There’s No Steelin’ The Spotlight

Ho`olohe Hou continues to honor the musicians of the Hawaiian Room – the New York City venue which for nearly 30 years delivered authentic Hawaiian song and dance to exceedingly appreciative mainland audiences.  

There is no question that the signature sound of Hawaiian music for the last 100 years since its invention has been the steel guitar. Anyone can recognize the steel guitar when heard. But how often have I been playing a steel guitar in public when somebody approaches the bandstand to inquire, “What the hell is that thing?” When we talk about Hawaiian music, we talk about the men and women in the spotlight, and these are typically singers. Very few steel guitarists sing – or, at least, they don’t sing and play the steel guitar at the same time because the steel requires so much attention since (a) there are no physical frets to feel one’s way around on and (b) the bar can be slanted backwards and forwards for effect which requires looking at the guitar to make sure the bar aligns with the desired frets. (As steel guitar great Jerry Byrd used to say about the anti-social nature of the steel guitarist constantly staring down at the fretboard, “We’re not selling toothpaste up here!”) But the point is that while the steel guitar defines Hawaiian music for many generations, very few outside of Hawai`i can name a steel guitarist. This is why I hesitate to refer to any particular steel guitarist as “legendary.” By definition, “legend” – while not always written down – is almost always verifiable. When we speak about steel guitarists, we are really in the realm of “lore” – that which has been spoken about but which we have difficulty verifying. Those who were there – those who witnessed the greats of yesterday – are gone. Little if anything was written down. If we are being completely truthful, the only people talking about steel players are other steel players. 

Whether of legend or lore, Tommy Castro was an integral part of making the Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel a success if only by virtue of the fact that he wielded the steel guitar and that was the sound most instantly identifiable with Hawaiian music. What patrons of the Hawaiian Room could not have realized was that they were hearing one of the greatest steel guitarists of all time (if gauged only be how often Castro is spoken about and cited as an influence by other steel guitarists). Because he is more lore than legend, opening any book or website about the history of Hawaiian music reveals the same thing about Castro as it largely does for every other steel guitarist that graced the Hawaiian Room stage. Any entry that mentions a steel guitarist by name is usually a one-liner of the “And he was there too” variety. And, so, like Inspector Clouseau, we have to piece together the story of Tommy Castro – and all other steel guitarists to follow him – in relation to the Hawaiian Room’s history. So this article may only add to the lore rather than clarify the legend. 

We can be confident – although not 100% certain – that Castro did not open at the Hawaiian room in June 1937 with Ray Kinney. We know this because the Lexington Hotel’s talent agent contracted separately with Ray Kinney – to emcee and lead the band – and Andy Iona – another steel guitarist. We also know that Kinney returned to Hawai`i in 1938 to scout out additional talent to come back to NYC with him to play the room. Because – just as in the case of Castro – there is so little written about Iona, we have read only that he opened at the Hawaiian Room with Kinney in June 1937, but we cannot determine when he left. I posit that Iona left the venue after about a year and was replaced by Castro after Kinney’s recruitment trip. What do we have for evidence if not biographies of Castro and Iona? We have – what might be much preferred by archivists and ethnomusicologists – discographies. While each record label has a discography (available online, many still in the process of being compiled as they can be vast), there is one that is better than all of these combined. A great friend of the steel guitar and its players – T. Malcolm Rockwell – compiled the quintessential multi-artist, cross-label discography Hawaiian & Hawaiian Guitar Records – 1891-1960. If we use this magnificent work wisely, we can make some inferences about these musicians’ whereabouts at any given point in time by which groups they were recording with and where the recording sessions took place. 

  • After arriving in NYC in the summer of 1937, Ray Kinney’s first recording session in the city – on December 10, 1937 – was with a band led by fellow Hawaiian Room employee Lani McIntire. The steel guitarist on the session was Bob Nichols – not Tommy Castro.


  • Ray Kinney’s second recording session after assuming Hawaiian Room duties was on April 7, 1938. However, the session took place in Los Angeles – not in NYC. Tommy Castro played on this session – his first with Kinney – and the April 1938 date coincides with the accounts of Kinney (about whom people have documented things because he was a singer and bandleader – not a steel guitarist) and his voyage back to Honolulu to recruit more talent for the Hawaiian Room – the return trip for which would have occurred around April 1938. It seems logical that this would be Kinney’s first opportunity to record with Castro and have some new recordings of his new band to shill upon their return to NYC and their first performances together.


  • Andy Iona made no recordings from December 15, 1936 (recorded in Los Angeles) through August 12, 1938 (also recorded in Los Angeles).


  • Tommy Castro’s first NYC recording session with Ray Kinney took place in NYC on June 1, 1938, and his last NYC recording session with Kinney was on July 3, 1941.


  • Ray Kinney’s last NYC recording session during his Hawaiian Room tenure – on December 19, 1941 – featured no steel guitarist whatsoever. 

What might we deduce from these few pieces of data? Iona was likely in New York for most of 1937 and 1938 fulfilling his Hawaiian Room duties (as evidenced by the fact that Iona made no recordings whatsoever during his stay in NYC), and Castro likely took over for Iona at some point between April and June 1938 (as corroborated by the recording sessions in L.A. and NYC marking his journey across the country and Iona’s departure before August of that same year). 

But these are only educated guesses. The lore tells us that Tommy Castro was at the Hawaiian Room at some point with Ray Kinney, and the recorded evidence indicates that he was in NYC between the above sessions on June 1, 1938 and July 3, 1941. (The documented legend of George Kainapau is far more precise about his comings and goings to NYC. But then Kainapau was a singer – not a steel guitarist. You are beginning to get my point, no doubt.)  

To try to get past lore and further toward legend, permit me to share with you some tidbits about Castro… 

If you are a steel player, then you have already read all there is to read on any website or in any book about Hawaiian music… Tommy Castro was born Thomas Koani on April 12, 1912 in Anahola, Kaua`i… One of his earliest professional engagements was with Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ K.M.M. Syncopators (discussed at Ho`olohe Hou previously) in 1934. He went on to play with Gigi Royce’s Orchestra at the Young Hotel Roof Garden in 1936-37 before heading to NYC with Ray Kinney. 

What you might now know: Tommy had a well trained ear which made him the consummate arranger. If we flash-forward to 1947, Castro did most of the arrangements for a set of Columbia Records releases by singer/composer Lena Machado (arrangements which by most discographies and liner notes are erroneously attributed to Andy Cummings). When Tony Todaro (composer of such hapa-haole classics as “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands,” “Somewhere In Hawaii,” and “There’s No Place Like Hawaii”) finished writing his first song ever – entitled “Hawaiian Moon” – he called his friend Gigi Royce about the tune, and Gigi immediately wanted a lead sheet to teach the song to the band. Todaro hung up the phone and ran over to the Young Hotel as quickly as he could – completely forgetting to bring the lead sheet! Tommy said he could help, and so Tony sang the melody to Tommy while Tommy dashed off a lead sheet in real time. Gigi liked the song, and by the next evening’s performance Castro turned the single melody lead sheet into a full blown arrangement with parts for the entire orchestra. This leaves us to wonder how many of the arrangements used at the Hawaiian Room or on Kinney-led recordings were done by Castro. 

While it may not be apparent to those who don’t play the steel guitar, Castro was among the most tasteful and yet inventive steel guitarists to ever grace the instrument. A brief Physics lesson: Because the steel guitar is played with a straight bar, there are limitations on the different configurations of chords (a combination of notes played at the same time). In order to achieve different chords not available to them in one tuning, the steel player must change tunings – or retune the guitar, one string at a time. A steel guitarist might in his/her lifetime master a handful of tunings and only perhaps one tuning particularly well – limiting their choices of chords for any given song. (For example, a song needs a Cm7 chords, but - shucks – your tuning doesn’t have this chord in it when playing with a bar laid in a straight line across the strings.) To solve this problem, many steel players took to playing guitars with multiple necks – each neck a different set of strings tuned to a different tuning – and might jump back and forth between the necks to attain the chords needed. Not Castro. Tommy played primarily in the A minor tuning, but he also mastered other tunings involving minor 6th, major 6th, and major 7th chords while insisting on only carrying and using a single six-string guitar. This means in addition to mastering these many tunings, Castro also mastered the art of changing tunings not merely between songs, but in the middle of a song. 

Other steel guitarists were keenly aware of Castro’s wizardry when it came to varying his tunings. According to an anecdote from Merle Kekuku – nephew of the steel guitar’s inventor, Joseph Kekuku, and a steel guitarist himself – one steel player in particular was “ever vigilant to guess Tommy’s latest moves.” That steel guitar great – Joe Custino – would eagerly await every new Castro recording and report to other steel players what new heights of innovation Tommy had most recently attained. (Much of this innovation occurred while Castro was on the mainland, and so the Hawaiian steelers back home could only hear what Tommy was doing next through the recordings and occasional radio broadcasts.) Because Castro was known to use primarily the aforementioned A minor tuning, it was immediately apparent to Custino that Castro has struck a new chord (pun intended) when he first heard the Ray Kinney recording (from a January 1, 1939 session in NYC) released as “Makala Pua” [sic] (real title “O Makalapua”). This was the first time anyone back home in Hawai`i had heard Castro use the Am7 (or sometimes called C6) tuning. 

The desire to broaden the palate of the steel guitar to incorporate more jazzy tunings likely came from his long association and friendship with none other than Duke Ellington. Castro was known to “quote” – or repeat snippets from – his friend Duke’s compositions and arrangements in the middle of otherwise traditional Hawaiian songs. 

By now you have already heard Castro’s steel guitar on the previous sets offered by Ho`olohe Hou about singers Ray Kinney and George Kainapau. According to the discographies, there does not appear to any solo recordings of Castro’s steel playing during this period – only the steel guitar in the service (as it typically was) of accompanying the singer. But it is only fair that we spin a few more such recordings and give Castro his full due (if such is even possible). 

From the same session that yielded the Kainapau-led “Aloha `Ia Nō `O Maui,” Castro accompanies leader Ray Kinney on the hapa-haole comedy ditty “Manuela Boy” from this aggregation’s first session together on April 7, 1938 at Decca Records studios in Los Angeles. Castro’s solo here is his usual stellar fare, but I urge you to pay closer attention to the “vamps” (the two bars between each vocal chorus) as well as to the accents he plays behind the singer while they are singing – changing his approach from one moment to the next from a single-string melody (such as tenor saxophonist Ben Webster might have played behind a Billie Holliday vocal) and the huge jazz chords (which under other circumstance might be mistaken for the entire trombone section of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra). 

In a prescient moment that predates his work with Lena Machado by nearly a decade, Castro recorded Machado’s composition “Ho`onanea” with Ray Kinney at the microphone once again on June 1, 1938 at Decca in New York City. Tommy plays it fairly straight during his solo, but musicians will not help but notice a singular arpeggiated augmented chord here – a jazz element Castro surreptitiously inserts into this fairly traditional Hawaiian style arrangement. 

Kinney’s vocal leads a session nearly six months later – on January 31, 1939, once again at Decca’s New York studios – on “White Ginger Blossoms.” The irony about this recording is that it would be another member of the band – Alfred Apaka – who would make this R. Alex Anderson composition a classic when he recorded it with an orchestra led by steel guitarist Danny Stewart more than a decade later. (It would be interesting to compare those two vocal performances.) Castro plays it fairly straight and traditionally Hawaiian here, but listen to his phrasing – not unlike listening to a human voice, which is one of the virtues of the steel guitar.  

The same session that yielded “White Ginger Blossoms” also gave us “Pili Me `Oe” (sometimes erroneously referred to as “The Cowboy Hula” as it is about a cowboy who aims to round up the apple of his eye with a lasso). Kinney takes the lead vocal yet again. (Hey! It was his band, and he was the one winning the popularity awards.) Castro takes a lovely solo chorus to open the song and another in the middle – playing it fairly straight and typically Hawaiian again, proving he could go both ways depending on what approach the material called for. 

Like the other Hawaiian music greats who came and conquered NYC but eventually returned to their island home, there was a life and a career for Castro after the Hawaiian Room. Ho`olohe Hou will circle around to Castro’s story again when we celebrate his birthday in April. 

So far two amazing steel guitarists – Andy Iona and Tommy Castro – graced 48th and Lexington in NYC with their greatness. But Iona was gone, and soon Castro would be gone too. Kainapau had already left a few months earlier, and Kinney would not be far behind. One member of the Kinney aggregation would stay behind and make New York City his home forever. But he would not be the next to lead the orchestra at the Hawaiian Room. 

Next time: How will the Lexington Hotel replace the seemingly irreplaceable band?...


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Tommy_Castro_with_Ray_Kinney.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 5:52am EDT

Importing A High Riser To The Big City

Ho`olohe Hou continues to honor the musicians of the Hawaiian Room – the New York City venue which for nearly 30 years delivered authentic Hawaiian song and dance to exceedingly appreciative mainland audiences.  

Often asked how he discovered and developed his high, clear falsetto, George would simply respond, “It was a gift from God.” With no formal lessons or any music training whatsoever, he began playing and singing in his teens at clubs around Hilo as well as with the town’s fame Haili Choir. Then, one day, while performing at the Volcano House, the captain of a Matson liner heard George singing and invited him to perform aboard the ship – resulting in his first (but surely not to be his last) professional traveling engagement in 1926 at the tender age of 21. 

Kainapau was soon discovered by the already well established steel guitarist and bandleader Sol Ho`opi`i who – despite being barely a year older than George – was already making a name for himself across the islands and the nation. After an inter-island tour with Ho`opi`i, Kainapau made his first mainland appearance with him at the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. During their stay the group cut two sides, George’s first recording sessions. On April 16, 1928, Sol Ho`opi`i’s Novelty Trio – the third in the trio being the not yet legendary Sol K. Bright – recorded “Hanohano Hawai’i” and “Hawai`i Nei.” Adding to the novelty was that Ho`opi`i also employed a saxophone trio for the sessions led by (who else?) Andy Iona. 

Kainapau returned to the mainland in 1932 to perform at the Kalua Club in San Francisco with Lani McIntire (in a group featuring the steel guitar wizardry of Bob Nichols). George then followed the same McIntire-led aggregation to the famed Seven Seas supper club in Hollywood for an extended engagement there before opening with Ray Kinney at the Hawaiian Room in June 1937. (Fortunately, George arrived with a Hawaiian name that did not need to be changed to suit the Lexington Hotel management.) By one account, George seems to have taken a brief absence from this engagement in 1938 – returning home to Honolulu where he performed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Waialae Golf Club. But he rejoined Ray in New York City for another 22 months from March 1938 through January 1940. 

Kainapau and Kinney were a most fruitful collaboration which not only made the Hawaiian Room a success, but which also led to numerous recordings together, both with the traditional Hawaiian quartet (or quintet once Alfred Apaka would join) as well as with a larger orchestra not unlike that heard every night at the Lexington Hotel. (Except the members of the core quartet/quintet, it remains unclear whether the other musicians on these recording dates were Hawaiian Room regulars or studio musicians playing from prepared charts.) These recordings plus the weekly radio broadcasts direct from the Hawaiian Room made George a national sensation. Although you have already heard a few examples of his fine falsetto with Kinney’s group in previous Ho`olohe Hou articles, let’s hear a few more where George’s incredible falsetto are clearly out front. To please mainland audiences, George had to perform both hapa-haole numbers (songs about Hawai`i but written in the English language) and traditional Hawaiian fare in the Hawaiian language. And depending on what material he sang, the versatile George would change up his style and approach. This set focuses on the more traditional Hawaiian repertoire since such songs allow George to show off the range of emotion the falsetto voice can exhibit including the use of ha`i (the break in the voice between the higher and lower registers which sounds like a brief yodel). 

The set opens with “Ho`okipa Paka” – recorded with just the quintet on April 11, 1940 (the same session that produced the Alfred Apaka-led “Hawaii’s Charm”). The quartet here – as on all the recordings made in the traditional quartet/quintet setting to follow in this set – is Kainapau on `ukulele and vocals, Kinney on guitar and vocals, Apaka on `ukulele and vocals, Henry Paul on the second rhythm guitar, and bassist Sam Makia (often incorrectly cited as “Makea”). This cut – and all of the selections in this set – were recorded at Decca Records’ New York City studios.

A December 15, 1938 session yielded George and Ray’s most requested number, “Ke Kali Nei `Au” (which, although not about weddings or marriage, became popularized with an English-language lyric as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song”). Written by Charles E. King for his 1925 opera “Prince of Hawai`i” as a duet for a male and a female voice, traditional gender roles were subscribed to in Hawaiian entertainment during this period: The men were the musicians, and the women danced hula. This recording follows what has since become a long-standing tradition rooted in these gender roles: Whenever there is no “girl singer” in the band, the male falsetto singer takes the wahine part. Kinney always applauded Kainapau for being the only singer he knew who refused to take a breath during the second repeat of the chorus. A slow, four-bar passage (beginning with the male singing the lyric “kō aloha makamae”) in which the female – or, in this case, falsetto – sings a high obbligato counterpoint, most singers pause for a (nearly indiscernible) breath at the end of the second bar. But not George. Listen to the master at work. The group is the same as above but without Apaka who had not yet been “recruited.” (This is an oft imitated arrangement of “Ke Kali Nei Au” – particularly the a capella intro by the vocal trio which was repurposed note-for-note for an arrangement for a recording by the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus more than two decades later.) 

Taking another leap backwards chronologically, “Aloha `Ia Nō `O Maui” comes from a Kinney quartet session on April 7, 1938. Composed by Alice Johnson (who is responsible for such other well-loved Hawaiian songs as “Nani Wale Ke`anae” and “Ho`okipa Paka” which you just heard George sing a few moments ago), the song speaks of the beauty of the island of Maui, but those who understand the Hawaiian language may find more than one veiled reference to lovers in the Hawaiian text. The arrangement affords Tommy Castro to show off his jazzy steel guitar work. Listen to the short phrases he employs to accent those sections of each chorus when George is not singing – like a duet for falsetto and steel guitar. 

From the same recording session as “Ke Kali Nei Au” in December 1938, “Mai Po`ina `Oe Ia`u” was composed by Lizzie Doirin – wife of Kaua`i poet laureate Alfred Alohikea but a prolific composer in her own right. Intended as a love son (the title of which means “Don’t forget me”), Queen Lili`okalani – then imprisoned in a single room in `Iolani Palace – co-opted the song as a message for her people, sharing the phrase time and again in messages to her visitors by leaving each of them with a keepsake – a yellow ribbon emblazoned with the words “MAI POINA OE IA‘U.” Often sung as a duet, again George and Ray share the vocal duties in what has become with time my favorite version of the song because I feel it imparts to the listener not only the sadness of the two parted lovers Lizzie wrote about, but the message and meaning the song took on in time - the melancholy of a queen who through no fault of her own could not fulfill her duty and honor. 

(Interestingly, the group did two takes of “Mai Po`ina `Oe Ia`u” in a row at this session. While usually only the better take is released, Decca released both takes in different regions of the world. I cannot be certain which take we are listening to here, and I cannot locate an alternate take.) 

While prolific composer John Kamealoha Almeida is reputed to have many surreptitious dalliances throughout his life (and a song for each of them – making the partners not so secret after all), he composed “Ku`u Ipo Pua Rose” for his first wife, Elizabeth. I am an ardent fan of Almeida’s songwriting, and while the version of this song by Uncle Johnny’s hanai son, Pua, remains my favorite, this version by George, Ray, and the group – from the same December 1938 session cited above – is a close second.  

George departed the Hawaiian Room just after the new year in 1940 for reasons unknown. (Ray would stick around until 1941.) Still only in his mid-thirties when he ended his run at the Hawaiian Room, there was a still a lot of career remaining before George who did not pass away until more than a half century later in 1992. But how to top the success he found in the Big Apple? Ho`olohe Hou must regrettably save the rest of the story for when we celebrate the 110th anniversary of his birth next May.  

Next time: Who will replace Ray Kinney, George Kainapau, and Tommy Castro when they are ready to return to their island home?...

Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Ray_Kinney_with_George_Kainapau.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:12am EDT

(Another) Star Is Born

Ho`olohe Hou continues to honor the musicians of the Hawaiian Room – the New York City venue which for nearly 30 years delivered authentic Hawaiian song and dance to exceedingly appreciative mainland audiences.  

The Lexington Hotel’s managing director Charles Rochester schemed to make his New York establishment the East Coast outpost of Honolulu, and he succeeded by luring the finest talent in song and dance directly from Hawai`i. But his real coup was hiring Ray Kinney as emcee, bandleader, and chief talent recruiter. Kinney returned to Hawai`i twice in his first three years running the show at the Hawaiian Room – once before the room opened in 1937 to recruit a core team of musicians and dancers, and again in 1940 when he returned with a star so bright it outshined all others. 

Alfred Aiu Afat could play `ukulele and upright bass, but by the tender age of 14 he was already becoming widely known for his baritone voice. Besides singing tenor in a Mormon Church choir, Alfred won numerous inter-island singing contests. When Don McDiarmid, Sr. became the orchestra leader at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1938, he launched a search for a new vocalist. He auditioned seven young men. The 18-year-old Alfred sang Harry Owens’ composition, “To You Sweetheart, Aloha,” and Benny Kalama, arranger for the orchestra, whispered to McDiarmid, “That’s the boy.” Alfred rightfully earned his first professional engagement – and the whopping $30 a week salary – singing at the prestigious Royal Hawaiian Hotel. McDiarmid’s wife, Lucile, coached Alfred on his breathing and diction to prepare him for the most challenging engagement of his young life. 

Ray Kinney hired Alfred away from Don McDiarmid on his recruitment trip home in 1940. Alfred enthusiastically accepted the role as featured vocalist at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York City. But as you have read here previously, managing director Charles Rochester insisted on authentic Hawaiian talent straight from Hawai`i, and he insisted on authenticity right down to his starring performers’ names. He took issue with such names as Kinney, McIntire, and Chung because they weren’t Hawaiian enough. The others acquiesced to taking second billing to their fellow band member with a more Hawaiian sounding name: Andy Iona. But what to do about the new Hawaiian-Chinese-Portuguese singer with the strictly Chinese name? Hawaiian music archivist Harry B. Soria, Jr. recounts the story in the liner notes to his compilation Hawaii’s Golden Voice: 

Alfred Aiu Afat, Jr.’s name went through a dramatic transformation. It would undergo a popular process transposing Hawaiian consonants for non-Hawaiian letters and adding appropriate Hawaiian vowels. The “f” in Afat would become a “p,” while the “t” in Afat would become a “k.” Since no Hawaiian word can end with a consonant, an “a” was added to the end. The resulting name was “Apaka.” Alfred’s maternal family name “Ahola” became his middle name. He would legally change his name to “Alfred Ahola Apaka,” and his father would eventually follow suit. 

In this era before jet air travel was readily available or affordable, Alfred and his first wife, Diane, sailed for the mainland in March of 1940 with Ray Kinney and his newly recruited bevy of musicians. Ray took advantage of a stop in Los Angeles to schedule a recording session. On April 11, 1940 in Decca Records’ Hollywood studios, the newly minted Alfred Apaka stepped up to the microphone to record “Hawaii’s Charm,” with lyrics by Honolulu radio personality Harry B. Soria, Sr. and music by Dick Gump. Released as the B-side of a song Kinney wrote and sang for his daughter, “Ululani,” “Hawaii’s Charm” was Alfred Apaka’s first record. Alfred would be featured on still more recordings with Kinney on the Decca and Victor labels. Here are just a few. 

Unlike “Hawaii’s Charm” which was recorded only with the core group of musicians from Hawai`i (including George Kainapau on `ukulele and Tommy Castro on steel guitar), “Moon Over Burma” more replicates the sound one might hear if they visited the Hawaiian Room one evening and heard Apaka fronting Kinney’s large orchestra designed for dining and dancing. Recorded October 9, 1940 at Victor’s New York City studios, Burma seems like an unusual subject for a song performed by a Hawaiian music orchestra. It is highly likely that that the song was chosen for Alfred to capitalize on the popularity of the film Moon Over Burma released earlier that year and in which Dorothy Lamour sings the title song. The Apaka/Kinney version even saw a special release in Indonesia. 

Alfred sings the traditional Hawaiian hula song “Kane`ohe Hula” with largely the same aggregation heard on the last number. This, too, was recorded at the Victor studios in NYC just a few weeks earlier on August 29, 1940. The same group backs Alfred on the Charles E. King composition “Uhe`uhene” in a Victor session on December 9, 1940 – an arrangement that opens with a beautiful chorus featuring Tommy Castro’s steel guitar. And, finally, a session a year later on December 19, 1941 features Alfred in front of a similar band on “Blue Shadows and White Gardenias.” Although the personnel on these recordings – except for Kinney’s recruits from Hawai`i – remain anonymous, we can reasonably conjecture that these are musicians Kinney employed at the Hawaiian Room engagement and that these are not unlike the sounds you would have heard had you been a lucky patron of the Lexington Hotel in the Kinney/Apaka era. 

Alfred performed at the Lexington through the outbreak of World War II and, being rejected from military service for “first degree flat feet,” went on to tour the country for eight months with a traveling production of “Hellzapoppin’” – the same Broadway show in which Kinney and the hula dancers known as the “Aloha Maids” were featured nightly between their Hawaiian Room shows. Now divorced, Apaka returned to Hawaii in 1943 and rejoined another band led by Don McDiarmid at the Kewalo Inn. 

From the “Don’t Believe Everything You Read” department, one biographer notes that Apaka sadly had a recording career of “less than a decade.” Not true. You just heard his first recording from 1940, and he made his last shortly before his passing in 1961 – more than two decades later. So this is not the end of Apaka’s story but only the beginning. Apaka is so important to the history of Hawaiian music and in popularizing it around the world that we cannot possibly cover so much ground in a single article. Rest assured that Ho`olohe Hou will pay fitting tribute to Apaka when we celebrate his birthday in March. 

And now you know who the “mystery singer” was. 

Next time: Andy Iona would not stay forever. The next in a long line of steel guitarists who would honor the Hawaiian Room with their greatness…


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Alfred_Apaka_with_Ray_Kinney.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:52am EDT

From Sleepy Hilo To The City That Never Sleeps

If you have been following Ho`olohe Hou, then you have by now read that the Lexington Hotel’s “Hawaiian Room” – aimed at recreating the Hawaiian nightlife experience in the heart of New York City – succeeded in spades – due, in large part, to managing director Charles Rochester’s stroke of brilliance to recruit talent right from the islands. But by this point in Hawai`i’s history, there was nary a full-blooded Hawaiian to be found. This posed a small problem for Rochester who insisted on a native Hawaiian cast. According to Adria Imada’s Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire: 

The Hawaiian Room and other venues enshrined the island-born-and-bred Native Hawaiian as an ideal; Rochester himself insisted on Hawaiian musicians, preferably direct from the islands. 

The problem, of course, was that the musicians walking through Rochester’s door were Kinnneys, McIntires, and Chungs. 

But Rochester knew he had landed the best of the best in Hawaiian music. So he solved his problem with a slight twist on the marquee: 

Yet most Hawaiian entertainers claimed racially mixed backgrounds with their names or by personal admission. Throughout his career, Ray Kinney referred to himself as the “Irish Hawaiian,” but because “McIntire and Kinney” sounded too Irish, the opening billing of the Hawaiian Room originally read “Andy Iona and His Twelve Hawaiians.” 

Subscribing to Shakespeare’s notion, “What’s in a name?,” Kinney accepted the position and fulfilled it – for many years to come – with aplomb. It is clear from most books and other sources on the history of Hawaiian music – including Imada’s – that Kinney was the guy in charge – the bandleader, the emcee, and the recruiter. He had Rochester’s confidence because Kinney had the resume to go with his good looks and abundant talent. 

The charismatic Kinney was already playing `ukulele and singing in his fine tenor while in high school in Salt Lake City (which he attended with his six older brothers). When he returned to Hawai`i, Ray was cast as the lead in the opera "Prince of Hawaii" – written by noted Hawaiian composer Charles E. King - in 1925. The opera began touring in California in 1926, and Ray played the same role in the touring company. 

In 1928 noted composer, arranger, music publisher, and bandleader Johnny Noble was enlisted by the Matson Navigation Company to choose three musicians/singers to represent Hawai`i on a national one-hour radio program - originating from station KPO in San Francisco – aimed at promoting tourism. Noble naturally chose Kinney – the beginning of a long and productive collaboration. Later that same year Brunswick Records signed Noble and Kinney to a recording contract that resulted in a whopping 110 sides being issued. (Hawaiian music still represented three out of every five songs played on mainland U.S. radio during this period.) The “Prince of Hawaii” tour, the radio program, and these recordings and subsequent airplay helped make Kinney a household name – culminating in a national tour followed by an 11-month engagement at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. 

Returning to Hawai`i again in the 1930s, Kinney was approached by bandleader Harry Owens to join his orchestra for their opening at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Ray appeared on the inaugural broadcast of Webley Edwards' "Hawaii Calls" radio show from the Moana Hotel in July 1935 – which was followed by countless appearances on this long-running program.  And, finally, the recording studio beckoned again when Decca Records signed Johnny Noble and His Orchestra – with Kinney as vocalist – to another contract in 1936 – the incredible sales from which kept them under contract to the label for four years. In his “spare time,” Kinney penned any number of songs now considered classics including "Across the Sea", "Not Pau", and "Hawaiian Hospitality.” Kinney was already a nationwide sensation when he got the call to open at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. 

Like Andy Iona profiled here previously, there is so much more that can be said about Ray Kinney’s life and music. But the goal is to provide an overview of the many musicians and singers who graced the Hawaiian Room – and New York City – with their formidable talents. Ho`olohe Hou will continue to celebrate Ray Kinney when the occasion arises. But for now, as with this segment on Iona, we focus on Kinney’s recordings at or around the time the Hawaiian Room took off. 

From a session for RCA Victor dating to October 9, 1940, you hear Ray taking the lead vocals in front of a band that sounds not unlike the band he would be leading at the Hawaiian Room during this period. (In fact, as we do not know all of the recording session personnel, any number of these gentleman could have been Hawaiian Roo associates.) But we do know that the `ukulele – and the high voice in the backing vocals – is again none other than George Kainapua, and the sensation steel guitarist is Tommy Castro (later of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ Royal Hawaiian Serenaders, a group we recently celebrated at Ho`olohe Hou). And you hear them perform an Alvin Isaacs composition entitled “Analani E.” 

Ray Kinney sings his own composition, “Leimana,” in front of a large dance band not unlike the one on the last cut (again, with personnel unknown, but possibly Hawaiian Room musicians). Still under contract to RCA Victor, Kinney recorded “Leimana” on December 19, 1941 – just a few days after that fateful day back home at Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II. 

The same session as “Analani E” (on October 9, 1940) produced the swinging take on Prince Leleiohoku’s composition “Ke Ka`upu.” The steel guitar again belongs to Tommy Castro, and the high falsetto voice in the quartet is again George Kainapau. But that isn’t Kinney taking the lead vocal. Who, then, is singing the melody lead in this vocal quartet? Such a familiar voice… 

An August 29, 1940 RCA Victor session –with unidentified personnel aimed at achieving that Hawaiian Room sound – yielded three sides including “Kane`ohe Hula.” Again, Kinney steps out of the spotlight and gives the vocal lead to a member of the band. Who is the mystery singer? 

I cannot find any session documentation for the last selection offered here, but it was worthy of inclusion nonetheless for Kinney’s lilting vocal. Although a natural tenor, Kinney’s vocal register ranged from a low bass to high sweet falsetto with clean and crystal clear transitions from one part of his range to the next. “Goodnight, Aloha” is a prime example of his vocal technique – and an example of how I imagine an evening at the Hawaiian Room sounding in that era. 

By 1938 – less than a year into his four-year stint in the Hawaiian Room – Kinney beat out the likes of Rudy Vallée and Guy Lombardo in a popularity poll of American singer. And in between performances at the Lexington Hotel, Kinney also managed to become the first Hawaiian entertainer in a major Broadway production. Ray and several of the dancers he recruited – referred to as the "Aloha Maids" – were cast in the Olsen and Johnson Broadway revue "Hellzapoppin'" in September 1938. The show lasted 1,404 performances and ran until December 1941. 

Next time: Ray returns to Hawai`i briefly and returns with the crème-de-la-crème of Hawaiian talent – including our “mystery singer…” 


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Ray_Kinney.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 5:12am EDT

Two Hawaiian Music Greats Take On NYC

You have already read that Lexington Hotel managing director Charles E. Rochester conceived of an idea to capitalize on mainlanders’ growing fascination with the paradise known as Hawai`i by turning the hotel’s largely unused basement into the “Hawaiian Room.” Designed for dining and dancing and an evening hula floor show, in order to become everything Rochester envisioned he would need to enlist entertainers who could “do it all” from traditional Hawaiian to swing jazz. But where would he find such versatile musicians? He would have to lure them away from Waikiki’s finest showrooms. 

This is where the Hawaiian Room story gets murky. I have scoured more than a half dozen (rather thick-ish) books on Hawaiian music history and every website which discusses the many names who eventually appeared in (what became) the famous Hawaiian Room. All of these sources disagree by virtue of saying very little at all. Many sources indicate that Andy Iona opened the room on June 23, 1937. Other sources cite that Ray Kinney did. Who’s right? Or, perhaps, they worked together. 

But according to one seemingly credible source – the well-researched Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire by Adria L. Imada – Kinney, in fact, was Rochester’s first choice. Imada writes: 

The talent scout of Hotel Lexington president Charles Rochester signed the Hawaiian and Irish tenor Ray Kinney of Honolulu as the Hawaiian Room’s orchestra leader in 1937. Hotel management also contracted steel guitarist Andy Iona and composer-singer Lani McIntire. 

If the order of these sentences is any indication, then Kinney was hired first and was intended to be the room’s star. But it does not clarify the question about whether Kinney and Iona appeared together in one aggregation or in separate groups perhaps featured on different evenings in the Hawaiian Room. Imada goes on to provide (I think) this clarification: 

Yet most Hawaiian entertainers claimed racially mixed backgrounds with their names or by personal admission. Throughout his career, Ray Kinney referred to himself as the “Irish Hawaiian,” but because “McIntire and Kinney” sounded too Irish, the opening billing of the Hawaiian Room originally read “Andy Iona and His Twelve Hawaiians.” 

This would imply that all of these fine musicians appeared as one aggregation under the billing of the most Hawaiian sounding name, Iona. (And this is ironic given that Iona’s birth name was, in fact, Long.) It should not be surprising that these musicians would work happily together as there is a long history of incestuous relationships among Hawaiian musicians. In short, anybody would perform or record with anybody else. What should be considered surprising is that – despite that Iona and Kinney were already superstars in Hawai`i at this point – there does not appear to be any evidence (using the same sources I mentioned above) that the two ever performed or recorded together until just shortly before their tenure at the Hawaiian Room. 

This one meeting of Andy Iona and Ray Kinney in the recording studio – on November 30, 1936 at Decca Records’ Los Angeles studios – produced a scant few four sides. “The Palm Trees Sing Aloha,” “Tropic Love”, and “When The April Showers Reach Hawaii” were all Iona originals. (The composer of the fourth tune – “Tropic Madness” – is unverifiable given my sources but was likely also Iona.) With Andy on steel guitar and lead vocals by Ray, these recordings are our only glimpse into how the pairing might have sounded together in the Hawaiian Room days (although the band heard on these recordings is much smaller than the bands assembled for the Hawaiian Room). Regrettably, I only have two of these sides in my collection. But I hope you enjoy hearing “The Palm Trees Sing Aloha” and “Tropic Love.” Notice the unusual addition of the harp on these sides – an instrument rarely heard in Hawaiian music but which adds an ethereal quality to these sides.

Next time: I have only told you that Ray Kinney arrived. I have failed to tell you how he got there…


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Ray_Kinney_with_Andy_Iona.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:59pm EDT

Andy Iona Dreams Big

Born in 1902 in Honolulu, Andy Aiona Long was a musician’s musician who wanted nothing more in life – from the very earliest age – than to compose and perform music. Believing this life a very real possibility for him since he was born into a family of musical virtuosos, Andy quit Kamehameha School and tried his hand at a career as a full-time musician. 

Things seem to have worked out for the talented young man since Iona went on to become one of Hawai`i’s most well known, well respected, and influential musicians – breaking new ground along the way. Educated at Henri Berger's Private School of Music in Honolulu and specializing in woodwinds, clarinetist and saxophonist Iona was accepted as a solo saxophonist in the Royal Hawaiian Band (under the direction of Mekia Kealakai) and later led Johnny Noble's orchestra as first saxophone at the Moana Hotel. Although known now for his virtuosity on the steel guitar, Andy did not take up the instrument until he was in his mid-twenties. The multi-stringed instrument should have proven challenging given his unique affliction: Andy lost the thumb on his right hand to a machine shop accident at school (the same manner in which fellow steel player Billy Hew Len would lose his hand many years later). This is, of course, the picking hand (for a right-handed player). He compensated by turning one fingerpick backwards to be used for strumming. Those who witnessed Andy play the steel guitar called it “display of magical coordination.” Andy was dealing with such a physical infirmity long before Billy Hew Len or even gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. 

Andy moved to the mainland in 1921 – appearing on the radio on KFI in Los Angeles and then joining the staff of KHJ. His group - Andy Iona and his Islanders – was one of the first to combine traditional Hawaiian song forms with American swing. Soon Iona was touring the country – back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles, in demand not only for his way with a saxophone or a steel guitar or the new sound he was creating by melding Hawaiian music with danceable rhythms, but also for his abilities as a composer and arranger. His musical ear was so well trained and finely tuned that – like the great arrangers Nelson Riddle and Billy May who would come long after – Andy could write an arrangement for full orchestra in his head without ever touching an instrument. Andy even toured Japan between the 1920s and 1930s – one of the first Hawaiian musicians to do so. 

By the 1940s Iona had joined ASCAP and was composing for others besides himself and his band. (His compositions are still popular today and include "South Sea Island Magic," "Maui Moon," "A Million Moons Over Hawaii," "Naughty Hula Eyes," and – of course – the favorites among steel guitarists, the instrumentals "Sand," “Carefree,” and the jaunty “How D’Ya Do.”) He scored the film Honolulu (which starred Eleanor Powell), and he even had roles in the films Bird of Paradise, Waikiki Wedding, and Song Of The Islands (with fellow musicians Lani McIntire and Sol Ho`opi`i). You may recall from an earlier edition of Ho`olohe Hou a mention that hula dancer Aggie Auld choreographed a hula-on-ice for a Sonja Henie film. Andy toured off and on with Henie for nearly 12 years, and from 1950 through 1952, he and falsetto legend George Kainapau toured as part of the Hollywood Ice Review. 

There is much to be said about Andy Iona, but as there are many musicians to honor over the next few days, a full tribute to this man of many talents will have to wait until New Year’s Day when we celebrate his birthday. For now, we are concerned with the period around 1937 when Andy got “the call” from the Lexington Hotel’s talent agent to come and open at their new Hawaiian Room – a successful run he enjoyed for many years to come. I put together a set of music which focuses primarily on Andy’s recordings during the period just before he joined the Hawaiian Room. (And, in an interesting side note, there is a huge gap in Iona’s discography from 1937 until 1939 – demonstrating how busy he really was with his Hawaiian Room duties.) 

But, first, a true rarity: The first recording Andy Iona ever made. Billed as “Andy Aiona’s Novelty Four,” the group laid down the song simply listed as “Hula Girl” on the record’s center label for Columbia Records in Los Angeles on January 14, 1929. (The song is, in fact, one of the earliest hapa-haole tunes, “Hapa-Haole Hula Girl,” by one of the earliest creators of the genre, Sonny Cunha.) Notice that there is nary a steel guitar to be heard here. Instead, we have Andy’s tenor saxophone – which you hear prominently in an improvised solo. You also hear the big dance band sound that was the rage back home at the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian and which Andy would soon bring to the Hawaiian Room. 

Fast forward to May 10, 1935… Back in Columbia Records studios but this time in New York City, Andy returns to a more traditional Hawaiian small group format – just the quartet of steel guitar, rhythm guitar, `ukulele, and bass – for “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid.” But you are still not hearing Andy on the steel guitar. This popular version of Iona’s group featured Danny Stewart (later of Hollywood studio work and the Hawaii Calls radio programs) on the steel guitar as well as future Hawaiian music legends Sam Koki and Freckles Lyons. Which member is playing which other instrument here remains a mystery – as it does with most of this group’s recordings – since all of the members could play every instrument and so they often traded off instruments – perhaps to confuse ardent listeners, perhaps to beat the boredom. 

A few months later on September 16, 1935, Andy returns to Los Angeles to cut a few sides with a large dance band again under the direction of old partner Harry Owens. And while I don’t mean to hold out on you, this is still not Andy at the steel guitar. It is again Danny Stewart. Andy is handling the tenor saxophone chores since he remained very much in demand for his sax playing even after he took up the steel. You hear them perform the Ray Kinney composition “Hawaiian Hospitality” sung by a vocal trio led by Iona. 

The same group as on “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid” – with Buddy Silva substituting for Sam Koki – went back into the Columbia studios in L.A. on April 25, 1936 to cut their energetic double-time take on “Hola Epae.” And this is Andy on the steel guitar – finally. The lead vocalist here (who is likely Freckles Lyons) makes a most unorthodox musical choice: He does not sing the melody of the song. You hear what is supposed to be the melody sung by the vocal trio on the repeats, but the soloist improvises a different melody on his choruses. This is typically anathema in Hawaiian music – the lyric and melody considered somehow sacrosanct, to be sung exactly as the composer wrote them, especially when performed in the service of the hula. But as you can tell by the tempo, this version was never intended for the hula. Such is the carefree innovation of Iona and his collaborators. 

Andy only cut a dozen or so more sides between this session and a session on December 15, 1936 – an indication that Andy had made the move back to NYC and devoted his time and energy to the Hawaiian Room. He would not record again for nearly two years on August 12, 1938. 

And, not merely as an aside to the Hawaiian Room story, Andy married Leimomi Woodd – a Hawaiian Room dancer – and had three children. Leimomi’s sister, fellow Hawaiian Room dancer Jennie Napua Woood, married a local NYC musician named Lloyd Gilliom. Their granddaughter is Hawaiian songbird Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom – making Andy Iona her great-uncle. 

I laugh when I read accounts that Andy Iona made “dozens of recordings.” There are early 200 sides in my archives alone (and I do not purport to possess every side Andy ever cut). So we will no doubt hear more of the amazing Andy Iona when we celebrate his birthday on January 1.  

Next time: The Hawaiian Room needs an emcee and a boy singer…


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Andy_Iona.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:42pm EDT

From The Big Blue Pacific To The Big Apple

The Hawaiian Room – a supper club where one could dine, watch the floor show, and dance – was opened on 23 June 1937 … Located in the basement of the hotel, it was a large, circular, tiered room decorated with murals of Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach, lifelike tropical palms and flowers, even raindrops. To add to the Hawaiian setting, exotic foods and drinks were served in hollowed coconuts by waitresses adorned with leis… 

George S. Kanahele, Hawaiian Music and Musicians 



Anyone who has ever seen a photograph or postcard of the Hawaiian Room knows that Kanahele’s vivid description comes close to realizing what is otherwise indescribable with mere words. The Hawaiian Room was a Polynesian oasis in the middle of a burgeoning concrete jungle. But those who were there know that the real magic was in the people – the musicians and dancers who took a chance, left home and family, and struck out from their Pacific paradise for the strange and mysterious East Coast, their only collateral their unique culture. 

The Hawaiian Room was the brainchild of Charles E. Rochester, the managing director of the Lexington Hotel at 48th and Lexington – a few blocks from Central Park in midtown Manhattan. While it seems like an audacious concept – Hawaiian music and hula served up with drinks with tiny umbrellas – it was not, in fact, the first of its kind. Bear in mind that in the 1930s Hawaiian music recordings outsold all other genres, and Hawaiian music accounted for three out of every five songs played on mainland U.S. radio – making Hawaiian music the popular music of the day. Similar “Hawaiian Rooms” popped up in the finest hotels in Chicago, San Francisco, Buffalo, Baltimore, New Orleans, even elsewhere in New York City. But the Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel is the venue that prospered (earning a million dollars in its first two years of operation, a lot of money in 1937, $16.5 million in 2014 dollars). More importantly, it is the one that is still talked about – fondly – to this day. 

The Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel capitalized on a formula that was already a huge success in Honolulu at such swanky establishments as the Moana Surfrider and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel: The popular musicians of the day combined traditional Hawaiian song with the swing and sass of the Big Band era to create a new style of music and a venue that could host both a traditional Hawaiian hula floor show and then dinner and dancing for the patrons until the wee small hours. But, better than the Moana or Royal Hawaiian, having a Hawaiian Room in midtown Manhattan saved patrons the whopping $278 airfare to Honolulu (or $4,723 in 2014 dollars). It was affordable enough to take your wife every Saturday night! In his fervent desire to recreate the Moana and Royal Hawaiian experience, Rochester did the unthinkable: He lured Waikiki’s finest talent away from these venerable showrooms to NYC with the promise of better pay and long-term contracts. By most accounts, Rochester fulfilled his promise, and these musicians and dancers repaid him by packing the house every night. It would not have been the Hawaiian Room if not for these legends of Hawaiian music and dance, but it is fair to say that this was a symbiotic relationship since these world-class entertainers could never have gained such exposure from their island home. 

The Hawaiian Room endured from that fateful day in 1937 until 1966 – once Hawaiian music had given way to rock-and-roll, Hawai`i had become the 50th State, and jet travel took away some of the mystique of the island paradise that was now more easily and affordably accessible. 

I could spend hours recounting the story of the Hawaiian Room. Growing up in New Jersey – a train ride from New York City – in a family that performed Hawaiian music professionally, I was no stranger to the names that made the Hawaiian Room famous (and vice-versa). My father, a steel guitarist who eventually led his own revue, cut his teeth working with Tutasi Wilson, a Hawaiian Room choreographer, and Sam Makia, a steel guitarist with several groups that played the room. Our home was filled with the records made by the Hawaiian Room musicians – most recorded in and around New York City, most as easy to find as a walk to your nearest Woolworth’s. I want to tell the story, but it’s not my story to tell. While many – perhaps most, maybe all – of the musicians of the Hawaiian Room are now gone, many of the hula dancers who worked the room – a generation (or more) younger than the bandleaders – thankfully remain with us. On January 11, 2014, the Hula Preservation Society – bolstered by a number of these ladies of hula, or “Ex-Lexes” as they joyously refer to themselves – launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of the documentary film about their life at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. There clearly remains interest in the story since, by February 20, the project was fully funded – more than 150 individuals and organizations contributing more than $20,000 to ensure this story is told. And the beautiful film that resulted premieres Friday evening, October 10, in New York City. 

I am pleased and honored to take part in this celebration. With my frequent musical partner, fellow New Jersey-born Hawaiian music enthusiast, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Wang – we will perform traditional Hawaiian music before the film and – much better still – accompany the “Ex-Lexes” in a medley of their favorite hula numbers after the film showing. Joining us will be venerable Hawaiian diva Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom whose grandmother, Jennie “Napua” Woodd, was a dancer and choreographer in the Hawaiian Room too. I am proud to be the second generation of my family’s musicians to associate with the legends that made the Hawaiian Room what it was. 

And while the Hawaiian Room story may not be my story to tell, sometimes the music speaks for itself. So in the days leading up to the film debut, I will be featuring the musicians of the Hawaiian Room here at Ho`olohe Hou. You will be surprised and amazed who abandoned their beautiful Hawaiian life to share their unique culture beyond the boundaries of their island home. And you might be amazed at what wonderful Hawaiian music was born of the collaborations forged in The City That Never Sleeps. 

Join me here every day through Friday, October 10 for the music of the gentlemen and ladies of the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. And congratulations to the Hula Preservation Society on your tremendous achievement and a huge mahalo for letting me take part in your monumentous occasion.

~ Bill Wynne


Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:56am EDT

Two Sides of Billy Gonsalves

William Gonsalves was born September 21, 1930 in Honolulu. Billy started playing music professionally around the age of 15 with a group called The Manoans which consisted of his brother Peter on bass, their cousin Raymond on guitar, Billy on the second guitar, and their friend Henry Allen on the steel guitar. (Henry Allen is still going strong today.) They played at the Irish Cab and the Thomas Square jam sessions just for tips. But Billy’s big break didn’t come until eight years later in 1953… 

Lawaina Mokulehua was playing piano at Fuji’s Grill with a group led by composer, falsetto singer, and hula master John Pi`ilani Watkins. When John was drafted, he asked Lawaina to take over the group and keep it going until his return. But some of the group’s members rejected her as leader. So Lawaina had to go out and recruit some new musicians. And one of those was Billy Gonsalves. Lawaina’s father dubbed her new group the Paradise Serenaders, and the name stuck. This group performed all over Honolulu for many years including the original gig at Fuji’s Grill, the Jetty Club, Kapahulu Tavern, Yoko’s (also in Kapahulu), the Hawaiiana, Sierra Madre, The Surrey, and eventually the Hilton Hawaiian Village both in its Garden Bar and at its evening lu`au. Throughout this period, the membership of the Paradise Serenaders changed frequently – some members going off to join other bands, others marrying and having children and giving up “show business.” But the two constants in this ever evolving group were Lawaina and Billy. 

Believe it or not, although the group was formed in 1953, the Paradise Serenaders didn’t make it into a recording studio until 1966, and despite the group’s longevity, they only turned out two LPs. But those LPs were worth the wait, and both remain treasures among Hawaiian music fans. Curiously, on these two LPs the group is listed as Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders. One has to wonder how this happened since it would appear by all accounts that Lawaina not only founded the group, but remained their leader and primary arranger. Regardless, Billy’s voice – both his beautiful full baritone and his gorgeous falsetto – is out front on most of these cuts, and so top billing is not entirely inappropriate. The first recorded incarnation of this group was comprised of Lawaina on piano, Billy on guitar, Lena Motta on `ukulele, Sam Aiko (Genoa Keawe’s son) on bass, and Willy Aki on drums. Let’s check out a few selections from their debut release from 1966 – simply entitled Billy Gonsalves and His Paradise Serenaders – and examine how their new sound differed in many ways from the styles of Hawaiian music that preceded them. 

From the first four bars of the first tune here, anybody familiar with Hawaiian music knows they are about to hear something different. A solo ipu (a hollowed out gourd used as a percussion instrument, originally the only accompaniment to the ancient Hawaiian chant) in a traditional rhythm is soon joined by the distinctive “pop” of a bass drum and the double-time shuffle of a snare drum of a modern drum kit in a non-traditional rhythm. The drum kit signals that this is the rockin’ 60s. Then we hear the full quintet – drums, bass, guitar, piano and vibes, the same combination employed by the jazzy George Shearing Quintet, an aggregation Shearing formed in 1949, just a few short years before Lawaina formed the Paradise Serenaders. It was considered a new sound in jazz – the piano and vibes somewhat redundant as they usually fufill the same harmonic role in a jazz combo. But George used these to unusual effect – the piano and vibes often doubling each other in unison, not unlike the way Lawaina has employed them here. And then finally, after a solo chorus by Lena Motta, we hear the signature sound of the Paradise Serenaders – the tight vocal harmonies. A style made popular by their contemporaries such as the Richard Kauhi Quartet, the Kalima Brothers, and Buddy Fo and The Invitations, Lawaina’s vocal arrangements do not employ much closer harmonies than the usual thirds employed by more traditional Hawaiian vocal groups of the previous era. But Lawaina accomplished this most simply: She arranged the harmonies in pairs (sometimes the ladies, sometimes the gentlemen, and sometimes a mixed pairing) and then put the pairs together. This made learning the parts much simpler because each singer only had to relate to one other note in the chord rather than the whole chord. Lawaina combines this approach with simple unison singing by everyone and occasional vocal duets – two guys, two girls, or a guy and a girl. These were the same techniques used by popular mainland groups such as The Mamas & The Papas (that had just gone into the studio for the first time a year earlier in 1965) and The Free Design (which cut the quintessential “Kites Are Fun” in 1967). The pop and Latin rhythms, the use of the full drum kit, the piano/vibes combination, and the unique approach to vocal harmonies made the Paradise Serenaders either just in time for the world at large or well ahead of their time for Hawaiian music. The song, by the way, is “Nanakuli” – not to be confused with a John Pi`ilani Watkins composition by the same title (and one could be confused given Lawaina’s association with Watkins), but, rather, a song by an unknown composer given to the group by musician and hula master Pauline Kekahuna. 

The set continues with Billy’s beautiful baritone drifting into his atmospheric falsetto on the Charles E. King chestnut “Ku`u Lei Aloha.” To ensure that the group was singing the Hawaiian lyric correctly, Lawaina sought out the assistance of musician, composer, and song archivist Vicki I`i Rodrigues. In the first half of the chorus, you hear an example of the aforementioned technique in which Lawaina arranged a duet for two of the singers – in this case, Billy and Lena – and in the second half of the chorus, you hear an example of two vocal duets intertwined to create the close quartet harmonies. Again, while traditional Hawaiian vocal harmonies are typically based on intervals of thirds (often referred to in music theory as “tertian” chords), jazz vocal harmonies usually add notes to chords in intervals closer – or tighter – than thirds (often referred to as “non-tertian” chords). A very complex and “jazzy” sound can be accomplished by taking a much simpler tertian chord and adding another non-chord tone. You hear this to grand effect here – even if you do not possess a musician’s trained ears – in the closing chord in which one of the voices takes the second note (the note between the root and the third, sometimes notated “add2”). 

The arrangement for “Naka Pueo” – suggested by producer Herb Ono and which is clearly a nod to The Invitations – opens with the vocal group singing in unison but the piano playing what is becoming a ubiquitous “add2” chord. Billy’s lead vocal – with its ornamentations – is simply gorgeous, as are the four-part harmonies on the repeats of each verse. The closing chord in which the voices join here is another non-tertian chord – this time adding a sixth note (which might have once been notated “add6” but because it is based on a major triad is now more commonly referred to as a “Maj6”). While this might be a common chord for a guitar player to play, it is an uncommon chord for a vocal group to make. But then, such a non-tertian chord requires four notes, and, of course, most Hawaiian vocal groups utilized only three voices until Kauhi, Kalima, and Fo came along. And then there was the Paradise Serenaders. 

Next time: But they cut two LPs, didn’t they?...

Direct download: 01_Billy_Gonsalves_2014.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 8:37am EDT

The Many Facets of Charles K.L. Davis

If you are fortunate enough to have lived in Hawai`i in the last decade, you might have caught a rare performance by Hawai`i’s “Three Tenors”: Robert Cazimero, Les Ceballos, and Aaron Sala. Modeled on the format made popular in the 1990s by a trio of more instantly recognizable opera stars - Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti – Hawai`i’s version of the “Three Tenors” features gentleman who – while they spend most of their time supporting and perpetuating Hawaiian music – are by no means coincidentally trained in opera as well. But they are not the first opera singers to emerge from Hawai`i. Tandy MacKenzie and Samuel Kapu come to mind. But then, too, does Charles K.L. Davis. 

Charles Keonaohalalalaulani Llewellyn (or “K.L.”) Davis was born September 17, 1925 in Honolulu into a household steeped in music and culture. At an early age Charlie had already conquered the cello, the piano, and even the pipe organ. Graduating from high school just before the invasion of Pearl Harbor in 1944, this smart young man became a sergeant in the 7th Air Force Intelligence, serving in Hawai`i, Saipan, Okinawa, and Washington, D.C. After the war Charlie studied at the University of Hawai`i before transferring to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA to pursue his passion. He topped off his studies at the renowned Julliard School of Music in New York City where he was bitten hard by both city life and his love of the stage. 

After an appearance on the famed Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, Charlie’s professional career began – in a duo with fellow Hawaiian Jimmy Shigeta – on March 13, 1951 at Hollywood’s legendary Mocambo on the Sunset Strip. (Critics Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and even Variety called the duo “overnight sensations.”) The debut was followed by engagements at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and The Palmer House in Chicago (where his picture still appears on the walls among such legends as Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme). When Shigeta was drafted, Davis went solo. After a brief return to Hawai`i, Charlie returned to New York City where he became the first Hawaiian to win the prestigious Metropolitan Opera auditions. His popularity grew on the mainland – garnering Charlie a recording contract with Queens, New York-based Everest Records. During this period Charlie also performed in Russia with a troupe led by emcee extraordinaire Ed Sullivan as well as at the White House in a command performance for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1959. Wherever he performed, the critics raved. Charlie was loved not only in Hawai`i, but the world over. 

This first post about Charles K.L. Davis focuses on his New York City days and the early part of his recording career with Everest Records. Researching this period in Charlie’s career, some of the information I have located would probably tickle his agile and often satirical mind. Such research reminds us that there are, indeed, two sides to every story. 

Writing for, Eugene Chadbourne refers to Charlie’s recordings for a “classical budget line.” On the contrary, Everest Records was anything but a classical budget line. In fact, the label likely found it difficult to survive financially since they used the most state of the art – and, therefore, most expensive – recording techniques of the era. Magnetic tape was still a relatively new medium in the 1950s. But 35mm film was not. It has long been forgotten in this digital era, but 35mm was once the most advanced recording medium – not only for visuals, but also for audio. Everest’s introduction of 3-channel microphone/recording techniques – captured on 35mm film stock – were revolutionary for this period and in the era of “hi-fi” offered much higher fidelity than magnetic tape. This recording technique was so trend-setting and influential that none other than Frank Sinatra utilized 35mm film to record his now classic The Concert Sinatra album. Budget, indeed. 

During its relatively brief run from May 1958 until 1962, Everest – considered largely a classical music label – made some of what are considered to be the finest quality classical music recordings ever captured including sessions with some of the greatest American and British conductors and orchestras of the 20th Century, including Leopold Stokowski, Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent, the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic (which, because it was under contract to another label at the same time, released its Everest recordings under the Stadium Symphony Orchestra moniker). The label is also remembered for many “firsts” – the first stereo recordings of Mahler’s 5th and 9th symphonies, the premiere recording of Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony, as well as composer Aaron Copland’s first recording as a conductor (his own Symphony No. 3). Despite the development of (arguably) superior recording techniques in the 50 years since, many Everest recordings still stand the test of time. (Check out some of its 2013 reissues on iTunes which have been warmly received by the classical music community.) 

The label produced very few recordings total – a mere 75 LPs. But a whopping seven of these – recorded in a brief three years – were by Charles K.L. Davis. Since Everest was primarily a classical label, this gave Charlie the rare distinction of being one of Everest’s few artists that was not purely classical. His signing was a testament to his talent and his popularity in that moment in time, and if nothing else, the label gave Charlie the rare opportunity to showcase all of his musical loves – opera, Broadway, and Hawaiian, bringing the latter back to mainland audiences during a period when its popularity was waning. Here are a few of my favorites from Charles K.L. Davis’ Everest Records catalog. 

From one of my favorite Broadway musicals, Lerner and Loewe’s classic My Fair Lady, Charlie sings “On The Street Where You Live” from the LP Front Row Center, arranged and conducted by Franz Allers. And there was no better man for this job since Allers enjoyed a long collaboration with Lerner and Loewe, conducting most of their musicals including the original Broadway productions of My Fair Lady and Camelot, both of which earned him the Tony Award for Best Conductor and Musical Director in 1957 and 1961. The song was a natural choice for Charlie who co-starred in My Fair Lady on Broadway with Patrice Munsel. 

Next Charlie takes us to the Champs Elysees with “La Vie En Rose,” made popular by Edith Piaf. Opera singers are trained to sing in any number of languages so that they can sing passably in all of them. But, I have to tell you: As ridiculous as it may sound, I studied French for six years (it was even my college major), and I can attest to the fact that Charlie’s French is not merely passable, but really damned good. This cut is from Charlie’s Love Songs of the Mediterranean LP with orchestra conducted by David Terry. 

An incredibly long plane ride takes us from gay Paree to Honolulu where Charlie gives us the beautiful “My Sweet Pikake Lei.” Fans of contemporary Hawaiian music are likely familiar with a composition by the same title with lyrics by Kyle Chock and music by Robert Cazimero. But this song Charlie offers predates that by nearly 40 years – with lyrics by Gerda Maline Beilenson and music by M. Kahale and Galen H. Wai. (For the record, “M. Kahale” was the pseudonym of writer Howard Fenton and “Galen H. Wai” the pseudonym of Gene Bone – who together and separately had already composed numerous American popular songs. They or their publisher likely felt that the Hawaiian-style tune would have no credibility if written by two mainland haole. Ms. Beilenson’s name does not appear on the recording at all.) From the LP Adventures In Paradise, the sessions were conducted by Hal Mooney who – as house arranger and A&R Director at Mercury Records from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s – created the musical backdrops for some of the most notable recordings by Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Helen Merrill, Ernestine Anderson, and Nina Simone. 

Another long jet trip takes us from Honolulu back to New York City for another Broadway hit (or, at least, a film adaptation of a Broadway hit). The story from the original 1928 Broadway production of Rosalie was co-opted – with new tunes by Cole Porter – for the 1937 film by the same title. Nelson Eddy sang the song to Eleanor Powell, and the song subsequently became one of the most notable of the songs considered “The Great American Songbook.” The song has been performed or recorded by such popular singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, and countless others – and, here, Charles K.L. Davis 

Finally, I had difficult choosing between “La donne e mobile” and “Nessun Dorma” to represent Charlie’s operatic skills. By now you know which direction I went – with Puccini’s most famous aria from the opera Turandot. Charlie’s performance stands up next to performances of the same aria by Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. If you are not crying by the end of this, I urge you to seek out your nearest cardiologist to make sure you have a heart. From the LP Charles K.L. Davis Sings Romantic Arias from Famous Operas, the fabulous orchestra you hear – led by none other than Leopold Stokowski – is the Stadium Symphony Orchestra (which, by now, you already know is the pseudonym of the New York Philharmonic). This is one of the treasured recordings from the Everest Records catalog that was remastered and re-released in 2013, and I encourage you to download it from iTunes. Or, if you’re home audio system can handle even higher resolution than CD or MP3, the recording sounds simply stellar in uncompressed FLAC format available excusively from HDTracks. Only in high definition can one truly appreciate the quality of the Everest Records recording process. (I strongly recommend that those curious about this recording only make their download purchase from iTunes or HDTracks – or the hard copy of CD, where available. Because Everest Records releases were highly prized by collectors and not rereleased until very recently, numerous dubious agents have attempted to profit by releasing their own “vinyl rips” – MP3 copies made directly from an LP, not from the original master tapes. A copy from any other source than those mentioned above should be considered a bootleg and potentially of inferior sound quality). 

Next time: Charlie isn’t finished with New York City yet… And more on the myths and misconceptions about Charlie’s career (and how to separate fact from fiction)… 

Direct download: Charles_KL_Davis_-_The_Everest_Years.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:02am EDT

Catching Up

To the few but faithful reader/listeners… 

Due to a variety of obstacles (technological, career, and health being chief among these), Ho’olohe Hou unexpectedly but necessarily took a brief late summer vacation. But over the next few days, I will be catching up the many overdue posts on topics and musicians I had been thinking about even if I had not been sharing my thoughts with you. I will also direct you to a number of now classic Ho’olohe Hou posts about some musicians of note. Call them “reruns,” if you will. But these posts date to a time when Ho’olohe Hou had fewer followers. Hopefully there is some music and historical information of interest to you among these posts which you may have missed the first time around.

Mahalo for your patience with the blogger. 

Bill Wynne


Category:Announcements -- posted at: 8:09am EDT

Still A World Of Happy Days

There are some composers whose songs die with them. Perhaps it is because they were never written down or formally published. Perhaps it is because they were never recorded, and so they were too easily forgotten. Or perhaps it is because the next generation of artists cannot relate to the material. The music of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs has fortunately not suffered this fate. The songs Papa Alvin wrote are in a sense timeless, and so they continue to be performed and recorded over and over and over again to this day. I could spend another week (or two or more) in tribute to Isaacs by simply featuring the covers of his songs recorded in the 30 years since he passed. But, instead, I am going to share with you a few of my favorites in the hope that you will hunt down still others. (Feel free to ask me for recommendations.) 

The Mākaha Sons combined Alvin Isaacs’ “`Auhea `Oe” in a medley with “Ka Ua Loku” (written by once poet laureate of Kaua`i, Alfred Alohikea). Although you heard Papa Alvin sing his own composition before in concert with his sons Norman and Barney, I did not tell you much at all about what the song means. But do I really need to? Like so many of his compositions, here Alvin again dabbles in kaona (layers of poetic meaning or metaphor) to craft a song which reminds us where cuddling can lead. Except for the most part the kaona is not so discreet after all: 

E huli mai ‘oe / You turn to me 

Kūpono iho / Rise up and go down 

I luna i lalo / Up and down 

ʻIʻo ia nei / This is true love 

Āhē nani ʻiʻo no / True love so beautiful 

The English-language lyric – with its “yacka hicky” gibberish and reference to Chattanooga, Tennessee – is obviously not a translation of the Hawaiian. But, more surprisingly, its focus on the hula – still a curiosity on the mainland U.S. when this song was written – belies the original Hawaiian lyric’s more intimate nature. The song is a natural for the Mākaha Sons who are as naturally funny as they are musically talented. And so while this staunchly traditional group once refused to perform English-language songs, “`Auhea `Oe” – recorded on their Kūikawā album – eventually became a staple of their live shows. The song is a natural fit for a medley with “Ka Ua Loku” which – perhaps more poetically than “`Auhea `Oe” – also speaks of cuddling but using the metaphor of the rain (almost always a symbol of love-making in Hawaiian poetry) caressing the laua`e fern. 

In all of our lengthy tribute to Papa Isaacs, shockingly I have not yet unveiled one of his most enduring compositions. In the wake of the imprisonment of Queen Lili`uokalani and the annexation of Hawai`i as a U.S. territory, Isaacs composed “E Mau” which encourages the Hawaiian people to strive to keep the Hawaiian language alive and preserve all that was good about the Kingdom of Hawai`i. (He even invoked in his lyric a slight variation on the slogan of the Hawaiian people – “Ua mau ka ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono” or “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness” – which, although now part of the state seal of Hawai`i, was once a symbol of Hawaiian self-rule since it was first uttered by Kamehameha III on July 31, 1843 when the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was restored by Great Britain.) Although it was likely not his intention, because of its message “E Mau” has since become an anthem for self-governance and Hawai`i’s independence from the United States. Although written in 1941, the song did not appear on record until Alvin recorded it a first time with his sons on the LP Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs & Sons in 1978. It is here performed by Teresa Bright from her wildly popular and multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano award-winning 1990 CD Self Portrait. 

Like “E Mau,” another song has thus far managed to elude inclusion in this tribute to Alvin Isaacs. Remedying that, take a list to “Leimomi” which was revived after a long absence on record by Weldon Kekauoha on his 1999 debut CD Hawaiian Man. The song was not debuted on record by a group led by Alvin but, rather, did not make its first appearance on LP until The Surfers covered it on their late 1950s LP On The Rocks. Originally intended as a ballad, here Weldon is not paying tribute so much to Isaacs as he is to beloved kumu hula Darrell Lupenui who recorded the song on his 1970s eponymously titled release Darrell Lupenui. Those familiar with Darrell’s version know that Weldon copied Darrell’s arrangement note for note and took the song – as did Darrell – at a peppier swing tempo than perhaps Alvin intended (but would likely not object to). 

Even Israel Kamakawiwo`ole managed to cover Papa Isaacs’ songs. From his last release, In Dis Life, Iz sings “Aloha Ku`u Pua” – the lyric content of which is sort of a companion to “`Auhea `Oe” in that it speaks to how close two people in love can really be. But Alvin tackles the task slightly more poetically here, using the common metaphor of the flower to symbolize a special someone, writing, “Aloha ku`u pua pili i ke kino” (“Love for my flower that clings to the body”). You heard Alvin debut his composition on record in a late 1940s Bell Records release here, and it was seldom recorded again – except for one 1970s recording by The Hilo Hawaiians – in the 50 years until Iz would reprise it. 

Finally, Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom is among the most recent to honor Papa Alvin by recording one of his originals – in this case, “Kau`ionalani” from Amy’s 2006 Mountain Apple Company release Generation Hawai`i. Not to be confused with Isaacs’ similarly titled “Kau`iokalani,” we do not really know who “Kau`ionalani” was written for or about as its generalized metaphor could symbolize a lover or a grandchild. Here Amy kicks it old school in a version reminiscent of Auntie Agnes Malabey Weisbarth’s recording of the song from her 1971 LP Sunset At Makaha – the most notable difference being that Auntie Agnes’ group was largely `ukulele-led, while here Amy has the able assistance of steel guitarist Bobby Ingano. 

Still a force in Hawaiian music too strong and ever-present to be ignored, we could continue to pay tribute to Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs for weeks upon weeks. But, rather, Ho`olohe Hou will reprise this tribute next year and expand on it with still more great recordings of Papa Alvin’s compositions by other great voices of Hawaiian music of the last 50 or more years. 

Until then, you would be hard-pressed to find a Hawaiian music LP or CD that doesn’t feature at least one Alvin Isaacs composition. And whenever and wherever an Alvin Isaacs song is sung, it is indeed a world of happy days… 


Direct download: 18_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 7:39pm EDT

OOPs - E Mau

We recently discussed the monumentous 1984 sessions – led by singer/multi-instrumentalist/arranger Benny Kalama and produced by steel guitarist Jerry Byrd – which intentionally or unintentionally paid tribute to Benny’s former boss, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs. The album, He Is Hawaiian Music, faithfully recreated the sound of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders – a group which was conceived of by Isaacs and of which Kalama was a member. But this beautiful album was snubbed at the 1985 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards – signaling, perhaps, the end of an era for this style of Hawaiian music. It would be another decade before the next revival – and you could once again count Benny Kalama in for the event. 

Alvin’s son, steel guitar great Barney Isaacs, was already in ill health when he and some old friends went into the studio to record E Mau in 1994. The cover – Diamond Head and palm trees at Waikiki in burnt orange silhouette – visually romanticized Hawai`i and Hawaiian music in a way that one would not have seen since LPs released in the 1950s. (Most LP covers from Hawai`i from 1970 forward typically featured a photo – or occasionally a drawing - of the artist in profile. Not since the era of the Hawaii Calls radio program and its accompanying LPs on Capitol Records did covers feature pictures of grass skirts, a lu`au, or lovers walking in the moonlight.) But the cover belied the purpose and mission of the music and musicians within. If one unfolded the eight-panel CD insert, they would discover that E Mau had a subtitle which did not appear on the front or back of the CD jewel box: E Mau – The Legacy of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs. 

Surprisingly the project was not the brainchild of Alvin’s son, Barney. Rather, it was conceived by the solo euphonium chair for the Royal Hawaiian Band, Scott Furushima, who had fallen in love with what he calls the “Waikiki style” of Hawaiian music and who was taking steel guitar lessons from Barney in order to perpetuate this dying style and era in Hawai`i’s history. What an important mission to attempt to tackle, but with tremendous fervor Furushima assembled just the right musicians who embraced – and could play – the old style. Scott would handle the rhythm guitar chores himself, then current Royal Hawaiian Band bandmaster Aaron Mahi would play bass, Alvin’s son, Barney, would play the steel guitar, and none other than Benny Kalama would wield the `ukulele. And, not at all coincidentally, that quartet is the same instrumentation that Papa Alvin utilized in his Royal Hawaiian Serenaders – Kalama again assuming a role he held nearly 50 years previously, as did Barney who joined his father’s group briefly during the late 1940s, replacing Tommy Castro as the group’s steel guitarist. But unlike the Kalama album of a decade earlier, E Mau featured only compositions by Alvin Isaacs – seventeen of them, in fact, including four that had never appeared on record previously by any other artist. But who better than Scott, Aaron, Barney, and Benny – the group known collectively as the Kahala Surf Serenaders – to debut them? 

I would love to spin the entire album for you, but I am going to withhold a little for future celebrations of Alvin Isaacs. But here are a few selections to give you a taste of the tremendous success this project was in recreating a bygone era. 

This set opens with a medley of two Isaacs compositions – the first of which is one of those that had not been recorded previously. Scott takes the lead vocal on the peppy medley of “Ku`ualoha E Mali`u Mai” and “Kaleponi Hula.” Despite the passing of years and his failing health (Barney required an oxygen tank during the sessions), his steel guitar playing is still as crisp, clean, and inventive as ever. Scott takes the vocal lead on another Isaacs composition that makes its bow here, “Hanahou, My Boy, Hanahou!” (“Hana hou” means “encore” or “do it again,” and Isaacs’s song encourages us not to let a good thing end – especially in matters of love.) Barney takes a fabulous solo and reprises one of his signature endings that fans of Hawaii Calls will no doubt remember having heard time and again. Scott then leads the group through the first ever recording of “The Wahine In The Lauhala Hat.” And the set closes with a stroll through an Isaacs classic, “He Nani Helena,” which Alvin composed to honor the wife of his once musical partner, Harry Owens. The vocal here is by guest artist Doug Tolentino of the group Pa`ahana, and anyone familiar with the original version by the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders will find Doug’s version eerily reminiscent of falsetto legend George Kainapau’s take on this song. 

As with Benny Kalama’s He Is Hawaiian Music ten years earlier, we could ask why this beautiful recording received absolutely no love at the 1995 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards (Hawai`i’s local music industry awards program). But in this case the answer is a little more readily apparent and boils down to bad timing: E Mau was released the same year as Keali`i Reichel’s debut Kawaipunahele, as well as what is arguably the best loved of all releases by the Makaha Sons, Ke Alaula. These two CDs absolutely swept the Hōkūs that year. 

More importantly, I refer to E Mau as an “OOPs” – by which I do not mean a mistake by any means but, rather, my short-hand for “Out Of Print.” This recording is historically and culturally important for any number of reasons: 

  • The revival of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders style and sound

  • The first recording in the digital era (or CD) to feature this style of music

  • The debut on record of four Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs compositions

  • The last recordings by steel guitar legend Barney Isaacs in the group setting 

(And about this last point, I make the distinction “in the group setting” since Barney would make one last recording of slack key and steel guitar duets with George Kuo entitled Hawaiian Touch. But that was not a last recording of the style of steel guitar for which Barney was known but, rather, a first for him on an acoustic steel guitar.) 

That E Mau has not been rereleased in MP3 format is even more distressing considering that the recording is so recent that the master tapes cannot be lost and should be in pristine condition considering that they were made well into the digital recording era. But even if at a loss for recovering the original master tapes, the record company could make a perfect copy of one of the many CDs in circulation and reissue that. But, alas, no. Which is why when I introduced the “OOPs” theme at Ho`olohe Hou, I was very clear to point out that not everything that is out of print is necessarily because the master tapes are too old to be located. Sometimes it is just a grievous error in judgment on the part of the producers, artists, and corporations involved in the recording. 

But, worse still, the writer of the liner notes – under the heading “Coming Soon” – promises a follow-up to E Mau. Of course, it is entirely possible that the project was scrapped when Barney left this life – the others perhaps believing that an Isaacs should absolutely be involved in such a project or that Barney’s inimitable steel guitar style would be the cornerstone of it. (And, if this was their thinking, they would be largely correct about that, I agree.) But the liner notes are not at all clear whether or not the project was completed before Barney’s untimely passing on February 12, 1996, and Benny Kalama would be gone not too long after on September 21, 1999 – perhaps once and for all marking the end of an era. 

We will hear more from E Mau in the future at Ho`olohe Hou as I personally feel it is one of the great out-of-print treasures that it is an absolute pity to have removed from circulation. 

Next time: We wrap up our tribute to Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs with some performances of his classic compositions by today’s popular artists in Hawai`i…



Direct download: 16_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:OOPs (Out Of Prints) -- posted at: 5:09am EDT

Mahi Sings Tutu Helen

There is an album cover which graces the wall of my studio in which I write this blog. This room holds nearly all of my Hawaiian treasures, but twelve album covers on the wall were the beginning of my obsession with Hawaiian music – the twelve most important Hawaiian music recordings of all time in my personal ranking for these recordings defined Hawaiian music for me as a young person, and each has a very deep, personal meaning to me. Someday I will tell you about all twelve. But one of these takes center stage today.

On an evening in the summer of 2004 while visiting Hawai`i, I dropped by the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel on a Saturday evening to listen to one of the seminal Hawaiian groups, Olomana. I could not know as I made the walk through Waikiki with my friend, Jill, that this evening in particular would be very special. It turned out it was the band leader’s 50th birthday, and so countless legends of Hawaiian music had turned out to celebrate the life and music of Jerry Santos. I spied across the room one of my childhood heroes – falsetto legend Mahi Beamer of the Beamer dynasty of musicians and Hawaiian cultural experts. Not one to waste an opportunity, I crossed the room and knelt down next to Mahi and – for lack of a better word – swooned. I told him about his album cover on my wall at home and how that record impacted my life. I said that I could sing every word of that record (and in his keys, no less). And we became – quite unexpectedly – fast friends. So when Jerry called me up to sing with him and I launched into one of the songs from that Mahi Beamer record – “Pua Mae`ole” – Uncle Mahi was apparently moved too. The next thing I knew Jerry and band had exited the stage, and just when I thought I would be singing alone, I heard the tinkling of the piano and realized that Uncle Mahi had risen from his chair and taken his rightful place at the Baldwin to accompany me. This was one of the most crazy and beautiful moments in my life in Hawaiian music. But most importantly, I made a tremendous friend, and all because I could sing a Hawaiian song.

The LP in question – Hawaii’s Mahi Beamer – and a companion album – simply entitled Mahi – were recorded in a single day by Capitol Records. Capitol was contracted with Webley Edwards and the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus – a fruitful relationship which produced dozens of albums under the “Hawaii Calls” moniker. But it also generated countless more albums by Hawaii Calls’ solo artists – names such as Haunani Kahalewai and Ed Kenney – but which utilized the musicians of the Hawaii Calls group. So on these two Mahi Beamer LPs you are hearing the combined talents of steel guitarists Jules Ah See and Danny Stewart, guitarists Pua Almeida and Sonny Kamahele, bassist Jimmy Kaopuiki, and `ukulele player and arranger Benny Kalama. Having the capital to give these island artists nationwide – even worldwide exposure – Capitol did much to promote Hawaiian music in the 1950s and 60s. But while it might have been these artists’ desire to gain recognition outside of their island home, Mahi took the opportunity to give his grandmother Helen’s compositions wider exposure. And so despite being recorded on the same day in 1959 in the Punahou School auditorium, the second of the two releases, Mahi, was programmed to feature nothing but Helen Desha Beamer compositions as sung by her grandson and his talented friends.

In this set you hear Uncle Mahi`ai sing a half dozen of “Sweetheart Grandma’s” compositions. Because Helen Desha Beamer’s songs almost always honored family and friends, permit me to tell you more about who and what she honors in these compositions.

The set opens with the first song – the first sounds I heard as an impressionable child – from the first Mahi Beamer album. “Pupu Hinuhinu” means “shiny seashell,” a sort of lullaby in which the children find the shell on the beach, hear the sea in it, sing it to sleep, and then go to sleep themselves. If you have never heard Mahi’s voice before, you will no doubt be enchanted the way I was when you hear this song for the first time. In an unusual twist, the high falsetto is sung by the male while the lower voice you hear is Mahi’s sister, Sunbeam. 

Helen wrote the music and her friend, Noenoe Wall, the lyrics for “Kinuē” which honors the Arthur Greenwell family and their homes in Pauahi and Papaloa which Noenoe often visited. Listen to the dual steel guitars of Danny Stewart and Pua Almeida on this song.

Auntie Helen wrote “Halehuki” for her own home – the home she shared with her husband, Peter Carl Beamer, where together they raised their five children and where Mahi and the grandchildren spent so many happy childhood days. “He Makana” literally means “a gift,” and this song was a gift from Auntie Helen to her friend, Helen Henderson, given to her on her wedding day in 1939.

“Keawaiki Hula” is the second song by the same title that Auntie Helen wrote. (In an earlier post, you heard Nina Keali`iwahamana sing the other.) “Keawaiki” means “little harbor” and refers to the home of Francis Brown on the island of Hawai`i. Like the other song by the same title, this “Keawaiki” speaks of the good times the Brown and Beamer families shared.

Finally, “Lei O Hā`ena” honors Herbert Shipman and his home at Hā`ena in Kea`au on Hawai`i island. The last five selections in this set are all from Mahi’s second – and final – release, simply entitled Mahi, which is thankfully available as a CD again courtesy of Hula Records (which originally re-released the Capitol LPs in 1974). I strongly encourage you to pick up both of Mahi Beamer’s albums and help my friend in fulfilling his wish of making his grandmother’s compositions heard around the world and for generation upon generation to come.

I hope you enjoyed this week-long tribute to Helen Desha Beamer and her critically important contributions to Hawaiian music and culture.

Direct download: 01_Hoolohe_Hou_-_September_2014_Part_1.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:01am EDT

Benny Kalama Pays Tribute To His Old Boss

The year was 1985… My father was a member of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association (HSGA) which held steel guitar conventions across the country and an annual ho`olaule`a in Honolulu (a tradition which continues to this day). HSGA events were recorded and sold to generate operating funds for the association. So not long after the convention (which in those days our family was too poor ever to attend), a box arrived which held in store Hawaiian steel guitar magic – the entire steel guitar concert captured on two cassette tapes, the only vicarious means by which I could experience such an event. 

The ho`olaule`a was hosted by steel guitar veteran Jerry Byrd who, despite being considered by many the greatest who ever touched the instrument, had only relocated to Hawai`i from his Ohio home just over a decade before. He was the new kid on the Hawaiian music scene, but he contributed something invaluable to the history of Hawaiian music: During a time when many thought that the Hawaiian steel guitar would perish with only a handful of the instrument’s legends still alive and actively performing and recording, Jerry decided to teach the art of the steel guitar to a new generation of Hawaiians. Funded in part by grants from the State of Hawai`i, Jerry took some interested youngsters under his wing. One of these was a congressman’s son: Alan Akaka. And fans of the steel guitar know how that story ends. Now Alan (who I am proud to call my good friend) is considered a living legend of the steel guitar – the heir to a lofty throne – and, like his sensei, he, too, has opened a school of Hawaiian music where he teaches any and all instruments found in the Hawaiian band but with a focus on the steel guitar with students learning this uniquely Hawaiian instrument around the world (teaching via the miracle of Skype). The recording of the ho`olaule`a was the first opportunity I had to hear a then very young Akaka play – whipping through Andy Iona’s “How D`Ya Do” at breakneck speed (on one of the most inventive solos I had ever heard on that instrument) and sweetly caressing his friend Sonny Kamahele’s original “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid.” And two things happened to me upon hearing these tapes. Despite that my father had been playing the steel guitar all my life and I had staunchly rejected the instrument, I now felt compelled to take up the steel guitar. And I had to hear more of Alan Akaka. Emcee Byrd mentioned that Alan was playing evenings at the Halekulani Hotel’s House Without A Key with a group that included Hawaii Calls radio veterans Sonny Kamahele and Benny Kalama and that Akaka had just made his recording debut on Kalama’s latest LP, He Is Hawaiian Music. I knew Kamahele and Kalama from the numerous Hawaii Calls LPs in my collection, but I was surprised to hear that these already elder statesmen of Hawaiian music were still “doing it” and that Kalama had made a new recording. Since Kalama was the arranger for Hawaii Calls for many years, I was not necessarily eager to hear anything new by him since I thought it would be reminiscent of the earlier recordings. And in those days, getting my hands on a new Hawaiian music LP was not as easy as it is today. But I did want to hear more from Alan Akaka. A phone call to what was once the greatest source of Hawaiian music in the world – the House of Music at the Ala Moana Shopping Center – had that LP in the mail to me the same afternoon. (Thank heavens for the time difference between Honolulu and New Jersey.) 

Those who know me – or who knew me in my younger days – are likely surprised to know that I was interested in a Benny Kalama record. Performing in my father’s Hawaiian floor show almost from the time I popped out of the womb, at first I resented all things Hawaiian because I felt they were robbing me of a childhood. And because the template for my father’s show was the Hawaii Calls radio program and LPs, I claimed not to appreciate or enjoy that style of Hawaiian music. It wasn’t until local aunties and uncles started bringing me records from Hawai`i and I heard the innovative and contemporary sounds of the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau, Olomana, and Sunday Manoa (and, later, the remnant of Sunday Manoa – the Brothers Cazimero and the Peter Moon Band) that I claimed Hawaiian music for myself and made it my life’s pursuit to perform Hawaiian music myself. I heard steel guitar all the time – great steel guitarists like Barney Isaacs and Jules Ah See. But hearing Alan Akaka for the first time, I realized that I had rejected the instrument – and this style and era of Hawaiian music – because it was the sound of my father, and rebellious as I was, I didn’t want to be a clone of my father. Now I was insistent on hearing more of this style and on following in a total stranger’s footsteps – not my father’s. 

The LP arrived quicker than I possibly could have imagined, and I ripped off the shrink wrap and threw it on the platter of the Kenwood turntable. And to my amazement, despite that the picture on the cover was clearly Benny Kalama, the music in those grooves sounds absolutely nothing like those old Hawaii Calls LPs or radio programs. It was a much smaller group with a consistent swing feel to the tempos but with slightly looser arrangements than the larger Hawaii Calls orchestra and the many voices in its chorus. It was also nothing like the sounds that got me hooked on Hawaiian music – the contemporary sounds of the groups I named above which were very much like the sounds of their mainland counterparts (Seals and Crofts, Orleans, America, or CSN). In short, this was a kind of Hawaiian music that I had never heard before. What I did not understand until much later was that Kalama and crew were recreating a sound that dated back – at that time – nearly 40 years – the sound conceived of by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs when Benny Kalama was part of his Royal Hawaiian Serenaders. 

Although not explicitly stated on the album’s liner notes (more about those liner notes in a moment), Benny clearly went into the studio with the express notion of recreating that bygone era in Hawaiian music, sounds which could not be heard on any recording still in circulation at that time and which could only be heard live during that period at one and only one place: the Halekulani Hotel’s House Without A Key, the historic location overlooking Waikiki Beach where Diamond Head looms to the east and the sunsets are as legendary as the musicians who have performed there throughout history (like the Halekulani Girls featuring Linda Dela Cruz or the Kahauanu Lake Trio). The Halekulani Hotel had not offered music under its kiawe tree since the early 1970s, but under new management, by the early 1980s the House Without A Key was filled with the sounds of steel guitars and falsetto voices once again. And several nights a week the group you would hear would be known as The Islanders, a rotating aggregation of living legends including Benny Kalama, Sonny Kamahele, Walter Mo`okini, Harold Haku`ole, Merle Kekuku, and others. But remember during this period steel guitarists were few and far between. And so this group’s sole young lion was the then still up-and-coming Alan Akaka. Benny’s intention with his 1984 LP He Is Hawaiian Music seems to have been to recreate the sounds of the House Without A Key on those evenings when The Islanders appeared there – the living embodiment of another time and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders.  

And, if that was Benny’s goal, he and his cohort succeeded in spades! But he did it with a different group than the one appearing at the Halekulani. The sessions that led to He Is Hawaiian Music featured the rhythm guitar of Hiram Olsen (who was a regular of Jerry Byrd’s trio at the time), Kalani Fernandes (the other third of Byrd’s working trio) on bass, Randy Oness (another elder statesman of Hawaiian music whose earliest recordings with Pua Almeida and Alfred Apaka date back to the early 1940s), and Alan Akaka on steel. (The Islanders would not be captured on record until a few years later in a series of recordings produced by Akaka.) The recording featured four Alvin Isaacs compositions, another by Isaacs’ frequent musical collaborator, singer/songwriter Mel Peterson, and a handful of songs so old that their rightful composers had long since been forgotten at the time of these recordings. And the LP was – most Hawaiian music fans agree – an instant classic. But, more importantly for me personally, He Is Hawaiian Music was my first exposure to this style of Hawaiian music – the style that became my first love, the style I learned and went on to perform – as well as my first exposure to large doses of Isaacs’ compositions. And I went off in pursuit of more of Isaacs’ songs and sounds – jump-starting my record-collecting passion. And that is why, not merely apropos of our discussion of Alvin Isaacs, I offer up He Is Hawaiian Music as the first of the dozen recordings I will feature in my series 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life. There were other influential Hawaiian LPs that predated the arrival of this one in my home, but Kalama’s classic changed my thinking about Hawaiian music, broadened my horizons, and opened doors to listening to other artists of his era that I had not previously considered such as the Halekulani Girls, Richard Kauhi, the Kalima Brothers, and all of those terrific 45 rpm singles from the 49th State Records and Waikiki Records. And it is the record – even above those by Barney Isaacs and Jules Ah See – that made me want to pick up a steel guitar and play. 

In this set at Ho`olohe Hou we feature the songs from He Is Hawaiian Music written by Kalama’s former boss, Alvin Isaacs – three of which, despite how often recorded and performed Isaacs’ compositions are, made their debut on wax on this LP. You previously heard Alvin Isaacs’ “Ta-ha-ua-la” (by the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus from a 1957 LP which also featured Kalama). But “Hula Mai `Oe,” “Ahea No Ho`i La,” and “My Island Love Song” are the Isaacs originals that were first recorded by Kalama in these 1984 sessions. Prompting the question… What took them so long? 

But the real question involves the remarkable snub this fabulous LP received at the 1985 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards (Hawai`i’s local music industry awards program, voted on strictly by music industry insiders – recording and performing artists, producers, engineers, and the like). It may not be surprising that the album was beaten out for “Hawaiian Album of the Year” by the then very hot Mākaha Sons of Ni`ihau’s Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha. And it may not be all that surprising that it was trounced in the “Album Of The Year” category by perpetual winners the Brothers Cazimero and their Island In Your Eyes. But it is alarming that Kalama’s sweet falsetto was beaten in the “Male Vocalist of the Year” category by Brickwood Galuteria. But He Is Hawaiian Music did win the Hōkū for “Liner Notes” written by the album’s producer, Jerry Byrd. In an era when liner notes for Hawaiian music LPs (going back – at that point – to the Hula Records LPs of the 1960s) were a veritable book in the smallest possible font telling you every bit of minutia about the artists as well as the Hawaiian language lyrics to every song complete with their English translations, this win is the most eyebrow-raising since Byrd’s liner notes numbered fewer than 300 words (or approximately 1/8 of the length of the article you are reading right now) and contained absolutely nothing of substance to aid the listener in their appreciation of this music. (In fact, the liner notes were nothing more than marketing hyperbole – which is unnecessary for a musician of Kalama’s caliber who was already a known entity.) As such, the Hōkū for “Liner Notes” feels almost like a consolation prize for Benny Kalama – perhaps consolation for his other losses, but perhaps more poignantly consolation that his multiple snubs signaled the end of an era for his style of Hawaiian music. 

But that style of music has come around again in the sounds of the still-going-strong Alan Akaka and The Islanders, Pomaika`i Keawe Lyman (Genoa Keawe’s granddaughter), Gary Aiko (Genoa Keawe’s son), Ipo Kumukahi (with steel guitarist Isaac Akuna), Pa`ahana (with steel guitarist Kaipo Kukahiko), Po`okela (with steel guitarist Greg Sardinha), Holunape (with occasional steel guitarist Jeff Au Hoy), the Hiram Olsen Trio (with steel guitarist Casey Olsen, Hiram’s son and another Byrd acolyte), and Palena`ole (led by Casey Olsen). Music this good will never die. 

My only complaint about this record that earns its place on my 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life? The two sides of this LP clock in at a total of less than 32 minutes of music. (An LP record – without modification – holds 22 minutes of content per side.) 

Next time: The next revival of the sounds of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders and Alvin Isaacs’ compositions would not arrive for more than another decade – and would involve one of Alvin’s talented sons…


Direct download: 01_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:57pm EDT

Helen Desha Beamer Gets "Da Caz" Treatment

I could choose almost any composer in the history of Hawaiian music and turn around and immediately think of a Brothers Cazimero recording of one - or more - of that composer's songs. Not surprising given Robert and Roland's longevity in the Hawaiian music "biz" - 40 years if we begin counting with Sunday Manoa, closer to 50 years if we count their extracurricular activity performing with their parents' band when they were still very young. (Roland was, in fact, a bass player first - performing well under age at clubs where he otherwise would not have been permitted, his mom and dad "covering" for him, but so young and so small having to stand on a chair to reach the top of the upright bass nonetheless.) The duo have more than three dozen recordings to their credit (not counting those as Sunday Manoa). So that is a catalog of more than 400 songs. Surely they have favored some composers over others. And to that end, Da Caz have covered the works of Helen Desha Beamer (and I am working from memory here) at least three times. I thought we might continue our celebration of Auntie Helen by taking in more of her compositions in the contemporary style of the Brothers Cazimero.

Robert recorded "Mahai`ula" for his first solo release - simply entitled "Robert Cazimero" - in 1978. Robert, a kumu hula (or "hula source," the keepers of the hula and all related rites and rituals), has often made the dancers themselves sing as an integral part of the performance of the hula. So Robert's dancers learn to sing as well as they learn to dance. You hear the men of Halau Na Kamalei sing with Robert here on this song Auntie Helen wrote   Despite that this was Robert's solo recording debut, you hear with him the guitar as played by none other than his brother, Roland.

Recorded at Brown Sugar Ranch in Waimea, Hawai`i from September 1 through 11, 1980, Hawaii, In The Middle Of The Sea remains my favorite Cazimero album of all time - so much so that I have been through five copies of the vinyl in the more than 30 years since it was released until the digital release on MP3 very recently. For these sessions Robert and Roland selected not one, but two of Auntie Helen's compositions. The brothers put their contemporary spin - harmonically and rhythmically - on "Ke Ali`i Hulu Mamo" with a melody by Auntie Helen and a lyric by Helen's aunt, Keakealani Keanomeha. The song speaks of Kahanu, the Princess Kalaniana`ole, and the home she made at the time in Kona on the island of Hawai`i. The brothers cycle through any number of key changes at breakneck speed and switch audaciously between a Latin-tinged rhythm and a more cha-lang-a-lang hula feel. And they have even more audacity still to end on a 9th chord that is not even in the key signature they are playing in. (I have wracked my brain for 10 minutes trying to notate that chord. Music theorists, how do we notate Eb9 when playing in the key of Gm?) In the early days of the Brothers Cazimero, listeners often wondered how they got their rich full sound with only two musicians. Much of this is attributed to Roland's orchestral approach to the guitar - playing full six-note chords (while other guitarists might play only three or four strings at a time) punctuated with octaves and single-string counterpoint to the vocal. (Roland attributes this style to listening to such Hawaiian rhythm guitar greats as Pua Almeida as well as such jazz guitar greats as Lee Ritenour with whom Roland had the opportunity to work when recording his solo LP Warrior in 1983.) The sound can also be attributed to the fact that Roland chose as his primary axe a 12-string guitar in which each of the usual six strings is doubled - each pair of strings often called a "chorus" - and in which many of these pairs are tuned in octaves - which is like playing two guitars at one time, giving him that fuller, richer sound. But here is the last dirty little secret: A stereo pick-up. The pick-up is the device that translates string vibrations into amplified sound. On the guitars Roland was using during this period, the stereo pick-up essentially divided the guitar into two halves - the first, third, and fifth pairs of strings being fed to the left channel of the mixing board, the second, fourth, and sixth pairs of strings being fed to the right channel. This gives us the effect of hearing a different guitar in our left ear than in our right ear. This effect is most pronounced when Roland plays some single string melody or counterpoint and some of the notes come out of the left speaker and some of the notes from the right speaker. Thus proving the duo was as adventurous technologically as they were musically. In fact, for these two, these truths may have been inseparable. (For the record, the Brothers Cazimero were also the first to produce an all digital recording in which no analog recording, transfer, or mastering devices were used: 1989's Hawaiian Paradise.)

The set closes with a song from the same album as above: "Na Kuahiwi Elima," or "The Five Mountains." Auntie Helen was traveling with her dear friend, Annabelle Ruddle, from Paniau (Annabelle's home for which Helen wrote the song of the same title) to Kawaihae on the island of Hawai`i. Auntie Helen captured in snippets of lyric the sights they experienced on the drive, and by the time they reached Kawaihae, both the melody and words were finished! Along this drive, Helen and Annabelle spied five mountain peaks: Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, and Kohala on Hawai`i and - peeking over the Alenuihaha Channel - Haleakala on the island of Maui. The song opens with an introductory verse the brothers devised which lists these five mountains, and that intro is again song by Robert's dancers of Halau Na Kamalei. The song continues in typical Cazimero duo fashion, but as it progresses, you hear the brothers joined by the angelic voices of the Honolulu Boys Choir - perhaps a nod to Auntie Helen's Kamehameha Schools roots and the annual Kamehameha Song Contest they hold.

Direct download: 09_Hoolohe_Hou_-_September_2014_Part_1.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:32am EDT

OOPs – Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs & Sons

I could have “tagged” this article under either of the recently introduced Ho`olohe Hou theme categories prompted by my on-going investigation of the life and music of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs. I introduced a segment entitled “OOPs” – my shorthand for “out of print” treasures – to discuss Alvin’s collaboration with Sam Kahalewai on the album entitled A Lei Of Songs From Sam. And I introduced a segment entitled “`Ohana” – Hawaiian for “family” – to talk about Alvin’s musical sons. This article is where these two topics joyously intersect – an out-of-print LP featuring not one, not two, but all three of the musical Isaacs sons along with their father. 

When I introduced the ridiculously titled “OOPs” segment at Ho`olohe Hou, I explained that not everything that is out of print is worthy of being heard again. The double-entendre in “OOPs” is my not-so-humble opinion that it is a huge mistake that the recording in question is no longer available because of its historical or cultural significance. So here are the criteria for which Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs & Sons earns its “OOPs” status: 

  • It is the only appearance on record by Alvin Isaacs and all three of his musical sons.

  • It is the first appearance on record of a baker’s dozen of original Alvin Isaacs compositions.

  • It is one of the few recordings Alvin made in the modern era of recording technology – allowing us to clearly hear his singing and playing.

  • It is the last time Alvin Isaacs stepped into a recording studio before his passing in 1984. 

And because it was recorded in the modern era, it is in a sense like listening to a modern-day recreation of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders – the super-group Alvin led nearly thirty years earlier when technology could not adequately capture the magic that Alvin, George Kainapau, Benny Kalama, and Tommy Castro were making. Thus Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs & Sons is a throwback to a time when Hawaiian music was much different than it was becoming when this LP was made in 1978. 

The album featured Alvin’s sons Barney on steel guitar, Atta on slack key guitar (and, occasionally, rhythm guitar), and Norman on bass as well as their voices combined in harmony. Here they perform a series of Isaacs originals – opening with “I Want To Be Hawaiian,” a song to which I can relate with every fiber of my being, with lead vocals by Papa Alvin. Norman takes the lead vocal – in his full tenor in one key and in his falsetto during the key changes on the repeat of each verse – on the first and still only recording of Alvin Isaacs’ “Kau`iokalani” (not to be confused with another more popular Isaacs composition by the similar title “Kau`ionalani” which has been covered by everybody from Kapena to the Lim Family to Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom). And they close out the set with Papa taking the lead vocal on his composition “Ho`owali La” (a favorite of Na Hoa’s Halehaku Seabury-Akaka and one which he performs with aplomb). 

Ho`olohe Hou will revisit this album time and again until faithful listeners have heard it in its entirety. Until then, I hope you have savored this brief taste of an out-of-print classic featuring the combined talents of the Isaacs `ohana – father and sons. 

Next time: Alvin Isaacs’ longtime musical partner revisits his friend’s compositions and the classic sound of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders (of which they were both members)…


Direct download: 14_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:OOPs (Out Of Prints) -- posted at: 8:09pm EDT

Falsetto Heroes - George Matsushita

Eigi "George" Matsushita was born September 10, 1934 in Tokyo, Japan. This extraordinary gentleman had a more than 40 year career in Hawaiian music in his home country - starting at the tender age of 19 with Poss Miyazaki and His Coney Islanders, then later with Takashi Kobayashi's Blue Hawaiians, and then finally forming his own group, the Island Kings as long ago as 1960.

By the 1990s, George was already long well respected in Hawai`i for his efforts in preserving traditional Hawaiian music in Japan - and, particularly, for his outstanding falsetto. And so he had the rare opportunity to make not one, but two recordings in Hawai`i with some of the greats in Hawaiian music - living legends such as Hiram Olsen on guitar, Aaron Mahi on bass, Byron Yasui on `ukulele, guitarist Sonny Kamahele, Mahi Beamer at the piano for a few numbers, and Alan Akaka on steel guitar. (I am not too proud to say here that I, too, count these legends among my best friends in Hawai`i or anywhere.) And these recordings dispel a myth recently perpetuated in the wake of the release of a brand new Hawaiian music CD in 2014.

Earlier this year, a duo considered among the young lions of Hawaiian music - husband and wife team Kellen and Lihau Hannahs Paik, known professionally as Kupaoa - recorded an album with a Hawaiian music group from Japan known as Kaulana. The two groups teamed up for the beautiful new CD entitled Na Pua Mōhala, and this CD has been getting a lot of play in my home. (Kaulana holds the rare distinction of being the first and only international group in history to win a Na Hoku Hanohano award, the Hawaiian music industry's highest honor for achievements in Hawaiian music.) However, the Mountain Apple Company, which produced Na Pua Mōhala for Kupaoa and Kaulana, refers to the collaboration erroneously as a "first-of-its-kind project." Not so. There is a long history of Hawaiian music artists from Japan collaborating with the local Hawaiian music artists in Hawai`i. So numerous are such collaborations that I don't even know where to begin. But we know that Japanese-born Hawaiian music superstar singer Ethel Nakada recorded in Hawai`i with members of the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus (including steel guitarist Jules Ah See) as long ago as 1960. (That record remains coveted by Hawaiian music collectors still today.) In 1969, Pua Almeida traveled to Japan to make a solo steel guitar recording with the finest Hawaiian music artists there. In the 1980s, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd traveled to Japan to make a series of recordings with Hiroshi Wada and the Mahina Stars. In the 1990s, singer and slack key guitarist Agnes Kimura began making a series of recordings with local Hawaiian artists including Alan Akaka, Nina Keali`iwahamana, `Iwalani Kahalewai, and others - many with Audy Kimura at the engineering console and Keith Haugen producing. Then there are George Matshushita's two CDs recorded in Hawai`i in 1998 and 2000. And, finally, in 2005, Japan's Hiroshi Okada, winner of the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest, came back to Hawai`i to record for Hula Records with steel guitarist Casey Olsen, guitarist Kai Artis, and bassist and producer Baba Alimoot. This makes the Kupaoa/Kaulana collaboration in 2014 a seventh-of-its-kind project at best.

But I digress with the fact-checking... It's just that good music can stand on its own merit and should not require marketing hyperbole.

Because we are concurrently celebrating the birthday of composer Helen Desha Beamer this week, the set opens with George gracing us with "Kawohikukapulani," the song (as mentioned previously) that Auntie Helen wrote as a wedding gift for her youngest daughter (also named Helen, or as she was known by her Hawaiian name, Kawohi). Listen as George's falsetto gets higher and clearer with each of the three or four key modulations in this beautiful arrangement by former Royal Hawaiian Band leader Aaron Mahi. This is from George's 1998 CD There's No Place Like Hawaii which - like so many recordings featured here - is no longer in print.

From the 2000 CD My Leis Of Aloha (also out of print), we hear George perform "Mahalo E Hilo Hanakahi," a song written by falsetto singer and hula master John Pi`ilani Watkins which extols the virtues of the beauty of the town of Hilo and the hospitality demonstrated by its residents. Anybody who has ever been to the Merrie Monarch Festival knows it's all true.

Because we featured a Lena Machado song sung by Joe Keawe, I thought we should also feature a Lena Machado song performed by George Matsushita. We hear him in the beautiful waltz-time number "Kamalani O Keaukaha" which Auntie Lena composed for the people of Keaukaha on the island of Hawai`i. "Kamalani" means "favored child" - Auntie Lena's collective reference to the people of Keaukaha and the impression they made on her when she toured Hawai`i. The composition dates to 1934 - making it one of Auntie Lena's earliest. This song is a favorite of falsetto singers because of its challenging melody. This version is again from George's There's No Place Like Hawaii release.

Finally, from the same CD still, the set closes with "Nani Waimea," a brief ditty penned by Sam Koki in which he describes his abiding love for home in Kamuela, Waimea, Hawai`i.

I hope you enjoyed this opportunity to hear a falsetto voice you have likely not heard before. And your blogger thanks you for indulging him in his obsessive pursuit of truth-finding about the history of Hawaiian music on record.

~ Bill Wynne

Direct download: 11_Hoolohe_Hou_-_September_2014_Part_1.mp3
Category:Falsetto -- posted at: 7:54pm EDT

Falsetto Heroes - Joe Keawe

Josaiah Keawemauhuli was born September 10, 1918 in Holualoa, Hawai`i. But almost as soon as he left his home on the Kona Coast and landed in Honolulu, he became the protege - as many young Hawaiian music artists did in that era - of the legendary musician and composer John Kamealoha Almeida. Joe first performed with Uncle Johnny on radio station KGU's Playground Quarter Hour. He soon after went into the studio to record for the then brand new 49th State Records company for which Uncle Johnny handled what is now referred to as "A&R" (artists and repertoire). In fact, the label was so new that Joe was the very first artist to go into the studio (49th State's "studios" typically being artists' homes, recording remotely right in their living rooms or kitchens) and release the very first single on this burgeoning label.

As a falsetto singer, Uncle Joe was most unusual. While falsetto singers are often criticized for decreasing in volume as they go higher in their range, Joe Keawe possessed a rare clarity and projection throughout his vocal range - making him the perfect singer not only for rollicking hula numbers, but also for tender love songs.

But like many (in fact, most) professional musicians in Hawai`i, Joe did not earn his living on his music alone. He was an entrepreneur. Joe and his wife first owned a travel agency and, later, a chain of Hawaiian and Japanese restaurants both in Hawai`i and on the mainland.

Joe Keawe should be considered of critical importance in the evolution of falsetto singing in Hawai`i. Yet, surprisingly, rarely do his recordings find their way on to CDs or MP3s in the digital era. Michael Cord of Hana Ola/Cord International Records owns the rights to entire back catalogs of Hawaiian music from its golden era, and this includes the 49th State Records library. And yet very few of Joe's singles for that label have been remastered and re-released, and he has not merited - as have Linda Dela Cruz, Bill Ali`iloa Lincoln, or George Kainapau - an entire full length reissue devoted solely to his music. Pity. But I attempt to remedy this today in honor of Uncle Joe's birthday. And because we have honored Uncle Joe before at Ho`olohe Hou (which is still available for your listening and learning pleasure), I have chosen to spin only vintage discs from the 1940s and 50s that I have not featured on this blog previously and which have not been reissued by Cord or any other label.

The set opens with Joe singing "Kane`ohe," a mele written by Abbie Kong and published by Johnny Noble which employs the first installation of electricity in this windward side residential community as a metaphor for a love affair. ("Kane`ohe" means "bamboo man," and those of you familiar with the geography of O`ahu no doubt understand why. If you don't, I refer you to a map of O`ahu.) On this first selection you hear one of the signature sounds of so many 49th State Records recordings: the mandolin as handled by session producer Johnny Almeida.

The set continues with a pair of songs written by one of my favorite composers, Auntie Lena Machado, who ranks - in my humble opinion - as my second favorite haku mele (or "weaver of song") behind Uncle Johnny Almeida. What may be little known about this pair of songs is that they were intended by Auntie Lena to be part of a "song cycle" of three songs written in the same time period which - when put together - complete the story arc of so many love affairs: love won, love enjoyed, and love lost. "Mai Lohilohi Mai `Oe" (not heard here because Uncle Joe never recorded it) speaks of flirting and the invitation to love. "Ho`onanea" speaks of sharing a relaxed (hence the title) romantic encounter. And "Kau`oha Mai" - sometimes referred to as "The Keyhole Hula" - is the sad ending in which the woman returns home only to find another in her lover's arms. And although this is too often the story arc of a love affair, all three songs were based on events that happened to friends or acquaintances of Auntie Lena's.

When she composed "Kau`oha Mai," Lena understood the boundaries she was pushing - especially for a female composer. Like many Hawaiian songs which express some covert (or overt) sexuality - "Nanea Kou Maka I Ka Le`ale`a" and "Hali`i Ka Moena" come to mind - the composer must choose his or her words carefully. This is at the heart of the poetic technique known as kaona in which there are many layers of veiled meaning which repeat listening - and the aid of the hula - will help elucidate. If we were to sing the English equivalent of what Lena wrote...

Ki`ei aku wau / I peered

Ma ka puka ki `ea / Into the keyhole

E honihoni `ia ana / Being kissed repeatedly

Ko ihu kapu `ea / On your ihu kapu (forbidden opening), yep

... this would no doubt be considered by most to be risque. But not in Hawai`i - and in the Hawaiian language - because historically their cultural views on sexuality are much different and the body and all of its uses are not considered "dirty." Although we now understand that Auntie Lena was among the most artful of composers to be able to choose words carefully while still making her intent quite clear - which is one of the reasons singers love to sing her songs and her compositions remain among the most sung by Hawaiian musicians still today - she was right to be concerned for when she began performing the song in public, indeed Lena received complaint letters. Such is the evolution - or devolution - of a culture since this could be viewed as the once more liberal views of the Hawaiians being superceded by more modern - and conservative - western views.

The other reason falsetto singers love to sing Lena Machado songs is because they were written by a falsetto singer for a falsetto singer. Auntie Lena was a marvelous falsetto (although, the vocal technique being the same for the woman as for the man, it is rarely referred to as "falsetto" when women sing in this manner). And so she wrote songs which utilized the large intervallic leaps that allowed her - and other falsetto singers - to utilize the technique often referred to as ha`i, or the break between the full voice and the high, upper register (or what might sound like yodeling). Joe uses his ha`i to full effect in the major 3rd leap that is heard throughout "Kau`oha Mai." (And again you will hear Uncle Johnny's mandolin.) You then hear Uncle Joe's fluid approach to "Ho`onanea." Your host should have spun these two tunes in the reverse order since in my version of Auntie Lena's story arc, the lovers break up before they ever get to enjoy the affair.

Finally, Joe closes the set with a song often associated with him, a staple of his repertoire. Another love song, "He U`i" speaks of flirtation with a suitor that has already been taken by another. It is hard to top the original recording by the song's composer, Danny Kua`ana, which has more of a swinging jazz feel. Here Joe takes the tune at hula tempo in the first of what would be two recordings he would make of this song - nearly 30 years apart.

Ho`olohe Hou has honored Joe Keawe previously. (Click here to check out more of his recordings not featured here.) But I hope you have enjoyed this follow-up tribute to travel agent, restauranteur, and falsetto singing legend Joe Keawe.

Direct download: Joe_Keawe_2_September_2014.mp3
Category:Falsetto -- posted at: 6:31am EDT

A Tale of Two Falsettos

I keep a calendar of the birthdays of my Hawaiian music heroes. Unusual, I know. But it gives me something to celebrate every day of the year! 

Statistically speaking, there are lots of days of the year when two or more Hawaiian music legends share a birthday. But despite that I don’t know the birthday of every falsetto singer throughout history, of those I know about, there is one – and only one – day of the year on which two of my falsetto heroes were born. And like the picture of Mark Yamanaka and myself, these falsetto singers were born more than 4,000 miles apart. And as the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago – even if we consider all 2,000 of them – only span a distance of 1,500 miles, this means that one of these falsetto singers wasn’t born in Hawai`i.  

I am looking forward to sharing both of these fabulous falsettos with you later today. This is Ho`olohe Hou. Keep listening…

Category:Announcements -- posted at: 6:15am EDT

`Ohana – The Isaacs Family

“`Ohana” is the Hawaiian word for “family.” We have discussed Alvin Isaacs the musician and Alvin Isaacs the composer. But despite that we call him “Papa,” we have failed to discuss Alvin Isaacs the dad – patriarch of a next generation musical legacy. Although they rarely all appeared on record together – often in pairs or threes, but rarely all four musical Isaacs – each of Alvin’s sons became a superstar of Hawaiian music in his own right. Thinking about Alvin and his sons prompted me to think about Hawai`i’s many musical families throughout history – the impetus for introducing our second new recurring theme segment which we will simply call “`Ohana” in which Ho`olohe Hou will celebrate Hawai`i’s musical fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, even aunties and uncles.

Alvin, Jr. – affectionately known as “Barney” – as you have already read was one of the most sought after and most widely recorded steel guitarists in the history of Hawaiian music. For a period of time, Barney’s steel was the signature sound of Hawaiian music most instantly recognizable around the world for it was Barney who held the longest tenure as a steel guitarist for the famed Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts. And he has appeared on countless LPs, lending his signature steel sounds to recordings by such artists as Marlene Sai, Haunani Kahalewai, Ed Kenney, Herb Ohta, Charles Kaipo Miller, Danny Kaleikini, Charles K.L. Davis, and – of course – the countless recordings of the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus. 

Leland “Atta” Isaacs was an innovative slack key guitarist who experimented with sounds and tunings – arriving at a once proprietary tuning which has since been uncovered and learned by a new generation of slack key players, a tuning now affectionately referred to as “Atta’s C.” He recorded with such slack key contemporaries as Gabby Pahinui (that pairing leading to the seminal recording of slack key duets entitled Two Slack Key Guitars). Despite that Atta’s style and sound are immediately identifiable by slack key players and aficionados, much of Atta’s session work was done anonymously. One of the more interesting artifacts of the Isaacs family’s intersecting musical careers is the pairing of Barney’s steel and Atta’s slack key guitar on the 1960s Sounds of Hawaii LP Hau`oli – some of the earliest steel guitar and slack key guitar duets on record, a record which served as a template for the slack key and steel guitar duets Atta and Barney would do later with The New Hawaiian Band or Atta’s duets with steel guitarist Jerry Byrd on the LP Steel Guitar Hawaiian Style. 

Norman Isaacs was a bass player and – in his heyday – the best singer among the three Isaacs siblings, possessing a big, bold tenor voice that extended on his command to a fine falsetto. But unlike his brothers who often headlined an engagement, Norman was content to be the supporting artist – the guy that makes the other guys sound good. There are few recordings on which Norman gets top billing, but he appears on countless Hawaiian recordings – both credited and uncredited – as bassist and backing vocalist for such artists as Eddie Kekaula, Sam Kahalewai, and Gabby Pahinui. Norman was also a comic presence who fit well among the antics of his regular working group of the 1960s led by Sterling Mossman. 

Each of Alvin’s sons is a seminal figure in Hawaiian music history, and each merits his own feature tribute at Ho`olohe Hou. But until time permits an adequately thoroughly investigation of each of their lives and careers, we should at least focus on the family and the rare moments that found them on stage or in the studio together. 

At least three-quarters of the musical Isaacs `ohana appeared together on stage in a rarity eagerly sought by the steel guitar playing community – a 1973 all-star steel guitar concert in Honolulu in which steeler Barney is joined by his father, Alvin, and brother, Norman. But while this is a truly rare and special moment, it is made even more rare and special once you hear Alvin (the father) begin to play steel guitar in duets with his son – the one and only time this was ever captured on tape. They open with Alvin’s own “Auhea `Oe” with a solo by Barney. Alvin, Sr. then takes the steel guitar lead on a number that is very familiar but the title of which I do not recall (if I ever knew it). (Alvin yells out what sounds like “Puanani” before he launches into the number.) Then Barney’s steel takes over while dad Alvin, Sr. comps his son on the second steel before he takes the vocal lead on the first chorus of his own “Aloha Nui Ku`uipo,” with son Norman taking over the vocal lead with his falsetto after the key change. Father and son trade steel licks again on the next number (the title of which again escapes me) before a duet on dual (or duel?) steel guitars again on “Wai O Minehaha” on which Alvin (the father) takes a jazzy chord melody solo. And Barney closes the set with some outrageous steel soloing on “Tomi Tomi” with dad Alvin out front singing. 

I hope you appreciate this glimpse into a precious moment in which one of Hawai`i’s most musical families combine forces to become a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts. 

Next time: Another Isaacs family affair – complete with the missing son – and another OOPs (out of print) classic…


Direct download: Alvin_Isaacs_-_Ohana_-_Steel_Guitar_Concert.mp3
Category:`Ohana -- posted at: 5:59am EDT

Helen Desha Beamer – The Composer Sings

In an earlier post about Helen Desha Beamer the composer, I made only a passing mention of Helen Desha Beamer the singer. She was, in fact, an accomplished soprano, and this was evident in many of her compositions which require a tremendously wide vocal range to sing. Helen possessed such a range and a clear, pure tone to match, and it is for this reason that Charles E. King personally selected Helen to make the first ever recording of his now extremely popular “Ke Kali Nei Au.” Of course, the song is popular for all the wrong reasons – mostly because there has since been written an English language version (made popular by such singers as Andy Williams and Elvis Presley) known as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” And despite that it has become obligatory to sing the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” at every Hawaiian wedding (particularly those of mainland U.S. and Japanese tourists who may not be any wiser about such matters), the original Hawaiian lyric has nothing to do with marriage. [As an aside, there is nothing more embarrassing than to see a somewhat inexpert hula dancer interpreting the English lyric in dance while the singer is singing the original Hawaiian. You will know from the very first verse when the singer sings “Aia la i hea ku`u aloha” (“Where is my beloved?”) and the dancer is mimicking the clanking of bells with her fingertips for the English language lyric “Soon bells will be ringing.” The lesson here, kids? The English language version of a Hawaiian song may not be a translation.] 

King wrote the original “Ke Kali Nei Au” for a Hawaiian language opera, Prince of Hawai`i, which was first performed at the Liberty Theater in Honolulu on May 4, 1925. Its cast included Ray Kinney (whose birthday we will soon celebrate) as the titular prince. The first recording of “Ke Kali Nei Au” – written as a duet for male and female – did not take place until three years later in a 1928 session for Columbia Records and featured soprano Helen Desha Beamer and baritone Samuel Kapu with Don Barriento’s Hawaiian Orchestra. Make no mistake that – according to Columbia Records discographies – there are numerous Hawaiian music recordings on this label dating to approximately the same time period if we follow the Columbia catalog matrix numbers. Some of these recordings feature the Kamehameha Alumni Glee Club – a rather large choral aggregation. It is doubtful that a record company – even one as large and as successful as Columbia – was going to pay to transport a 28-member chorus to the mainland for a recording session. This means that Columbia records saw enough profit in Hawaiian music to their equipment all the way to Hawai`i – before the advent of the jet plane – to capture these sounds. And why not? According to Hawaiian music historian George Kanahele in his Hawaiian Music and Musicians, in its heyday Hawaiian music represented three out of every five songs played on mainland U.S. radio. This means that despite the uphill battle for today’s Hawaiian musicians to gain traction in sales and popularity outside of their island home, there was once a period in our history when Hawaiian music was the popular music. According to the Hawaiian Music Collection of the University of Hawai`i, the 78 rpm recording of “Ke Kali Nei Au” was released on May 22, 1928. According to my research, it has not been re-released in any format since. This makes this recording truly a rarity. (A copy recently sold on the Popsike auction website for $77 USD.) There is one copy in the archives of the above mentioned University of Hawai`i collection, but for copyright purposes – by which an educational institution must strictly abide – you must be a UH student to access that database. (If you are a UH student, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity.) 

But for those of us who cannot access the Beamer/Kapu duet of “Ke Kali Nei Au,” I thought we should collectively experience Auntie Helen’s voice somehow. Columbia Records released a number of Hawaiian music recordings with similar catalog matrix numbers the week of May 21, 1928 – the same week as “Ke Kali Nei Au.” This includes other selections from King’s Prince of Hawai`i featuring different singers and Don Barriento’s band once again. Fortunately for us, these selections include another Beamer/Kapu duet, another love song entitled “Ua Like No A Like,” composed by Alice Everett and published by Charles E. King in one of his early folios. A listen to this recording should give us a glimpse into how Auntie Helen sang and how the rare recording of “Ke Kali Nei Au” might sound if only we could hear it. On this selection we hear both voices loud and clear since they are not accompanied by the full orchestra but, rather, only by a harpist. This recording was made available again courtesy of Kamehameha Schools on their 1997 CD release Na Mele Ho`oheno which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Kamehameha Song Contest. We are grateful to the Kamehameha Schools for digitizing – albeit crudely – this rare recording, but as the CD is now long out of print, this 1928 recording remains a rarity.  

I hope you enjoyed this opportunity to hear Helen Desha Beamer – typically thought of as a composer – sing for us…

Direct download: Helen_Desha_Beamer_and_Samuel_Kapu_-_Ua_Like_No_A_Like.mp3
Category:Female Vocalists -- posted at: 5:31am EDT

Alvin Isaacs - "Nalani"

In 1948 Alvin Isaacs won First Prize in the Aloha Festivals Song Contest with his composition “A World of Happy Days.” This is but one of the many reasons why “Papa” Alvin was often referred to as “The Ambassador of Good Cheer.” 

That same year tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke absolutely fell in love with Alvin Isaacs’ composition “Nalani.” She threw a party At Shangri La, her mansion on five acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head, and among the dignitaries on that guest list was a vacationing Nat “King” Cole. Doris took him aside and said, “Nat, you just have to hear this song!” And she handed him the sheet music. Nat looked at it and fell in love with it just as hard as Doris did – so much so that he immediately proceeded to sit down at the piano and take the new tune for a spin for the guests of the party. The rest – as they say – is history. Although as I usually hear that history, it says that “Nalani” was the very next song Nat recorded when he returned to the mainland and the Capitol Records studio at in Hollywood. This is not entirely true. It was not until more than a year later – on September 9, 1949 – that Nat took the new English-language lyric (and new title) by Girdie Bielenson into the famed Capitol Records studios at 5515 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. (The famed Capitol Record tower – the one that looks like a stack of 45 rpm records on a spindle – was not built until 1956.) Nat waxed “Nalani (Here Is My Heart)” with his regular trio including guitarist Irving Ashby, bassist Joe Comfort, and Nat on piano (with an unidentified vocal group). The English-language lyric (which is not a translation of the original Hawaiian) was no doubt aimed at helping the record appeal to mainland record buyers, but it was a doubly good idea given Nat’s struggle (as you can hear) with the little bit of Hawaiian he had to sing. The record was buzz-worthy enough for a syndicated columnist (in a piece appearing in both the October 31, 1949 Toledo Blade and the November 3, 1949 Times Herald of Olean, NY) to mention the tune in an announcement of a concert featuring bandleader Woody Herman with special guest Nat “King” Cole: 

This well known music world figure and clarinetist will bring his orchestra to the Sports Arena on Friday evening, Nov. 11, for a popular concert program. Starring with him will be Nat “King” Cole and his celebrated trio. Doris Duke will be one of the regular ringsiders at Bop City during Nat “King” Cole’s next engagement there. And one of his numbers will be a song she discovered for him in Hawaii – a ditty called “Nalani” which was written by one of her friends. 

Another version of this story has the record being pulled from circulation for reasons unknown. But as nobody can cite the reasons why it would be pulled, and as this story is not documented in writing seemingly anywhere, the veracity of the tale remains in doubt. 

Because turnabout is fair play, if Alfred Apaka recorded an early (if not the earliest) version of the original Hawaiian-language lyric for “Nalani” in 1947, as his popularity grew, Apaka (or the record label to which he was then signed, Decca) capitalized on the popularity of the Nat “King” Cole version by recording the English-language version more suitable for consumption by mainland audiences himself. And, in an attempt at trumping the Cole version, Decca Records paired their biggest star in Hawai`i with their biggest stars practically everywhere else: the Andrews Sisters. On May 20, 1952 at the Decca Records studio in Los Angeles with a group led by Hollywood-based steel guitarist Danny Stewart (who arranged and led most of the early Apaka sessions for the label), Patty, Maxine, LaVerne, and Alfred laid down the Girdie Bielenson English-language lyric for “Nalani (Here’s To My Heart)”. The review in the September 27, 1952 issue of Billboard exclaimed: 

The gals are on a Hawaiian kick in this platter. They have the strong assistance of Alfred Apaka as the male chanter, and together they turn in a fresh reading of the Island opus. Good program wax. 

Make no mistake: On every version of the 78 and 45 rpms that I have ever encountered of this side, the Andrews Sisters get top billing on the label – helping to ensure the record’s success. This would lead one to believe that recording “Nalani” a second time was Decca’s – not Apaka’s – idea. The two sessions between May 20 and 22, 1952 produced eight sides which were released as an album of four 78 rpm discs entitled My Isle of Golden Dreams. All of these sides remain officially out of print today. Not that any singles you might find from these sessions released as MP3s are bootlegs copied from the records in somebody’s collection (not unlike this blog.) 

Elsewhere at Ho`olohe Hou we have been discussing the mainland adventures – and successes – of Hawai`i’s operatic tenor Charles K.L. Davis. Under contract to Long Island, New York’s Everest Records in the late 1950s, Davis also turned in a version of the English-language lyric to “Nalani (Here Is My Heart)” for his LP Songs of Hawaii. The steel guitarist – as identified by his tone, seemingly uncontrollable vibrato, and rocket-like glissandos – is none other than Hal Aloma who was firmly rooted in NYC after his stint at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. An audiophile label using the then most advanced recording technologies available, Everest Records release was a feast for the ears. These masters would lend themselves to stunning releases in the digital era, but sadly only one Charles K.L. Davis title on Everest has received this treatment. As with the sides by Alfred Apaka with the Andrews Sisters, caveat emptor. Any MP3 reissues you might find of the Charles K.L. Davis catalog on Everest Records are “needle drops” – offered for sale by nefarious entities – and in many cases sound worse than a copy of the original record located at a flea market. 

Three versions of an Alvin Isaacs classic – all recorded on the mainland. Highly unusual for any song that isn’t “Hawaiian War Chant,” “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” or anything that appeared in a Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley movie. We have spent considerable time talking about Alvin Isaacs’ lyrics. But “Nalani” proves “Papa” could write a really memorable and addictive melody too – one with a much broader appeal than local Hawai`i audiences alone. 

Next time: An Isaacs family affair and another OOPs (out of print) classic…


Direct download: Alvin_Isaacs_-_Nalani_Three_Versions.mp3
Category:Mele: About The Songs -- posted at: 7:19am EDT

More from the Helen Desha Beamer Songbook

Let’s continue to explore the innumerable compositions from the pen of the prolific Helen Desha Beamer… 

The set opens with the unmistakable voice of Marlene Sai singing “Pu`uwa`awa`a,” a song Helen wrote for Mrs. Hannah Hind and her home at Pihanakalani. Like the Brown family of which Auntie Helen also wrote, the Hind Family was known for their love of entertaining family and friends. You might find numerous other Hawaiian songs written in their honor. “Pihanakalani” was the name of the Hind homestead – not to be confused with the Pihanakalani of Kaua`i, the mountainous region above Wailua River near the Wailua Fall which was home to that island’s ruling class in the days of the monarchies. This is from Marlene’s Hana Hou LP which – although once out of print for a very long time – is now available again as an MP3 download from iTunes, Rhapsody, and eMusic. (Fans of steel guitarist Barney Isaacs will be interested in this album since – despite being uncredited in the liner notes – Barney handled the steel guitar chores. Ironically, the vibes take the lead on this song, and the steel guitar is nowhere to be heard.) 

Of the many voices Hawai`i lost too soon, perhaps my favorite – the one who has had the most influence on me as a falsetto singer in the modern era – is Sam Bernard. Here he performs Auntie Helen’s composition “Paniau” which she composed in honor of the seaside home of Al and Annabelle Ruddell who dwelled on the Kona Coast of the island of Hawai`i. This is from Sam’s 1986 Kahanu Records LP Mahie which – despite its influence on today’s falsetto singers – remains out of print. (Kahanu Records imploded shortly after this record was released – many of its artists losing access to their master tapes, most seized – so the rumor goes – by the IRS. We will no doubt get to the Kahanu Records story on this blog at some point. Until then, I hope y auditors are having a grand time enjoying Tony Conjugacion, Ho`aikanes, and Ka`eo.) 

For the second day in a row I offer you a healthy dose of Nina Keali`iwahamana – this time with her family, singing sisters Lani and Lahela and even brother-in-law Joe Custino (Lani’s husband) on steel guitar. They sing a song that Auntie Helen wrote as a wedding gift for Charles Dahlberg – her soon to be son-in-law – and because Charles was a stranger to Hawai`i, Auntie Helen refers to him in the mele as “Pua Malihini,” or “stranger child,” which is also the title of the song. (Although “pua” is literally translated as “flower,” the term is most often used in Hawaiian poetry to refer to a person – especially a special someone. Now, go count the number of Hawaiian songs with “pua” in their titles.) Charles came to Hawai`i, met a lovely Hawaiian lady named Helen Elizabeth (Auntie Helen’s youngest child), fell in love with her – by most accounts, it was love at first sight for both of them – courted her, and ultimately took her as his bride. And from the moment he asked Helen Elizabeth to be his wife, she referred to him as “my darling.” Knowing this, Auntie Helen immortalized their love in song when she wrote, “Ku`u pua malihini, my darling.” But Auntie Helen wrote a song as a wedding gift for her daughter too: the Hawaiian standard “Kawohikukapulani,” a mele inoa (or name song) which refers to Helen Elizabeth by her Hawaiian name, Kawohi, a song which became a staple of Alfred Apaka’s repertoire. This recording is from the Hula Records LP – now CD and download – Na Mele `Ohana by the musical Rodrigues Family led by their matriarch, Auntie Vicki I`i. We will talk about this album at length at some point as the cover graces my wall because I consider it one of the twelve Hawaiian music recordings that changed my life and led me down my lifelong path of the pursuit of understanding Hawaiian music. 

And, finally, Nalani Olds Reinhardt sings the lovely “Moani Ke Ala.” This composition represents a rare instance in which Auntie Helen only wrote the music; the lyric is by Mrs. E.A. Nawahi and honors Leimakalani Henderson and the home she shared with her husband Jim “Kimo” Henderson (mentioned yesterday and for whom Auntie Helen wrote “Kimo Hilo”) at Pi`ihonua in Hilo, Hawai`i. The song is from Nalani’s 1978 Pumehana Records LP simply entitled Nalani on which she is backed by some then youngsters who went on to become Hawaiian music stalwarts themselves – Haunani Apoliona, Eldon Akamine, Haunani Bernardino, and Aaron Mahi (who for some time held the esteemed position of leader of the Royal Hawaiian Band), or the group otherwise known then as Kaimana. The group is scarcely heard here on this selection as they are accompanied also by a string quartet. I last saw Auntie Nalani in September 2007, and she remarked at the time that she had not seen nor heard this LP since its release 30 years earlier. Hearing it again reminds me that I am overdue in keeping a promise to remaster this (and her second Pumehana Records release, `Elua, as well). In fact, this should bring me double joy as I happen to know this voice is a favorite of my good friend, Jason Poole, who has one song from Nalani in regular rotation on his iPod, the only song re-released on CD which appears on the compilation CD Hawaiian Classics.  

Next time: The Brothers Cazimero honor Helen Desha Beamer. And if Helen was such an amazing singer herself, why haven’t we heard her voice?...

Direct download: 06_Hoolohe_Hou_-_September_2014_Part_1.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:56am EDT

Alvin Isaacs (We’re Just Getting Started!)

We have been discussing Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs the composer whose songwriting output is seemingly innumerable. I have never seen a list of his compositions. I just keep throwing platters on the turntable, and with each spin, I hear a song and say, “He wrote that too!” It is harder to find a Hawaiian music album that doesn’t offer an Alvin Isaacs song than to find one that does. So here are still a few more from the pen of Alvin Isaacs as recorded by some of the shining stars in the Hawaiian entertainment constellation of the 1960s. 

I recently introduced the segment here at Ho`olohe Hou entitled “OOPs” – classic Hawaiian music recordings which inexplicably remain out of print (or “OOP”). The first song in this set comes from just such an out of print recording – one for which, if I could obtain the master tapes, I would fund the remaster and rerelease myself. (It is that important.) Known largely only by collectors of Hawaiian music recordings, Hula La – a 1959 Liberty Records release – was an all-star affair which married superstars of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts (Sonny Nicholas, Sonny Kamahele, Danny Stewart, Barney Isaacs, and Pua Almeida) with members of the Martin Denny band (Julius Wechter on vibes, Willard Brady on woodwinds, and Augie Colon’s variety of percussion) all under the direction of Chick Floyd (a former mainland big band leader and arranger who relocated to Hawai`i where he arranged for recordings by Ed Kenney and Lani Kai as well as the Lucky Luck TV Show) for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Liberty Records clearly aimed to capitalize on the current music craze known as “exotica” – a hybrid of Hawaiian songs and exotic percussion (and occasional bird calls) that as such would not be native to Hawai`i but perhaps some fictitious jungle elsewhere in Oceania. (While the craze likely began with Les Baxter’s 1952 LP Ritual of the Savage, the subgenre was eventually named for the 1957 Martin Denny LP Exotica and its many follow-ups Exotica II, Exotica III, etc., etc.) As Denny was under contract to Liberty at the time both as an artist and as A&R (artist and repertoire) man on the ground in Hawai`i, the soil was fertile for such a musical experiment. What resulted was not so much “exotica” as it was really very forward-thinking Hawaiian music. The album is an essential addition to every Hawaiian music collection, but alas it is out of print. It contains the one and only ever recording of Alvin Isaacs’ pseudo-chant composition “Hula La.” Given that this Isaacs composition was published by the same publishing house as every other song on the LP (Exotica Publishing Co.), it is highly likely then that Isaacs was commissioned to write the tune to fit the title of the LP (and not that the LP was titled for an existing Isaacs tune). The lead vocal is by none other than Pua Almeida – making this a rare entry in the Pua Almeida discography as well. Ho`olohe Hou will return to Hula La for more of these exciting sounds soon, no doubt.

One of Alvin’s most enduring compositions, “Aloha Nui Ku`uipo” (still often performed today), is offered up here by my friend and hero, the late Sonny Kamahele (recently celebrated here at Ho`olohe Hou). From his 1960s Sounds of Hawaii label release ironically titled Sounds of Hawaii, Sonny is joined here (likely, as there are no session personnel listed in the liner notes) by his regular working group of the period which included such fellow Hawaiian music legends as Cy Ludington, Mel Peterson, and steel guitarist Eddie Pang. It seems like only yesterday that I was sitting at the Halekulani Hotel’s House Without A Key at sunset listening to Sonny sing the very same song right in front of me. It was a staple of his repertoire – as were countless other Alvin Isaacs songs. 

The unmistakable voice of Aunty Genoa Keawe sings “He Nani Helena,” the song Alvin wrote for Helene Owens, the wife of his great friend and once musical associate, Harry Owens. This is from Aunty Genoa’s 1960s release “By Request” which she produced for the then brand new record label which she owned and operated. She is joined here by her band of that period – and for many years to come – her good friends Vicki I`i Rodrigues and Pauline Kekahuna on the dual rhythm guitars, Violet Pahu Liliko`i on upright bass, and steel guitarist Benny Rogers. 

Finally, from the 1970 Lehua Records LP eponymously titled Bunny Brown’s Hilo Hawaiians, Bunny Brown and company deliver another Isaacs classic, “Analani E.” The group – which hailed from Hilo on the island of Hawai`i and which originated in the famed Ha`ili Choir there – changed personnel over the years. But this incarnation was comprised of Bunny Brown, his two sons, and steel guitarist Arthur Kaua. This is one of the few recordings featured at Ho`olohe Hou that is still available as a CD or MP3 download courtesy of the care and diligence of Lehua Records. 

So by now we have heard all of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ compositions, right? Join us next time to find out... 

Next time: The Alvin Isaacs composition most recorded outside of Hawai`i – a story that involves both Nat King Cole and the Andrews Sisters?...


Direct download: 10_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 4:48am EDT

OOPs - A Lei Of Songs From Sam

In an attempt at understanding the mind of this blogger and his obsession with Hawaiian music... I began listening to Hawaiian music nearly 44 years ago while still in the womb, and I began performing Hawaiian music almost as soon as I exited it. I have heard of all of nearly 25,000 sides of Hawaiian music in my personal archives. I do not have databases. I have memory (and an advanced directive that instructs that the plug be pulled when I can no longer tell you who played steel guitar on any of these 25,000 recordings). At this point, I do not merely hear the music. When Hawaiian music is playing, my mind is associating millions of pieces of data like a huge connect-the-dots puzzle. No single of piece of Hawaiian music lives in isolation in my memory. Rather, Hawaiian music and musicians are strung together in an endless lei that encircles my heart and my soul.

When I began putting together a tribute to Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs – perhaps one of my top three or four favorite Hawaiian music artists of all time, one that has been the most influential on my own music, and, therefore, one I have listened to perhaps more than nearly any other – I began making some connections. These connections are the impetus for two new theme segments at Ho`olohe Hou. And here is the first which – after an exhaustive linguistic wrestling match with myself in which I both won and lost – I have simply entitled “OOPs.” 

Some explanation for this bizarre title is in order… When Ho`olohe Hou was (first) a podcast and (then) a radio program, each week I did a segment entitled Why In The World Is This Out Of Print? I would feature recordings of historic or cultural significance which – while not necessarily old – were no longer commercially available. (For example, an album sweeps the coveted Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards as recently as the 1980s but remains out of print.) That segment is being revived under the more concise title “OOPs” – my short-hand for “the Out of Prints,” but also a not-so-veiled reference to my belief that it is a huge mistake that these recordings are no longer available because of their importance in perpetuating a song, a composer, an artist, or a style that might otherwise be lost if we don’t bring back such recordings here at Ho`olohe Hou. 

I nearly retitled this segment “The 50 Most Important Hawaiian Records You’ve Never Heard” – a nod to the numerous Honolulu Magazine polls that have resulted in so many “50 Greatest” lists over the last few years. (I do not always agree with such polls.) I quickly realized that my new title had twice as many syllables as the old title (and I am paying for the bandwidth for this blog). But the title is equally valid. Listening to the music of Papa Isaacs brings to mind numerous recordings which should be preserved and propagated not merely for our entertainment, but for our continued education in Hawaiian music – which, after all, is the primary mission at Ho`olohe Hou. 

Regardless of what I call this segment, over the coming weeks and months I am going to intermittently (when and as appropriate) feature such recordings and try to put them in their appropriate cultural and historic context. Starting with this one… 

I recently spun an Alvin Isaacs composition entitled “Sing Your Cares Away” as performed by Sam Kahalewai. This is from a most unusual release – and one of the most coveted among collectors of Hawaiian music – entitled A Lei Of Songs From Sam. It is historically important for any number of reasons, but let me try to capture the most important of these: 

  • It is the only appearance on record by singer and composer Sam Kahalewai.

  • It is the only recording of five Sam Kahalewai original compositions never recorded by any other artist.

  • It is a rare meeting on record of Alvin Isaacs (on rhythm guitar) and his son, Norman Isaacs, on bass.

  • It is the only recording of three original Alvin Isaacs compositions never recorded by any other artist.

  • It is one of the rare appearances on record of Gabby Pahinui on steel guitar.

It is probably this last point that makes A Lei Of Songs From Sam so highly coveted by the steel guitar-playing community. Fans of Hawaiian music immediately recognize Gabby’s name as the folk hero most frequently associated with slack key guitar. But steel guitar aficionados know Gabby first and foremost for his unmistakable touch and tone on the steel and his ever tasteful and jazzy playing – of which, regrettably, there are scarce few examples on record. It is for this reason that the Pahinui family – not the Kahalewai or Isaacs families – led by Gabby’s son, Martin, and grandson, John (affectionately referred to as “Gabby” for his grandfather) are in a heated pursuit of the master tapes to broker a rerelease. 

But because of its unique origins, the chances of A Lei Of Songs From Sam ever seeing the light of day remastered in a digital format are slim. Clearly labeled “Recorded in Hawaii” on the LP’s cover, the record was pressed and distributed by Four Winds Recording of Hutchinson, Kansas! While Hawaiian music was once popular on the mainland – selling in droves and released in large quantities by such major labels as Decca, Columbia, and RCA Victor – this was no longer the case by the early 1960s when this LP was released. So it is difficult to conceive of the business model that would entice a small, independent, rural mainland U.S. label to go to the expense of recording, mastering, pressing, and distributing this record. And one must also wonder how many of the presumably few pressed copies actually made their way back to Hawai`i. 

It’s all so curious. 

But we cannot pay tribute to Alvin Isaacs without surveying a generous portion of this long-forgotten (by most) LP. 

The set opens with Alvin himself singing his own composition “Poi Song,” a novelty number in the vein of “No Huhu” (but minus the dialect). The steel guitar sits out this tune, and the instrumental lead is taken by an anonymous vibraphonist. You can hear Sam and Gabby in the vocal trio on the refrains. This rare Isaacs composition has only been recorded once more in the 50 years since its first appearance on record here – by Tau Greig and Damien Farden, the group formerly known as `Elua Kane. 

Alvin’s son, Norman, takes the vocal lead on his father’s composition “Ala Wai Hula” with his distinctive falsetto. The voices of Papa Alvin, Sam, and Gabby chime in on repeats of each verse and the out chorus, and careful listeners will appreciate Gabby’s tasteful two-bar “vamps” between each verse (the vamps often being the steel player’s only opportunity – however brief – to show off their technique and creativity when they are not afforded a solo chorus). This Isaacs composition had not been recorded before and has not been recorded by any other artost since. You will hear more of Norman Isaacs when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates his October birthday. 

The set closes with the rollicking Alvin Isaacs composition “Ki`ipau Chant.” A largely vocal jaunt, the voices of Alvin, Sam, Norman, and Gabby combine from start to finish like a train coming into the station. While not a staple of the modern Hawaiian repertoire, some listeners will recognize this Isaacs composition as one covered fairly recently by Teresa Bright for her Painted Tradition CD. 

What is also curious about this recording is how Sam Kahalewai received top billing on what is essentially an ensemble effort. Each of the performers trades lead vocals in almost equal proportion, and the song content is divided equally among Kahalewai compositions, Isaacs compositions, and covers of songs by other songwriters. 

You will no doubt hear more from A Lei Of Songs From Sam when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates Sam Kahalewai (on the occasion of his December birthday) and again when we explore Gabby Pahinui’s role in the evolution of steel guitar. 

Until then… This is Ho`olohe Hou. Keep listening…


Direct download: 12_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:OOPs (Out Of Prints) -- posted at: 5:19am EDT

Helen Desha Beamer – Grande Dame of Hawai`i

One dictionary defines “grande dame” as “a woman of influential position within a particular sphere.” In the history of Hawaiian culture, one could name many grande dame. Surely Mary Kawena Puku`i, Alice Namakelua, Lena Machado, Genoa Keawe, and Haunani Apoliona come to mind. And then there is Helen Desha Beamer. 

According to Hawaiian music historian George Kanahele in an earlier edition of his seminal work on Hawaiian music, Hawaiian Music and Musicians, the Beamer family of Hawai`i can trace its musical lineage back to the 15th century, and the earliest Beamer compositions can be dated to 1862. But these songs were written by the Beamer women during a period when the religious environment of Hawai`i forced these women to conceal their talents in mele and hula. By the time that Helen was born on September 8, 1881, this puritanical attitude had not yet evolved all that much. So when Helen composed Hawaiian music and taught hula openly, it was against the wishes of both her father and her uncle – the latter a pastor of a church in Hilo. But this trendsetting lady rebelled, and all of Hawai`i is grateful that she did since today she is recognized as one of Hawai`i’s most prolific composers. 

Because she was fluent in the Hawaiian language, Helen’s compositions achieve a poetic style that is rarely found today despite the resurgence in the teaching and every day use of the language. And because Helen was also a very talented singer, her compositions can only be described as “operatic.” Her songs can prove difficult for all but the very finest singers to conquer and perfect the singing of a Helen Desha Beamer composition. She was such a talented singer, in fact, that none other than fellow composer Charles E. King personally chose Helen to make the very first recording of his composition “Ke Kali Nei Au” (often referred to today – mistakenly – as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” despite that the original Hawaiian lyric has nothing to do with betrothal whatsoever). 

And although it is not my area of research or expertise by any means, we cannot talk about Hawaiian music without also discussing the hula, and this is particularly true in the case of Beamer who originated what was then – more than 100 years ago – considered a new style of hula – a different kind of footwork that resulted in a smoother, more graceful dance. A century later, that style is now referred to as the characteristic Beamer style of hula – the style you would most often see if you visited Hawai`i or if you were watching the auana (or modern) portion of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival competition. 

To begin our tribute to “Sweetheart Grandma” (as Auntie Helen was known to her family and friends), here are just a few of Helen’s compositions sung by some of Hawai`i’s most well known and well loved voices – some not heard for a very long time. 

“Keawaiki” (which means “little harbor”) honors the home of Francis Brown on the island of Hawai`i (sometimes erroneously referred to as “the Big Island,” not because it isn’t the largest of the eight major islands, but because this is not the Hawaiian name for this island). The Brown and Beamer families were very good friends, and so Auntie Helen wrote many compositions for this family and for their home and the hospitality the Browns shared. As you will soon hear, many of Helen’s compositions have this honoring quality – songs for her friends, their homes, and special times spent together. “Keawaiki” is still well loved and often sung today – even by those who knew neither the Browns nor the Beamers – because it is a song about being together and sharing good times, good food, good conversation, memories and laughter. And, after all, this is what the Hawaiian life is very much about, so you hear this song sung at such gatherings still today. I said that it takes an exceptional voice to properly sing a Helen Desha Beamer composition, and there are few voices more exceptional than that of Nina Keali`iwahamana who sings for us here. Although many of Nina’s classic recordings have been remastered and re-released in the digital era, her version of “Keawaiki” you hear now remains out of print in any format. 

Ka`ahumanu was the favorite queen of Kamehameha I and the chief minister during his reign. Helen wrote “Ka`ahumanu” in the early 20th century for the Ka`ahumanu Society, the first Hawaiian women’s benevolent association of which she was a charter member of the first chapter. The challenging melody is tackled here by Charles Keonaona Llewellyn Davis (or Charles K.L. Davis or, to those who knew him well, just Charlie) who led a sort of dual life performing Hawaiian music in Hawai`i and opera on the mainland. He combined the two skills for a series of commercially successful records on the Decca label, earning him nationwide exposure. But this performance of “Ka`ahumanu” – with the Kawaiahao Chuch Choir under the direction of its then leader (and, later, senator) Daniel Akaka – comes from an LP recorded in Hawai`i entitled Songs of Hawaiian Royalty. This, too, remains out of print in the digital era. 

Marcella Kalua – with help from The Sons of Hawaii – performs “Kahuli Aku, Kahuli Mai.” The song speaks of the kahuli, or tree snail. One type of this snail – pupukanioe – is legendary in that it is believed it can sing. (Its name means ““shell that sounds long.”) But they are not really singing. The tiny red-striped mountain shells fasten themselves to the bark of a tree and emit a tiny humming sound like that of a mosquito. In this song – which I have seen alternately attributed to Helen and to her granddaughter, Nona, who became a Hawaiian cultural expert in her own right – the kahuli call out to the kolea (or golden plover bird) to fetch them some water. 

Like “Keawaiki,” Auntie Helen wrote “Kimo Hula” to honor her friend Jim “Kimo” Henderson, his wife, Leimakani, and their home in Pi`ihonua near Hilo on the island of Hawai`i. As described by Hawaiian music historian Jean “Kini” Sullivan in her liner notes to Hawaii’s Mahi Beamer, Auntie Helen wrote “Kimo o ka uka `iu`iu” – which means “James of the highlands,” a poetic reference to James’ birthplace of the highlands of Scotland. Because Helen used James’ name in the song, the song is by definition a mele inoa, or “name song.” A mele inoa is not merely a song that honors a person. It also has to reference that person by name. Otherwise it is not a mele inoa. The song is sung here by my dear departed friend Bill Kaiwa with whom I had many lovely chats about Hawaiian music (and his golf handicap). An artist as well as an entertainer, Bill was equally adept with painting as sculpting. (See the cover he painted for his “True Hawaiian” CD.) Uncle Bill carved a poi pounder out of precious milo wood as his personal prize for the winner of the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest which he helped judge in 2005. That poi pounder sits beside me on my end table as I write this – bringing my relationship with Uncle Bill full circle, a piece of him always here by my side. 

Next time: More classic compositions from the pen of Helen Desha Beamer performed by some of Hawai`i’s finest – and, perhaps, forgotten – voices…

Direct download: Helen_Desha_Beamer_Part_1.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 3:37am EDT

Alvin Isaacs - "No Huhu!"

Hawai`i is at the crossroads of the Pacific. So it is quite the ethnic “melting pot” – perhaps unlike any place else on earth. These many races and nationalities co-exist – generally speaking – peacefully and harmoniously and even joyously. So while it may be considered less than politically correct elsewhere, ethnic humor was once the order of the day in the islands and was a symbol of the racial accord that may uniquely exist there. This is (almost) as true now as it was 50 years ago. Referring to your friend by their ethnic heritage (“Eh, howzit, Pake?”) is not considered a slur but, rather, a term of endearment. 

The inspiration for this Alvin Isaacs composition arose from a show he was producing for his church. They were rehearsing a one-act skit which featured a Chinese-dialect comedian, and as Alvin watched, he dreamed up this humorous scenario and set it to music – all in less than two hours. (This might not immediately be considered a feat considering the length – and repetitiveness – of most pop songs. But when one considers how many unique verses there are to this song – and the fact that Alvin was writing in a dialect – the feat becomes somewhat more amazing.) “No Huhu” (which is Hawaiian for “don’t get angry” or “no problem”) became – quite unintentionally – an instant classic and a popular sensation – especially in the hands of the right performer. 

Arguably, to this day, nobody performed this number with as much flair and comedic timing as Alvin’s son, steel guitarist Barney Isaacs. (I say arguably because Barney’s friend, fellow Hawaii Calls radio program steel guitarist Jules Ah See, also did a wildly popular version of the song.) Not merely because it is an Alvin Isaacs composition and not merely because it was popularized by his son Barney’s performance of it (perfected over time), but because it is an important cultural artifact demonstrating how Hawai`i was (and perhaps still is) different in its racial accord than almost anywhere else imaginable, we owe it to ourselves to hear the Barney Isaacs version of “No Huhu” at least once. Although I have many versions of this song performed live by Barney in the Ho`olohe Hou archives, I am choosing the earliest – and still quintessential – version as Barney performed it live with the group led by cop-by-day-entertainer-by-night Sterling Mossman at the Barefoot Bar at the Queen’s Surf on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki in 1961 where Sterling held court every evening for many years making music and merry in his inimitable comic fashion. Every member of the group – Barney, his brother, Norman, Louis Akau, and the sole wahine, Varoa Tiki – were equally as funny as they were musically gifted. In their collective hands, “No Huhu” becomes a set piece pretty much as Papa Alvin envisioned it. 

Click play and Sterling Mossman will give you the rest of the backstory and some essential translations of the Hawaiian and Chinese words you might not otherwise understand. And as you listen, remember to keep this recording in the unique context of place and time that may be required to listen with open, loving, and accepting hearts and minds. Such a recording will no doubt be considered politically incorrect in New York City in 2014. But as I listen for the thousandth time, I find myself wishing that it could be 1961 again and that everywhere could be Hawai`i…

Next time: You haven’t heard all of Alvin Isaacs compositions yet…


Direct download: 08_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 8:38pm EDT

More From The Alvin Isaacs Songbook

In our last segment we discussed Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs the composer and his countless songs that have become woven into the lei that is now considered “traditional Hawaiian music” despite that – in his time – Isaacs was considered a trendsetter both in terms of his sound and his approach to songwriting. Here are still a few more classics from the pen of Alvin Isaacs performed by his friends, admirers, and even his own family. 

“Sing Your Cares Away” is an Alvin Isaacs composition performed by Sam Kahalewai with Alvin Isaacs himself in the studio on the rhythm guitar, his son Norman Isaacs on bass, and at the steel guitar – brace yourselves – none other than Gabby Pahinui. Fans of Hawaiian music immediately recognize Gabby’s name as the folk hero most frequently associated with slack key guitar. But steel guitar aficionados know Gabby first and foremost for his unmistakable touch and tone on the steel and his ever tasteful and jazzy playing. Gabby only gets the 16-bar intro and a 16-bar solo break in the middle section (which, at these tempos, is about 26 seconds of air time), but any Gabby fan would recognize him from two notes. This is from one of the most rare items in my collection, the LP entitled A Lei Of Songs From Sam. Clearly labeled “Recorded in Hawaii” on the LP’s cover, the record was pressed and distributed by Four Winds Recording of Hutchinson, Kansas! It is among the most coveted albums by fans of Gabby’s steel playing or Alvin’s compositions of which a half dozen are featured (only one of which has been recorded since – “Ki`ipau Chant” which was covered by Teresa Bright in the 1990s). In my discussions with the Pahinui family, Gabby’s son, Martin, and grandson, John (affectionately referred to as “Gabby” for his grandfather) are searching desperately for the master tapes to broker a rerelease. But did I mention that the record company was in… Hutchinson, KS? 

The golden throated Ray Kinney sings one of Isaacs’ most popular and enduring compositions, “Nani,” which simply means “beautiful.” The Hilo-born Kinney rose to prominence nationwide when he opened at New York City’s famed Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel in 1937. (Kinney’s Hawaiian Room days are chronicled elsewhere at Ho`olohe Hou.) By the time of this recording – 20 years later – Kinney was already an elder statesman of Hawaiian music – serving both as performer and entertainment director for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. Many of the voices in the chorus are almost recognizable but – alas – undocumented. But steel guitarists everywhere do not require documentation to be assured that the steel player here is again Alvin’s son, Barney. This lovely selection is from the 1957 Liberty Records LP entitled Remember Waikiki. 

 “Ta-ha-ua-la” is Papa Alvin’s twist on the “Hawaiian War Chant” (which is neither a chant nor about war but, rather, a princely love song written by Prince Leleiohoku of Hawai`i’s last royal family – all of whom were talented composers). The original lyric was co-opted by composer/arranger/publisher Johnny Noble for the modern era, and the uptempo arrangement stuck despite that it belies the lyric’s gentle and loving nature. Because turnabout is fair play, Isaacs took Leleiohoku’s original lyric and re-co-opted it in this tongue-twisting number performed by the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus (of the famed radio broadcasts) from one of their earliest LPs, the 1958 Capitol Records release Hula Island Favorites. In the first verse you hear the male chorus (which includes a then very young Danny Kaleikini in one of his first appearances on record) led by Sonny Nicholas, but none other than Haunani Kahalewai leads the vocals for the rest of the trip. You also hear the ladies vocal chorus of sisters Lani Custino and Nina Keali`iwahamana plus Punini McWayne. The steel guitarist is the great Jules Ah See. 

Closing out this set, Alvin’s son, Norman Isaacs, sings dad’s composition “Ku`ulani” which was released both as a Waikiki Records single and on two of its compilation LPs (Duke Kahanamoku’s Favorites and In Hawaii The Story Starts). As Alvin’s son, Barney, served as a sort of “house arranger” for Waikiki Records during this period, this is again Barney’s steel guitar you hear along with brother Norman’s bass and lead vocals (which range from tenor through a typically Hawaiian falsetto) and the backing vocals and rhythm guitar of their friend, Gabby Pahinui. You will hear more from Norman Isaacs again when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates his October birthday. 

Next time: The story behind Alvin Isaacs’ most beloved composition…


Direct download: 06_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:12pm EDT

Helen Desha Beamer

September 8th marks the anniversary of the birth of Helen Desha Beamer whose influence on Hawaiian music and hula are still keenly felt nearly a century-and-a-half later. Join me for a week-long tribute to this grande dame of Hawaiian culture...

This is Ho`olohe Hou. Keep listening...

Category:Announcements -- posted at: 5:55am EDT

Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs - Composer

When last we discussed the music of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, we discussed “Papa” the musician – the new sound he heard in his head and how he realized it with what is now considered to be a “supergroup” known as the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders (comprised of now legendary George Kainapau’s falsetto, Tommy Castro’s unique steel guitar playing, and the falsetto voice and forward-thinking arrangements of Benny Kalama). But we cannot forsake Alvin Isaacs the prolific composer whose songs – both the Hawaiian-language and hapa-haole (English-language songs about Hawaiian themes) – have stood the test of time. In this segment we listen to a few of Papa’s songs that have become classics but which were recorded by his contemporaries in Hawaiian music from the 1950s and 60s. You are a bound to hear a voice you haven’t heard in a very long time (or may perhaps be hearing for the first time), and you will no doubt hear a song Isaacs wrote and mutter aloud, “I love that song… I had no idea he wrote that!” 

First, the quintessential version of perhaps the most often performed and recorded Alvin Isaacs’ composition by Hawai`i’s most famous voice. Alfred Apaka sings “Nalani” which he recorded in June 1947 with a group led by Randy Oness and featuring Pua Almeida on steel guitar. During the middle of the last century – for a variety of reasons – “Nalani” may have been the most recognizable Hawaiian song across the country and around the world. We will explore the long and storied history of “Nalani” here at Ho`olohe Hou soon. 

Singer, dancer, bandleader, and actor Ernest Kawohilani – known professionally as “Prince Kawohi” – is probably best known for his long affiliation on stage and TV screen with the orchestra led by Harry Owens – giving him national exposure. Here the “Prince” delivers one of Alvin’s least recorded compositions, “Uina Uina.” Recorded in Los Angeles in 1955 when Hollywood was a hotbed of the finest ex-patriot local musicians from Honolulu, the session likely included musicians who worked together regularly on stage and in the local clubs at the time including Sam Koki, Sonny Kamahele, Sam Kaapuni, Harry Baty, Pua Almeida, and almost certainly Danny Stewart on the steel guitar. 

“Ho`omalimali” means “to flatter.” And the lively and humorous “Ho`omalimali E” is sung here by Fely Gabriel – a “vibrant, wriggling package of dynamite from Alohaland” according to the program from the 1964 New York World’s Fair where she appeared with the Hawai`i delegation led by Sterling Mossman. Gabriel had a long career in both California and Hawai`i – including appearing in Alfred Apaka’s show at the Hawaiian Village Hotel. The selection is from a Waikiki Records compilation LP. Gabriel sings here in front of a band led by Alvin’s son, Barney Isaacs, on steel guitar (a sound which graced many a recording of his father’s songs) and which includes other son, Norman Isaacs, on the bass and – whoa! – Gabby Pahinui on guitar. As I am always eager to meet the living legends of Hawaiian music, I feel very fortunate to have recently made Fely Gabriel’s acquaintance. Hopefully I will be able to share more about her life and career with you soon. 

Known as “Hawaii’s First Lady Of Song” for her voice boasting a more than three-octave range and which was heard around the world every week for years on the famed Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts, Haunani Kahalewai soothes the savage beast with “Moon Of The Southern Seas” from the 1960 Capitol Records LP of the same name. Haunani’s Capitol-era recordings featured musicians from the Hawaii Calls radio program (arranged by Benny Kalama), so most of her output during this period features Jules Ah See on steel guitar. But Jules passed away earlier in 1960 when this LP was released. For these sessions, you hear Jules’ great friend, Barney Isaacs, once again on steel guitar. 

Next time: More Alvin Isaacs’ compositions by some of Hawai`i’s finest voices…


Direct download: 05_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:27am EDT

Revisiting the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders

When last we discussed the music of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, we examined the revolutionary sounds of his then new group, the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders – a serendipitous combination… Benny Kalama’s beautiful falsetto voice, `ukulele and upright bass work, and exciting arrangements… George Kainapau’s unparalleled falsetto… Tommy Castro’s jazzy steel guitar playing… And “Papa” Alvin’s driving rhythm guitar, voice, and songwriting talent. Together, they created a sound that – although abandoning the approach of the “big bands” with whom each had played – was still imminently danceable. In 1947 – and for many years to come – this group would take Hawai`i and the world by storm. Last time around we began a look at the group’s recordings for Bell Records. But the focus was on those few singles that had been remastered and re-released as CDs or MP3s. There are many, many more recordings by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders that deserve a listen but which – surprisingly, given the importance of this band in the history and evolution of Hawaiian music – remain a well-kept secret in the digital era. Here are a few from the vaults at Ho`olohe Hou 

R. Alex Anderson – one of the premier composers in the hapa-haole genre (or songs in the English language which speak of Hawai`i or uniquely Hawaiian subjects) – wrote the novelty number “The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai” in 1934 at the request of Paul Fagan, owner of Pu`uhoku Ranch on Moloka`i, as a gift for a very special guest of the ranch – movie star Warner Baxter (the “Cisco Kid”). According to the archives of the Moloka`i Dispatch, the Molokai`i locals were excited about the impending arrival of Baxter because he was instantly recognized as that “film star that rides wild horses.” They dubbed their honored guest an “Honorary Mayor” and threw him a huge celebration lu`au. Regrettably, Baxter overindulged at the party in his honor and became exceedingly inebriated. This is the tale Anderson captured in this song – a gift Baxter did not appreciate because he felt it reflected poorly (or, perhaps, too accurately) on the extravagant Hollywood lifestyle. Although the song (it goes without saying) would never be featured in a Baxter film, the song was used a decade later in the musical comedy Tahiti Nights. “Papa” must have had a penchant for this tune since he recorded it twice: once for Bell Records in the 1940s and again for Waikiki Records in the early 1960s. Everybody joins in on the vocals here. 

Alvin takes the vocal lead himself on another hapa-haole favorite, “Evening In The Islands” – a sad love song. The foursome is heard in a vocal quartet in the out chorus. The song was composed by Don McDiarmid, Sr. who is better known for such comic hapa-haole tunes as “My Wahine and Me” and “When Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop” (as well as for founding the Hula Records label). This song always reminds me of evenings at the Waikiki Beach Marriott when Aunty Genoa Keawe used to perform there with her family and friends. She opened every Thursday evening performance with this song. Genoa Keawe’s granddaughter, Pomaika`i Keawe Lyman, her niece, Momi Kahawaiola`a, her son, Gary Aiko, and good friend, steel guitarist Alan Akaka, carry on Aunty Genoa’s Thursday evening tradition – and they still open with this song without fail. It is Hawaiian music as you do not often hear it played anymore, and so the Keawe `Ohana (as they are known) should be a “must see” (or “must hear”) on any visitor’s list. 

On the old Hawaiian standard, “Nani Wale No `Oe,” falsetto great George Kainapau trades choruses with the entire vocal quartet and an occasion solo steel guitar chorus from Tommy Castro. 

The silly hapa-haole ditty “Hula Lolo” is taken at the expected danceable Royal Hawaiian Serenaders tempo and features a fabulous – albeit much too short – steel guitar solo from Castro. Many have likely forgotten (if they ever knew) that this hapa-haole ­number was composed by hula dancer Aggie Auld who found fame in Hollywood – appearing in films with Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. (She even choreographed a hula-on-ice for a film starring figure skater Sonja Heine.) 

Another song long associated with Genoa Keawe, “Alika,” is sung here by “Papa” Alvin and features still more sterling Castro steel work. This typically Hawaiian song employs the poetic technique known as kaona (or metaphoric language leading to multiple layers of meaning). The song speaks of a sailing ship and the many ports it visits. But in Hawaiian music, a ship is rarely a ship but, rather, is more often a lover that strays, and each port represents another of its paramours. Through the use of kaona, the Hawaiian composer can handle such matters far more tactfully and gracefully than one might encounter in pop or country music.  

I mentioned previously that the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders made recordings for Bell Records both under their own name as well as serving as a sort of label “house band” – providing accompaniment for other singers. Here, Alvin and the gentlemen assist Mel Peterson on his own composition, “E Naughty Naughty Mai Nei.” Peterson recorded the tune at least three times throughout his career, but this was the song’s debut on record. (You heard Mel Peterson join the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders for another of his own compositions, “You’re At A Luau Now.”) 

There are still more treasured recordings by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders in the vaults. Not in any way intended maliciously, but I choose to save these for another time – perhaps when we discuss the individual contributions of George Kainapau, Benny Kalama, or Tommy Castro to this amazing whole that was clearly more than the sum of its parts. But, worry not. There is a whole lot more Alvin Isaacs music to discuss. 

Next time: Alvin Isaacs’ compositions and life after the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders…

Direct download: Alvin_Isaacs_-_Royal_Hawaiian_Serenaders_Rare_78_rpms_1.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:57am EDT

Alvin Isaacs – Chasing A Sound

In my last post on Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, I mentioned that Alvin organized his first group – the K.M.M. Syncopators – in 1929 followed by a string of other groups – including the original Royal Hawaiians (which often featured the great Ray Kinney), the Waikiki Breakers, and The Islanders which enjoyed a long run at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  These were all small combos which mirrored the mainland jazz combos of the era as well as such famous guitar-only aggregations as the Hot Club Quintet of France (led by the indomitable Django Reinhardt). In 1935, “Papa” joined a band led by Harry Owens’ (who took over at the Royal), and Alvin was this group’s featured singer and comic hula dancer until 1940. (Check out the previous post about Papa Alvin which opens with a selection which demonstrates how he might have sounded fronting such a big band as Owens’.) 

But one could argue that Alvin was looking for a “new sound” in Hawaiian music – a desire which drove him away from the dance hall sounds of the Owens orchestra (a sound which was neither entirely Hawaiian nor entirely portable given the band’s size) and toward the earlier small combos he enjoyed. A jazzer at heart, Alvin was a fan of the swing era rhythms but, perhaps, with more traditional Hawaiian instrumentation – not the trumpets and saxophones that the large dance bands employed (which mirrored the big bands of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, or Benny Goodman –a musical fad that would quickly fade on the mainland through the 1940s). He chased a sound more like that of his earlier Waikiki Breakers which consisted of guitarist Steppy DeRego. bassist Jimmy Kaopuiki (later of numerous groups including the Hawaiian Village Serenaders and the famed Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus), and virtuoso steel guitarist Tommy Castro. Alvin reorganized The Islanders in 1940, and they played at the Young Hotel Roof Garden until the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the same time as his run at the Young Hotel, Alvin led another band - Alvin Kaleolani and The Royal Polynesians - who were the house band for the nationwide NBC program “The Voice Of Hawai`i.” But these were ultimately not the sounds Papa sought. After the attack of December 7th, Alvin joined the U.S. Engineers and served as lieutenant of the guard at Punahou and took his troup of entertainers on the U.S.O. circuit. 

In 1947, Isaacs assembled the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders - an aggregation featuring Honolulu’s finest musicians of that era. Benny Kalama had a beautiful voice, a way with an `ukulele and an upright bass, and a knack for arranging. George Kainapau was Hawai`i’s premier falsetto singer – already a veteran of several bands including the one led by Ray Kinney. And Tommy Castro – a well-regarded and oft-copied steel guitarist – was Alvin’s friend dating back to their Waikiki Breakers partnership. Along with Isaacs’ compositions, the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders were the sound Alvin had been searching for – an unbeatable combination who made musical history at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel from 1947 until 1951. They made numerous recordings for the then fledgling Bell Records label (under their own name and as accompanists for other singers) and they embarked on four mainland tours which broke attendance records at the leading west coast hotels. (It was this mainland exposure which helped introduce Alvin to Bing Crosby – who featured Alvin on his radio programs – and which led to work on Hollywood soundstages with his old partner Harry Owens.) The swing era rhythms, the three strong lead vocalists, the impeccable vocal harmonies, the unique arrangements, the driving rhythm playing of Alvin’s guitar, George’s `ukulele, and Benny’s bass, plus Castro’s jazzy steel work were – as you will soon hear – were a new sound in that moment, but a sound which was to become the template for modern Hawaiian music through the 1950s. Here are just a few examples of the magic they made on record. 

To open the set, Benny Kalama’s fronts the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders on the Lei Collins composition “Ke Aloha.” This is the staple song of every Hawaiian repertoire. Every singer sings it, and every hula dancer can dance it. So it is one of the most oft performed songs in the Hawaiian repertoire. This beautiful version of the song is dedicated to my friend, Nick Masagatani, a fellow musician whose grandmother composed this Hawaiian classic. 

Mel Peterson – a singer and composer with such songs to his credit as “E Naughty Naughty Mai Nei,” “Rainbows Over Paradise,” and “Ring Around The Moon” – joins the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders for another of his own compositions, “You’re At A Luau Now.” This is one of the many examples of the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders backing other singers – serving as a sort of “house band” for recordings made on the then new Bell Records label which was owned and operated by another fine musician, Alice Fredlund of the Halekulani Girls. Listen to Castro’s steel work – punctuating Peterson’s vocals primarily with huge chords, becoming another member of the rhythm section, and saving his single-string work for his solo. 

A sultry classic from the Charles E. King songbook, “Mi Nei” – as arranged in the composer’s own King’s Book of Hawaiian Melodies (1948 edition) – is intended to be sung as a duet. But a duet for whom? Typically King’s own arrangements are marked clearly as to which part is to be sung by the gentleman and which part by the lady. Not so with “Mi Nei.” Rather, there is a note directly under the song’s title which reads, “Have the hula dancer sing the song.” And why not, as the song is, after all, written from a woman’s perspective – beckoning a particular suitor to look her over, take her all in, fully confident that a long enough look will do the trick and reel in her man. Still, King is very clear that the wahine is only intended to sing certain lines as indicated as a star in his text with the notation, “The hula dancer sings here.” He only marks such quintessential lines as “ke honi nei ihu” (“kiss me”) and “lili iā mī nei” (“caught by me”). Then who is to sing the remainder of the counterpoint that is not clearly indicated? On this recording, the vocal trio of Alvin, Benny, and Tommy combine to cover the “call” while the “response” – the high obbligatos – belong to falsetto George Kainapau. 

Alvin’s composition “Manowaiopuna” (sometimes referred to as “Kō`ula”) speaks of the Hanapēpē area of the island of Kaua`i. Kō`ula is the old name for both a valley and the stream that runs through it. The stream leads to the falls known as Manowaiopuna (“stream branch of Puna”), a beautiful but largely inaccessible 200-foot waterfall at the lower end of Kō`ula. Benny Kalama takes the lead vocal chores here with beautiful backing harmonies by George (the upper voice) and Alvin (the lower voice). 

Alvin composed “He Nani Helena” for a woman – as the title implies – named Helene. It is no coincidence that Helene was the wife of Alvin’s good friend, Harry Owens. Falsetto legend George Kainapau takes the vocal lead on this number once again. This Isaacs composition remains one of his most beloved – often performed and recorded to this day. 

And, finally, Papa Alvin takes the lead vocal on his own composition “Aloha Ku`u Pua” This typical Hawaiian love song refers to a special someone as a flower (or “pua”) and uses its fragrance as a metaphor for how close two can really become. Dig the medium tempo swing feel that the Serenaders achieve on this number. This is the approach the group took to many of its arrangements, and it mirrors the feel being attained by the small jazz combos on the mainland – or what Sinatra would later come to call “the tempo of the heartbeat.” 

What you hear in this set is the sum total of Royal Hawaiian Serenaders sides that have been remastered and re-released on CD or MP3. We should be thankful to Michael Cord and his Cord International/Hana Ola Records enterprise – which owns the entire (albeit limited) Bell Records catalog – for helping these precious recordings see the light of day again in the digital era. But what about the numerous other important recordings by this group? 

Next time: The out of print treasures of Papa Alvin and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders…

Direct download: 03_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 11:53pm EDT


Born September 9, 1904, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs was – and remains – one of the most important figures in the history of Hawaiian music.  “Papa” Isaacs’ contributions to Hawaiian music are incalculable - including the formation of one of the seminal Hawaiian music ensembles (the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders featuring the falsetto voices of Benny Kalama and George Kainapau and the unique steel guitar stylings of Tommy Castro), composing more than 300 songs in both English and Hawaiian (think “Nalani,” “Analani E,” and the comic “No Huhu”), and bringing into the world three more musical Isaacs (steel guitar great Barney Isaacs, slack key legend Atta Isaacs, and singer, bassist, and funnyman Norman Isaacs).

Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs taught himself to play most string and wind instruments by the age of ten.  He formed an orchestra by the age of 13 - doubling on piano and mandolin - and composed the first of his more than 300 songs a year later.  (The first - “Kau`ionalani” - has been recorded countless times - most recently by Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom.)  During this period, this husky lad also excelled in sports.  As a freshman at McKinley High he became the first freshman in Hawai`i’s history to make the All-Star Scholastics football squad, and he did equally well in track, baseball, and swimming.

Alvin married his high school sweetheart, Julita Chung, in 1924.  To support the large family they planned (they eventually raised ten children), Alvin joined the Honolulu Police Department as a motorcycle patrolman.  But after a debilitating motorcycle accident on the HPD job which left him hospitalized for a year, he turned his full attention to music for income - and the Hawaiian music world hasn’t been the same since.

After the tragic accident, Alvin organized a group, the K.M.M. Syncopators, in 1929.  He formed several other groups after, including the original Royal Hawaiians (which often featured the great Ray Kinney) and The Islanders which enjoyed a long run at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  In 1935, he joined a band led by Harry Owens’ (who took over at the Royal), and Alvin was this group’s featured singer and comic hula dancer until 1940.

Despite Isaacs’ importance to Hawaiian music history – both in the quantity and quality of songs he wrote and in his innovations in the sound of Hawaiian music – Papa does not even merit his own entry in the encyclopedic Hawaiian Music and Musicians (originally compiled by George Kanahele in the 1970s and more recently edited and expanded by John Berger). (In fact, Papa is only mentioned as a footnote to his collaborators such as Harry Owens, Randy Oness, and Benny Kalama.) Over the next few days, Ho`olohe Hou aims to right this grievous wrong with a series of articles and sound clips in tribute to Alvin Isaacs. 

The musical “set” this time around consists of a single tune from an old 78 rpm – the origins of which are unknown. “He`eia” – a chant later set to music - is a mele inoa (name song) for King Kalākaua which commemorates his visit to He`eia – not the He`eia on the windward coast of O`ahu, but the other He`eia, a surfing area on the leeward side of Hawai`i, a favorite gathering place of ali`i (royalty). The song praises Kalākaua’s skill on a surfboard (and perhaps even speaks of a secret rendezvous with a sweetheart). You have read here previously that in order to be officially deemed a mele inoa, the song must refer to its subject by name, and you do not hear Kalākaua mentioned here. Rather, he is referred to as “Kaleleonālani” which means “flight of heavenly chiefs.” (And this can be confusing since this is also a name used by Queen Emma Na`ea Rooke. But such is the poetic license of the composer.) The earliest recording I can locate by Papa Isaacs, the record is credited only to “Alvin Kaleolani.” (I do not have the original record. A collector – who shall remain unnamed – created CDs in his own home compiled from long out of print 78 rpms. And while attempts to preserve Hawaiian music should be applauded, these efforts were clearly solely for personal gain – the CDs well overpriced, with little attempt to restore or remaster the original sound quality, and with little annotation about what the listener is hearing.) But we can tell, at the very least, that the recording dates to the late 1920s/early 1930s based on the style of music heard here in which traditional Hawaiian rhythms and lyrics were incorporated into the ballroom dance band sounds of that era – slurping saxophones, a barrage of brass, and even a string section. Listen to the rhythm employed as well. While originally a chant, this tune would ordinarily be taken at a more relaxed pace by today’s Hawaiian music groups. But here the tune is taken at the tempo of the fox trot and, therefore, suitable for dancing. This is typical of so many such arrangements of Hawaiian songs in this period – that they needed to be made more dance-able for the ballrooms of the Moana and Royal Hawaiian Hotel. This single recording marks an important period in the evolution of Hawaiian music, and so it deserves to be heard. While it features the voice of Papa Isaacs, without any annotation of the players it is impossible to know whether or not this is also Alvin’s steel guitar playing you hear for Alvin was one of the leading steel guitarists of that era – taking the steel guitar chores for an extended period with Harry Owens’ Orchestra. (This may even be Owens’ band we hear on this recording. Who knows?) 

Next time: “Papa” takes Hawaiian music in new directions with his Royal Hawaiian Serenaders…

Direct download: Alvin_Isaacs_-_Heeia.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:23am EDT