Lena In The 1940s

After spending most of the 1930s on the West Coast – working the clubs and hotels around Los Angeles and consulting on Hawai`i-themed Hollywood productions – Lena returned to Honolulu just before the outbreak of World War II. During the war years she committed herself to entertaining servicemen on O`ahu and the neighbor islands. She also returned to radio station KGU – where she got her start – where she hosted her own weekly radio show from 1943 to 1946 – a show broadcast around the world. Lena’s radio program house band included steel guitarist Sam Ka`eo, Lani Sang and Roy Ah Mook Sang on guitars, George Pokini on bass, Sonny Nicholas on guitar, “Little Joe” Kekauoha on `ukulele, and Edith Na`auao (Lena’s niece) on piano.

Now this is where oral histories fail us from time to time – or, at least, let us agree that writing down an oral history does not make it a written history if so much time has elapsed before the writing. In exploring Machado’s life and work, I have repeatedly cited one essential volume on the subject: Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena written by Lena’s hanai daughter Pi`olani Motta. While Machado was groundbreaking – both musically and in terms of advancing women’s rights – not everything she did could possibly be a first. That is the romanticizing that is a natural by-product of oral histories. In the book Motta claims that with the 1940s radio program Lena “became the first woman in the United States to host her own radio show.” While radio historians disagree about which woman was the very first to host a radio program, there are numerous possibilities which predate Lena’s stint at KGU by more than two decades. But the likely real first was Eunice Randall, a 19-year-old who read stories to children two nights a week on Boston’s radio station 1XE, earning her the title of “The Story Lady.” (The likely second woman in radio was New Jersey’s Bertha Brainard who by 1921 was hosting “Broadcasting Broadway” – a program of theater reviews and rushes for upcoming shows on Newark’s WJZ radio.)

In fact, such is the nature of research in general: Once we begin to corroborate – or dispel – oral histories, the mythologies begin to unravel like a souvenir lei gone all mamae with time. In her account of Machado’s recording activity during this period, Motta offers up several verifiable inaccuracies. She states that Lena “last recorded in 1940 on Decca Records with Dick McInyre and his Harmony Hawaiians.” But you already know that according to the Decca Records discography, there was only one such session which paired Machado and McIntire on September 23, 1937. Motta goes on to state that “During the early and mid-‘50s, a series of recording and convention contracts took Aunty Lena on extended tours of the continental United States…” The tours no doubt took place, but recording could not have been the impetus for Lena’s travel in the 1950s because well-documented discographies indicates that she did not record between 1949 (in Hollywood) and 1962 (in Honolulu). And the discographies notwithstanding, if Lena had participated in any recording session throughout that decade, surely one or more of those recordings would have materialized by now.

But this is not an attack on oral histories – an essential part of an ethnographer’s toolkit. It is simply a reminder to put oral histories in context and to confirm and corroborate whenever possible with a different kind of data from another source.

According to Motta, the band with which Lena would next record would be led by Danny Kua`ana and Bernie Ka`ai Lewis. This is yet another mythology that has been espoused even by record collectors and Hawaiian music historians. But it is verifiably inaccurate. While Machado would eventually wax sides with Kua`ana and Ka`ai, her next sessions were with a different – and historically important – aggregation. For the record (pun intended), Lena’s next foray into a recording studio during this period would not be for more than a decade after the September 23, 1937 session. During another stay in Hollywood in 1947, now under contract to Columbia Records Lena cut four sides on November 5 and another four on November 6 with a group led by steel guitarist Tommy Castro (of the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room) and which included Joseph “Steppy” de Rego. Castro even arranged these sides. Regrettably, the seemingly exhaustive Ho`olohe Hou archives have been exhausted since I can only locate two of these eight sides. (But rest assured that I have calls and emails out to a half-dozen collectors from Hawai`i to the U.K. to obtain these sides for our examination and historical completeness.) But it is well worth listening to the two sides to which we have access – one the first recording of a then-recently-written Lena Machado original.

Like the song “Mauna Kea” recently discussed here, “Na Ka Pueo” is another Hawaiian song about a ship – this one called the Pueo. And like the ship in “Mauna Kea,” the Pueo is actually a not-so-veiled poetic reference to a lover who is likely to be unfaithful. “Na Ka Pueo” pre-admonishes the lover to be faithful, saying “Malama iho `oe ke aloha / Kuleana no`u e hiki aku au” (“Take care of my love / Your responsibility until I return”).

Lena’s husband, Luciano, was a detective with the Honolulu Police Department. Later in his career Uncle Lu befriended a new recruit, William Sheather, and over time Sheather and his wife, Sophie, became good friends of the Machados – visiting each other’s homes for food, fun, and hospitality Hawaiian style. The Hawaiian songwriter will often compose a song to celebrate the birth of a child to family or friends. And so Lena wrote “U`ilani” for the Sheather’s first born, Donni U`ilani Sheather. “U`ilani” is an interest springboard for discussion about Lena’s approach to songwriting. According to hanai daughter Pi`olani Motta, it was important for Lena to empathize with the subjects of her songs. Motta writes:

Aunty Lena had an amazing talent for concentrating on her subject – for becoming what she was writing about. I think this is especially true in a song like “U`ilani” because of Aunty Lena’s inability to have children of her own… When her parents brought her over to visit, Aunty Lena paid close to attention to the way they interacted: father, mother, and daughter. The song “U`ilani” was inspired by this careful observation – by Aunty Lena’s ability to put herself into the shoes of these loving parents and to address U`ilani as if the darling little girl were Aunty’s own gift “from heaven above.”

This explains the English-language lyric in the out chorus: “U`ilani, my own…” And that is the value of oral histories.

Next time: More of Lena Machado’s 1940s Columbia sides – with still a new and different band…



[Editor’s Note: Biographical information provided by the quintessential volume on Lena Machado’s life and work, Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena by Pi`olani Motta with Kihei De Silva. For more information about this historically and culturally significant artist, I encourage you to read this book cover to cover. Highly recommended.]



Direct download: 06_Lena_Machado_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:57pm EDT

Lena Unveils More New Songs

We have been exploring Lena Machado’s life in the 1930s – much of it spent in Los Angeles after a professional run in back home (with Royal Hawaiian Band leader Frank Vierra). Her time in and around Hollywood resulted in two recording sessions – the latter of which (with a group led by steel guitarist Dick McIntire) resulted in the release of ten sides, three of these compositions from Lena’s own pen, two never recorded before. Let’s listen to the debut recordings of what have since become classics of the Hawaiian repertoire. 

Most curiously, “Ho`oipo Hula” (often referred to simply as “Ipo Hula”), Lena’s most oft performed and recorded composition, is the only one of her original songs not to appear in the book about her life, Songbird of Hawai`i (written by her hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta, with help from composer and Hawaiian cultural specialist Kihei de Silva). Perhaps this is because it is assumed that this is the Lena Machado composition that every Hawaiian music fan and musician already knows. Fortunately, it is the one I know best as it is one that I have been performing regularly for over 25 years. It is a love story that takes place on my favorite part of the island of O`ahu, the windward side and the Ko`olau mountains. Lena writes, “He wehi a he lei o ke onaona” – “A song and a lei of fragrance.” While a lei is a wreath of flowers worn around the neck and among the precious of gifts a Hawaiian can bestow (attendant with all of its sacrosanct rituals and ceremonies for the giving, wearing, and disposing of afterward), because of its important symbolism to Hawaiians the lei is also a metaphor for a precious someone – someone whom you might desire to be as close to you as a lei could be to your body. She goes on to mention “ka wehi a ka ua” or “the adornment of the rain” – rain typically being a Hawaiian metaphor for love-making. And we know that there was some difficulty in the lovers being together when Aunty Lena writes “`Owau ho`okahi ke none nei / I neia hana nui a ke aloha” (“I alone would take the trouble / To make so much love”), but we know that the effort was worth it when she closes with “Lei pili a kaua / Hana kupaianaha” (“The lei that belongs to us – an extraordinary affair indeed”).  

A huge fan of Latin music and its rhythms and instrumentation, Lena wished to acknowledge the popularity of such Latin artists as Xavier Cugat and Tito Puente – and dances like the rhumba and mambo – during this period in Hollywood. According to hānai daughter Pi`olani Motta, Aunty Lena viewed Latin music as rhythm and joy and sincerely desired “to celebrate the way that two different cultures could respect and enjoy each other.” So she decided to write a song tinged with the Latin feel and rhythms but utilizing her typically Hawaiian poetic technique. “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha” is one of the most scandalous notions the thoroughly modern Machado ever came up with. She pictured a flirtatious young woman with a feather boa – the titular “baby” – dancing to these Latin rhythms, and she used the kaona (or veiled meanings) of the boa as a metaphor for… (You know… Some things I have to leave up to the reader and their imagination. After all, that is what Hawaiian kaona is all about!) And, for good measure, Lena threw in “hot cha cha” where the Hawaiian songwriter might usually say instead “`ea, `ea” as a nod to Cugat and his many recordings for the cha-cha. Make no mistake: Lena knew that she was pushing the boundaries of the Hawaiian music tradition again with this song. But according to Motta, Aunty Lena used to say, “…as long as your foundation is Hawaiian, your ribbons and frills can go wherever you want them to go. But be sure that what you say in your words and your heart is Hawaiian.” The trendsetting Machado paved the way for every Hawaiian music artist that came after her – not only in incorporating Latin rhythms into the Hawaiian music idiom (a template that would be followed a few years hence by such artists as Jesse Kalima, Richard Kauhi, Buddy Fo, and arranger Benny Saks), but in introducing the newfound freedom to experiment with colors, sounds, and textures that had not previously been part of the fabric of Hawaiian music. The debate between tradition and evolution in Hawaiian music continues to be waged today, but it was Lena Machado who liberated the Hawaiian musician to try new things as long as their heart was in the right place. 

What is circumspect about this first recording of “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha” is that despite conceiving of the song as a response to Latin rhythms and instrumentation and likely performing the song that way live since writing it a few years before, the arrangement here is strictly in the swing meter of the hula. One can only conjecture why Lena eschewed the sound and feel that she herself believed should go with this lyric (and vice-versa), but it is highly likely that either McIntire or the record company A&R guy did not believe that Lena’s concept for this song was “Hawaiian enough” and would likely confuse the radio and record markets. It would not be until years later that Lena would realize her vision of what her unique song should sound like in a recording with a completely different group. 

“Kauoha Mai” (misprinted on the record label as “Kaneohe Mai”) is the Machado composition that she had recorded previously – about three years prior with a group led by steel guitar great Andy Iona. While artists do revisit their songs periodically throughout the years and put a new spin on them, it is unclear why Lena would record the same song twice in such a short period of time. Except for the tempo, the 1937 arrangement with McIntire is almost identical to the 1940 arrangement with Iona – right down to the tag ending. (For more information about “Kauoha Mai” and to hear the earlier recording with Andy Iona, see this previous post on an earlier period in Lena Machado’s recording career.) 

This recording session does not mark the end of Lena’s stay on the West Coast. On the contrary, Lena received the most auspicious offer from San Francisco Mayor Angelo Joseph Rossi to lead a Hawaiian group at the 1939 World’s Fair. Lena dubbed her group the “Hawaiian Strollers” because they had no permanent location at the fair. But when fair organizers realized that Lena and the Strollers were drawing more than a thousand visitors a day, they extended their original six-month contract to the full duration of the World’s Fair – three years! – and built them a Hawaiian-themed pavilion. 

Next time: It would be ten years before Lena would step into a recording studio again… 


[Editor’s Note: Biographical information provided by the quintessential volume on Lena Machado’s life and work, Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena by Pi`olani Motta with Kihei De Silva. For more information about this historically and culturally significant artist, I encourage you to read this book cover to cover. Highly recommended.]


Direct download: 05_Lena_Machado_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 4:38am EDT

Shaka, Zulu!

Gilbert Francis Lani Damian Kauhi was born in Rainbow Falls, Hilo, on the island of Hawai`i, on October 17, 1937.  He was three-quarters Hawaiian and one-quarter English (courtesy of a grandfather from Michigan). Explaining his unusual nickname, his mother assured an interviewer that she sent her son off to school with his hair neatly combed but that it would become disheveled at football practice. Since he and his teammates were studying the Zulu – a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa – in a social studies class, his buddies likened Gilbert’s hair to that of these African natives. They nicknamed him “Zulu” – a moniker which he stuck with (or one of several variants such as “Zoulou,” which he claimed was the French Tahitian spelling) throughout his career. 

Zulu and his family moved to Honolulu where he became one of the noted Waikiki beach boys – giving surfing lessons and outrigger canoe rides to tourists. There are conflicting accounts of Zulu’s schooling – several indicating that he attended the prestigious Kamehameha Schools, and others stating that he attended Saint Louis School in Kaimuki but dropped out after the 10th grade and worked in construction before serving four years in the U.S. Coast Guard. But formal schooling anywhere likely would not have changed Zulu’s destiny. A natural musician and comedian, Zulu and his buddies formed a group called “Zulu and The Polynesians” which performed at parties for “all of the food they could eat.”  Later he formed a Polynesian revue which toured Japan and entertained on cruise ships. 

Throughout the 1960s Zulu’s entertainment career unfolded slowly but carefully. He appeared in numerous Hollywood productions based in Hawai`i, starting with the Hawaiian Eye TV show in 1959, followed by the films Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Diamond Head (1962), Rampage (1963), and Hawaii (1966). He also worked as disc jockey at radio station KHVH and was appearing nightly at a club called Honey’s in Kane`ohe – a breeding ground for a raft of future superstars in Hawaiian entertainment, recruited by the owner’s son, a still then virtually unknown Don Ho. When Ho hit the big time and moved his act to Duke Kahanamoku’s at the International Marketplace in Waikiki, Zulu started another band, "Zulu and the Seven Sons of Hawaii," which – despite that Zulu could sing in five languages – performed primarily Hawaiian music. 

Zulu’s big break finally came in 1968 when he went to a cattle call audition for a new CBS detective series to be filmed in Hawai`i and quite unexpectedly landed the role of Kono Kalakaua on Hawaii Five-0. The role was perfect for the large and occasionally acerbic Hawaiian who could say more with a look or a head butt than with words. But it was – at least, anecdotally – words he would exchange often with series star Jack Lord that got Zulu fired from Five-O in 1972 after only four seasons.   

Zulu continued appearing in films and television shows such as Magnum, P.I., Charlie’s Angels, Midnight Special, The Glen Campbell Show, The Brian Keith Show, and Roger That. But it didn’t matter how much film or television work rolled Zulu’s way. Hawaii Five-0 was Zulu’s launch pad into a successful career as a showroom headliner – singer, comedian, or both – in and around Honolulu which included first a stint at Duke Kahanamoku’s (after his former boss Ho’s departure) and then an unprecedented (except, perhaps, for Ho) five-year, $2.5 million contract with the C’est Si Bon Showroom in the Pagoda Hotel & Restaurant. 

I thought it would be interesting to revisit the earliest part of Zulu’s career and his start at Honey’s in Kane`ohe with Don Ho in the early 1960s. Precious little tape from those evenings remains. But in 1962 – long before Don or Zulu would become famous – Hula Records’ owner Donald “Flip” McDiarmid II heard about the magic that was happening in Kane`ohe every night at Honey’s and went over there one evening with a portable tape recorder to capture part of the magic of an evening at Honey’s exactly as it happened. The material recorded that evening was eventually released on the Hula Records label under the title Waikiki Swings despite that the recording was of subpar sound quality. It sounded like what it was – a “bootleg.” I spoke to Flip in his home shortly before his passing in 2010, and this tape was one of the topics I broached. According to Flip, he had taken the recorder in to capture some of the magic so that he could review it to see if he had an album in the making in order to offer a deal to the participants in the band at Honey’s. If the deal had come to fruition, Flip would have returned with a professional remote recording crew and made an “album.” No such deal ever came to fruition. Don held out for a national deal – which came after his show moved to Duke Kahanamoku’s at the International Marketplace in Waikiki just a year or two later. However, according to others familiar with the situation, there was no such deal in the making; the recording was a bootleg – and pure and simple – and when Don released his first two live albums nationwide for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records label in 1965, Hula Records released the bootleg from Honey’s in 1966 to capitalize on Don’s burgeoning success. Making the accusation even worse, some involved with the performance captured that evening claim that they were never paid when Waikiki Swings was released. (And, the icing on the cake is that the recording was made nowhere near Waikiki!) 

Regardless of McDiarmid’s motivations, nobody can deny that he captured an important moment in Hawaiian music history – including a pre-fame Zulu Kauhi. In this set you hear Zulu lead the Honey’s pack first on the comic “Coed Song” and then a romp through Charles E. King’s “Ne`ene`e Mai A Pili.” But you’re hearing something else as well. You should be able to hear some other future legends in the mix: Assisting Zulu here are Kui Lee (the high voice in the vocal group), the voice and guitar of Sonny Chillingworth, and the voice and `ukulele of Alvin Okami (now best known as the proprietor of the KoAloha `Ukulele company). 

To close the set, a rarity… Zulu reunited with his old boss for The Don Ho Show, Ho’s short-lived mid-day half-hour television variety program for ABC in 1976-77. From an episode of this program you hear Zulu sing “`Ukulele Lady.” 

After a series of legal and health woes, Zulu passed away on May 3, 2004 at the age of 66. He will always be remembered as the wise-cracking, face-stuffing Kono Kalakaua. But I thought we would take this opportunity to remember the exciting stage presence and the beautiful voice that Zulu possessed – perhaps the greater of his gifts than his acting talents. 


Although there are many wonderful pictures of Zulu in circulation, I chose instead this amazing caricature by artist and Hawaii Five-O fan Josh Pincus. Visit Josh’s website for more of his amazing creations.


Direct download: Zulu_Kauhi.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 8:36pm EDT