled what is now referred to as "A&R" (artists and repertoire). In fact, the label was so new that Joe was the very first artist to go into the studio (49th State's "studios" typically being artists' homes, recording remotely right in their living rooms or kitchens) and release the very first single on this burgeoning label.

As a falsetto singer, Uncle Joe was most unusual. While falsetto singers are often criticized for decreasing in volume as they go higher in their range, Joe Keawe possessed a rare clarity and projection throughout his vocal range - making him the perfect singer not only for rollicking hula numbers, but also for tender love songs.

But like many (in fact, most) professional musicians in Hawai`i, Joe did not earn his living on his music alone. He was an entrepreneur. Joe and his wife first owned a travel agency and, later, a chain of Hawaiian and Japanese restaurants both in Hawai`i and on the mainland.

Joe Keawe should be considered of critical importance in the evolution of falsetto singing in Hawai`i. Yet, surprisingly, rarely do his recordings find their way on to CDs or MP3s in the digital era. Michael Cord of Hana Ola/Cord International Records owns the rights to entire back catalogs of Hawaiian music from its golden era, and this includes the 49th State Records library. And yet very few of Joe's singles for that label have been remastered and re-released, and he has not merited - as have Linda Dela Cruz, Bill Ali`iloa Lincoln, or George Kainapau - an entire full length reissue devoted solely to his music. Pity. But I attempt to remedy this today in honor of Uncle Joe's birthday. And because we have honored Uncle Joe before at Ho`olohe Hou (which is still available for your listening and learning pleasure), I have chosen to spin only vintage discs from the 1940s and 50s that I have not featured on this blog previously and which have not been reissued by Cord or any other label.

The set opens with Joe singing "Kane`ohe," a mele written by Abbie Kong and published by Johnny Noble which employs the first installation of electricity in this windward side residential community as a metaphor for a love affair. ("Kane`ohe" means "bamboo man," and those of you familiar with the geography of O`ahu no doubt understand why. If you don't, I refer you to a map of O`ahu.) On this first selection you hear one of the signature sounds of so many 49th State Records recordings: the mandolin as handled by session producer Johnny Almeida.

The set continues with a pair of songs written by one of my favorite composers, Auntie Lena Machado, who ranks - in my humble opinion - as my second favorite haku mele (or "weaver of song") behind Uncle Johnny Almeida. What may be little known about this pair of songs is that they were intended by Auntie Lena to be part of a "song cycle" of three songs written in the same time period which - when put together - complete the story arc of so many love affairs: love won, love enjoyed, and love lost. "Mai Lohilohi Mai `Oe" (not heard here because Uncle Joe never recorded it) speaks of flirting and the invitation to love. "Ho`onanea" speaks of sharing a relaxed (hence the title) romantic encounter. And "Kau`oha Mai" - sometimes referred to as "The Keyhole Hula" - is the sad ending in which the woman returns home only to find another in her lover's arms. And although this is too often the story arc of a love affair, all three songs were based on events that happened to friends or acquaintances of Auntie Lena's.

When she composed "Kau`oha Mai," Lena understood the boundaries she was pushing - especially for a female composer. Like many Hawaiian songs which express some covert (or overt) sexuality - "Nanea Kou Maka I Ka Le`ale`a" and "Hali`i Ka Moena" come to mind - the composer must choose his or her words carefully. This is at the heart of the poetic technique known as kaona in which there are many layers of veiled meaning which repeat listening - and the aid of the hula - will help elucidate. If we were to sing the English equivalent of what Lena wrote...

Ki`ei aku wau / I peered

Ma ka puka ki `ea / Into the keyhole

E honihoni `ia ana / Being kissed repeatedly

Ko ihu kapu `ea / On your ihu kapu (forbidden opening), yep

... this would no doubt be considered by most to be risque. But not in Hawai`i - and in the Hawaiian language - because historically their cultural views on sexuality are much different and the body and all of its uses are not considered "dirty." Although we now understand that Auntie Lena was among the most artful of composers to be able to choose words carefully while still making her intent quite clear - which is one of the reasons singers love to sing her songs and her compositions remain among the most sung by Hawaiian musicians still today - she was right to be concerned for when she began performing the song in public, indeed Lena received complaint letters. Such is the evolution - or devolution - of a culture since this could be viewed as the once more liberal views of the Hawaiians being superceded by more modern - and conservative - western views.

The other reason falsetto singers love to sing Lena Machado songs is because they were written by a falsetto singer for a falsetto singer. Auntie Lena was a marvelous falsetto (although, the vocal technique being the same for the woman as for the man, it is rarely referred to as "falsetto" when women sing in this manner). And so she wrote songs which utilized the large intervallic leaps that allowed her - and other falsetto singers - to utilize the technique often referred to as ha`i, or the break between the full voice and the high, upper register (or what might sound like yodeling). Joe uses his ha`i to full effect in the major 3rd leap that is heard throughout "Kau`oha Mai." (And again you will hear Uncle Johnny's mandolin.) You then hear Uncle Joe's fluid approach to "Ho`onanea." Your host should have spun these two tunes in the reverse order since in my version of Auntie Lena's story arc, the lovers break up before they ever get to enjoy the affair.

Finally, Joe closes the set with a song often associated with him, a staple of his repertoire. Another love song, "He U`i" speaks of flirtation with a suitor that has already been taken by another. It is hard to top the original recording by the song's composer, Danny Kua`ana, which has more of a swinging jazz feel. Here Joe takes the tune at hula tempo in the first of what would be two recordings he would make of this song - nearly 30 years apart.

Ho`olohe Hou has honored Joe Keawe previously. (Click here to check out more of his recordings not featured here.) But I hope you have enjoyed this follow-up tribute to travel agent, restauranteur, and falsetto singing legend Joe Keawe.

Direct download: Joe_Keawe_2_September_2014.mp3
Category:Falsetto -- posted at: 6:31am EDT