Happy Birthday, Lehua Kalima!

Once known only as one-third of the Hawaiian vocal supergroup Na Leo, in the last few years the lovely and talented Lehua Kalima has broken out as a solo artist. Composer of some of my favorite contemporary Hawaiian lyrics (“Flying With Angels,” “Rest Of Your Life,” and “Saving Forever” come to mind – all Na Hoku Hanohano award winners for “Song Of The Year”), in November 2011 Kalima released Rising In Love – her first solo effort featuring an additional eight new original compositions. Her story is well chronicled on her artist page at the Mountain Apple Company website

If you haven’t heard Lehua’s work as a solo artist, an excellent introduction to her latest and greatest is her appearance on the HiSessions series, a raw, “MTV Unplugged”-like approach to presenting Hawai’i’s artists. One of my favorite songs from Lehua’s latest release is “Delicate” – performed in the segment of HiSessions featured here. But there is more where that came from. To hear more of Lehua Kalima’s HiSessions performance, visit the HiSessions YouTube page

Happy birthday, Lehua! And mahalo for the gift of you beautiful voice and your beautiful thoughts set to music.

Direct download: Lehua_Kalima_-_Delicate_HiSessions.com_Acoustic_Live.mp4
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 8:26pm EDT

Hawai'i's Champagne Lady

Much to my surprise and delight, much has already been written about singer Myra English. She is one of the few Hawaiian entertainers of the 1960s and 70s to have a Wikipedia page. But, sadly, the nicest piece on the “Champagne Lady” was her obituary from The Maui News on her passing in 2001. Because you can read about English – the woman, the mother, the grandmother, and the entertainer – elsewhere, I would like to share something a little more personal about her music.

People often ask me how I became so interested in the music and entertainers of Hawai’i – especially being born in Philadelphia, more than 5,000 miles away from the islands. There is no short or easy answer to that question, but I’ll start here with the hope of saying more over time… Despite that I am not of Hawaiian descent, I was born into a family already steeped in Hawaiian ways. My father long loved the music of Hawai’i and learned to play the steel guitar. And because he could play the steel guitar, he quickly gained favor among the many Hawaiian ex-patriots living between New York City and Washington, D.C. So I spent much of my childhood – as far back as I can remember – at backyard lu’au and pa’ina with our local Hawaiian community. Sometimes the events were planned well in advance. And sometimes they just happened as breezily as if we had lived in Kane’ohe or Kapahulu – Hawaiians stopping by our house unannounced on a weeknight with two hot pizzas (poke would be in short supply in this region), a cold case of beer (for the adults), and a stack of the latest new music releases from Hawai’i (often on 8-track tapes). You might say you can blame bad parenting for my love of the Hawaiian people and their music since my parents would let me stay up until all hours with our Hawaiian friends – my “aunties” and “uncles” – playing music, laughing, and sharing aloha. If you have spent all of your life in Hawai’i, this might sound implausible to you. But it was my life. 

I remember the music we listened to during those days. I still own most of it, and – in most cases – the very original copies we listened to on those nights and early mornings since the kupuna often allowed me to raid their record racks and take home – and keep – whatever I wanted, while others left them to me when they passed away. I remember the names: Tony Lindsey, Kahauanu Lake, Myra English, Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui, Vicki I’i, Genoa Keawe. And I remember the songs. What I did not understand at the time is how so many songs sung in the English language became Hawaiian standards. Songs like “Blue Darling,” “For The Good Times,” or “Drinking Champagne.”

As the story goes, Myra English was living in Seattle and commuting to work every day when she would hear “Drinking Champagne” on the radio every single day. Written by Bill Mack, the composer’s version was not terribly successful. It was not until Cal Smith recorded the tune in 1968 that the song caught on and reached #35 on the Billboard Country Music Chart. This is the version Auntie Myra would have heard. Like Tony Lindsey, Don Ho, and a few other Hawai’i musicians, Myra had a knack for knowing when a tune would appeal to local audiences. When she returned home and took up residence nightly in the Blue Dolphin Room of the Outrigger Hotel in Waikiki with steel guitarist Billy Hew Len and slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth, she recorded “Champagne,” and it was a huge commercial success. But, more than this, it was the song that Hawaiians sat around singing in the wee small hours on back porches and in garages after a little too much to drink and the melancholy began to set in – just the way I remember it happening at the aunties’ and uncles’ houses on my coast. 

The trio of Myra’s ‘ukulele, Billy’s steel guitar, and Sonny’s guitar was unusual in that it was missing an essential component – the bass, the all-important bottom end of most Hawaiian groups (or, for that matter, groups in any genre). It is not until you hear Sonny’s unique guitar style that you begin to understand how this could work. But while Sonny played most of these engagements in standard tuning – not in slack key tuning (more about this another time) – he still played in the slack key style ­– which means alternating melody lines and occasional chords with running bass lines, the signature sound of slack key guitar. Sonny’s guitar was all the bottom end this trio needed. 

You would think that much of Myra’s recorded output would have been remastered and rereleased for the digital era for new generations of Hawaiian music fans to discover. You would be half-correct. There is only one “Best Of” collection reissued comprised of songs from Myra’s three Hula Records’ releases. If you’re really interested in discovering the wonderful sound that this unique trio produced (or a reasonable facsimile since on record they employed the services of bassist Kalani Flores), you really should pick up the “Best Of” CD. But, for me, “Best Of” collections always raise the question of choices: How did the producers decide what to include and what to leave out? Record sales figures? Radio play? Do they ever consider “sentimental value?” Ho’olohe Hou exists to bring you the music you would likely not hear elsewhere. So for this edition of the blog, I wanted to share with you some of Myra’s music that was not reissued on the “Best Of” collection – the music I remember hearing as a keiki, the music that has the most “sentimental value” for me and – I suspect – for many Hawaiians.

The set opens with a beautiful composition from the pen of Irmgard Aluli and Napua Stevens. “Ka Nani O Uluwehi” would be considered a mele pana – a song written in honor of a place and the hospitality of one’s hosts – and there are many such songs in the Hawaiian idiom. In this one, Myra sings of the home of Albert and Ellen Kai in the Volcano area of Hawai’i island. 

“And I Love You So” was composed by Don McLean (“American Pie,” “Vincent”), but was probably a bigger mainland hit for Perry Como. Like “Drinking Champagne,” Myra suspected that it would be a hit among Hawaiian audiences too. Listen to how gently Billy Hew Len and Sonny Chillingworth caress these beautiful chords. 

Canada’s Gene MacLellan wrote a number of songs made famous by his compatriot Anne Murray (“Snowbird,” “Put Your Hand In The Hand”). MacLellan’s “Biding My Time” sat side-by-side with “Snowbird” in Anne Murray’s debut LP in 1969. Again, Myra had a hunch and took the tune to the studio with Billy and Sonny. Listen to the Spanish-like treatment Sonny and Billy give the tune with their intricate guitar interplay. 

“Ka Nani O Uluwehi,” “And I Love You So,” and “Biding My Time” appear on English’s out of print 1975 LP Oh, How I Miss You Tonight

For a change of pace, Myra returned to the studio in 1977 to do an album of old school hapa-haole songs. Hapa-haole is a category of songs that pay respect to Hawai’i and Hawaiian ideals but which are sung in the English language (hapa meaning “half” and haole meaning “foreign” or – more specifically – “Caucasian”). For the album Do The Hula (also out of print), Myra went to the studio with some veterans of this genre – Benny Kalama on ‘ukulele, Sonny Kamahele on guitar, and Norman Isaacs on bass. You hear this trio’s beautiful voices as well backing Myra on the R. Alex Anderson classic “Pretty Red Hibiscus.” 

I close out the set with two songs from the first – and, still, perhaps, the best – Myra English album, Drinking Champagne. Many of the tunes from this LP made the cut for the “Best Of” collection. But not these two. As with “And I Love You So” and “Biding My Time,” Myra was certain that Hawaiians would fall in love with Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times.” And she was right. This is one of the first songs I remember hearing at our all-night parties, and I knew all the words at too early an age – even if I didn’t yet understand the heartbreak behind them. It was not until much later that I realized this was a Kristofferson tune, and I remember saying to myself embarrassed… So this isn’t a Hawaiian song? But that’s the thing, isn’t it? In the hands of Auntie Myra, Billy, and Sonny, this IS beyond a shadow of a doubt a Hawaiian song. Any Hawaiian will tell you so. (By the way, you can hear Sonny and Billy’s voices backing Myra in the choruses.)

The set closes with one of Myra’s originals. “I Turned The Lights Off On You” has unusual origins. Don Ho used to drop by to hear Myra and the trio. (Sonny played in one of Don’s early bands at Honey’s in Kane’ohe.) It is a Hawaiian tradition to call up to the stage any and all of the other professional entertainers who showed up on any given night – turning many Hawaiian club gigs into all-night jam sessions. Two Sundays in a row when Don dropped by and Myra called him up to sing, the power went out in the entire hotel. When it happened the second time, Myra said to Don, “What you think? I turned the lights off on you?” And the joke became a really lovely and poignant Myra original. 

I hope you enjoy the forgotten recordings of Myra English in the company of many of my heroes – Sonny Chillingworth, Billy Hew Len, Benny Kalama, Sonny Kamahele, and Norman Isaacs. This was the music of my formative years – the music that brought Hawai’i so much closer to my home and my heart.

Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-22-14_-_Myra_English.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:24pm EDT

Hawai'i Takes On The Beatles (Part 2)

Continuing the celebration of The Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. 50 years ago this month… Yesterday we listened to how musicians popular in Hawai’i in the 1960s and 70s treated the compositions of The Fab Four. But this was a trend that continued well into the new millennium. After all, a Beatles composition is timeless. 

The set opens – and closes – with the angelic voices of Na Leo. On their 2004 release “Find Harmony,” Angela, Nalani, and Lehua find some lovely harmonies on Lennon and McCartney’s classic “Blackbird.” The reharmonization of the original chord structure takes a jazz approach, which is the work of none other than Matt Catingub, the artistic director of the Hawai’i Pops aggregation and a fine saxophonist. 

The second selection is from a recording that had such a profound impact on the state and evolution of Hawaiian music that it cannot be overstated. The release of Keali’i Reichel’s “Kawaipunahele” revolutionized Hawaiian music in the 1990s much like Sunday Manoa’s “Guava Jam” did for the 1970s – creating a second Hawaiian music renaissance and a renewed interest in what is time and again deemed a dying art form. Reichel combined countless disparate stylistic influences into a cohesive whole. And there is no better example of this than his decision to combine an oli (a Hawaiian chant form) with the Lennon-McCartney chestnut “In My Life.” 

Shawn Ishimoto – recently transplanted from his Hawai’i home to the greater Los Angeles area to pursue life, love, and assorted new musical opportunities – was still billed as “B.B. Shawn” when he recorded Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will” for his 1998 release “No Boundaries.” Assisted only by the percussion stylings of Jon Porlas, Shawn is responsible for all of the other instruments and voices heard here. Sadly, this beautiful CD is no longer in print.

Teresa Bright is another trendsetter in Hawaiian music – having explored the various combinations of pop, jazz, R&B, Exotica, lounge, country, Latin, and even Okinawan music into the Hawaiian idiom. Here she tackles “And I Love Him” (as Melveen Leed did previously) with a dignified approach that very much approaches The Beatles’ original. With the help of Hawai’i’s Steve Jones on bass and Ben Vegas on guitar, this tune comes from what I consider to be Teresa’s most beautiful CD, 1998’s “Crossing The Blue” with selections ranging from Brian Wilson to Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and with the able assistance of Cyril Pahinui and Bobby Ingano. If you have never heard (or even heard of) this release, perhaps it’s because it was only released in Japan.

One could argue that ‘ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro might not have the illustrious career he currently enjoys if it weren’t for The Beatles… Those of you who have followed Jake’s career know that it began with a home video posted to YouTube (unbeknownst to Jake) in which he absolutely kills George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on a park bench in New York’s famed Central Park. (The video was one of the early YouTube sensations.) It is only fitting since George Harrison was a huge aficionado of the ‘ukulele – with a massive collection of the diminutive Hawaiian instruments of his own, many purchased at Staten Island, NY’s Mandolin Brothers. (This is my guitar repair shop, so I am always eager to visit and be regaled by the owner’s tales of George’s many visits and purchases.) Here is the original recording of "Weeps" from Jake’s 2004 release “Walking Down Rainhill.” In the liner notes, none other than Olivia Harrison, George’s widow, heaps praise on Jake – stating that she loves Jake’s versions of George’s songs and that “he will always have a fan in England.” 

Finally, completing the Na Leo sandwich, Angela, Nalani, and Lehua cover “With A Little Help From My Friends” – originally from the iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album which made the Beatles a household name for all generations shortly before their flame flickered out.

Are there more Beatles tunes covered by Hawai’i’s musicians? I’ll keep looking. These are all the ones I could think of off the top of my head without breaking a sweat and rifling through the stacks at Ho’olohe Hou. If you think of one I missed, drop me a line!


Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-22-14_-_Beatles_Tribute_Part_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:46am EDT

Hawai'i Takes On The Beatles (Part 1)

50 years ago this month, four little known about lads that called themselves The Beatles released their first recordings in the U.S. and  - on February 9, 1964 at 8pm – the Fab Four made their U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. And music – and the world – were changed forever. 

That story has been chronicled countless times. But what has not been discussed has been the effect of the British Invasion on the evolution of music in Hawai’i. 

As has been discussed in this blog previously, Hawaiian music took some very interesting – albeit expected – turns in the 1960s.With statehood and the jet plane came the need for Hawai’i’s musicians to remain relevant for the burgeoning tourist crowd – not necessarily for record sales, but certainly to remain viable as Waikiki club acts. Traditional Hawaiian music and hula began to share nightclub and record store shelf space with rock-and-roll, bossa nova, and even go-go. Once The Beatles were “the thing,” this, too, became a force for the local musicians to reckon with. There are several examples of this on record, and, as one might expect, most of these examples were from the popular Waikiki nightclub acts of the era. 

Buddy Fo and His Group, performing live at the Shell Bar of the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel, take Lennon and McCartney’s “Daytripper” at a slightly peppier clip than the mopheads did. The beat is the go-go and has more in common with Don Ho and the Aliis (working down the street at Duke Kahanamoku’s) than with The Beatles. (You can picture the coeds rocking out with their frug and watusi at this rhythmic pace.) Guitarist Sonny Kamaka arranges the tune as an homage to – not a copy of – the original. He could easily have copped the iconic opening 12-string guitar and bass unison intro that George Harrison and Paul McCartney crafted, but Kamaka instead crafts a new guitar and bass unison intro all his own. Buddy Fo and His Group – the remnant of the jazz vocal group “The Invitations” which had both Hawai’i and mainland success – show off their harmony skills on the refrains and on the ending – a vocal feat The Beatles could not have pulled off.

Despite being better known for the commercially viable blending of Hawaiian and country music throughout the 1970s, Melveen Leed actually began her career as a nightclub singer performing in a variety of genres. Like Buddy Fo, Melveen was also performing at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in its Garden Bar with a larger aggregation arranged and conducted by Bernie Hal-Mann who held court at this hotel for many years. On her LP “Melveen Leed Sings Today’s Hits,” Melveen tackles two Lennon-McCartney chestnuts. I opted for “And I Love Him” because – like Buddy Fo before her – what she and Bernie chose to do with this song is far afield from John and Paul’s original intentions – speeding up the tempo and once again giving the tune a modern go-go flair aimed directly at the coeds. Also notable is that the Melveen Leed and Buddy Fo LPs were both produced by Harold Chang (formerly of the Arthur Lyman Group) and both for Makaha Records – a label that was instrumental in revolutionizing Hawaiian music through this period with other acts such as Sonny Chillingworth and Marlene Sai. (As for the other Beatles tune on this album, there’s always tomorrow…) 

Perhaps the most peculiar find in this set is a rendering of “Eleanor Rigby” by Hawai’i-based vocal group The Family Tree. The group’s repertoire ranged from jazz standards (“Stella By Starlight”) to traditional Hawaiian (“Lei Aloha Lei Makamae”) to Broadway (“Fiddler On The Roof”). The group did not mimic their contemporaries on the Hawai’i vocal scene such as the jazzier stylings of The Invitations or Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders. The group has far more in common with a group across the ocean – Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66. And if you were sad that Buddy Fo's group abandoned the original intro for "Daytripper," listen closely here at the bass line for "Eleanor Rigby." Hmmm... Clever! The entire album – “Watch What Happens” – is a curiosity worth hunting down and enjoying from end to end.

Alternately known throughout their career as The Surfers and The Hawaiian Surfers (chronicled on this blog previously), this group gives us the Alex Among-arranged “Yesterday.” This tender four-part harmony version is in stark contrast to the McCartney original since McCartney recorded his version with only a solo vocal at a slow but steady clip of a tempo, while Among increases the drama with a tempo that ebbs and flows like waves of emotion crashing on the heart. This is from the album “Today” on Decca/MCA.

Finally, a Beatles tribute without “Hey, Jude” can hardly be considered a tribute. Here we have a version by Al Lopaka. Performing nightly at the Hale Ho and billed by his record label as “The Young Sound of Hawaii,” Lopaka combined traditional Hawaiian songs performed in a modern way (think the energy of Trini Lopez with a voice somewhere between Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck) with originals, songs by other local Hawai’i composers, and the hits of the day. How Lopaka approaches “Jude” is indescribable – even for me. You have to hear it to believe it. This is from the Lehua LP “The Isle of Al Lopaka." 

The Al Lopaka and The Surfers recordings have been remastered for digital download. (Check iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, or Rhapsody.) But The Family Tree, Buddy Fo, and Melveen Leed are all out of print. And that is why Ho’olohe Hou will continue to exist – to bring back to life forgotten artists and forgotten recordings.

But this was only the 1960s and early 1970s. What happens to The Beatles' music with today's popular musicians in Hawai'i? We will find out next time...

Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-19-14_-_Beatles_Tribute_Part_01.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:35am EDT