Leinaala Haili

Jessie Makanui Leinaala Amaral Haili was born January 29, 1923 in Lahaina, Maui. She rose to fame because of her very natural and unforced female ha`i  - or the equivalent of the male falsetto - that was simply beyond compare. Throughout her professional career she perfomed literally everywhere: the Sierra Café, the Niumalu Hotel (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village), the Moana Hotel, the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the Queen’s Surf, the Kaimana Beach Hotel, the Kuhio Hotel, Don the Beachcomber's, Waikiki Lau Yee Chai, The Clouds, and Yoko's at Kapahulu. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s she recorded five LPs for the Makaha and Lehua record labels - each one more beautiful than the last. On all five of these albums she collaborated with an arranger we have speaking about at great length recently - Benny Saks - and so she is also at least partially responsible for ushering in a more modern era of Hawaiian music. And because Leinaala worked with Benny Saks, this means we have one more opportunity to hear from his frequent collaborator - steel guitarist Billy Hew Len.

Benny, Billy, and Leinaala kick things off with a rousing rendition of Uncle Johnny Almeida’s “Maile Swing.” Almeida’s uptempo compositions were always infused with the many jazz influences that inspired him. But “Maile Swing” may be his swingingest effort ever, and Benny’s arrangement only swings it harder. This is no typical Hawaiian song form. For example, listen to the chord structure of the bridge - switching from major to minor in the middle of the bridge. This is not traditional Hawaiian music as it was known up to that point when Almeida penned this ditty around 1946-7. Saks jazzes it up even more by changing the typical “V” chord to a “V9” chord - also right out of the jazz playbook. And then there is that unique instrument heard throughout the tune. Known as the melodica, it sounds like a harmonica, but it is, in fact, a handheld keyboard instrument that one blows into to produce tone. (You may recognize this instrument from the iconic introduction to the 1972 Chi-Lites hit “Oh, Girl.“) Hohner only invented the instrument in the 1950s, so again Saks shows us his cutting edge by introducing the melodica to Hawaiian music. (In fact, the melodica may not have been used in Hawaiian music before or since this effort.) The combination keyboard/woodwind design of the instrument is what allows Benny to bend the notes in his introduction and solo into the blue notes associated with jazz. And then another very jazz-oriented idea: the trading of choruses among the soloists. Benny takes the first half of the improvised instrumental chorus, while Billy takes the second half on the steel guitar.

On “Pa’ahana,” Benny Saks surprises and titillates by turning back the hands of time with an instrumentation comprised solely of steel guitar, slack key guitar, and bass - Hawaiian music at its simple best. The steel guitar is Billy Hew Len once again, and the slack key guitar is a guest turn from none other than Sonny Chillingworth. You may recall when discussing Billy Hew Len that he performed live regularly in the 1970s with Sonny Chillingworth and Myra English. This selection gives us a hint at that empathetic interplay of Billy’s steel and Sonny’s slack key one might have heard on those evenings at the Dolphin Room of the Outrigger Hotel. This is also a rare recording of Sonny playing a nylon string guitar as he was better known for playing steel string acoustic guitars or his now legendary orange Gretsch semi-hollow body.

On the classic “Na Pua Lei ‘Ilima,” Saks tastefully combines the traditional and the contemporary. He takes the tune at a slightly more sprightly clip than usual for the hula. Then he employs the hula rhythm typically associated with the ipu heke but instead on the tambourine - the ubiquitous sound of groovy hipster 60s music. Once again, the steel guitar is Billy Hew Len.

On “Ka’uiki,” the steel guitar sits out and the ‘ukulele takes the lead role. None of the supporting players are immediately identifiable here, but the male harmony voice you hear is likely Cyrus Green as he played a similar supporting role on other Lehua Records releases of this period, and Green‘s voice is largely unmistakeable.

Finally, as in other Benny Saks arrangements you may have heard here recently, this version of “Punahou” is focused on the interplay of Billy Hew Len’s steel guitar and Saks’ piano. The arrangement plays not only with melody but rhythm. Listen to the introduction where the piano relies on long rests between ideas while the steel guitar plays a seemingly neverending cascade of triplets. 

When one listens to Auntie Leinaala sing, one immediately recognizes not only a voice that rises above the rest, but also a personality that rises above the rest. Her voice is characterized by a certain simple elegance. You might picture her in a shiny holoku ready to perform for kings and queens. Yet those who knew her say that she was kolohe - or rascal - both on stage and off. Entertainment writer Wayne Harada captured her best in his Honolulu Advertiser obituary when he discussed Leinaala’s legacy with other Hawaiian music icons who knew and admired her.

While I must usually report that the selections heard on Ho’olohe Hou are out of print, happily that is not the case with Leinaala Haili’s catalog. In 2012, Lehua Records remastered and re-released all five of her albums direct to MP3 which can be downloaded from iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, and other reputable download sites. I can highly recommend four of them, but one - “Hiki No” - is not up to modern standards since Lehua returned to the monophonic master for its reissue (likely because the original stereo master was lost or damaged).

Leinaala Haili would have been 90 years old today. I hope you enjoy hearing this voice again - or, perhaps, for the first time…

Direct download: Leinaala_Haili.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:32pm EDT