Pua Almeida on Waikiki Records

Engineer Young O. Kang had been cobbling together equipment to bring Hawaiian music recordings to the world since the early 1940s. But by 1958 Kang was finally in business for himself - with state of the art equipment - courtesy of local Hawai’i entrepreneur Tommy Kerns. Together Kerns and Kang founded Waikiki Records, and for an eight year period from 1958 to 1966, they produced some of the finest sounded recordings of Hawaiian music to date by some of the most popular artists of the era - including Pua Almeida who recorded three LPs for the label in addition to countless 45 r.p.m singles and songs that appeared on compilation albums. Piecing together a complete discography of Pua on Waikiki can be difficult since not all of the 45 r.p.m. singles (or their “B” sides) appeared on the LPs or compilation albums or vice-versa. So while I devote my life to finding all of it, let’s enjoy what we already have for a while…

Also notable during the Waikiki Records period is that Pua did not always record with the same musicians. This is why I previously wrote that the obscure LP “Pua Almeida Sings with Billy Hew Len and the Moana Surfriders” may be our last best chance at hearing Pua’s steady working group. Some of the Waikiki sides are cited as being by the Moana Serenaders, some by the Moana Hotel Orchestra, and others still by Pua Almeida and His Polynesians, Pua Almeida and the Sunset Serenaders, or even Pua Almeida and the Sunset Trio (even when there are conspicuously more than three musicians playing). This means that we get to hear Pua in combination with different musicians - most unidentified - while trying to maintain his unique “sound.” Some of the musicians are recognizable by their unmistakable styles, so I will try to cite a few along the way.

Don McDiarmid‘s hapa-haole “Do The Hula” is - according to different sources - either by Pua Almeida and His Sunset Serenaders (45) or Pua Almeida and His Sunset Trio (LP). So clearly these were groups assembled solely for the recording sessions but which had no name recognition as a live working ensemble. Otherwise somebody at the record company would have been more careful about the naming conventions. This is Pua on the steel guitar - what little we hear of him, anyway. Steel guitarists are quick to admit that the difficult instrument requires so much concentration - it is not an instrument that can be played by feel since it has no frets, so you must constantly watch where you’re putting your hands - that it is also difficult to play steel and sing at the same time. So you hear only the steel intro and a few accents here and there - one sure sign that this is Pua focusing on the singing and ignoring the steel. Another essential clue, however, is the intro which features large, growling chords as opposed to single string soloing - a signature of Pua’s steel playing. The 45 r.p.m. version is plagued by an annoying echo on the vocal - not a hallmark of Young O. Kang’s sound. A mastering error, perhaps? So the version you hear now comes from the Waikiki compilation album “Do The Hula.”

The vocals toward the end of “Pearly Shells” share this same “echo” affliction as the 45 r.p.m. version of “Do The Hula,” so this was clearly a deliberate engineering approach (which may or may not have been executed successfully). This song is credited to “Pua Almeida and His Sunset Serenaders” and features Billy Hew Len on steel guitar and the deep bass voice of Sonny Kamahele leading the call-and-response with Pua. So that is likely Sonny’s rhythm guitar you hear as well.

Danny Stewart’s lovely but seldom heard “Nohea” abandons the steel guitar altogether for something more like the Latin sounds Pua had been cultivating earlier and features - like recordings by his friend and contemporary Jesse Kalima - the piano. The lovely and sensitive jazzy guitar solo you hear is Pua! Aficianados of Pua’s music have long been aware of his sensibilities with an archtop guitar - playing his jazzy style on a Gibson L-5 with a DeArmond pick-up with which he is pictured on the cover of “Surfrider” from which this cut was taken. Pua was called upon frequently during this period for both his rhythm guitar playing and provided sultry improvised guitar intros and endings on recordings by the Hawaii Calls radio show orchestra, Mahi Beamer, Eddie Kekaula, the New Hawaiian Band, and even Tennessee Ernie Ford. In fact, the recordings on which Pua performs uncredited as a sideman might outnumber those on which he was cited as leader.

Available both as a 45 r.p.m. single and on the LPs  “Poolside Music Hawaiiana“ and “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua,” “Ahulili” is credited to Pua Almeida and His Polynesians and offers us two surprises - a lead vocal by Kalakaua Aylett and steel guitar by Joe Custino.

Next… Pua caresses a composition by his hanai father, Uncle Johnny Almeida, with both his voice and his steel guitar. The simply lovely “Lei Mokihana” is one of my favorite recordings by Pua. How do we know this is Pua on the steel guitar? Listen first to the intro in which Pua plays huge, beautiful chords with a shimmering vibrato. The vibrato is a signature part of Pua’s style. Another signature - listen at around 10:28 in the set - is Pua’s reverse strum (from the highest string to the lowest) very close to the bridge - providing an eerie, almost harp-like presence. That, too, is right from the Pua playbook, and he does it to end the vamp after nearly every verse. (Pua had developed that technique long before as you will hear it more than 20 years earlier on his recordings with Randy Oness and Alfred Apaka.) And again, note that the steel guitar playing ends when the singing begins - a sign that the steeler and the singer are one and the same.

The Latin rhythms return with “Papalina Lahilahi” taken from a Waikiki 45 r.p.m. and credited to Pua Almeida and the Moana Serenaders. This is probably closest to his working group at that time. Pua trades vocals with Kalakaua Aylett who is also likely the rhythm guitarist, and we hear the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len and the vibes of Benny Saks.

Closing the set we hear the Sam Koki composition “Hoe Hoe” (sometimes affectionately referred to as “Sam Koki’s Hukilau”). Also found on the Waikiki LPs “Poolside Music Hawaiiana“ and “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua,” this one is also credited to Pua Almeida and His Polynesians and again features vocals by Kalakaua Aylett and steel guitar by Joe Custino. While both Pua and Joe play a very jazzy chord melody style on the steel guitar, those familiar with the nuances of different steel players know that this is Joe’s tone (a little more harsh on the treble side than Pua’s tone), attack, and almost complete lack of vibrato - more like a string organ than a steel guitar. For comparison, listen to Joe’s earlier work with Honey Kalima or the Chick Floyd group which performed weekly for the Lucky Luck Show.

Next time: Can‘t get enough of Pua on Waikiki Records? Neither can I…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_7.mp3
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