Bill Kaiwa Gets Merrie

Continuing to celebrate the November 16, 1836 birthday of Hawai`i’s last reigning king and one of its most prolific composers, David Laʻamea Kamanakapuʻu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua…

When trying to decide which of Kalākaua’s songs to present and by which artists of the last 100 years (the songs of Hawai`i’s last royal family have been favorites of musicians to arrange and record since the invention of the 78 rpm record in 1898), I focused on one of my favorite periods in the history of Hawaiian music: the 1960s and 70s. But I ran into a dilemma. One artist recorded more songs composed by na lani `eha (the Hawaiian royal family of brothers and sisters) than any other during that period. If I had included all of his renditions of Kalākaua compositions, we would have heard from nobody else! So I set aside all of his recordings for a special set at Ho`olohe Hou.

So here is Bill Kaiwa’s tribute to the music of King Kalākaua!

Bill Kaiwa will receive his own tribute here in due time for he was extremely influential in Hawaiian music in his time. He appeared on the Hawai`i entertainment scene during the critical period when many of the elder statesmen (and women) of the genre were passing away and many of the new generation had no interest in the music of the generation before. The young people who did find interest in their Hawaiian roots may have had the best of intentions but often presented the music and the history of it carelessly – playing a wrong chord or singing a wrong note here and there, and mispronouncing a Hawaiian lyric or two. This was where Bill Kaiwa was an important role model for other musicians in this period. Known as “The Boy From Laupahoehoe” for his breakout hit song composed by Irmgard Aluli, Kaiwa had no connections to the small town on the Big Island but was, in fact, from Papakolea on O`ahu and later hānai (or adopted in a Hawaiian tradition) to a family on Kaua`i. (In later life he kept homes in Kane`ohe on the windward side of O`ahu and a home on Kaua`i – but never the Big Island.) Despite being only in his late 20s when he made his splash on the Hawaiian music world, he did so with the stateliness of the kupuna – not only in the way he dressed and spoke, but in the way he presented the music of yesteryear and, perhaps more importantly, in the way that he cared for it – gathering up every precious forgotten song that would be shared with him by Lyons Nainoa or John Almeida, squirreling away the words and the melodies in his memory banks (for he could not read or write music). When I would call him up and ask him to teach me a song, he would simply sing it to me over the telephone. This is about as traditional a form of cultural transmission as one can find in the modern era.

Kaiwa was the original Renaissance man – his talents going far beyond his musical abilities. In addition to being a scratch golfer, he was also an artist specializing in painting and sculpting. As I write this, there sits beside me on the end table a poi pounder carved of beautiful Hawaiian milo wood – a gift from Bill Kaiwa. And still this unassuming man signed his autographs “Billy.” If one could rip time and space and patch them back together to suit themselves, I could envision Uncle Bill whiling away the hours chatting with King Kalākaua for I think the two would have had much in common.

But despite being a Renaissance man, Kaiwa’s music was not stuck in another time. He found the means of being respectful to Hawai`i’s past while forging his own path forward. With the help of a like-minded arranger – Benny Saks – Kaiwa took traditional Hawaiian song in a direction suitable for and attractive to the young, hip generation. Here are a few of his takes on the music of a century earlier from the pen of King Kalākaua…

The king wrote “E Nihi Ka Hele” for his wife, Queen Kapi`olani, to bid her safe travels as she departed for England to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria, a dear friend. The title comes from the legend of Pele and Hi`iaka and means “tread softly.” The piano of Benny Saks and the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len lead the way safely here for Kaiwa’s vocals on his second LP, More From Bill Kaiwa.

Because the title translates to “I Throb For Liquid,” many have mistaken King Kalākaua’s “Koni Au I Ka Wai” for a drinking song. But a closer examination of the kaona bears out that this is yet another song about the thrill of lovemaking. Here the tune is taken in a little less future-looking vein from an album that departed from Kaiwa’s usual modern mode. He recorded Kama`aina Songs with the Maile Serenaders, an all-star aggregation with ever-changing membership depending on who was available for the recording session that day. (The Maile Serenaders were not a group per se and never performed live, but was merely the name affixed to any and all studio musicians employed by Hula Records from time to time to back its other artists on their recordings.) This time the backing vocals are provided by Iwalani Kahalewai and Pua Almeida, and the musicians are Herb Ohta on `ukulele, Jimmy Kaopuiki on bass, Eddie Pang on the steel guitar, and Almeida on the rhythm guitar (the last three of which were members of the cast of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts).

As with his compositions “Kīlauea” and “`Akahi Ho`i,” Kalākaua published “Waimanalo” under the pseudonym of “Figgs.” Notice that Kaiwa’s sound has evolved again for the new decade. Recorded in the 70s, This is Bill Kaiwa took on a decidedly country-western feel – a sound Kaiwa would stick with for his next few outings in the recording studio. Joining Uncle Bill here are Wayne Reis, Hiram Olsen, Bobby Larrison, and Billy Hew Len. And if you think you recognize the voice singing in duet with Kaiwa, perhaps it’s because it was Hawai`i’s beloved Cyrus Green.

We will hear more from Bill Kaiwa when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates his birthday in February. For now, I am so enjoying this tribute to the music of King Kalākaua that I think it is still too soon for this 178th birthday celebration to come to a close.

Next time: Today’s Hawaiian music artists continue to honor the music of their king… 


Direct download: 02_Kalakaua_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:22am EDT