Mon, 8 September 2014
In an attempt at understanding the mind of this blogger and his obsession with Hawaiian music... I began listening to Hawaiian music nearly 44 years ago while still in the womb, and I began performing Hawaiian music almost as soon as I exited it. I have heard of all of nearly 25,000 sides of Hawaiian music in my personal archives. I do not have databases. I have memory (and an advanced directive that instructs that the plug be pulled when I can no longer tell you who played steel guitar on any of these 25,000 recordings). At this point, I do not merely hear the music. When Hawaiian music is playing, my mind is associating millions of pieces of data like a huge connect-the-dots puzzle. No single of piece of Hawaiian music lives in isolation in my memory. Rather, Hawaiian music and musicians are strung together in an endless lei that encircles my heart and my soul.
When I began putting together a tribute to Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs – perhaps one of my top three or four favorite Hawaiian music artists of all time, one that has been the most influential on my own music, and, therefore, one I have listened to perhaps more than nearly any other – I began making some connections. These connections are the impetus for two new theme segments at Ho`olohe Hou. And here is the first which – after an exhaustive linguistic wrestling match with myself in which I both won and lost – I have simply entitled “OOPs.”
Some explanation for this bizarre title is in order… When Ho`olohe Hou was (first) a podcast and (then) a radio program, each week I did a segment entitled Why In The World Is This Out Of Print? I would feature recordings of historic or cultural significance which – while not necessarily old – were no longer commercially available. (For example, an album sweeps the coveted Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards as recently as the 1980s but remains out of print.) That segment is being revived under the more concise title “OOPs” – my short-hand for “the Out of Prints,” but also a not-so-veiled reference to my belief that it is a huge mistake that these recordings are no longer available because of their importance in perpetuating a song, a composer, an artist, or a style that might otherwise be lost if we don’t bring back such recordings here at Ho`olohe Hou.
I nearly retitled this segment “The 50 Most Important Hawaiian Records You’ve Never Heard” – a nod to the numerous Honolulu Magazine polls that have resulted in so many “50 Greatest” lists over the last few years. (I do not always agree with such polls.) I quickly realized that my new title had twice as many syllables as the old title (and I am paying for the bandwidth for this blog). But the title is equally valid. Listening to the music of Papa Isaacs brings to mind numerous recordings which should be preserved and propagated not merely for our entertainment, but for our continued education in Hawaiian music – which, after all, is the primary mission at Ho`olohe Hou.
Regardless of what I call this segment, over the coming weeks and months I am going to intermittently (when and as appropriate) feature such recordings and try to put them in their appropriate cultural and historic context. Starting with this one…
I recently spun an Alvin Isaacs composition entitled “Sing Your Cares Away” as performed by Sam Kahalewai. This is from a most unusual release – and one of the most coveted among collectors of Hawaiian music – entitled A Lei Of Songs From Sam. It is historically important for any number of reasons, but let me try to capture the most important of these:
It is probably this last point that makes A Lei Of Songs From Sam so highly coveted by the steel guitar-playing community. Fans of Hawaiian music immediately recognize Gabby’s name as the folk hero most frequently associated with slack key guitar. But steel guitar aficionados know Gabby first and foremost for his unmistakable touch and tone on the steel and his ever tasteful and jazzy playing – of which, regrettably, there are scarce few examples on record. It is for this reason that the Pahinui family – not the Kahalewai or Isaacs families – led by Gabby’s son, Martin, and grandson, John (affectionately referred to as “Gabby” for his grandfather) are in a heated pursuit of the master tapes to broker a rerelease.
But because of its unique origins, the chances of A Lei Of Songs From Sam ever seeing the light of day remastered in a digital format are slim. Clearly labeled “Recorded in Hawaii” on the LP’s cover, the record was pressed and distributed by Four Winds Recording of Hutchinson, Kansas! While Hawaiian music was once popular on the mainland – selling in droves and released in large quantities by such major labels as Decca, Columbia, and RCA Victor – this was no longer the case by the early 1960s when this LP was released. So it is difficult to conceive of the business model that would entice a small, independent, rural mainland U.S. label to go to the expense of recording, mastering, pressing, and distributing this record. And one must also wonder how many of the presumably few pressed copies actually made their way back to Hawai`i.
It’s all so curious.
But we cannot pay tribute to Alvin Isaacs without surveying a generous portion of this long-forgotten (by most) LP.
The set opens with Alvin himself singing his own composition “Poi Song,” a novelty number in the vein of “No Huhu” (but minus the dialect). The steel guitar sits out this tune, and the instrumental lead is taken by an anonymous vibraphonist. You can hear Sam and Gabby in the vocal trio on the refrains. This rare Isaacs composition has only been recorded once more in the 50 years since its first appearance on record here – by Tau Greig and Damien Farden, the group formerly known as `Elua Kane.
Alvin’s son, Norman, takes the vocal lead on his father’s composition “Ala Wai Hula” with his distinctive falsetto. The voices of Papa Alvin, Sam, and Gabby chime in on repeats of each verse and the out chorus, and careful listeners will appreciate Gabby’s tasteful two-bar “vamps” between each verse (the vamps often being the steel player’s only opportunity – however brief – to show off their technique and creativity when they are not afforded a solo chorus). This Isaacs composition had not been recorded before and has not been recorded by any other artost since. You will hear more of Norman Isaacs when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates his October birthday.
The set closes with the rollicking Alvin Isaacs composition “Ki`ipau Chant.” A largely vocal jaunt, the voices of Alvin, Sam, Norman, and Gabby combine from start to finish like a train coming into the station. While not a staple of the modern Hawaiian repertoire, some listeners will recognize this Isaacs composition as one covered fairly recently by Teresa Bright for her Painted Tradition CD.
What is also curious about this recording is how Sam Kahalewai received top billing on what is essentially an ensemble effort. Each of the performers trades lead vocals in almost equal proportion, and the song content is divided equally among Kahalewai compositions, Isaacs compositions, and covers of songs by other songwriters.
You will no doubt hear more from A Lei Of Songs From Sam when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates Sam Kahalewai (on the occasion of his December birthday) and again when we explore Gabby Pahinui’s role in the evolution of steel guitar.
Until then… This is Ho`olohe Hou. Keep listening…