Hau`oli Lā Hānau e Kawika!

Born November 16, 1836, David Laʻamea Kamanakapuʻu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua, Hawai`i’s last reigning king, is known fondly as Hawai`i’s “Merrie Monarch” because he restored to the Hawaiian people their innate love of arts and culture – particularly in the areas of music and hula. He was also the political and spiritual head of the royal family – all of whom were prolific composers. For this reason the royal brothers and sisters were known as na lani `eha ­– “the heavenly four.” Let’s celebrate the birthday of King Kalākaua by examining a few of his compositions which endured the test of time to be recorded by some of the finest artists of the 1960s and 70s. 

Composed in waltz time, “Sweet Lei Lehua” is a love song which demonstrates a favorite poetic technique among the royals: using words from the many languages they had mastered. In addition to their native Hawaiian tongue, most of the royals also spoke English, French, and Spanish, and they reserved the right to show off a little bit by sprinkling their typically Hawaiian-language lyrics with a few words from these other lands. Here Charles K.L. Davis sings the song with the assistance of the Kawaiaha`o Church Choir under the direction of its then choral director – now retired senator – Daniel Akaka from the 1970s LP Songs of Hawaiian Royalty. 

From one of his early 1960s LPs, slack key master Sonny Chillingworth gives us the king’s composition “Kīlauea.” It is named for an inter-island steamer which was in service from 1860 through 1877. But, as we have mentioned here countless times previously, when the Hawaiian composer utilizes the poetic technique known as kaona (veiled layers of meanings, metaphor, and double-entendre), a ship is rarely a ship but, more often, is likely a lover. Can we tell from the lyrics?... 

Nani ka huila o Kīlauea / Splendid the propeller of the Kīlauea 

I ka lawe mālie i ka laʻi / Smooth-running and quiet 

Kowali lua la e ka hoʻolaʻilaʻi / It spins quietly 

Kapalili i ka ʻili o ke kai / Quivering the surface of the sea 

Kaʻu wili pono ʻana i hola nō ka ʻia / Perfect your twisting and turning 

I ka puʻuwai kapalili hoʻi / Thrills the heart 

As he did from time to time, Kalākaua published the song under the nom de plume “Figgs,” but we can never know if he did this to conceal his identity as the lover protagonist of his own song. Here it is sung by slack key master Sonny Chillingworth from his 1960s debut LP, the eponymously titled Sonny Chillingworth. Sonny is assisted here by such future Hawaiian music legends as Marcus and Sanford Schutte, Tony Boneza, Mike Garcia, and Tony Bee (who, like Sonny, got his start with Don Ho at Honey’s). Sonny also gets some assistance from an anonymous trio of female voices, but it is likely the singing Rodrigues sisters for we can at least be certain the most easily identified voice here belongs to sister Nina Keali`iwahamana. Listen closely to the hui (the chorus or refrain) in which the singers insert nonsense syllables in between the king’s written words – a sort of Hawaiian Pig Latin which makes the song more rhythmic while potentially concealing the true meaning of the song. 

Sonny’s guitar opens the next number, as well, on which he accompanies his long time musical partner, Myra English. Along with steel guitarist Billy Hew Len (that trio once held court nightly at the Outrigger Hotel’s Blue Dolphin Room) and a little lift from bassist Kalani Flores (who was not part of the regular group), they perform Kalākaua’s compositon “Huli Ho`i.” While the king’s songs have been recorded time and again through the ages, this is likely the only ever recording of this composition. The verse is not entirely original; the king borrowed the first three lines of “Kau Li Lua,” a chant from a century earlier composed for Kaumealani, a chiefess of Waialua, by her mother, Kapela. 

Hawaiian music aficionados will no doubt recognize the next voice… Genoa Keawe sings “Ninipo” from her LP Hulas of Hawai`i (from which we heard a few other selections when Ho`olohe Hou celebrated Aunty Genoa’s birthday). I take a small risk including this song in this tribute since scholars are still torn over whether this song was composed by Kalākaua or by his sister, Lili`uokalani. Either way, it deserves to be heard again. “Ninipo” is from the Hawaiian meaning “wooing” – making this yet another love song Hawaiian style. `Nough said. 

When vocal quartet The Surfers broke up after so many successes over two decades, founding brothers Al and Clay Naluai went on as a duo – eventually serving as the opening act for Don Ho when he took his show to the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s geodesic dome (originally built for Alfred Apaka). In the late 1970s, the brothers released their first LP as a duo, You Gotta Feel Aloha, the title song from which was intended as a jingle for Aloha Airlines (who sponsored the album). For those sessions the brothers chose King Kalākaua`s “Koni Au I Ka Wai.” Because the title translates to “I Throb For Liquid,” many have mistaken this for a drinking song. But a closer examination of the kaona bears out that this is yet another song about the thrill of lovemaking. 

Finally, closing out the set, a forgotten voice from the Waikiki entertainment scene of the 1960s and 70s… Penny Silva got her start with the show led by Danny Kaleikini at what was then the Kahala Hilton Hotel. But she went on to a successful – albeit brief – solo career culminating in her one and only LP, Where I Live (a reference to the song “Hawaiian Lullaby” by Peter Moon and Hector Venegas which begins “Where I live there are rainbows…”). For her album Penny chose the king’s composition “`Akahi Ho`i” – which, like “Sweet Lei Lehua” that opened this set, is another waltz. The title – translated as “For The First Time” – is true to the song’s message about first love. And like “Kīlauea,” the king also chose to publish this song under his pen name of Figgs. 

Listening to the songs of Hawaiian royalty only serves to make me yearn to hear more. So consider this just the beginning of a tribute to King David La`amea Kalākaua in honor of his birthday… 

Next time: A famous voice of the 1960s covers the king’s compositions more than any other artist of the period…


Direct download: 01_Kalakaua_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 3:21pm EDT