Lena’s Legacy Lives

Discussing Lena Machado’s life and music, three themes emerge loud and clear. One is that she was one of the great voices in all time in Hawaiian music. Another is that she is one of the most prolific and important composers in Hawaiian music history. And the third – the one that perhaps gets lost in the shuffle between the first two – is how forward-thinking Lena was about the presentation of Hawaiian music. She loved to experiment with sounds (such as instrumentation), tempo and rhythm, and arrangement. In so doing, she opened a door for future generations of Hawaiian music artists to similarly “experiment” but – if following Lena’s example – in a way that moves the Hawaiian music tradition forward respectfully without altogether abandoning what at its very core makes Hawaiian music “Hawaiian.” Of course, in her time, as you have read Lena took her “lumps” from audiences, critics, the previous generation, and even her own family for going too far too fast. Lena took the criticism gracefully – confident in herself, and confident that if Hawaiian music were to remain popular and relevant to the next generation, it has to evolve with ever-changing styles and tastes. So I thought we would close this tribute to Lena Machado with three more recent recordings of her compositions by artists who – like Lena – have consciously chosen to push the envelope and push a button or two in order to push on the boundaries of the still – after these many years – rigid definitions of Hawaiian music.

The set opens with an artist largely known for her contributions to the slack key and steel guitar idioms – one of the few women to focus on either. But in a departure from her typically traditional Hawaiian music recordings, Owana Salazar went into the studio in 2004 to create the highly praised Hula Jazz which, while not the first melding of jazz and Hawaiian music, is certainly one of the most successful. Perhaps this is because – like Lena before her – Owana pushes as the boundaries gently and lovingly with one eye and one foot firmly planted in her Hawaiian roots. She achieved this blend by bringing together some of Hawai`i’s finest jazz musicians – Kit Ebersbach on piano, Steve Jones on bass, and Noel Okimoto on drums and vibes – with three of Hawai`i’s finest steel guitarists – Alan Akaka, Casey Olsen, and Greg Sardinha. She then carefully selected songs which lent themselves to this blending of styles and cultures – including two by Lena Machado, of which you hear “Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi” performed here. The intro relies on some very tight and intricately arranged interplay between the players, after which they are permitted to stretch out as if they were in a smoky jazz club in Greenwich Village in 1955. Okimoto goes lightly on the brushes, and Olsen’s steel sits out until the instrumental solo, then comping Ebersbach’s piano until Jones’ bass solo in the bridge, after which Ebersbach and Olsen trade two bars at a time. As you listen, you can feel Machado’s approval and almost imagine the lady herself taking the lead vocal.

Zanuck Kapala Lindsey has led a number of groups over the last two decades that have deliberately aimed to move the Hawaiian music tradition forward. He has led Hula Joe & The Hutjumpers, Ho`omalie, and, most recently, Kapala – all of which have combined every musical influence its members have ever encountered in support of solely Hawaiian compositions to create somehow a cohesive whole. In this case, Ho`omalie gives Machado’s “Pohai Ke Aloha” a rhythm-and-blues treatment that is more reminiscent of a church in New Orleans than Kawaiaha`o. I have written here previously that the idea of kaona (or hidden meanings) in Hawaiian music may not necessarily be restricted to lyric content. Often the musical arrangement carries with its own intentional or unintentional kaona – a funeral dirge being performed as an uptempo number or a joyous song of love and contentment being performed at the tempo of a dirge. But “Z” and band take this notion perhaps to its further extreme. If “Pohai Ke Aloha” is a song of love, joy, and respect for a family and their home, Ho`omalie has effectively belied the song’s true lyric content by concocting an arrangement that sets a tone somewhere between midnight “sneakin’ around” rendezvous and the soundtrack for a bawdy striptease. Which do we believe? Students of Hawaiian language, music, and hula will tell you that the power resides first with the word. Z and company have done nothing here to dilute the all-powerful message of love and joy in Lena’s lyric. If anything, with this arrangement they have made the casual passer-by stand up and take notice of Machado’s important message. The question most will ask is if this was accomplished with respect? And my only answer to that question is that respect lies in the ears and hearts of the listener.

Finally, unlike Owana Salazar who comes primarily from traditional Hawaiian music but who decided to dabble in jazz, Keahi Conjugacion is primarily a jazzer who made a brief and most interesting foray into Hawaiian music. Coming from a family of music superstars – her brothers are multi-instrumentalist Brother Noland and kumu hula, composer, and falsetto legend Tony Conjugacion, her aunt is singer Elaine Ako Spencer, and her uncle is singer, pianist, and composer Sam Ako – it would only be natural that Keahi would follow suit. More importantly, Keahi comes from a family of boundary-pushers and risk-takers – Noland one of the first to combine the Hawaiian and reggae genres, and Tony having dabbled in everything from Broadway to the blending of traditional Hawaiian chant and hip-hop. It has always been obvious that the Great American Songbook is Keahi’s first love, and her voice is suited to the songs of Cole Porter and the Gershwins. But in the same year Owana would make her foray into jazz, Keahi would make her foray into Hawaiian – surprisingly, the two to achieve similar results. Here Keahi lovingly caresses the lyric to “Ei Nei” – which Auntie Lena composed for beloved husband, Lu – with the help of her husband, Dan Del Negro, and he percussion of Buddy Fo (whom you previously heard lend his Latin rhythms to The Invitations version of Machado’s “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha”).

There are countless other examples of Lena’s compositions being performed by a new generation of artists from Hawai`i. But these songs and stories will have to wait until we celebrate Lena’s birthday again next year. In just one week we have celebrated Lena Machado’s birthday by recounting her music career in 15 articles – more than 18,000 words (or 30+ pages) of text – bolstered by 46 songs – more than two hours of music – making this tribute the most thorough in the history of Ho`olohe Hou. And why not? Since discovering Hawaiian music as a child more than 40 years ago, Lena has been one of the most influential artists in my own development as a musician, and it is no statistical coincidence that I perform more songs written by her than those of any other composer. I never met Lena Machado, but I love her, and now that you know a little more about her, I hope you love her too.

Next time: We begin a week-long tribute to Lena’s friend – and my good friend, too – Aunty Genoa Keawe…


Direct download: 03_Lena_Machado_-_Covers.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 7:32pm EST

Still More from the Lena Machado Songbook

Following up on those popular Lena Machado compositions which she never recorded herself, here are still a few more as recorded by some once popular singers whose voices may have been forgotten by all but the most ardent fans of Hawaiian music.

Although widely recorded as back-up singer (often unidentified and uncredited) but stepping up to the microphone as the leader in a recording studio only once, Wainani Kaneali`i was once one of the most recognizable voices in Hawaiian entertainment. On her only solo release, the mid-1960s Songs of the Pacific on Sounds of Hawaii Records, Wainani lives up to the album’s title by offering up selections in Hawaiian, Fijian, Samoan, and Tahitian. She is joined here by the voices of Lydia Wong and Iwalani Kahalewai (for whom Wainani returned the favor by providing backing vocals for Iwalani’s An Hawaiian Happening during this same period for the same label). The slack key guitar is provided by none other than Atta Isaacs. The performance is perfection Hawaiian style, but alas the one pitfall is that the album’s producers credit the writing of a Lena Machado song to nobody in particular but rather to “Public Domain.” Indeed, Machado wrote “Nuku O Nu`uanu” for – as related by her hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta – her many delightful and thought-provoking trips to the windy Pali Lookout (now that it is accessible by highway, a popular tourist attraction for its views of the windward side of O`ahu and the towns of Kailua and Kane`ohe). Interestingly, only as an afterthought does Motta reference the (what to me, at least, are very clear) intimate underpinnings of the song as only Machado can write them. While Motta claims this is a song about a place first and about people second, the opposite would appear to be truer. Before it was guarded heavily by park rangers, the Pali Lookout was a popular spot for a late-night romantic rendezvous. This would more readily explain such poetic references as “ka makani hu`e kapa” (“the garment-lifting wind”) which reveals “ka waiho a Mōkapu” (“Mōkapu spread out below”). We look no further than the title for kaona (or Hawaiian-style use of metaphor): “Nuku” can mean “beak,” “snout,” or “tip.”

Like many, for the longest time I assumed that “Pōhai Ke Aloha” (which means “surrounded by love”) was a love song written by a man for a woman. Not so. It would be more appropriately described as Lena’s love song for a family. You have read here previously that early in her career Lena was a featured singer with the Royal Hawaiian Band, and although she would eventually leave over a dispute with bandmaster Frank Vierra, the beginning of her association with the band years earlier under then bandmaster Mekia Kealaka`i was a wonderful time for her. Despite her very tumultuous and pubic separation from the band, Lena continued to look upon Kealaka`i fondly as mentor and friend, and he saw her as a daughter. Lena composed “Pōhai Ke Aloha” in honor of Kealaka`i, his wife, and his son and their home in the `Ewa Beach area of O`ahu. When the home was built, three hau trees were planted in the front yard. The trees grew to different heights – which, in Lena’s poetic mind, symbolized the three members of the Kealaka`i `ohana (or family). She references the trees in the second verse as “Kamanui, Kamalani, Kamaiki” – one for the father, one for the mother, and one for the son. It is this sentimentality that has confused many listeners – and performers – into believing that “Pōhai Ke Aloha” was written by Kealaka`i as a eulogy for his wife. But, as hānai daughter Motta so eloquently puts it, the song is “one of the best examples of Aunty Lena’s ability to personalize the emotions she describes.” The version of the song you hear now is probably the earliest version I heard as it was one of the first real Hawaiian music LPs that could be found in my home. And from the time I first heard the Hula Records release Beautiful Kauai by Kawai Cockett, Uncle Kawai became a huge inspiration to me. I am proud and honored to have befriended the Cockett family – his wife, Kamala, and son, Ha`aheo – and I dedicate to them with my aloha the song I learned from their beloved husband and father – a song that reminds me of the triumvirate power and beauty of inseparable father, mother, and son that I can know vicariously through them.

The “kiele” is the gardenia flower. And it is presumed that Auntie Lena wrote “Lei Kiele” – like “Ei Nei” an “Aloha Nō” – for her beloved husband, Luciano, for it conveys many of the same sentiments as these other two mele (or songs) about whom the inspiration is more clear. It is one of Lena’s more unusual compositions in that it was one of the few she wrote in 3/4 (or waltz) time. Another of Lena’s least performed and recorded songs, few know that she even wrote it because the few times it has appeared on record, the artists have not credited Machado as the composer. This is especially surprising in the case of the artist you hear here for Marcella Kalua took singing lessons from Lena in the 1960s – just before this album, Girl From Papakolea, was released on the Makaha Records label. (It is not too surprising, however, since it has been common practice for record companies to credit the fewest composers possible – affixing the dreaded “Traditional” and “Public Domain” labels to as many songs as possible in order to pay the least royalties and maximize profits. On the LP in question, there are 10 songs, and the producers credit only three with composers – the other seven labeled “Traditional.” Yet I can name the composers of six of the other seven composers without any further research.) The then very young Marcella recorded Girl From Papakolea with the venerable Sons of Hawai`i which in this incarnation was Norman Isaacs (Alvin’s son) on bass, Atta Isaacs (another of Alvin’s sons) on slack key guitar, Bobby Larrison on guitars, `ukulele and vocals, David “Feets” Rogers on steel guitar (the signature sound of the Sons), and their leader, Eddie Kamae, on `ukulele and vocals. (This is the same incarnation of the group that had just earlier recorded This Is Eddie Kamae, which Ho`olohe Hou will examine in its series on 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life.)

And, a bonus… Despite that this segment is focused on Lena’s compositions that she never got around to recording herself, she did, of course, record “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha” twice over her career. But the version here – by Buddy Fo and The Invitations – is worthy of hearing since – for my money, at least – it comes closer than any other version to the arrangement Lena might have heard in her head. Buddy and crew bring all of Lena’s favorite Latin influences together in this one brief moment on record – the heavily percussive arrangement in mambo rhythm reminiscent of the dance bands led by Prez Prado, Xavier Cugat, and Tito Puente. While Fo is best remembers as leader of the five-part vocal group, The Invitations, this recording reminds us that Fo was first an in demand percussionist.

Next time: We close our tribute to Lena Machado with a look at her lasting legacy – her compositions performed by today’s shining stars in Hawaiian music…


[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: 02_Lena_Machado_-_Covers.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:17am EST