Fri, 29 August 2014
In discussing Sonny Kamahele, you have already read that he spent the last 20 years of his career with a group known as The Islanders. While the membership often rotated – as Hawaiian music groups have done throughout the ages – depending on who is available for the gig that evening, The Islanders were anchored by their leader, virtuoso steel guitarist Alan Akaka. Other members at various points included such Hawaiian music stalwarts as Harold Haku`ole, Walter Mo`okini, Merle Kekuku, and Benny Kalama. But Sonny was pretty much always there in the all important rhythm guitar chair.
The group requires no further discussion really than the name dropping for these are the guys who preserved – for as long as they could and for as long as the Waikiki tourist trade would allow them – old school Hawaiian music. When you hear The Islanders, you are hearing faithfully recreated the sound of the swinging Hawaiian music aggregations of the 1940s through the 1960s – sounds reminiscent of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders (led by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, who we will also celebrate this week) and the Hawaiian Village Serenaders (of which Sonny and Benny were both members). Notice that those groups were named for the hotels where they most frequently performed. The Islanders could just as easily have been called the Halekulani Serenaders for this is where they could be heard two or three nights a week for more than 20 years from 1983 (the pivotal year when – after many years of silence – the Halekulani decided to host Hawaiian music nightly once again) until their departure in 2006.
Except for that which was captured by tourists, there is little extant video of those halcyon evenings at the House Without A Key. But a popular local TV series of the 1990s – Island Music, Island Hearts – brought the best combination of The Islanders into the studio to tape a few numbers for a most appreciative audience. (The episode paired segments featuring the very traditional sounds of The Islanders with the more contemporary sound of Brother Noland and Tony Conjugacion who were riding high on a pair of early 90s CDs that were pretty revolutionary in inching Hawaiian music into the 21st century – Ku and Ku2. Their segment is worth seeking out on YouTube. And because the original YouTube video poster – who deserves credit for preserving these precious moments in Hawaiian music history – did not have the courtesy to credit the musicians involved by naming them, finding either of these videos would likely prove challenging without a little assistance. But I digress…)
In this all too brief clip – the entirety of their appearance – Sonny, Alan, and Benny give their all on a medley of songs which island hop from Kaua`i to Maui. They open with “Hanohano Hanalei,” Alfred Alohikea’s composition extolling the beauty and virtue of the Garden Isle. (It is, of course, a love song Hawaiian style which uses the poetic technique known as kaona which compares the features of the island to the joys of making love…) The gentlemen then leap over to Maui for two more tunes – Alan taking the vocal lead on “I’m Going To Maui Tomorrow,” a novelty tune written by comedian Bill Dana (of Jose Jimenez fame and who once led a Waikiki showroom revue), and Sonny takes the vocal lead on the hapa-haole staple “Maui Girl” (which may qualify as one of the oldest hapa-haole tunes as it was written by Thomas Kalama and copyrighted as early as 1892). Alan takes blistering steel solos on all three tunes – demonstrating even then as a still relatively young man his mastery of the instrument. But listen also to the sweet three-part harmony so typical of Hawaiian music as well as to Sonny’s rhythm guitar work which the video editors gave generous close-ups throughout. And Sonny even digs into the basso profundo (mentioned in a previous post) on his vocal on “Maui Girl.” Listen for it.
We should be forever grateful to Island Music, Island Hearts for capturing so many legends of Hawaiian music in their prime in only two dozen episodes. As a gift many years ago, my father compiled nearly every episode of this groundbreaking show on one VHS tape (you remember those, don’t you?), but this clip of The Islanders is the one I truly cherished. I hope you cherish it too.