Fri, 12 September 2014
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…
Fri, 12 September 2014
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:
(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…
Fri, 12 September 2014
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.