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 EST

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 EST

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 EST

`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 EST

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 EST