GK Records for GK Records

Genoa Keawe’s relationship with Hula Records was short-lived because she realized back then what is still true today. Simply put, the one who fares least well financially in the record business is the one whose creative blood, sweat, and tears is critical to that process: The artist. But Aunty Genoa possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, and so she believed that she could run an entire record business herself. As it turns out, she was right.

In 1966, with the help of tourists who became Aunty Genoa’s great friends, Phil and Edith Helsley, she started Genoa Keawe Records. And from the start, as she related to journalist Lynn Cook shortly before her passing, Aunty Genoa was the producer, distributor, bookkeeper, and head of public relations. And with her taxi driving experience, she used to joke, she didn’t mind delivering a weighty case of vinyl LPs personally. Genoa went on to produce several up-and-coming artists in the world of Hawaiian music as well as some veterans deserving of being heard again, but her first two recordings on her own label were of her own music. And these first two Genoa Keawe LPs on the GK Records label have also become classics.

The same “super group” that participated in the Hula Records sessions were on hand again for the sessions at Commercial Recording Studios at 333 Cooke Street in the Kaka`ako section of Honolulu. With engineering wunderkind Bob Lang (of so many sessions yielding innumerable unforgettable and historically important recordings, as well as the weekly Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts for more years than one can count) at the mixing console, Genoa was joined by her friends Violet Pahu Liliko`i on bass, Vicki I`i Rodrigues on guitar, Pauline Kekahuna on the second guitar (she is still considered one of the great rhythm guitarists in the history of Hawaiian music), the legendary Benny Rogers on steel guitar, and – at the second sessions – relief steel guitarist Joe Custino (of Hawaii Calls fame). (It is still unclear why Benny sat out some of the sessions for the second LP.) Together this group laid down an additional two dozen classic tracks as a companion to the previous two dozen classics from the Hula Records sessions – resulting in the LPs entitled Hulas of Hawaii and By Request. Despite that the music Genoa and crew would make on her own label was of the same caliber – and staunch traditionalism – of their previous efforts, the artists at Neiman Advertising added to the appeal – and, dare, I say, class – of the proceedings with a new kind of album cover for that period. The latter LP, in particular, sees Genoa in an aqua and gold brocade holoku – the likes of which I had not seen before and have not seen since – and bedecked in about 100 pounds of precious Ni`ihau shell leis. “Class” with a capital “C.”

I thought I would share with you just a few of my personal favorites from Aunty Genoa’s GK Records years…

“Mana`o No`u `Ia `Oe” was composed by Danny Kua`ana, an `ukulele player, falsetto singer, and bandleader who spent most of his career on the West Coast (but who did – as you may recall from reading here – a brief stint at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York City in the 1940s with the group led by Lani McIntire). He composed the lovely but rarely heard song for his daughter. To date, the song has only been recorded three times: once by the composer, once by Aunty Genoa, and most recently by Na Hoa’s Ikaika Blackburn.

Often misattributed to Genoa’s mentor, John Kamealoha Almeida, “E Ku`ulei, E Ku`uipo” was, in fact, composed by Kalei Kaluna. The sultry song seems to be the only written by Kaluna, and yet it is one beloved and oft performed and recorded by generations of Hawaiian musicians. The English verses are not a translation of the Hawaiian (they rarely are), so the listener will need to piece together this short-but-sweet love story. Although the song is usually taken at a somewhat snappier tempo, here Aunty Genoa delivers the song like a bawdy backroom ballad – like a secret only you and she will ever know.

“Moku O Keawe” is another of those songs that is often misattributed to the wrong composer. In this case, falsetto legend and prolific composer Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln usually receives the credit. But Uncle Bill only wrote the music at the urging of a composer friend, Mary Kawena Puku`i, who brought him the words of this song that is so old that its original melody had long been forgotten. It was, in fact, written by Emalia Kaihumua, a hula dancer in the court of King Kalākaua during his reign. “Moku O Keawe” is the Hawaiians’ affectionate name for the island of Hawai`i (so called for its ancient chief, Keawe, and often erroneously referred to as the “Big Island”). There is an entire sub-genre of Hawaiian songs about being homesick for Hawai`i when one is far away. This might be the earliest of those. Composed when Emalia was away from home on the mainland in the 1890s, she compares Hawai`i to places she visited and clearly prefers home as evidenced by such assertions as “`Ike I ke hau ho`opua kea `ili” (“See the snow that bleaches the skin”).

“Lae Lae” might be the Hawaiian poetic equivalent of “tra-la-la” (or perhaps Sinatra’s “shoo-bee-doo-bee-doo”). Or perhaps – in some cases – “lae lae” beckons the listener to fill-in-the-blanks or read-between-the-lines. Composer Bina Mossman used all of the kaona (layers of meaning and metaphor) in her composer’s toolkit to craft this classic song which carries on the tradition of allowing the protagonists to remain anonymous – referring to them instead as flowers.

If you’re wondering why we’re listening to these recordings from my scratchy old LPs in low resolution 128 kbps MP3s, it’s my subversive way of encouraging you to run out and pick up these two recordings (Hulas of Hawaii and By Request) in digital remastered CD format. You deserve to hear these beautiful tracks in all of their hi-fi splendor just as Aunty Genoa and engineer Bob Lang intended us to. And, besides which, Aunty Genoa was a businesswoman, and that business lives on and cannot continue to live on unless we support it – ensuring that GK Records will be able to share Aunty Genoa’s music for generations upon generations to come.

As a somewhat bittersweet epitaph to the GK Records story, after 32 years at the same location Commercial Recording Studios at 333 Cooke Street in Kaka`ako (where these iconic recordings were made) would lose its lease and close its doors in 1997. On October 31st. Aunty Genoa’s birthday.

Next time: The performer steps out from behind the microphone and becomes a record producer…


Direct download: 01_Genoa_Keawe_-_Fall_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 5:01pm EST

Genoa Keawe Hulas and Hulas Again

With the demise of 49th State Records, Genoa Keawe needed a new musical home. By this time Aunty Genoa had the wherewithal to produce her own recordings – all, that is, but the funding. But in 1965, local entrepreneur and burgeoning record producer Don McDiarmid, Jr. came calling and enlisted Aunty Genoa to record for his up-and-coming Hula Records label.  

Hula Records claims to be the oldest continuously operating record label in Hawai`i. With all due respect, while this may be technically true, it is somewhat disingenuous. Three generations of McDiarmids have made a go at the record business in Hawai`i, but the first attempt was anything but successful. The elder Don McDiarmid (composer of such famous hapa-haole songs as “Little Brown Gal,” “My Wahine and Me,” and “When Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop”) produced an album of eight songs on four 78rpm shellac discs in 1947 for the first incarnation of Hula Records. But fewer than 200 of these 78rpm disc sets made it to stores because the fragile shellac broke in transit. (Whoops!) Another Hula Records release was not offered until more than a decade later.  

The premise for the new Hula Records was the same as for the old Hula Records: Recordings intended for the hula, which continued to grow in popularity. There was no better choice to record some of the earliest records for this label’s revival than Aunty Genoa since she had run her own hula studio and knew the needs of the hula dancer. She stuck to “the standards” – the songs that dancers are called upon to dance in public on a moment’s notice to this day nearly 50 years later. The two records that Aunty Genoa recorded for Hula Records – Party Hulas and Luau Hulas – have been continuously in print since their mid-1960s releases, even through every change in technology and format. I have seen or owned copies of Party Hulas in every format from the LP record to the open reel tape to the 8-track tape to the cassette tape to the CD and now the MP3. In fact, Party Hulas has been deemed so representative of traditional Hawaiian music that Hula had even licensed the masters for release in other countries to such esteemed labels as London Records (better known for being the label home of the Rolling Stones). 

John Berger’s recent edition of Hawaiian Music & Musicians refers to the aggregation involved in making these recordings as a “super group.” That is true, and at the same time it is also a gross understatement. Aunty Genoa brought together four of Hawai`i’s finest musicians in their own right for these two albums. They also just happened to be four of her great friends as well. Violet Pahu Liliko`i was a multi-instrumentalist with a lovely voice, but on these recordings she plays the upright bass. Composer and song-archivist Vicki I`i Rodrigues – already a Hula Records recording artist by that point – handles the first rhythm guitar. Pauline Kekahuna – who led her own group, the Hau`oli Girls, and her own hula studio and who ultimately co-founded the esteemed Merrie Monarch Hula Festival – has the second rhythm guitar chair – a guitar style that is still being emulated today as it is perfect for the hula. (The rhythm guitar provides nearly all of the rhythmic foundation for the hula since the typical Hawaiian band does not employ a drummer.) Aunty Genoa handles the chores on the `ukulele. And the legendary Benny Rogers plays the steel guitar. Benny was Genoa’s “go to” steel guitarist both in live performance and on the 49th State Records releases. (You heard Benny on some – but not all – of the 49th State Records releases featured on Ho’olohe Hou in the past few days.) The “sound” that this group created remains the template for hula music and for every next generation of traditional Hawaiian music groups to this day.  

One other important note for those not previously indoctrinated in the finer points of the hula… The hula is an interpretation of the mele (song lyrics). This is why you have never seen anyone dance hula to an instrumental song. Hula Records and Aunty Genoa believed the same thing: That if the music were really intended for the hula, no matter how talented the musicians in the studio, they don’t get a solo. Because what is the hula dancer supposed to do while Benny Rogers is taking his steel guitar solo? (Go back and listen to Aunty Genoa’s recordings on the 49th State Records label posted over the last few days. Notice anything? Not one instrumental solo. These are vocal recordings from start to finish.) 

Because these two Hula Records recordings remain in print as CDs and MP3s, I encourage you to own both of them if you do not already. But to honor this period in Aunty Genoa’s career, I have offered up three of my favorites from these two albums.  

The set opens with “Hola `Epae” – also known as “The Five O’Clock Hula.” This mele speaks of the gentleman who paid a visit to his lover at the appointed hour – only to discover that someone else had beaten him to it. The song opens with an iconic lick from Benny Rogers’ steel guitar. That intro is still used today by different slack key and steel guitar artists, but the riff remains of undetermined origins. During the period when “Hola `Epae” was recorded, the riff was being used simultaneously by Benny Rogers and slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth. Others have attributed the lick to steel guitarist Jules Ah See. But some say the interesting, almost R&B-like riff goes back more than a decade earlier to a steel guitarist far ahead of his time, Jacob Keli`ikoa.  

“Ku`u Lei Hoku” is one of a handful songs for which Aunty Genoa is known – those signature songs which, along with “`Alika” and “I Ali`i No `Oe,” Aunty Genoa could not get off a stage without singing. In fact, I will throw “I Ali`i No `Oe” into this set for good measure.  

Next time: The entrepreneurial Genoa Keawe goes into the record business for herself…


Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-28-14_-_Genoa_Keawe_Tribute_-_Part_5.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 12:28pm EST

Genoa Keawe - Hidden Treasures

We have been discussing the beginnings of Genoa Keawe’s recording career and the more than 140 sides she released for 49th State Records. If, like me, you have spent a lifetime trying to track down all of these records for your own collection, there is one complication: Aunty Genoa was not the featured artist on most of these records. Once she was established as an artist in her own right and was leading her own groups both on record and in live performances, Uncle Johnny Almeida enlisted Aunty Genoa’s groups to serve as the studio musicians who would back other singers on their recordings. If you were rifling through the record bins, the name of the featured artist would be on the top line of the credits in a more prominent font, while Aunty Genoa’s name would appear below in an almost unreadable font. And her groups went by different names depending on what type of music they were serving up on that session. For recordings of traditional Hawaiian music, her group might be called Genoa Keawe and Her Hula Maids. But when performing Tahitian or Samoan tunes, the same group might suddenly become Genoa Keawe’s Polynesians. Or perhaps not the exact same group. For these purposes, think of Genoa Keawe as the contractor – bringing just the right musicians for each song and each session (or, in a worst case, the musicians who happened to be available that day). Regardless, Aunty Genoa only worked with the finest – as you will hear on these sides.  

Aunty Genoa’s groups were frequent contributors to the recordings of composer, hula master, and falsetto singer John Pi`ilani Watkins who opens and closes this set. Possibly the most distinctive falsetto voice of all time, Watkins first performs a William Ellis mele, “Hula O Makee,” a song about the ship known as the Makee which has run aground in Kapa`a, Kaua`i. As explained here previously, in Hawaiian poetry, a spade is rarely a spade, and, so, a ship is rarely a ship. In Hawaiian song, a ship is often a metaphor for a lover with a special someone at every port. In this case, the Makee is a woman who has deserted her lover, the ship Malulani which is in hot pursuit. (There is so much kaona in this song – so many clever turns of phrase and double-entendre – that it warrants its own Ho’olohe Hou article.) You can hear Aunty Genoa singing lead on the repeats of each verse. And while I cannot identify the entire band, that is beyond a shadow of a doubt the distinctive steel guitar of none other than Benny Rogers.  

Aunty Genoa’s mentor, Uncle Johnny Almeida, sings his own composition “Ho`oluana.” A love song in the typical jazzy Almeida style, you can hear Aunty Genoa again singing lead on the repeat of each verse. As mentioned previously, Genoa’s groups backed other musicians on the 49th State label in numerous guises. She led Genoa Keawe’s Hula Maids for the first side of this single with Uncle Johnny. But flip it over, and suddenly the group was Genoa Keawe’s Polynesians backing Chief Joseph Solotoa on the Samoan standard “Tele I`a O Le Sami.” While other versions of “Ho’oluana” sung by Uncle Johnny or his hānai son, Pua, remain in print, the version with Genoa Keawe’s group is not available on CD or MP3. 

The next curiosity is a real treasure – the meeting of three female voices which would all become legendary. Another favorite among falsetto singers, “Kalamaula” – written by Emma Dudoit for a Moloka`i homestead – is here sung by a trio comprised of Aunty Genoa, Aunty Agnes Malabey Weisbarth, and Naughty Abbie. This gem is also out of print. Do not be fooled. If you seek it out, you may believe you have found it. But the 49th State Records version of “Kalamaula” by Aunty Genoa which remains available is from a later LP – entitled Among My Hawaiian Souvenirs – on the same label – not the single heard here. (It is not the same version, the same group, or even the same tempo.) 

There are few recordings from this period by hula master George Naope – making his version of the hapa-haole (a category of song in which Hawaiian sentiment is expressed in the English language) song “Ku`u Ipo” performed with Aunty Genoa’s group yet another treasure. Because hapa-haole songs are sung in English, you’ll understand this love song immediately. “Ku`u Ipo” means “my sweetheart” and is a popular Hawaiian name or often simply an affectionate nickname. This recording also remains unavailable in any format. 

We close the set with a John Pi`ilani Watkins original composition, “Aloha Wau Ia `Oe” sung by the composer with another group led by Aunty Genoa. This interesting lyric is not strictly hapa-haole as it may include as many Hawaiian phrases as English ones. This song has become a favorite of many subsequent generations of Hawai`i’s musicians with recordings ranging from Kaleo O Kalani’s Rachel Asebido in the 1980s to Natalie Ai Kamau`u in the 2000s. And I have even had the privilege of hearing Na Palapalai perform it live one lovely evening at the not yet forgotten Chai’s Island Bistro at Aloha Tower Marketplace.  

Thus concludes our look at Aunty Genoa’s 49th State Records period. There are many more singles from this era in her career, but I am going to save a few as there will be many more celebrations of Aunty Genoa’s life and career. But what comes next?

Next time: Aunty makes a huge technological leap in her transition to an even more forward-looking record label…


Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-27-14_-_Genoa_Keawe_Tribute_-_Part_4.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 5:56am EST