OOPs – Ka`alaea

The 1980s were the most difficult period for me to obtain Hawaiian music around my suburban Philadelphia home. Our local music retailers no longer stocked a “Hawaiian” section because they would invariably get stuck with the inventory. Moreover, Hawaiian music artists were printing new releases in smaller and smaller quantities because they were caught in the middle of the “format wars” that began on the mainland. The compact disc (or CD) was introduced in 1982, and the marketing around it marked the death knell for the long-playing vinyl record (LP). But almost nobody owned the still very expensive CD player, and there were very few titles yet available on the new format. Hawaiian music artists were stuck: Should they produce LPs or CDs of their latest release? Some opted to do neither and released their new albums solely on cassette tape which at the time didn’t seem threatened by the format debate. The problem is that – in case you have never heard this – the cassette was developed by Norelco in the 1960s strictly as a medium for taking dictation. The cassette’s limitations for realistically conveying music were never overcome. Children of the 80s likely have hundreds of cassettes in a bag or a box in our attics, basements, or garages. Take one out and listen to it, and then compare it to a CD or MP3 of the same music. The difference is not that a CD or MP3 is so much better. It is that the cassette was never decent-sounding in the first place. 

(And if you’re curious about why this is universally true, a physical recording medium like a record or tape relies on a number of physical realities to recreate sound perfectly, and these factors are never truly attainable within the constraints of time and expense. Magnetic tape such as a cassette is the most sensitive medium of all. It largely relies on three factors to reproduce sound with any quality worthy of your home hi-fi system. The first two are the width of the tape and the speed of the tape. The wider the tape, the more content it can hold. Recording studios might use tape up to 2” wide. The retail cassette you purchase is 1/8”, but because it plays in two directions (unlike studio tape which only runs in one direction), one side of a cassette only occupies 1/16” of a cassette. The relationship between tape width and sound quality is exponential: If you double the width of the tape, the sound quality quadruples. So taking into account tape width alone, the tape used in the studio will sound 1,024 times better than the cassette tape you can purchase. Tape speed is another exponential relationship: Double the speed, quadruple the quality. Studio tape recorders typically run at 15 ips (or “inches per second”). A cassette runs at 1 7/8 ips. So the speed of the tape in the studio will result in 64 times better sound than a cassette. When we multiply the factors of width and speed, a cassette is likely to sound 65,536 times worse than what actually happened in the studio. But I have not even discussed the third factor: Alignment of the tape machine head with the tape running past it. Alignment is the most critical factor because it is highly unlikely that the alignment of your head with the cassette you purchased will ever be the same as the alignment of the head of the manufacturer’s duplicating machine. Finally, a fourth nail in the cassette’s coffin: Cassette tapes are duplicated at hundreds of times the actual speed we listen to them at. Since speed is a factor in sound quality, when we purchase a cassette and play it at home, we are actually playing it hundreds of times slower than it was duplicated. I can’t even do the math in my head anymore…) 

And this is why my copy of Genoa Keawe’s Ka`alaea – a cassette-only release – sounds terrible, and still more terrible with each passing year since the other factor that a physical medium like the cassette lacks is durability. 

In the mid-80s I had heard that a new album by Genoa Keawe had come out, but I could not find it. And just as quickly as it arrived on store shelves, it was out of print. Hence Ka`alaea receives my dubious “OOPs” moniker – not because it was a mistake, but because it is out of print (OOP). 

It was not until the 90s and the advent of the Internet that I got a hot lead. An Internet search (this predated Google, and I cannot recall what search engine was then at my disposal) revealed a copy in the Liliha Public Library in Honolulu (very near what has since become one of my favorite breakfast spots, Liliha Bakery, home of their patented “coco puff,” and what the hell was I talking about anyway?…). I rang up a Hawaiian music-loving friend whom I had also met on the Internet (on a Usenet newsgroup forum called alt.music.hawaiian) who agreed to a ridiculous plan: He would check the cassette out of the library in Liliha, mail it to me so that I could make a copy of it, and I would mail it back as quickly as possible, and he would return it to the library before we had even incurred any overdue fines. And it worked! It is a low-resolution MP3 copy of that low-quality cassette copy of a low-quality cassette original that you are listening to now. (And my friend, by the way, asked for nothing in return for his efforts except the joy of knowing that the completeness of my Genoa Keawe music collection remained intact.)

I recently spoke with Aunty Genoa’s son, Eric, about this elusive recording. And it proved so elusive that he had to research it a little himself. What we know is that the project was co-produced by Bob Nelson (Aunty Genoa’s dear friend and composer of the classic “Hanalei Moon”) and the president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (whose name escapes us all). The project was conceived to honor the Chinese Centennial in Hawai`i. And the title song, “Ka’alaea,” was written by Bob Nelson. 

From the “Don’t Believe Everything You Read” department, several seemingly reliable sources – including Aunty Genoa’s Honolulu Advertiser obituary – indicate that the recording was made in 1960. Preposterous! The cassette was not popular as a portable music medium until the 1970s, and prerecorded cassettes were not available for purchase until the 1980s. (Prior to that the 8-track prevailed as the portable music medium.) Eric confirmed with Bob Nelson that this was a 1980s production. 

I always very specifically list the criteria I use when dubbing (no cassette pun intended) a recording an “OOPs.” And I only need one good criterion. But I have two: 

  • On Ka`alaea, Aunty Genoa recorded nine songs that had not recorded previously and never recorded again. These are the only versions of these songs by Aunty Genoa.

  • Aunty Genoa utilized a group of musicians with whom she was not performing live during this period and with which she had not recorded previously and never recorded again: Benny Kalama on `ukulele, Sonny Kamahele on guitar, Barney Isaacs on steel guitar, and son, Gary on bass. 

The group alone makes this a once-in-a-lifetime event of a meeting of Hawaiian music legends. (Benny, Sonny, Barney, and even Gary had all shared a stage before as all were members of the Hawaii Calls orchestra and its weekly radio broadcasts. But they had never been joined by Aunty Genoa.) I inquired about this group and why Aunty Genoa chose to record with them on this one and only occasion. Eric responded that these were her good friends with whom she had desired to make a record but simply never had the opportunity previously. 

As for the song selection, you hear Aunty Genoa and her friends performing Bob Nelson’s “Ka`alaea,” a new version of “Hanauma” (which she had recorded more than 30 years earlier for the 49th State Record company), Alvin Isaacs “Ahea No Ho`i La,” and a duet with son Gary on a then still relatively new composition, “Ka Wai Lehua A`ala Ka Honua” from the pen of kumu hula Kawaikapuokalani Hewett. If it sounds like Sonny Kamahele may be struggling with the rhythm on this last number, you’re probably right. Kaipo Asing, who performed with Uncle Sonny for many years, often speaks about Sonny’s roots in the swing era of Hawaiian music. And so he always wanted to swing everything! You could get Uncle Sonny to do a modern song like Dennis Kamakahi’s “Koke`e,” but he would say, “But we’re going to swing it!” And Uncle Sonny would proceed to swing a seemingly unswingable song. Here it sounds as if he is trying to swing “Ka Wai Lehua…,” but the rest of the group is keeping him in check. But it is clearly an unnatural rhythm for him. Regardless, it is a treat to hear Aunty Genoa perform a modern song in her classic style. 

I am not a rich man, but as you can tell by the lengths I went to (or, more appropriately, urged a friend I had never met face to face to go to on my behalf) to get any copy of this recording, if the master tapes could be located, I would be willing to fund the remaster and rerelease of Ka`alaea so that a new generation of Hawaiian music fans could enjoy this recording that I have held so dear. The recording quality notwithstanding, I hope you, too, have enjoyed this rare glimpse into 1980s-era Genoa Keawe and her reunion with long-time friends in a recording studio that yielded what I consider to be one of her finest moments on record. 

Next time: Aunty Genoa transitions from the 80s to the 90s with another fine moment on record – one which you will thankfully be able to find on CD…


Direct download: 08_Genoa_Keawe_-_Fall_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:59pm EDT

Live Genoa (Part 2)

This is a story in two parts, and I suppose we find out together how the story ends… 

And now, without further ado, here is our superstar of Hawai`i, Genoa Keawe herself… 

  • Val Kepilino, Emcee, Aloha Grill 

If I were to write the liner notes for the recording you are currently listening to, that would be the sum total of it – quoting directly from songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Val Kepilino who was the bass player – and, more often than not – the emcee for Genoa Keawe’s band of the 1970s. Because this line says it all. Unlike the other live recording of Aunty Genoa which feels somehow unnaturally un-live, this live recording portrays the real Genoa Keawe. 

This is Genoa Keawe herself. 

But there are no liner notes for this recording. No cover. And no retail store. This is – plain and simple – a bootleg. And Aunty Genoa would not have been pleased. 

In 1969, Francis Brown (no relation to the Brown `ohana of Hawai`i) won the Pennsylvania Lottery – at that time, a cool million dollars (or, in 2014 dollars, $6,485,858.31). Affectionately known as “Brownie,” he was a haole with the heart of a Hawaiian who loved Hawaiian music and who also just happened to play and teach the steel guitar. One has a lot of options when suddenly the beneficiary of such luck. Brownie decided to pack up and take his wife to Hawai`i for a seemingly indefinite stay. Fortunately for us, one of the things he packed was a portable open reel tape recorder, and this would be no small feat in that era since “portable tape recorder” meant something almost as large as a valise and just as heavy as one, to boot, since it would have a hard, protective case (and two detachable speakers) – the entire bundle at least an 18” X 18” cube and weighing as much as 25 pounds. I know. I am using one as a foot rest as I write this. 

Being a steel guitarist himself, Brownie’s aim – besides luxuriating in the sun on Waikīkī Beach with an endless stream of Mai Tais served directly to his chaise lounge since tipping would no longer be an issue – was to seek out all of the great steel guitarists he had only heard on LP records, perhaps get to know them, and capture them live with the not-so-portable gear. (This is not unlike what went down in March 1947 when saxophonist and amateur recordist Dean Benedetti went – with an even larger recorder in tow – to hear the great Charlie Parker during his extended run at the Hi-De-Ho in Los Angeles.) Such massive amounts of equipment cannot be concealed, nor do I think Brownie would have dared try. Rather, every time he went to a music venue, he directly sought the band’s permission to record, and when granted (which, in those days, it typically was as ideals about copyright and intellectual property had not yet matured as perhaps they have by now), Brownie would typically pick the table closest to the steel guitarist – resulting in a lot of steel guitar-intensive recordings but which, with a little modern equalization, can still be made listenable. 

Surprisingly, Brownie and his wife, Celia, did not make Hawai`i their permanent home. They did eventually return to their suburban Philadelphia home. My father’s lessons were long over, and he was already a professional working steel guitarist himself with his own hula floor show. But he and Brownie remained friends, and so the teacher ultimately bequeathed to his prized pupil the tapes he made on his extended vacation. And the current, future, and permanent home of these tapes is now the Ho`olohe Hou archives in which I am sitting. Many did not weather the ravages of time. My father – perhaps not fully understanding the historic and cultural treasure trove bestowed upon him – for many years stored the tapes under less than ideal conditions – from our garage to our attic to my grandparents’ largely outdoor shed. So when I received the tapes, few survived in any usable condition – leaving me with nothing more than box after box with scribbling on it promising of the delights within but an essentially blank tape. 

But nearly two hours of tape from the Aloha Grill joyously survived. Featuring the same working group that Aunty Genoa kept throughout the 1970s and which you heard previously in an excerpt from the professionally recorded Aloha To Aloha Grill - Val Kepilino on bass, John Lino on piano, Herbert Hanawahine on steel guitar, and the voices and `ukulele of Pua Rogers and Peter Ahia – the live recording Brownie made captures much of what the official live release did not. There was no editing – just a complete, unexpurgated performance. There are no fade-ins and fade-outs – just enthusiastic crowd chatter, sing-alongs, uproarious applause, and shouts of “hana hou.” There remains the witty banter Aunty Genoa exchanged with her band members (such as the seemingly endless ha`ina verses of “`Ahuili” when Aunty Genoa sings “How’s your lili?” and Peter responds first “Fat!” and then on the next go ‘round “It’s teriffic!”) There’s the kolohe. (Nobody – and certainly not the dignified Aunty Genoa – could sing the variation on the ha`ina verse of “`Ahulili” knowing that a tape recorder was running. “Ding-dong bell,” “doggy in the well…” Hawaiians understand the references, and thus it shall remain.) There are the dedications to friends, tourists, or the bowling team that just walked in. You can hear the guest performances which that evening included falsetto singer Lani Shon and composer/singer Maddy Lam (who graced the audience with both her voice and hula). You can hear Aunty Genoa make the audience part of the show (beckoning “Come up here and dance, Mrs. Kaleikini,” a reference to Ruby Kaleikini of Waianae for those who knew her). You can hear the smile and the wink. 

While Aunty Genoa previously gave us an album that was presumably live, this amateur recording by a visiting tourist is life itself. 

But it is surprising that Brownie got out of Aloha Grill with both microphones unscathed. For while he no doubt requested permission to record that fateful evening, the question is permission from whom? Aunty Genoa greatly frowned upon unofficial recordings – not merely because capturing music for free was often a surrogate for actually buying the LPs the artists worked so hard to create and which were their livelihood, and not merely because of “union rules” (although those are the rules since union musicians are supposed to be paid for every different medium in which the performance is captured and rebroadcast). She frowned upon the practice of live recording because it is disruptive to the artists – putting them on guard, killing the relaxed atmosphere on stage – and disruptive to the audience (“Careful! Don’t trip on that cord.”). I have been in the audience at the Waikiki Marriott when Aunty Genoa has respectfully and tactfully explained to a patron why they absolutely must turn off their camcorder or (more recently) iPhone – because the musicians’ union has made it the artists’ responsibility to police such matters in the absence of a union official, and not policing it could result in fines and penalties for the musician (with no commensurate repercussions for the offending audience member). Brownie had somebody’s permission to record that evening. But I highly suspect it was not Aunty Genoa’s or the tape recorder would not have run nearly as long and her performance would not have been nearly as relaxed or candid. 

A previous version of this article ended with my stating that I was fairly certain that tūtū would disapprove of sharing a bootleg recording of her performance. And yet I shared it anyway. I added that if it were the grievous error in judgment I myself believed it to be, the Keawe `ohana would let me know respectfully, tactfully, and lovingly. And they did. It is with tremendous humility that I remove this recording at the request of my friends – along with offering them my sincerest apologies.  

When I said at the outset that we’d find out together how the story ends, now you know what I meant. If you were one of the few to have heard this precious clip before it was removed, you know how lucky you were. 

Me ke aloha pumehana, 

~ Bill Wynne


Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:12pm EDT

Live Genoa (Part 1)

This is a story in two parts, and it is only fair that each part have its day in the sun… 

Bethel Street at night is a relatively lonely looking street. Not too much seems to be going on except for at the far end of the block, close to Beretania Street, there is usually a line of people waiting patiently to go into a tiny little place called the Aloha Bar and Grill. Tonight, there seems to be a longer line, and the groups of people clustered around the entrance seems to be thicker, all trying to be a part of the action within. It is the farewell night not only for Aunty Genoa and Her Hawaiians, but also for Bob and Nancy Teruya, the owners of the place. It seems progress has caught up with this old bar and grill, and it will soon be torn down to make way for some big new building. 

The room inside is jampacked with bodies, and no one minds the heat or the discomfort of being wedged in tight. There’s lots of familiar faces of old kamaaina families, and lots of new faces of malihinis who heard of “this really neat place that has authentic Hawaiian music…” Auntie Genoa and Her Hawaiians are singing all the old favorites, and, as the night goes on, surprise guests from the audience come up and perform for her. The stage is very small, but somehow, there always seems to be room up there… So beautiful and so sad… like the closing of another era. 

  • Billie Ann Sabala, An End of an Era: Auntie Genoa Bids Downtown A Fond Farewell 

It reads like a “human interest” article from the tabloid magazine found in the center of a Sunday newspaper. Or perhaps more like an obituary for an era rather than for a person. What it does not read like are the liner notes to a new album. But in any case, it is a familiar story in the history of Hawai`i and its music. Hawaiian Hut. Club Pago Pago. Na Kupuna Nights at the Moana Surfrider. Polynesian Palace. The Blue Dolphin Room of the Outrigger Hotel. The Tapa Room of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Duke’s at International Marketplace. And now the International Marketplace itself. Aku Bone. Big Country Bar & Grill just last year. And – as recently as last month – Corner Kitchen. In Hawai`i, the demise of each venue – whether because of a change in direction by management or as a result of the wrecking ball that signals so-called progress – is more often than not another toll in the death knell of Hawaiian music. 

And in many cases – at least those in recent years – this is also a sad form of self-fulfilling prophecy. While once the closure of a formerly popular nightspot meant that the music died with it, today the decision to offer Hawaiian music at a restaurant or club almost assuredly dooms that venue to financial failure. This is why you are more likely to hear Tito Berinobis lead a salsa band at the Sheraton Waikiki than to hear a steel guitar there. In recent years different venues have handled the issue – the need to strike some acceptable balance between pleasing their tourist patrons with the desire to remain true to tradition while possibly teaching tourists about Hawaiian culture – differently. The Waikiki Beach Marriott handled it by moving the music from the easy-to-access first floor lobby bar – where every passerby might hear and discover Hawaiian music – to the harder-to-find third floor pool area. The Halekulani Hotel – once known for hosting the legends of Hawaiian music – simply began telling the musicians to “turn it down,” a little bit at a time, more and more, until eventually only those within 20 feet of the stage could hear (and even then with great difficulty). 

It was literally just last month that Hawai`i’s musicians – such luminaries as Hoku Zuttermeister, Maunalua, Waipuna, and Nā Hoa – convened to hold a “thank you” concert for Mitch and Patty – former proprietors of Corner Kitchen in Kapahulu, abutting Waikiki on its Diamond Head corner, where one could hear Hawaiian music seven nights a week for nearly three years. Corner Kitchen had a magic formula: a menu filled with the utmost creative Pan-Asian delicacies that well represented Hawai`i’s multiethnic heritage made fresh by a well-trained chef, a bar stocked with the top shelf offered at reasonable prices, friendly but not oversolicitous service, and the hottest acts in Hawaiian music that you would pay handsomely to hear at a concert venue but which here didn’t even merit a cover charge. It had become the go-to place for my family on our visits, but according to my hypothesis, even this winning formula had to fail. It simply had to. And the hypothesis – and I apologize that I cannot distill it in any fewer words – is that typically tourists do not want to hear Hawaiian music, those that do are reluctant to leave Waikiki to find it, and the locals who love Hawaiian music take for granted tonight (when their favorite artist is performing but when they have had the proverbial long, hard day at the office) that it will still be there next week. Until it isn’t any more. 

That was not the fate of the Aloha Grill after all. Its fate was truly predicated on progress. Like Corner Kitchen, the Aloha Grill was a good idea executed nearly flawlessly. It was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what fans of Hawaiian music can relate to is that, regardless of the reasons, losing Corner Kitchen now must have been like losing Aloha Grill 35 years ago. There was usually “a line of people waiting to go in,” and they were there largely to hear Hawaiian music. Where would they go now? Corner Kitchen’s clientele is still trying to navigate that harsh reality. 

And I have not yet even begun to talk about the musicians. Not only do they share with the owners and the fans all of the emotions that are wrapped up in this loss, but they may not allow themselves time to mourn while they are pounding the streets trying to find the next venue willing to take a chance on Hawaiian music in order to keep their micro-economies whole. At the end of the day, a steel guitarist or a falsetto singer has to eat. 

Aunty Genoa may have been thinking these things when Aloha Grill announced its closing, but still somehow she had the presence of mind to arrange for a remote recording session. Maybe she wanted to capture not merely the sound of her band of that moment (which had only been captured on record once previously, on her no longer available album All Time Hula Favorites), but also that band in the supercharged atmosphere of the venue that had so far best loved her in by then what was more than a 30-year career. That, after all, is what live albums are all about – elevating an artist to greater musical heights when propelled by the Primo-soaked encouragement of their ardent fans, and this is even more true in a smallish venue like Aloha Grill where the artists can practically touch the fans from the stage and where the two rub elbows on their ten-minute breaks once per hour (and Aunty Genoa always did and taught her musicians to do the same as they were not merely the hired help but, in her view, the hosts of a giant party – helping ensure the band would be asked back the following week). But maybe this wasn’t the case at all. Perhaps she had no desire to make a live album at all. Perhaps this was her way of memorializing a venue she loved and the owners/friends who gave her the opportunity. Or perhaps arranging for a live recording was merely Aunty Genoa’s way to mourn. 

On April 28, 1979, a remote recording crew made the cramped Aloha Grill a little more cramped still when it joined Aunty Genoa and band to do a live album on the Aloha Grill’s last night of operation. This should have been a magical night with the potential energy to result in what could have been the finest recording of Genoa’s career. But the potential never quite becomes as kinetic on record as perhaps it was in person. Maybe there was a melancholy pervading that room. Genoa and her bands always exuded the utmost professionalism, and that is no less true on Aloha To Aloha Grill. What the live recording lacks is life. Perhaps it is an editing problem. The fade-ins and fade-outs between the songs remove the essence of a Genoa Keawe performance – specifically, the witty banter she exchanged between herself and the audience or her band members, her “talk story” about the song she is about to sing, her greeting of friends, family, and every Hawaiian music luminary that walks into the room, and the natural kolohe way about her – often displayed with nothing more than a smile. Perhaps it is because it is an audio medium and Aunty Genoa’s performances are highly visual – always bedecked in the finest designer aloha wear (a trait shared to this day by her granddaughter, performer Pomaika`i Keawe Lyman), the gentlemen in white pants, white shoes, and matching aloha shirts in the brightest hues, and, of course, an impromptu hula from the crowd, a band member, or – on a particularly lucky evening for the audience – even Aunty Genoa. Or perhaps the album lacks the numerous guest performances – every Hawaiian musician in the audience getting pulled on stage for a song and invariably a hana hou and, when the crowd approves, maybe even more – that made every Genoa Keawe performance – regardless of the venue – a party where somehow she made every audience member feel like the guest of honor. We know there were guest appearances that evening. Sabala references them in her liner notes, and she should know: She was there, serving as assistant recording engineer. 

None of that magic was captured on Aloha to Aloha Grill. 

Perhaps I’m spoiled. Perhaps this recording falls flat for me personally because I was in the room dozens of times to hear Aunty Genoa and her group live, and I know what magic prevailed on every occasion. Frankly, it was a different magic every time. Because it was spontaneous. The set list was always different, the guest list ever rotating. This live recording lacks spontaneity even though fans know that April 28, 1979 was as spontaneous an event as Genoa ever presided over. The album simply failed to capture that. 

It is not that I do not recommend this album. On the contrary. It is a critically important document in the story arc of Aunty Genoa’s career. The band made no discernible mistakes. (Professionals rarely do.) And it is worth the price of admission to hear one of son Sam Aiko’s few golden-throated appearances on record (caressing such songs as “E Ku`u Morning Dew” and “Canadian Girl”) or to hear bass player Aunty Pahu Liliko`i romp through her signature tune (“Piha Hau`oli”). No, if you are a fan of Aunty Genoa and her style of music, you definitely have to own this album, which thankfully she recorded on her own GK Records label and which she ensured saw the light of day again in the digital era on CD. 

Still, this recording may not be the “live” album fans hoped for. And this means that new generations of Genoa Keawe fans will never know exactly how it went down at the Aloha Grill when Aunty Genoa held court there. But, actually, they can and they will if I have anything to say about it. 

Next time: Part 2 of the story in which your blogger – thanks to his archives – produces an artifact that fills in the essential gap in Aunty Genoa’s career and reproduces the Aloha Grill experience exactly as fans experienced it more than 40 years ago… 


Direct download: 05_Genoa_Keawe_-_Fall_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:14am EDT