Bill & Billy

It’s been more than three years since my wife and I went to the movies to see Julie & Julia. In the movie Nora Ephron cleverly weaves together two stories: how now famous chef Julia Child struggled to find her place in the world of French cooking and how an aspiring writer struggled to find her place in the literary world. Despite that this might be characterized as a “chick flick,” I had no difficulty relating to either Julie’s or Julia’s story. In fact, they are in many ways the same story. And it is my story.

Julie trudged away at a job that was not her passion, and yet she injected into it all of the passion one could muster because the job – helping the injured and the relatives of those who perished in the World Trade Center wade through the bureaucracy surrounding insurance claims - required it. Her true passion is for writing, but she can’t get a manuscript read to save her soul. Julia had a successful husband but no passions of her own – until, that is, she and her husband settled in Paris, and she discovered French food! Julia, an American woman in a strange land, decides to attend the distinguished Cordon Bleu school of French cooking – a school not merely male-dominated but French-dominated. Julie and Julia’s lives converge when Julie tries to give her life meaning by blogging about cooking her way through Julia’s classic cookbook Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie was told she would never be a writer. And Julia was told she would never be a chef. And both wondered if their pursuits were truly their passion and their destiny or merely something to pass the time until they pass from this life.

I recently celebrated 24 years at my job. I really quite enjoy my work (and I think I am pretty good at it, if I do say so myself). But I have never called it my “passion.” My passion is the music, dance, and culture of Hawai’i. I have been immersed in Hawaiian music since I was born – despite that I am not of Hawaiian descent and I was born and raised on the East Coast. I will save the story of how one falls in love with Hawaiian music so far from Hawai’i for another time, but to make a long story short… By visiting flea markets, junk shops, swap meets, used record stores, and through the generosity of local Hawaiians who wanted me to hear good Hawaiian music, I amassed an outrageously large collection of classic Hawaiian music recordings. And not content to merely listen, I taught myself to play ‘ukulele, steel guitar, slack key guitar, and sing in the Hawaiian language. But who would I do any of that for in New Jersey?

In the beginning nobody in Hawai’i wanted to hear from a guy in New Jersey who says he plays Hawaiian music. That has changed considerably in recent years, and I am very fortunate to have been increasingly accepted into the sacred circle of Hawaiian musicians – some legends whose album covers have graced my walls since I was a child and others simply legends to me because I sit in awe of their talent and their gracious willingness to teach me Hawaiian things. If I were wise, I would move to Hawai’i where I could study – live, breathe, drink, eat – Hawaiian culture. But for all the right reasons, my life is here in New Jersey, and here I will remain – for the time being…

Meanwhile, I have wanted to contribute meaningfully to the Hawaiian music community, but I wasn’t sure how. You have read by now the story of how it all began with a Hawaiian music blog and podcast called Ho’olohe Hou (Hawaiian meaning “to listen again”) through which I intended to share rare music from my vast collection. The first podcast focused on the Hawaiian steel guitar virtuoso Billy Hew Len – whose style inspired me to take up the steel guitar myself in my early 20’s. Like Julie’s blog about cooking, my podcast about Billy Hew Len caught fire and was the talk – albeit briefly – of the user groups and online forums about steel guitar and Hawaiian music. While I could not get recognition as a musician, I was now recognized for writing and talking about Hawaiian music.

And so there we were. Bill & Billy.

It is neither irony nor coincidence that every time Bill resurrects this blog, it is around the time of Billy’s birthday which I celebrate like some fanatics celebrate Sinatra’s or Elvis’s birthday. January 18th is a celebration of not only music in my home, but a celebration of life. My father played the steel guitar, and it never inspired me to do the same. But when I heard Billy Hew Len, I thought that was one of the greatest sounds I had ever heard come out of a musical instrument, and I had to learn to play. But more than this, Billy overcame insurmountable odds to become one of the greatest steel guitarists of all time.  Despite the many who told him that he couldn’t, he did anyway. When many told me I couldn’t - or shouldn’t - perform Hawaiian music anymore, I did anyway. While many Hawaiians heed the call that Eddie would go, I instead ask myself… What would Billy do?

Seeing Julie & Julia made me wonder if Hawaiian music were really my passion or if it was merely something I do to pass the time until I pass from this life. I’ve thought about this off and on over the years. And by now you should know the answer I come up with over and over again. I enjoy so many things that could occupy my time - reading, writing, gardening, home remodeling, cooking, theater, and spending quiet time with my wife and my dog. But the truth is that I have forsaken many of my other passions for Hawaiian music. The music of Hawai’i got me through some of the most difficult periods of my life. So now I feel it is my duty and obligation to the Hawaiian people – and especially the musicians who have been so generous with their time, their mana’o, and their aloha – to do something, however insignificant, to help preserve the Hawaiian music of a bygone era. The Hawaiians would no doubt refer to this as kuleana.

And so exists this blog and my annual celebration of my hero - which now, courtesy of Facebook, I can easily share with other Hawaiian music lovers. For the next seven days I will share some highlights from Billy Hew Len’s illustrious career as well as some rarities and no doubt some obscurities that even his most ardent fans have never heard before. In case you like what you hear, the first three selections here are from currently available recordings. The first is from “Hawaiian Rainbow,” the Robert Mugge documentary on Hawaiian music that is still available on DVD and which I consider essential viewing. The next is from Lena Machado’s only full length recording from the LP era, “Hawaii’s Songbird,” which has been beautifully remastered and reissued on CD and MP3 courtesy of Cord International/Hana Ola Records. And finally you hear Billy with Elaine Ako Spencer in a song originally from her LP “Mele Hali’a Aloha” but which has been resissued on CD under the title “My Hawaiian Souvenirs.”

Because every Hawaiian music collection is incomplete without a little Billy Hew Len.

Hawaiian music is my raison d’etre. And Billy Hew Len is one of the primary reasons I will never let it go. This is Ho’olohe Hou. Keep listening…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_Career_Overview.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:55pm EST