Sonny Goes French (and Other Surprises)

Finally, I thought this would be a fitting and poignant close to our tribute to Sonny Kamahele. 

I was in Hawai`i for my first attempt at the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest in July 2003. My wife and I were staying in Kane`ohe (after the lesson learned staying in Waikiki), but we also felt like we were missing out on the music scene down there. So, on Thursday evening, July 3rd – the night before the 4th of July – we ventured into Waikiki via the beautiful drive down the Pali Highway. But there were a number of celebrations taking place in town, and after being stopped cold in traffic well before the turn from Kamehameha Highway on to Pali Highway, this appeared to be yet another of our mistakes. We could not yet know that the two-and-a-half drive hour to town would be well worth it. (And sunset over the Pali Highway – in slow motion – would be worth it regardless.) 

As often happens at live music venues in Hawai`i – more than anywhere else I have ever frequented – musicians drop by to listen and pay respect to their musician friends. This particular evening at the Waikiki Beach Marriott was star-studded. But the highlight of the evening was a visit by Sonny Kamahele. 

Sonny assumed the rhythm guitar chair typically occupied by the venerable Momi Kahawaiola`a, and Alan (as you will hear on this recording) immediately says, “I guess you know what Aunty wants you to sing.” It was clear that this was not a first occurrence. After all, Aunty Genoa and Sonny were good friends who went way back in the Hawaiian music “biz” – appearing together live and on record (such as the long out of print Ka`alaea). 

You will then hear Aunty Genoa say, “I love that song, Sonny.” And then not wanting to push, she adds, “You sing what you want to sing. Don’t listen to me.” But Sonny obliges her anyway and launches into a 1938 French classic, “J’Attendrai,” which means “I Will Wait.” (It is not, in fact, a French song but was actually translated from the original Italian tune “Tornerai,” which means “You Will Return.”) Announcing Sonny, Alan speaks of the origins of the song but adds, “And then he makes it more Hawaiian. You’ll see how.” Sonny accomplishes this by singing the French tune largely in his gorgeous Hawaiian falsetto. And, as expected, the audience goes absolutely nuts. 

After Sonny’s peppy take on “Na Moku `Eha” (a lyric with as many as five different melodies – perhaps more), the group surprises us yet again by calling to the stage more Hawaiian music royalty – Sonny’s sisters, Iwalani Kamahele Stone and Anita Roberts. Although she made scant few solo recordings (most appearing on 45 rpm singles or on compilation LPs from the Waikiki Records label in the early 1960s), Iwalani ‘s unmistakable soaring soprano graced many a recording by such artists as Charles Kaipo Miller and Chick Floyd. She was also a member of the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus and performed on their weekly radio shows and on their Capitol Records LPs. You would recognize Iwalani’s voice instantly even if it were not identified in the liner notes (which, as was often the case with Hawaiian music LPs, it wasn’t) because her voice could easily be mistaken for a piccolo. 

The sisters open their much too short set with a duet of Charles E. King’s “Lei Aloha, Lei Makamae” in which you hear Anita’s lovely contralto singing (what is typically) the male part of the duet and Iwalani’s soprano taking the female part. (Listen as Iwalani effortlessly reaches “G” above “high C” in the choruses.) Iwalani then solos on Lena Machado’s “Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi” before sister Anita closes the set with the long forgotten “Here In This Enchanted Place.” All the while the sisters are accompanied by their brother, Sonny, on guitar, Alan Akaka on steel guitar, Gary Aiko on bass, and Aunty Genoa on the `ukulele who you might hear cheering them on the whole time as if this entire display were for solely for her. Because, frankly, it was! As the clip fades, listen to Alan, Gary, and Aunty Genoa heap praise on the combined talents of the Kamahele `ohana. There is nothing more heartwarming for a musician to experience. 

Musicians regaling musicians is the order of the day in Hawai`i, but even in this regard this particular evening was truly special. It was also one of the last I spent with Sonny before his passing in February 2004. I heard him twice more at the House Without A Key that July, but by the time I returned to Hawai`i in September, Sonny had already retired from the Halekulani Hotel the month before and moved to his new home on Hawai`i island. I would never see him again. But I cherish the moments I had with him.

I hope you enjoyed this tribute to my hero, Sonny Kamahele, and especially this last segment captured exactly as it happened at the Waikiki Beach Marriott on the evening of July 3, 2003.

Direct download: Sonny_Kamahele_with_Genoa_Keawe_-_7-3-03.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:53am EST