I Had A Dream

My wife asked me why I suddenly became eager to blog about Hawaiian music and its heroes again. I said that it was for the same reason that she blogs about young adult literature. There are things about which we are passionate – things that became all-consuming in our lives – but we have not been able to overcome the obstacles to making the way to the inside of our passion. Like kids on a playground who don’t get picked for a kickball team, my wife and I must be content to watch the game when we would desperately like to be playing it.

So my wife writes about great young adult novels and their authors instead of writing the next great YA novel herself. And I am writing about Hawaiian music when all I long to do is make Hawaiian music.

For nearly 40 years I have studied - in depth, as you can no doubt tell from these blog posts - Hawaiian music and all of its figures - the heroes, the unsung heroes, and even those who worked behind the scenes. I used to joke that I collected Hawaiian records the way other kids in my New Jersey neighborhood collected baseball cards. I knew all the players and all their stats, but for some reason nobody ever wanted to trade with me. But at some point it was no longer enough to listen to Hawaiian music. I was eager to play.

I first learned to play ‘ukulele before I was five years old by listening to and emulating those whose styles most appealed to me - Eddie Kamae, Jesse Kalima, and Herb Ohta. Then around the age of 8, I bought Keola Beamer’s primer on slack key guitar and taught myself. At some point I added steel guitar to the growing list of instruments I was trying to learn - copying licks from such greats as Joe Custino, Lovey Lui Conn, Jules Ah See, Barney Isaacs and (of course) Billy Hew Len. As a teenager, I wanted to sing falsetto like Mahi Beamer, Dennis Pavao, or Robert and Roland Cazimero. And I did not find it one bit ironic that my singing hero was Aunty Genoa Keawe. I was a young man learning to sing like a woman. ‘Ukulele, slack key guitar, steel guitar, and falsetto singing were my passions, but they were also my deep, dark secret. There were enough reasons for the others at school to ridicule me - bad skin, bad hair, bad clothing choices, a life made in a trailer park, a mother who was a raging alcoholic, and what teachers convinced me was an off-the-charts IQ. Why give them one more reason? In those days, it felt like I had few friends, but I had lots of aunties and uncles far, far away in a place I had never even visited it.  My heart and my soul were in Hawai’i as were the aunties and uncles I had yet to meet. 

While other kids dreamed more practical dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, chefs, and teachers, I dreamed of playing Hawaiian music. If you’re a white kid in New Jersey, dreaming of becoming a musician in Hawai’i is just plain stupid. Who knew there was any sphere in which being a white male would be a disadvantage?

And yet, like a damned fool, I continued to practice as if that dream could become a reality. I played and sang at parties for the local Hawaiians who accepted me as one of their own. It never escaped me that their hearts soared to their home far away whenever I sang a forgotten song in the Hawaiian language in the falsetto style. At one of these gatherings, I was approached by a calabash auntie and uncle from Philadelphia, Frank and Winnie Jankowski. (And, make no mistake, despite marrying into that very Polish name, Auntie Winnie was Hawaiian born and raised who studied hula with none other than Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln.) Without conversation, Frank handed me a videocassette with a Post-It Note attached which read simply “You could do this.” It was a videocassette of the TV broadcast of that year’s Aloha Festivals Frank B. Shaner Falsetto Singing Contest. The winner that year was unknown to me. His name was Cody “Pueo” Pata.

Starting in 2003, I began making an annual journey to Hawai’i to compete in this contest.  That first year - in July 2003 - I dialed the radio in the rental car to station 105.1 - KINE - to hear the morning show then hosted by Brickwood Galuteria and Frank B. Shaner who - to my surprise - were joking about the contestant from New Jersey. Frank defended me - saying to Brickwood, “No, really, just wait ‘til you hear this guy.” I picked up the Honolulu Star-Bulletin where they interviewed Shaner about the contest named for him, and he talked about the contestants, to which I became yet another tagline: “There is even one from New Jersey!” And I knew that I was somewhere between a dark horse and a cruel joke. And - dare I say it? - I lost. And it wouldn’t be the last time.

The Aloha Festivals sponsored contests first on Hawai’i, then O’ahu, and later Maui, and eventually even Kaua’i. So the next year I hedged my bets and entered the contest on two different islands - taking third place on Hawai’i and second place on O’ahu. And I was quite content with that and vowed never to return - at least, not to compete, since I had been told by many Hawaiians that a “haole is never going to win that contest.”

The advent of the internet nearly ruined Hawaiian music for me. I was able to put myself out there for the first time and seek advice and assistance. But instead of advice and assistance, for the most part I received a warning. I learned – quickly – that there is a difference between music for the sake of music and music that perpetuates a culture. And because of Hawai’i’s sordid history with the white man – honored last week on the 120th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy – the Hawaiian people are understandably very protective of what remains of their culture. So I was given myriad reasons why I should not perform Hawaiian music which ranged from you’re not Hawaiian to you do not speak the Hawaiian language, so you should not sing it to you have never even been to Hawai’i to now that you've been here, you should move here. This would have hurt badly enough coming from the Hawaiian people, but many of these criticisms, in fact, came from the legends of Hawaiian music that I so admired and wished to befriend and learn from.

And so, I gave up Hawaiian music and falsetto singing and the contest.

In September 2005, I received a phone call from the O’ahu contest’s new host, radio personality Harry B. Soria. He said that the Aloha Festivals couldn’t find my audition tape or any entry forms for me. They assumed they must be lost in the mail in that great distance between Honolulu and Trenton. I explained that they were not lost - that I simply wasn’t entering. Harry said, “I really think you should. And there are only nine entries so far. And you keep taking second or third place. It’s as if that tenth spot were reserved for you.” So I entered the O’ahu contest, and because it was convenient, I entered on the Big Island as well. Between marriages and going more broke by the day, I shelled out for the plane ticket - all the money I had left in the world. I rented a car on a credit card I knew I likely wouldn’t pay when the bill arrived. And I planned to sleep in that rental car in various Zippy’s parking lots across O’ahu. I stopped into Harry’s Music in Kaimuki to see a friend I had made at the first contest - Alan Yoshioka. He asked me where I was staying, and I told him a in a car behind Zippy’s Vineyard. And he protested and said, “No, you stay with me.”

The night before the O’ahu contest, I went to hear my friend Halehaku Seabury-Akaka play at a great little night spot that has since become a favorite of mine: Chiko’s. And he was performing with one of my falsetto heroes - Keao Costa, then of the group Na Palapalai. I sang a few songs with the group, and then I bought Keao a beer. A beer turned into a six-pack and several shots of something that tasted like straight Hershey’s syrup. He asked what I was singing in the contest, and I told him Uncle Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln’s “Kawaihae Hula.” He said, “Sing it. Now.” So I started singing, and he stopped me after four bars. He asked why my vowel sounds all sounded the same - why I could not hear the difference between “ai” and “ae.” Good question, Keao. “You cannot get away with that when Tony is a judge” - referring, of course, to composer, kumu hula, and falsetto singer Tony Conjugacion. We then started repeating “Kawaihae” one after the other. Kawaihae. Take a shot. Kawaihae. Drink your beer. Kawaihae. Take another shot. And I was getting the lessons I desperately sought from one of my heroes in a bar at a ridiculous hour while doing beer and shots.

And it was then that I realized that Hawaiian music is not an academic thing at all. I had been doing it all wrong.

The next thing I remember is waking up in my car on Ala Wai Boulevard - close to (but not in) the parking garage of the apartment Alan Yoshioka loaned to me. It was perhaps the scariest moment of my life. And there was only one hour until sound check.

That evening, September 24, 2005, on the grand stage of the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel where so much Hawaiian music history had been made, and after the big build-up of an introduction in which Harry joked with Karen Keawehawai’i about guessing the zip code of Ewing, NJ, I took the stage with my now great friends - the group known as “Na Hoa” - and sang “Kawaihae Hula.” And nobody - believe me, nobody - was more surprised than me to win not only the falsetto singing prize, but a second newly instituted prize for accuracy in the Hawaiian language. (Thank you, Keao!) Back home in New Jersey, the album covers from my favorite Hawaiian LPs – most on the venerable Hula Records label – graced my walls. And now through some miracle I had earned a recording contract with that same Hula Records. We recorded the album the following July, and you hear two of those songs here. You likely never heard these songs on the radio in Hawai’i. And – unlike the handful of falsetto contest winners CD releases previously – it did not earn the coveted Na Hoku Hanohano Award. And I did not relocate to Hawai’i because even I realized that winning that contest – one song, one night – did not, in fact, change my life. All of the obstacles still existed.

This may sound like nothing to you, but in my mind I overcame insurmountable odds and harsh criticism to fulfill a dream. I haven’t told this story often. It’s old news now. And you probably think I choose today to retell it because we are celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. But that is only half the reason. The other half is that in a few hours I head to the hospital for a surgery that is long overdue and which may change my voice forever. The hope is that it will be better. But it could go either way. The real hope is that this procedure improves my quality of life – whether or not I ever sing again. Surgery also invariably – no matter how minor – makes me come to grips with my own mortality. It’s a simple procedure, it’s not even a dangerous procedure, but one of my heroes of jazz – violinist Stephane Grappelli – died from a simple appendectomy because of an error in dosing the anesthesia.

Should I not sing the same way tomorrow as I did today, I will at least still have my hands to lay upon steel guitars and ‘ukuleles. I had a dream, and for one brief shining moment I lived it. Tomorrow may be the day for a new dream. And should there be no tomorrow, at least I left my voice on an aluminum disc and an MP3, and maybe someday someone will hear it and judge it without conditions and preconceived notions such as, “Oh, and he was from New Jersey.”

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my voice to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray Hawai’i my soul to take…

Ke Akua bless my wife, my beautiful family, my faithful dog and cat, and all of my Hawaiian friends who ultimately told me “can.”

~ Bill Wynne

Billy Hew Len in the 1960s

After the loss of his left hand in a tragic accident, Billy Hew Len miraculously regained the ability to play the steel guitar through a one-of-a-kind invention: a leather glove with the steel bar attached to it. But this was still a less than perfect compromise that still required that Billy work exponentially harder to conquer what was already one of the most difficult of musical instruments.

Ultimately Billy turned to another device that would help him overcome his deficits and create his own sound, but he took an even bigger risk in doing so. For while the steel guitar is a uniquely Hawaiian invention, the pedal steel guitar was a product of the mainland U.S. Billy began playing the pedal steel guitar which was primarily associated with the country/western music of Nashville and which was much maligned by steel guitarists in Hawai’i - still today even as it was back then. But he discovered - for he was nothing if not practical - that he could do with his feet what the Hawaiian steel players did with their hands - such as the aforementioned bar slants. Most agree that Billy developed a sound on the pedal steel guitar that was uniquely Hawaiian - not country/western - and time and again throughout his career Billy went back and forth between the pedal and non-pedal steel guitars - depending on what the market demanded and the performers he accompanied desired.

And in creating a whole new kind of Hawaiian music for a new generation, arranger Benny Saks required the pedal steel as only Billy could play it.

Benny Saks (professional name of Ben Sakamoto) was a pianist and vibraphonist, but his magic was in arranging for the great vocalists of Hawaiian music. He was the “house arranger” for Mahaka Records through the 1960s as well as an occasional arranger for recordings on the Sounds of Hawaii label - two companies aimed at endearing Hawaiian music to younger, hipper audiences. As such his memorable arranging work is heard behind such amazing voices as Myrtle K. Hilo, Marlene Sai, Kai Davis, Frank and Cathy Kawelo, Bill Kaiwa, Iwalani Kahalewai, Billy Gonsalves, and Leinaala Haili. And wherever Benny was, Billy was there too on these iconic recordings.

Courtesy of Lehua Records which inherited the libraries of both of these iconic record labels over time, some of the recordings featuring Billy and Benny - such as those from Bill Kaiwa and Iwalani Kahalewai - have been reissued on CD. Others - such as those by Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders - have been licensed by Michael Cord for his Hana Old Records label. This post will therefore take a look - as it usually does - at those recordings which remain unavailable after so many years.

You would be hard pressed - no pun intended - to find a copy of the first recording as it was not released on any of the major record labels in Hawai‘i. As the label is not identified anywhere on the recording, we should consider it “private issue” and, therefore, of very limited distribution. The singer is Ilima Baker (wife of Pua Almeida sidekick and Moana Serenaders’ guitarist and singer Kalakaua Aylett) who headlined in such venerable venues as the Moana Hotel and the Niumalu Hotel (on the site of what is now the Hilton Hawaiian Village) since before she graduated from high school. Even if you have never heard the name or even the voice, fans of Hawaiian music have felt her legacy as she brought the popular Hawaiian standard “In A Church In An Old Hawaiian Town” to prominence. To my knowledge, there is no other commercial recording of Ilima Baker except for this one LP simply entitled “Ilima” which featured the arranging of Benny Saks and the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len. This most unusual album features hymns and Christian songs on one side and Hawaiian standards on the other. But the most unusual thing about the album is the song you hear - Ilima’s voice accompanied only by Billy’s steel guitar and Ambrose Hutchinson’s kaekeeke, or bamboo organ which consists of bamboo pipes of varying lengths in order to tune them to various pitches which - when tapped on the ground - create a percussive tone much like a giant xylophone. I can find no recordings that feature the steel guitar and kaekeeke before or since this rarity.

Inexplicably, as diligent as Lehua Records has been about its reissues, only one of three sessions from Myrtle K. Hilo - the “Singing Cab Driver” has been re-released. Pity…for Auntie Myrtle has a kolohe (or rascal) way with a Hawaiian song and we are depriving Hawaiian music lovers of more of the joy of the collaboration of Billy Hew Len and Benny Saks. “Piukeone” comes from Myrtle’s Makaha Records LP “Will You Love Me When My Carburetor Is Busted.” And on it you can hear the sound that Benny was cultivating for the new generation - including a full drum kit used to infuse traditional Hawaiian songs with the modern rhythms of rock-and-roll and the Latin Americas. Until this point in the history of Hawaiian music had the rhythmic focus ever been on the snap of the high hat cymbals? Not so much.

On Bill Kaiwa’s second Sounds of Hawaii release “More From Bill Kaiwa - The Boy From Laupahoehoe,” Benny returns to the swinging jazz idioms that go back to his earlier time with Pua Almeida and the Moana Serenaders. His ear ever to the ground to pick up the rumblings of the musical happenings on the mainland and beyond, Saks incorporates the Hammond B-3 organ that was being popularized on the Blue Note jazz recordings of Jimmy Smith (among others). Never before had the jazz organ made its way into the Hawaiian music idiom. In fact, not even in jazz had this combination of instruments ever really been used for anything beyond instrumental music. So in using the Hammond B-3 to back Bill Kaiwa‘s vocals, Saks’ invention anticipates the changes in American popular music that would be heard only a few years later in such legendary recordings as Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” album on which arranger Ernie Freeman plays the Hammond B-3 himself. The xylophone - played by none other than Saks - adds a playfulness to the proceedings. And Billy Hew Len’s pedal steel guitar is here again as well.

Marlene Sai - known affectionately by friends and family as “Auntie Goofy,” a nickname given to her by Don Ho - is one of the most recognizable voices in Hawaiian music. From Marlene’s Makaha Records LP entitled “Not Pau,“ in this version of Alvin Isaacs’ composition “Lei Momi,” Saks returns to the lounge sounds of the Shearing jazz unit with Billy’s steel guitar and Benny’s piano playing complimentary block chords in rhythm. This recording also offers proof that the arrangements were quite organic - often being worked out during the recording session - and that the new multitrack recording technology allowed them to change things on the fly and splice together a best take from several pieces of less perfect takes. Listen carefully around 5:57 in the sound clip and you will notice that Billy played a glissando - in which the bar is used to slide from one fret to another - that gets abruptly cut off. This is a really bad edit on the part of the engineer. It must have been decided that Billy would instead start playing the counterpoint theme with the piano in that first verse, and so they simply did a second take with Billy playing that theme and not-so-seamlessly spliced the takes together.

Finally, on a slightly more relaxed arrangement of Leinaala Haili’s version of Lena Machado‘s composition “Holo Wa’apa” from the Makaha Records LP “Hiki No,” Benny gives himself and Billy the freedom to noodle to their heart’s delight. The steel guitar takes the traditional role of playing “fills” or “accents” in the spaces between the vocals as well as in the vamps that connect the verses in this more traditional hula ku’i, while the piano takes on the more rhythmic role of aiding the drummer in propelling the Latin beat. Again, Saks does his homework as this is the same sound of the piano as heard in the famous Latin dance bands led by Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado and their more avant garde disciple Juan Garcia Esquivel.

Tomorrow: Billy Hew Len still going strong in the 1970s…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_1960s.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 7:21am EST