Sun, 19 October 2014
Continuing our examination of Lena Machado’s 1949 recording sessions for Columbia Records with a group led by Andy Cummings and which included falsetto singer and `ukulele player Danny Kua`ana and steel guitarist Bernie Ka`ai Lewis… Lena chose five “covers” and three of her own compositions for these sessions. This time around we focus on her originals.
You are already well aware of Machado’s many accomplishments – as a performer and songwriter, of course, but also as a broadcast pioneer and an early advocate for women’s rights. Those who knew Lena say that she was ever dignified in every aspect of her life. Lena composed ““Ku`u Wa Li`ili`i” (sometimes called “Hupe Kole”) for the most uncharacteristically undignified moment of her young life. Like so many girls who desire to grow up more quickly, when Lena was twelve or thirteen she began asking for the trappings of adult woman couture. She didn’t receive these until her sixteenth birthday, but she wasted no trying all of it on with the notion of debuting the new Lena at a street fair. Lena put on the corset, long dress with petticoat, stockings, and high-heels and made for the fair on the streetcar. But despite the admonishment of the conductor, poor Lena couldn’t sit down in that get-up! To spare herself further embarrassment, she got off the streetcar and walked the long walk to the fair. But it was not long before Lena’s feet were killing her in those heels. She persevered because she was enjoying the admiring looks from potential suitors. But eventually it was all too much – hat falling to one side, the heat and the walk taking its toll on her hair, sweat dripping… And so she gave up and walked home – barefoot, since her feel were so swollen the shoes wouldn’t go back on. Upon her arrival at home, seeing Lena in her disheveled condition, her hanai mom, Mrs. Loo Pan, scolded, “Auē, hūpēkole kaikamahine – trying to act like a grown-up lady when you’re only a runny-nosed kid!” Lena waited 25 years to write down the tale, long enough for it to have a happy ending:
A nui a`e he wahine u`i (I have become a beautiful woman!)
Interestingly, although the lyric content does not call for it, the group takes “Ku`u Wa Li`ili’i” with a Latin feel – much like the arrangement we would have expected for the earlier recording of “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha.” From this recording it is clear that Lena’s fascination with Cuban and Puerto Rican music has not yet waned, and “Ku`u Wa Li`ili`i” marks one of the earliest – if not the first – use of Latin rhythms on a Hawaiian song on record.
You will no doubt understand “Ei Nei,” one of the few songs Lena ever wrote in English. “Ei nei” is a contraction of “e ia nei” which might be translated as “you, there,” and it has since come to be a term of endearment like “My darling.” But Lena did not mean just any “darling” for she did not call just anybody “ei nei.” The song was for her husband, Luciano, for “ei nei” was their pet name for each other. We know that she wrote the song for Lu since in the song sheet “Ei Nei” is capitalized which signifies formal direct address – as if “Ei Nei” were actually Lu’s name. Hānai daughter Motta previously explained the effect of night on Lena and her songwriting: It was the time of day when the light and the growing silence made Lena pensive, and this was when her songwriting was most fruitful. Although Lena was at home when she wrote it, the song harkens to any of her many tours when she and Lu were separated for long periods of time. Lu could have been sitting right next to her at the time, but still Lena writes, “There’ll be no one in your place, Ei Nei.” I have heard the song sung incorrectly often – in fact, nearly all the time – since Lena’s recordings of the song do not make clear the real words of the opening line. Most sing “Aloha wau iā `oe” (“I love you”), but that is not what Lena wrote. She wrote “Haroha wau iā `oe” – “haroha” the Māori equivalent of the Hawaiian “aloha” – to honor Lena and Lu’s great friends, Herbert and Dorothy Hano, restaurant owners they befriended while on tour in San Francisco. Dorothy, who was of Māori descent, would always greet the Machados with a cheerful “Haroha!” But I am fairly certain that I have never heard anybody who performs this song sing “haroha” – not even Lena, who would often sing in such a manner as masque certain sounds in order to keep the inside jokes inside. Only written in 1948 (a year before these sessions), this marks the first recording of this now oft-performed classic.
“Holo Wa`apa” – one of Machado’s numbers to this day, especially for falsetto singers – means “canoe ride.” But is it really about a canoe ride? Sure, Auntie Lena uses Hawaiian poetic technique to full effect here, but the song both is and is not about an actual canoe ride that Lena took with none other than famed beach boy Duke Kahanamoku. Accordind to Lena’s hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta, in her Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena, Lena used the exhilarating in writing the song. Lena said she found trying to help Duke and the boys steer the canoe “like holding on to a racing horse. (This would explain the line “Kohu Mine ku`u lio holo nui” – “Just as if I were riding a horse.”) This experience is also where she would have heard such terms as “port hard” which she also worked into the lyric. Kihei de Silva refers to the Motta-Machado translation of the song as “deceptively simple” – with nary a reference to the intimate kaona (or veiled poetic meaning) of the song. This may be because when Lena created a hula for her song and taught it to her dancers, the dance she taught them was strictly about a canoe ride, and that’s all. You had to be a Hawaiian or speak the Hawaiian language very well to know that Lena might be singing about something else – lines such as:
I mua a i hope pa`a ke kūlana (Row forward then back, steady as she goes)
Mea`ole nā ale I ka luli mālie (Feel the gentle swaying of the waves)
Kūpaianaha ē ka hana a nā ale (I could feel the workings of the waves)
The artfulness in the writing of “Holo Wa`apa” justifies Motta’s assertion that “Aunty Lena knew how to celebrate Hawaiian sexuality without being crude or obvious.”
The arrangement for this recording of “Holo Wa`apa” opens surprisingly with slack key guitar. Not only is slack key on wax a fairly new concept (Gabby Pahinui is credited with making the first slack key recording only two years earlier in 1947), we cannot know which of the session personnel – Andy Cummings? Danny Kua`ana? Bernie Ka`ai? – is the slack key player heard here.
Finally, to round out the set I throw in one more cover – the last remaining tune from the 1949 sessions. “Olu O Pu`ulani” is often credited to Helen Lindsey Parker (who wrote, among numerous other favorites among Hawaiians, the venerable “`Akaka Falls” which Lena covered in her 1937 sessions with Dick McIntire). In a long standing Hawaiian tradition, Parker composed “Olu O Pu`ulani” to honor the birth of a child.
It would be thirteen years before Lena steps foot into the recording studio again – and for the last time.
Next time: Lena Machado in the 1950s and a first listen to her final recordings…
[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.]
Sun, 19 October 2014
The 1950s recording sessions to which Lena’s hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta, makes reference in Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena likely actually took place on the brink of the turn of the decade between April and May 1949. Still under contract to Columbia Records, Machado turned out eight sides not with her touring band but, rather, with the finest Hawaiian musicians in Los Angeles at the time – Hawai`i expats who came to the mainland throughout the 1930s and 40s to take advantage of Hollywood’s craze with all things Hawaiian during this period.
The group with which Lena recorded this time around was billed as Andy Cummings’ Hawaiian Serenaders. Based on both discographical information and our astute ears, we know that session personnel included falsetto singer and `ukulele player Danny Kua`ana (formerly with Lani McIntire at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York City just a few years earlier) and steel guitarist Bernie Ka`ai Lewis (who remained on the West Coast for most of his career, working on the soundtrack for Blue Hawaii and finishing his career as the staff arranger for The Flip Wilson Show). Kua`ana’s falsetto can be heard in the vocal backing group as well as trading verses with Lena on certain numbers at these sessions, and Ka`ai had a distinctive, jazzy approach to the steel guitar which time and certain steel aficionados have treated unkindly and potentially unfairly – the criticisms ranging from the mundane (“sounds too West Coast” or “doesn’t sound Hawaiian enough”) to the downright nasty (“schmaltz”). Regardless, because of his distinctive sound on the instrument, we can definitely finger Ka`ai as having played on these sessions. Kua`ana and Ka`ai had a musical association that began years earlier and which was consummated in the recording studio the first time in 1945 in Los Angeles for Capital Records (which yielded about a dozen classic sides released as the 78 rpm album booklet Holiday In Hawaii) and again in 1947 in New York City (the results of which were less essential since they were waxed for a budget record label in the wake of an American Federation of Musicians strike against record companies and which yielded noisy recordings pressed on cheap vinyl in order to maximize the label’s profits). What remains unclear is Cummings’ role – if any – in the proceedings since he does not appear to have a prior recording or performing relationship with Kua`ana or Ka`ai. Many believe that Andy’s is one of the recognizable voices in the backing vocal trio. (Listen to the bridge of “E Ku`u Lei, My Darling,” and tell me that is not Cummings singing lead in the trio.) But was he also the leader or arranger? And why was Cummings – who was not an expat – in Los Angeles for these sessions? Such are the mysteries surrounding these recordings. But the sessions did yield more Machado magic including the first ever recordings of three Machado originals and covers of a pair of Danny Kua`ana songs which have also become staples of the Hawaiian repertoire. Let’s begin with a few of the covers…
An unidentified vibraphonist opens the proceedings with an arpeggio leading into the Danny Kua`ana composition “E Ku`u Lei, My Darling,” a song the composer first recorded a few years earlier with his partner, Bernie Ka`ai (and which appears on their aforementioned set Holiday In Hawaii). We not yet really get to assess Ka`ai’s steel playing since the vibes take the solo instrumental chorus. But we do hear Cummings and Kua`ana in the backing vocal trio on the bridge. Interestingly, there appear to be women’s voices in the backing vocal groups, but no other ladies besides Machado are identified as participating in this April 22, 1949 session at Columbia Records’ studios in Hollywood.
A session a few weeks later on May 4, 1949 with the same personnel gives us a reading of David Nape’s “Old Plantation.” The male vocal trio opens the number followed again by a chorus of ladies voices. (Again, it is easily possible to distinguish a female voice from a male voice singing falsetto. So we again seem to have an unidentified trio of ladies providing backing vocals.) Mary Jane Montano wrote the lyrics for this song about the elegant estate of Curtis and Victoria Ward at the corner of King and Ward Streets (the site of what is now the Neal Blaisdell Center). David Nape contributed the music which should be considered – like Nape’s other compositions (“Pua Mohala,” “Ku`u Ipo,” “Ku`u I`ini”) – advanced for the period in which it was written. (According to one copy of the sheet music, “Old Plantation” was copyrighted in 1906.). The primary song form of that period was hula ku`i – in which a single chord structure and melody are repeated over and over again (without a bridge or chorus) strictly in the service of supporting the lyric content. (This song form was – and continues to be – the primary song form for accompanying the hula, and the name of the form is simply translated as “to string together a hula.”) But Nape was writing a more complicated song form which deviated from the I-IV-V chord structure and repetitive melody to more meandering melodies and unexpected harmonic shifts. “Old Plantation” has at least three distinct sections – each having its own melody and unique chord structure which does not play upon or borrow from the other two. The middle section, in particular, demonstrates that Nape was thinking about other song forms that were not native to Hawai`i – one of the earliest Hawaiian songs to venture into a related key center in the bridge (in this case meandering from the tonic – here, the key of G – to its relative minor – Em – and then to the dominant – D.) And, in an interesting twist to the arrangement, the male vocal trio – led by Cummings – takes the lead on the chorus while the single female voice of Auntie Lena harmonizes with the men.
Although many sources cite “My De-De” as traditional (publishing speak meaning that the song is so old that the rightful composer cannot possibly be known), it did not require too much effort on my part to correct this fallacy. The song should properly be credited to Bert Carlson and Johnny Noble who copyrighted the song. (My 1935 copy of Johnny Noble’s Collection of Ancient & Modern Hulas lists on its inside front cover additional song folios available from Miller Music Corporation of New York, NY – one of these being “My De-De” which is credited to “Carlson-Noble.”) Danny Kua`ana takes a solo vocal on the bridge, and Ka`ai takes a steel guitar solo – a single-string chorus followed by some lovely chord melody – which nobody can accuse of being “schmaltz.” This entire affair is simply lovely – right down to the vocal harmonies that close the number.
Kua`ana and Ka`ai are jointly credited for composing the beautiful “My Sweet Gardenia Lei” – a number in the typical hapa-haole style (or songs which extol the unique beauty of Hawai`i and its people but sung in the English language). Here Mr. Ka`ai uses his steel to create a sort of counterpoint for Lena’s vocal lead, and later his half-chorus solo is much too short for him to stretch out. (Listen for Ka`ai to play a nifty arpeggiated diminished run in the closing seconds of the tune that is so quick and so precise that he gives no hint that he is playing a steel guitar.) And Kua`ana takes the liberty of a lead vocal on the bridge of the song he wrote.
These sides – originally issued as 78 rpm single discs – were reissued a decade later in the LP era on the Harmony label, the Columbia Records budget line. And this is the impetus for another new theme at Ho`olohe Hou which I will simply title “Cover Judging.” You may recall in our discussion of the lost Mona Joy LP that the album was filled with beautiful – and exceedingly authentic – Hawaiian music but that most fans of Hawaiian music who “know better” would likely pass it over based on the cover which featured not a picture of the artist but, rather, a dancer in traditional Tahitian dress. The same is true of the reissue of these Lena Machado sides on LP – the cover of which you see here and which again features Tahitian dancers – not Hawaiian. In this era it is widely acknowledge that “cheesecake” covers – featuring scantily-clad women – sold all kinds of records from jazz to classical, but such covers in many cases belied the serious music inside. Those who passed up this record because of its cover may never know the treasures that lay beneath the cardboard and which continue to live on in the grooves. I will continue to bring you many more such treasured recordings potentially passed over because of the human tendency to judge a book – or record – by its cover.
Next time: More from the 1949 sessions on Columbia – and introducing three new original Lena Machado compositions…