Mon, 8 September 2014
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 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…
Mon, 8 September 2014
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…
Sun, 7 September 2014
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…