Sonny Swings HWAK

I had always loved Hawaiian music. And so I loved the idea of Hawai`i despite that I had never been there. I had only learned about Hawai`i through books, magazines, television and movies, and – of course – the music. So when I landed at Honolulu International Airport on October 2, 2000 – my thirtieth birthday – I had a few destinations in mind as soon as I threw my bags in my hotel room at a 1-star hotel (my first mistake) in Waikiki (my second mistake). My then wife – tired from the nearly 11-hour flight – simply wanted to crash. But who knew if I would ever get back to Hawai`i? But this was not only my birthday; it was also the first day of our honeymoon. So we engaged in our first marital dispute. I was going out – with or without her. I did not come to Hawai`i to sleep. And I told my wife that if she came along, she was in for a treat and that it was only a four-block walk away. And with that, I officially won our first argument, and we set out for the Halekulani Hotel. 

The short walk led to the paradise I had read and heard about. A quintessential “must see” for the first time Hawai`i tourist is sunset at the Halekulani’s “House Without A Key” (so named for the first Charlie Chan novel written by Earl Derr Biggers, a 1925 first edition copy of which sits on the end table beside me as I write this). But it is not merely the sunset. It’s the view of Diamond Head just beyond your view of the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Hotels – a Waikiki the way it used to be. It is the Halekulani Iced Tea complete with generous sliver of sugar cane to be used as a stirrer. It is the sheer elegance and the service to match. It is the hundreds of years old kiawe tree under which resides the barely raised bandstand. And it is the musicians who grace the bandstand seven nights a week – Hawai`i’s finest – and the stalwarts of the hula who join them, such legends as Debbie Nakanelua Richards and Kanoe Miller both of whose grace are unparalleled and beauty timeless in a way that redefines the word “timeless.” On this particular evening – as I knew would be the case from reading Hawai`i Magazine and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin – I knew I would find The Islanders – Alan Akaka, Kaipo Asing, and Sonny Kamahele. And it is now – as it has always been – the music that makes the House Without A Key a uniquely Hawaiian experience worthy of Frommers. 

This was the first of many evenings at sunset spent at (what the local musicians affectionately refer to as) HWAK. And was it ever memorable. I had known Alan – at least virtually, which in that era meant by mail with paper, stamps, the works – since 1994. But I finally got to meet my friend in the flesh – a friendship that has endured now for 20 years. But it was meeting Sonny that completely blew me away. We chatted between sets and then again for more than two hours after the final number. My then new wife was probably livid with me as 10:30pm HST would have been 3:30am EDT, by which time we were already up for more than 24 hours. But I was living the dream, and I wondered if such a night could ever happen again. (It would, but I did not have the prescience to believe that it could.) Sonny regaled me with stories about the musicians I admired but who left us long before I had ever arrived in Hawai`i – Lena Machado, Haunani Kahalewai, Alfred Apaka, Barney Isaacs, Jules Ah See, and, of course, his good friend (and verbal sparring partner) Benny Kalama. And we sang together, of course. That is what musicians do when they get together – formally or informally. But I never thought that could happen to me. 

(The clip you are listening to right now is from that evening. I would respectfully ask that we defer any debate about how such an illicit recording came into my possession or the ethics around whether or not it should be shared. I would retort by directing you to YouTube where such illicitly made recordings now number in the tens of millions. If you do not understand and subscribe to Ho`olohe Hou’s mission by now, then let me begin again. I aim to preserve the music and artists of Hawai`i that might otherwise be forgotten. And sometimes this might mean rolling out something from my vast archives that was not commercially released. In this case, there is no other way to experience an evening at the Halekulani – if you have never made it there in the flesh – than a recording such as this. While there will be those who will be angry at me for taking, keeping, and sharing recordings that were not commercially released, there will hopefully be many more who will be grateful for these archival efforts.) 

And here is just a snippet of what we heard that lovely evening in 2000… 

Sonny opens the first medley with the staple “Henehene Kou Aka (For You and I).” Notice that when Sonny sings the solo choruses, he is singing in his usual full baritone, but on the repeat choruses where everybody chimes in on vocals, Sonny jumps an octave to sing the lead in his lovely falsetto. Kaipo then takes the lead vocal on “Hanohano Hawai`i” during which Alan takes a chord melody solo on the steel which prompts me again – for the second time today – to state emphatically how much like Jake Keli`ikoa he can tend to play at times, a sound that much deserves to be perpetuated, and it is in the capable hands of kumu Alan. He also closes the medley by singing one of his favorites, “I’m Going To Maui Tomorrow,” a novelty number written surprisingly by comedian Bill Dana (who created the persona of José Jiménez) who once had a stage show in Waikiki. 

The next medley again features Sonny’s falsetto – first on the Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs chestnut “Aloha Nui Ku`uipo,” and then on the hapa-haole classic “For You A Lei.” Performances at the Halekulani can be very fluid – comprised of long medleys, largely unplanned, just singing songs as they pop into the heads of the singers, everyone on stage taking a turn, constantly changing keys… During this medley, you hear Alan suggest that Sonny sing “For You A Lei” as he witnesses a uniquely Hawaiian moment – the giving of a lei. And as can only happen in Hawai`i – which I now understand is the center of the universe, not merely the crossroads of the Pacific – the giver of the lei was none other than Ben Chapman of Creature From The Black Lagoon fame. 

The set closes with still another medley. The group does a number sometimes entitled “Hoe Hoe” (or “Sam Koki’s “Hukilau”), followed by Alan singing another Alvin Isaacs song, “E Mau” (which speaks of the importance of perpetuating Hawaiian things), and finally one of Andy Cummings’ many swingers, “Tropical Swing.” Listen to Sonny’s rhythm guitar work and his high harmony in falsetto in this last medley – recreating the critically important role he played with both the Hawaiian Village Serenaders and the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus.  

I hope you enjoy this music that might otherwise have been lost, and I hope you enjoyed another glimpse into the life and career of Sonny Kamahele who – as you can hear – was amazing to the very end.

Direct download: Sonny_Kamahele_2.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:31am EST