Tue, 12 August 2014
Alice Ku`uleialohapoina`ole Namakelua was born August 12, 1892. How do we come to grips with how long ago this really is? To give us some perspective, Alice was once a servant in the kitchen of Queen Lili`uokalani. But this is not what she is remembered for… Auntie Alice was many things to many people as she was in her time arguably the most important keeper of knowledge and understanding of the ways of a Hawai`i long forgotten by almost everybody else - because she was there. And she lived a purposeful life of sharing her history – Hawai`i’s history – with all of those who cared to listen and perpetuate. There are many “Alices” in Hawai`i’s history. But everybody knows who you mean when you say “Auntie Alice.” There was only one. And if you were a young musician in the 1960s or 70s, whether or not you were formally under her tutelage, you were scolded by her at least once. And this was, they say, the greatest lesson you could ever receive. Ask Robert and Roland Cazimero who have on many occasions lovingly recounted the hard lessons learned from being too cavalier or careless with their music – especially with the Hawaiian language – and being brought around to the light, to what is correct – or pono – by Auntie Alice.
In addition to being such an invaluable resource, Auntie Alice was one of the most prolific composers in Hawai`i’s history, having written more than 170 songs. She was also a slack key guitarist – one of the first females to promote the art form and one of the few living direct descendants to the real old style that few Hawaiian slack key artists were playing in her time. Because of her, modern slack key practitioners such as Ozzie Kotani have learned this older, simpler style, documented it both in writing and with recordings, and have passed it along to present and future generations. All because of Auntie Alice.
Aficionados of Hawaiian music and budding slack key guitarists should hear this style at least once, and they should hear it played by Auntie Alice. Despite composing so many tunes, she went into the studio only once in the mid-1970s by which time she was already 80 years old! On this recording cut for Hula Records, Auntie Alice sings her own compositions while accompanying herself with the slack key guitar in this oft forgotten style – making the album a gem, a must-have in any Hawaiian music collection. But, sadly, the recording has been out of print for nearly 30 years and is most elusive even to collectors. From this album you are now listening to Auntie Alice’s composition “Waipi`o Paka`alana.” Take note of the slack key guitar style which is played with only two fingers on the right hand – the thumb focused on a bass line (which outlines the chord that is not being played) and the pointer (or, alternately, the middle finger) which is playing a melody which becomes a de facto counterpoint to the melody she is singing. Notice that there are no strums and at no time does Auntie Alice play a full chord (which is typically defined by three notes). This is the simplicity of the old slack key guitar style.
Auntie Alice passed away in 1987 at the age of 95, but not before leaving a legacy of Hawaiian music, hula (which we have not even discussed here), and history without which arguably Hawaiian culture would not be the same today.