Telephone Hula

Our tour of Hawaiian songs which reference the telephone ends with two versions of the sad song which by its very title implicates the device in a romance that ends badly.

In Hattie K. Hiram’s composition, “Telephone Hula,” an unanswered telephone signals a love that has gone astray. Like an episode of “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” our spurned lover sets out on foot in a huff to find out just where their partner has gone and who they might be with - except that unlike our previous example (“Aia I Kohala” - see last Ho’olohe Hou post), in this case it is the woman who has been unfaithful. The song - and Kimo Alama Keaulana’s translation - read as follows:

Ai `auhea, ai iho `oe, ai a ka po nei

Ai a ka tele, ai a ka fona, ai e `uhene ana

Ai i laila, ai aku wau la, ai kou wahi

Ai a ka pa’a, ai a ka puka, ai a aka laka `ia

Where were you last night?

When the telephone was ringing

I was at your place

And found the door securely shut

And it only goes downhill from there. But this song merited its own post for a number of reasons beyond the lyric content.

For starters, this is not the first incarnation of the song. A little research reveals that there was an earlier incarnation of the song - by the same composer - entitled “Aia A Hone Ana.” Sonny Cunha is known by some as the composer of the Yale Fight Song (“Boola Boola”) and by others as one of the father’s of modern Hawaiian music because of his penchance for incorporating the complex rhythms and harmonic structures of the jazz idiom into his arrangements of traditional Hawaiian songs. But like his contemporary Charles E. King (also mentioned in the previous post), Cunha is also known for gathering and publishing Hawaiian songs into some of what are the earliest commercially available folios of Hawaiian music. Here is a link to the 1914 edition of Cunha’s folio “Famous Hawaiian Songs” - fortunately available to all of us free of charge courtesy of the Google Books project. This link is indexed directly to the page where “Aia A Hone Ana” appears from which you can see that the lyric shares much in common with the song it became, “Telephone Hula,” but with a considerably different melody.

The two versions presented here - recorded nearly 40 years apart - show the evolution of the presentation of a Hawaiian song - the relationship of traditional Hawaiian music with what is most often called “contemporary Hawaiian music.“ The first is a mostly traditional approach to “Telephone Hula” recorded for the 49th State Records label in the early 1950s by Genoa Keawe and her musical mentor, John Kameaaloha Almeida, both of whose voices you hear. Like much of the music on this label, this version of the song at first appears to be intended for the hula - the verses threaded together with the two measure instrumental interlude often called the “vamp” which signals the end of one verse and the beginning of the next. But then we are surprised by a full instrumental chorus - a slack key guitar solo (one of the earliest on record). With the appearance of the instrumental break, this can no longer be considered music for the hula since the movements of the hula dancer follow the story told by the lyrics.  In short, no words, no hula.  But in almost every other facet most would consider this traditional Hawaiian music.

Now listen to the version from the 1990s by the venerable Makaha Sons. On several occasions I have had the privilege of sitting and chatting with the Makaha Sons’ musical mastermind, Dr. Louis “Moon” Kauakahi - endless hours spent better understanding Hawaiian music and his approach to it. In light of the Makaha Sons becoming - over time - a name synonymous with Hawaiian music around the world through their exhaustive touring, Moon once explained to me his philosophy of arranging for the broader world audience. He felt that the presentation of the song - the arrangement - should mirror musically what the lyrics were trying to say - especially for audiences that do not speak the Hawaiian language.  Essentially, Moon was saying that if the lyric spoke of passion, the music itself should be passionate; if it speaks of humor, the music should be equally humorous; and if it speaks of mischief, the music should be mischievous, too. Moon said the same a few years later to author Jay Hartwell in his book, “Na Mamo.” “I try to let the audience understand the meaning of the Hawaiian words by the feeling of the music itself,” Moon said. “If the audience can feel what the song is, they have more or less translated the song - into much more than what it literally meant.“ There are few better examples of this than the Makaha Sons’ arrangement of “Telephone Hula” - which is clearly not intended for the hula. Instead of the vamp (typically, in the hula ku’i song form, a II7-V7-I chord progression, or A7-D7-G in the key of G), Moon opts for something starkly different. As an intro, ending, and even in place of the expected “vamp” between verses, Moon utilizes a steady bass line - in the key of D - with an alternating pattern of D-major and A-minor chords and a melody of his own creation focused on the 7th and 9th tones of the scale. What does all of this mean to the listener? Well, listen for yourself. The alternating D-major and A-minor chords establish the mystery. You might hear the same in the soundtrack of a BBC-produced episode of  Sherlock Holmes or even “Murder, She Wrote.” The 7th and 9th tones pose a question because they do not offer any musical resolution. “Resolution” is the musical concept that songs or sections of songs come to some point of completeness that the human mind understands - even if one does not consciously understand harmonic concepts. As music is comprised of cycles of tension and release, resolution, then, is the musical feeling of relief or release - that there is nothing more to follow. 7th and 9th tones typically indicate movement from one chord to another. 7th and 9th chords are typically not a beginning or an ending; they are a transitional tool, a means-to-an-end. With this repetitive chord progression alternating between major and minor and the question posed by 7th and 9th tones, like the great classical composers Moon has set up the listener for a mystery that may never be solved. And what of the pahu drum that punctuates the introduction and is heard throughout? Could it be the incessant pounding on a door that goes unanswered? Or frantic footsteps in the night in search of the missing? This is Moon Kauakahi’s genius.

And with this stroke of genius Ho’olohe Hou concludes its weekend-long examination of the telephone in Hawaiian music.

Direct download: Telephone_Hula_-_Two_Versions.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:41pm EDT