The Songbird Chirps One More Once

The 1950s had Lena making exhaustive tours of the mainland U.S. including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco,  New York (including an engagement at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room), Miami, Atlantic City, and even the Florida Keys. In between tours she held court at a number of Waikiki hotspots such as the Niumalu Hotel (now the site of the Hilton Hawaiian Village), the Biltmore Hotel (today the Hyatt Regency), and the famed Waikiki Lau Yee Chai (now the Ambassador Hotel). Her working group included members of Pua Almeida’s working group (including Billy Hew Len on steel guitar and Kalakaua Aylett on rhythm guitar), Prince Aila on upright bass, and her longtime band mate at this point, “Little Joe” Kekauoha on `ukulele. Ever the entrepreneur, Lena – with the help and investment of other local business people – also opened Club Pago Pago, a still fondly remembered night club on Beretania Street (where now, sadly, stands a parking garage). Her working musicians at this venue included regular members of Andy Cummings’ working group (including Gabby Pahinui on steel guitar and Joe Diamond on bass). Oh, how fans might long for any recording of Lena from this era with these fine musicians. But, alas, there is none (that we know of). 

In fact, the next time Lena would step foot in a recording studio would also be the last. With guitarists Sonny Kamahele and Cy Ludington, steel guitarist Billy Hew Len, and the piano and vibes of arranger Benny Saks, a 1962 session led to Lena’s final recordings and her first and only full-length album since the advent of the LP, Hawaii’s Songbird. After years of performing these songs live – the 1962 sessions are Lena’s first in her career to feature only her original compositions – Lena and band could finally realize these songs on record as she wished them to be heard. The equally forward-thinking Saks was eager to take Hawaiian music into the next decade – a new sound in Hawaiian music that Saks would perfect through the 1960s, arranging for such artists as Marlene Sai, Leina`ala Haili, Kai Davis, Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders, and Frank and Cathy Kawelo – but Hawaiian Songbird was one of his earliest opportunities (along with a 1961 album he arranged for Pua Almeida) to try on some of his then still new ideas. 

I would love to share with you all of the recordings from the 1962 sessions. But let’s begin with those compositions of Auntie Lena’s that we have not yet heard since despite that she recorded most of these songs at least once earlier in her career, regrettably I do not have the earlier recordings in my archives.  

One of Lena’s earliest jobs as a child was a lei seller, and for those of you not indoctrinated into the joys of urban Honolulu living, today – just as 100 years ago – the heart of the lei-making industry in Honolulu is Chinatown. And it was there that Lena found many of her earliest lessons in life and love as well as her introduction to the nuances of the Hawaiian language. So Lena always held a spot in her heart for her lei-making friends and calabash aunties and uncles. A generation later, the sons and daughters of the lei makers with whom Lena had associated decided that they wanted to branch out and expand their businesses by adding fruits, vegetables, and fresh fish. Thus the famed Hōlau Market was born. (The photograph of Hōlau Market you see here also graces the wall of my master bedroom.) According to composer and Hawaiian cultural expert Kīhei de Silva, no Hawaiian dictionary reveals such a word as “hōlau.” He conjectures it is a contraction of “ho`olau” which means “to leaf out” or “to gather in large numbers” – a name for a business which, as de Silva puts it, has “positive connotations.” The market owners – remembering Lena fondly and being well aware of her success in entertainment – asked her to compose a song to honor the new market, and her “Hōlau” was the result. The song is an interesting study in Hawaiian composing and performing style. Many who hear “Hōlau” but who do not fully understand the Hawaiian language believe “Hōlau” to be a love song, and Lena’s performance might bely the true meaning of the song – singing it as she might sing any love song. As hānai daughter Pi`olani Motta put it, unknowing audiences pick up on such bits and pieces of phrases as “he nani i ka maka” (“so splendid to the eyes”) or “`ono a ka pu`u” (“that the palate craves”) and mistakenly believe – as is the case with so many Hawaiian songs – that the composer is employing the poetic technique of kaona (or layers of meaning concealed in metaphor) utilizing the delicacies of the dinner table as a veiled reference to “delicacies of another kind.” But “Holau” is not a love song and should be taken solely at face value. And this is the mistake so common among those attempting to translate or perform a Hawaiian song. Simply put, just because kaona is a poetic technique prevalent in Hawaiian song form does not necessarily mean that kaona is used in the writing of every song. Sometimes a fish is just a fish. And before I forget to mention it, listen to the interplay of Saks’ piano and Hew Len’s steel guitar on “Hōlau” – a sound that follows the template forged by the then very popular San Francisco-based George Shearing Quintet. 

Lena loved the island of Hawai`i (sometimes erroneously referred to as the “Big Island”), of which she was known to say, “Where else in God’s creation can you find so much to admire?” So she visited and performed on Hawai`i often throughout her career. A joyous 1946 tour of the island prompted Lena to write “Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi.” Hānai daughter Motta describes the song perfectly: 

Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi is like a postcard put to words and music. It describes the beauty of nature that surrounds the Hilo district of Hawai`i island: the Lehua blossoms of Pana`ewa, the sunrise and misty showers, the cloud-wreathed heights of Maunakea, the rainbow that arches over the waterfall at Waianuenue, and the waving palms of Mokuola.  

Like “Kamalani O Keaukaha” before it, “Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi” is still another “thank you” for the people of this island and their hospitality. 

We have already discussed here that Lena’s songs were well-researched or based on real-life events. Such is the case of her poignant composition simply entitled “Mom.” During World War II, Lena’s fans would approach her after her performances, and the conversations would naturally often turn to their sons off at war, the letters they would write home, and the contrition in their words. These moms would share these letters with Lena, and she noticed that many of them closed with some variant of the prayer “God, please keep my mom under your loving care.” Lena built “Mom” around these letters and the prayer they universally seemed to hold. But she went a step further. Lena showed early versions of the song to soldiers’ mothers she had befriended to ensure that it rang true with them. This makes “Mom” Lena’s only collaboration with her fans – important research for a songwriter like Lena who cared about such matters and who you may recall was not a mom herself. But she was a daughter, and “Mom” was composed while her hānai mom, Mrs. Loo Pan, was dying of cancer. Lena’s relationship with her mother was tenuous from the earliest days because of their mismatched priorities – Lena wanting to be a singer while her mother wanted her to be a teacher. Still, it is likely that Lena had Mrs. Loo Pan at the forefront of her mind while composing the song. Finally, so that the meaning of this song so very important to Lena would not be misunderstood, note that it is one of the few of her compositions (along with “Ei Nei”) that she wrote in the English language. 

Lena had been friends with hula master Sally Wood Nalua`i from their very earliest days. They ended up touring together through the 1930s and 40s, and in their later professional years, they were each other’s first call – Sally calling on Lena when the hula troupe needed musicians, and Lena calling on Sally when a performance needed dancers. A mele inoa (or “name song” honoring someone) is usually conceived of by a composer as a gift for the song’s subject (or their parents in the case of a newborn). “Moanike`alaonapuamakahikina” is most unusual in that Sally as much as commissioned the song from Lena – being friends so long and being so comfortable around each other than Sally simply told Lena that she wondered what her Hawaiian name would sound like in song. And Lena obliged her friend with what has become one of her most beloved and enduring compositions. Because the song would not be a “gift” in the surprise sense, as with the mothers with whom Lena collaborated on “Mom,” the forthright Lena discussed with Sally what she might write about her to ensure that the song met her friend’s expectations (without, I suppose, embarrassing her). My favorite verse: 

Na ka mahina mālamalama / The light of the moon 

I hō`ike mai / Has shown 

`O `oe nō ku`u pua / That you are the flower 

Kau umauma / Placed on my heart 

Nobody but nobody could string together the Hawaiian language so succinctly and meaningfully as Auntie Lena. And there was name built into Sally’s Hawaiian name too – which means “wafting is the fragrance of flowers in the east.” 

Next time: Lena Machado’s 1962 recording sessions revisits her compositions she first recorded thirteen years earlier in 1949…


[Editor’s Note: Biographical information provided by the quintessential volume on Lena Machado’s life and work, Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena by Pi`olani Motta with Kihei De Silva. For more information about this historically and culturally significant artist, I encourage you to read this book cover to cover. Highly recommended.]



Direct download: 09_Lena_Machado_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 6:12am EDT