Fri, 12 September 2014
There is an album cover which graces the wall of my studio in which I write this blog. This room holds nearly all of my Hawaiian treasures, but twelve album covers on the wall were the beginning of my obsession with Hawaiian music – the twelve most important Hawaiian music recordings of all time in my personal ranking for these recordings defined Hawaiian music for me as a young person, and each has a very deep, personal meaning to me. Someday I will tell you about all twelve. But one of these takes center stage today.
On an evening in the summer of 2004 while visiting Hawai`i, I dropped by the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel on a Saturday evening to listen to one of the seminal Hawaiian groups, Olomana. I could not know as I made the walk through Waikiki with my friend, Jill, that this evening in particular would be very special. It turned out it was the band leader’s 50th birthday, and so countless legends of Hawaiian music had turned out to celebrate the life and music of Jerry Santos. I spied across the room one of my childhood heroes – falsetto legend Mahi Beamer of the Beamer dynasty of musicians and Hawaiian cultural experts. Not one to waste an opportunity, I crossed the room and knelt down next to Mahi and – for lack of a better word – swooned. I told him about his album cover on my wall at home and how that record impacted my life. I said that I could sing every word of that record (and in his keys, no less). And we became – quite unexpectedly – fast friends. So when Jerry called me up to sing with him and I launched into one of the songs from that Mahi Beamer record – “Pua Mae`ole” – Uncle Mahi was apparently moved too. The next thing I knew Jerry and band had exited the stage, and just when I thought I would be singing alone, I heard the tinkling of the piano and realized that Uncle Mahi had risen from his chair and taken his rightful place at the Baldwin to accompany me. This was one of the most crazy and beautiful moments in my life in Hawaiian music. But most importantly, I made a tremendous friend, and all because I could sing a Hawaiian song.
The LP in question – Hawaii’s Mahi Beamer – and a companion album – simply entitled Mahi – were recorded in a single day by Capitol Records. Capitol was contracted with Webley Edwards and the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus – a fruitful relationship which produced dozens of albums under the “Hawaii Calls” moniker. But it also generated countless more albums by Hawaii Calls’ solo artists – names such as Haunani Kahalewai and Ed Kenney – but which utilized the musicians of the Hawaii Calls group. So on these two Mahi Beamer LPs you are hearing the combined talents of steel guitarists Jules Ah See and Danny Stewart, guitarists Pua Almeida and Sonny Kamahele, bassist Jimmy Kaopuiki, and `ukulele player and arranger Benny Kalama. Having the capital to give these island artists nationwide – even worldwide exposure – Capitol did much to promote Hawaiian music in the 1950s and 60s. But while it might have been these artists’ desire to gain recognition outside of their island home, Mahi took the opportunity to give his grandmother Helen’s compositions wider exposure. And so despite being recorded on the same day in 1959 in the Punahou School auditorium, the second of the two releases, Mahi, was programmed to feature nothing but Helen Desha Beamer compositions as sung by her grandson and his talented friends.
In this set you hear Uncle Mahi`ai sing a half dozen of “Sweetheart Grandma’s” compositions. Because Helen Desha Beamer’s songs almost always honored family and friends, permit me to tell you more about who and what she honors in these compositions.
The set opens with the first song – the first sounds I heard as an impressionable child – from the first Mahi Beamer album. “Pupu Hinuhinu” means “shiny seashell,” a sort of lullaby in which the children find the shell on the beach, hear the sea in it, sing it to sleep, and then go to sleep themselves. If you have never heard Mahi’s voice before, you will no doubt be enchanted the way I was when you hear this song for the first time. In an unusual twist, the high falsetto is sung by the male while the lower voice you hear is Mahi’s sister, Sunbeam.
Helen wrote the music and her friend, Noenoe Wall, the lyrics for “Kinuē” which honors the Arthur Greenwell family and their homes in Pauahi and Papaloa which Noenoe often visited. Listen to the dual steel guitars of Danny Stewart and Pua Almeida on this song.
Auntie Helen wrote “Halehuki” for her own home – the home she shared with her husband, Peter Carl Beamer, where together they raised their five children and where Mahi and the grandchildren spent so many happy childhood days. “He Makana” literally means “a gift,” and this song was a gift from Auntie Helen to her friend, Helen Henderson, given to her on her wedding day in 1939.
“Keawaiki Hula” is the second song by the same title that Auntie Helen wrote. (In an earlier post, you heard Nina Keali`iwahamana sing the other.) “Keawaiki” means “little harbor” and refers to the home of Francis Brown on the island of Hawai`i. Like the other song by the same title, this “Keawaiki” speaks of the good times the Brown and Beamer families shared.
Finally, “Lei O Hā`ena” honors Herbert Shipman and his home at Hā`ena in Kea`au on Hawai`i island. The last five selections in this set are all from Mahi’s second – and final – release, simply entitled Mahi, which is thankfully available as a CD again courtesy of Hula Records (which originally re-released the Capitol LPs in 1974). I strongly encourage you to pick up both of Mahi Beamer’s albums and help my friend in fulfilling his wish of making his grandmother’s compositions heard around the world and for generation upon generation to come.
I hope you enjoyed this week-long tribute to Helen Desha Beamer and her critically important contributions to Hawaiian music and culture.