Iva Hits Hard… Softly

Iva Kinimaka’s debut LP (1972’s eponymously titled Iva) featured the sound prevalent on record and in Waikiki showrooms during that period. Like Emma Veary’s LPs (and, for that matter, her live act) of this same period, Iva employed a larger orchestra complete with horns, strings, and even a harp. And it featured a mix of old school traditional Hawaiian songs, a traditional Japanese song, and a country-western hit, but very few compositions by contemporary songwriters (and only one, in fact, from Iva’s own pen). He followed it up a few years later with Swinger of Waikiki (for California record label Kolopa) which demonstrated that Iva was changing with the times. But it would be a decade before Iva would find the song and the sound that would “stick.”

Just as the ocean heats up and cools off more slowly than the land surrounding it, Hawai`i’s tastes in music have historically run the same way. Hawai`i embraced reggae in the 70s (a decade after the mainland U.S.) and its taste for the style still haven’t waned. Likewise, Hawai`i embraced disco in the 80s (years after the mainland U.S. had decried it as the most vile form in the history of music, even by those who were boogieing down under a mirror ball just a few years earlier). So while Iva Kinimaka’s disco-flavored release Just Singing It All may have been a little late for the rest of the world, it was just in time for local Hawai`i audiences. But it was a non-disco-flavored outlier that put Iva permanently on the map and earned him his rightful place in Hawaiian music history – an original that he wrote for his daughter, Chamonix. Since covered by more than a dozen artists as diverse as slack key guitarist Keola Beamer and sumo-wrestler-turned-singer Konishiki but with the most popular turn being taken by the Peter Moon Band, Iva struck a kind of gold that has no diminishing returns with the ever popular “He Aloha Mele.”

Arranged by guitarist Jimmy Funai (formerly of the Buddy Fo group but who was a recording session first-call through the 70s and 80s and who is still active today), “He Aloha Mele” – with its jangly acoustic guitars, vibes, and cooing female backing vocals – was a lullaby-like hint of calm in the sea of drum machines and synthesizers that was pervading Hawaiian music in the 1980s. (Actually, this one cut is reminiscent of Iva’s debut LP.) Despite that it remains a staple of such local Hawai`i radio stations as Hawaiian 105 KINE and that those living within earshot of a radio in Hawai`i can’t go a day without hearing it, I thought it was worth hearing again here – especially in contrast to his more disco-oriented take on the Sol K. Bright standard “Oni Aka Moku,” the modern sound that characterizes most of the rest of this album.

Next time: Some of Iva’s friends – and songwriting partners – do well for themselves on record and in Waikiki showrooms too… Plus more of the history of the local entertainers who graced the nightclub and showrooms of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel… And was Hawaiian music completely moving away from its roots in the 1970s?…



Direct download: 02_Iva_Kinimaka_1.mp3
Category:70s and 80s -- posted at: 6:15pm EST

Sonny Chillingworth

Slack-key is hardly a dying art … Anyone who’d say so just doesn’t know where to go to hear this kind of music … even with Sonny playing regularly at Honey’s in Waikiki, as he did before at Honey’s down the country in Kaneohe… 

  • Jean Sullivan, Liner Notes, Waimea Cowboy 

Those of you who know my story know already that I did not come into this world loving Hawaiian music. Despite growing up on the East Coast, I was born into a family that loved Hawaiian music. My father was a steel guitarist, and so our home was always filled with the sounds of the LPs that featured the stars of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts despite that this music was losing popularity share in Hawai`i and the reality that there were few remaining steel guitar legends. In the 1970s Hawaiian music was evolving to no longer rely upon its once signature sound. But my father was stuck in the Hawaiian music of another era. And I was not a fan. 

Fortunately, we had many friends on our coast who happened to be Hawai`i expats, and when they would return from their annual visits home, they would bring me suitcases filled with the latest releases (often on 8-track tapes, which is pretty indicative of the era). These records captivated my imagination, and so even while my friends were trying to turn me on to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Frampton, the new guitar sound from Hawai`i was more my speed. I did not know at the time that the “new sound” was actually a very old sound given new life in the hands of some young masters. Slack key guitar dated back – anecdotally, for there are no written records of such things – to the early 19th century when Mexican cowboys were invited to Hawai`i to teach the locals how to corral their then newly acquired herds of cattle. According to lore, the Mexicans and Hawaiians would sit around a campfire at night sharing songs, but this was the first appearance of the guitar in Hawai`i, and so the Hawaiians had no idea how to play. When they left, the Mexicans left behind their guitars as tokens of their newfound friendship with the Hawaiians. But they failed to tell their Hawaiian friends how to tune the guitars. And this is akin to taking all of the keys off a typewriter and asking a blind man to put them back on in the correct order. 

But ultimately the joke would not be on the Hawaiians but on the world – for the curious and inventive Hawaiians came up with their own methods for tuning the guitars, each guitarist arriving at a tuning that suited their vocal range, remembering where to put their fingers even if nobody else could figure out their special tuning. In fact each player’s tunings became a sort of collateral, a proprietary intellectual property – some guitarists keeping their tunings strictly within the family, instructing their children and grandchildren to guard the tunings with their life. The rest of the world would eventually catch up and realize the new melodic and harmonic possibilities afforded the guitarists by rearranging the order of the strings and their pitches to their liking. And soon such revered guitarists as Chet Atkins, Carlos Santana, Ry Cooder, and Eric Clapton were making the journey to the mecca of this playing style and seeking out the masters for further instruction. And one of these masters was a then still very young Sonny Chillingworth. 

When I first heard Sonny’s records, it was clear that he was experimenting with fusing traditional Hawaiian music with such non-traditional influences as rock, jazz, classical, Latin, and country. Sonny could do it all! But what really interested and captivated me was that it was the first time I had heard slack key guitar played on an electric guitar for up to that point it had largely been an acoustic guitar tradition. At the time, Sonny was one of only two young lions performing slack key guitar on an electric guitar – and, to be precise, a Gretsch Chet Atkins model guitar. (So it is fitting – if not a little ironic – that Chet Atkins should pay a visit and seek out the slack key masters.) 

What many may not remember is that before the multiple club engagements and the release of what ultimately turned out to be eight full-length albums before his passing in 1994, Sonny was the one who helped Don start it all at his parents’ joint in Kane`ohe. For a while before they managed to recruit the rest of the gang that would become the Honey’s house band, the evening entertainment there featured simply a duo – Don on organ and Sonny on guitar. But with Sonny’s slack key guitar style, he was as good as any three other musicians – providing rhythm guitar, occasional lead guitar, and a running bass line. As you have already read here, Flip McDiarmid captured some of this magic when he visited Honey’s Waikiki one evening with a portable tape recorder. Regardless of the genesis of these recordings or the motivations behind them, ultimately we should be thankful that we have this permanent record of an important era in the history of the entertainment scene in Hawai`i and the evolution of the slack key guitar. Listen to Sonny relaxedly breeze through a song that has since become a slack key standard thanks to him – “Hula Blues” – and then show his speed and agility on his own (now oft-copied) “Whee Ha Swing.” 

As a slack key guitarist myself, I still thrill to hear the early recordings of one of my heroes. But these were not Sonny’s first appearances on record. 

Next time: Sonny’s 1955 debut on record and a worthy 1958 follow-up… And more from the Honey’s Waikiki gang…


Trivia: Who was the other slack key guitarist of the 1970s who preferred an electric guitar? (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you’re a fan of Hawaiian music. Hard if you’re only a casual listener to Hawaiian music.) 


Direct download: 05_Waikiki_Swings.mp3
Category:After Dark -- posted at: 6:05pm EST

Emma at the Royal

In a recent interview with the top national travel magazine, the question was asked me, “Where in Hawaii can we find the class act – the best entertainment?” Without hesitation, I said, “Emma Veary at the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.” We were there opening night and have been back several times since. Why? When you listen to the glorious voice of Emma in this album and the lovely musical arrangements, you’ll know why.” 

  • Jack Lord, Hawaii Five-0 

Through the 1970s Emma Veary created a series of four albums with arranger/producer Jack de Mello for his Music of Polynesia record label. The large symphonic arrangements that de Mello created for Veary in the recording studio should have been difficult to pull-off live. But they did it every night at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel – right down to the harp. 

Charles Bud Dant was an arranger/conductor known for the same types of large orchestral work as de Mello. He created such symphonic backings for Veary’s live show when she moved from the Coral Lanai of the Halekulani Hotel to the prestigious Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Perhaps to attract visitors to the venue (or perhaps to have a souvenir to sell to audiences who had attended the live shows), in 1976 Lehua Records (a new label for Veary but the then label home of Bud Dant) sent a remote recording crew to capture the grandeur of an evening with Emma and orchestra. The result was Emma at the Royal. Today this album would likely be called an “EP” since only one side – a mere six songs – of the LP took place live. The flip side was done completely at Sounds of Hawaii studio. But it is a pleasure nonetheless to have this rare glimpse at Emma live. From this recording we can hear that the versatile Veary was not limited to Hawaiian standards, waltzes, and the songs of Na Lani `Eha (the four members of Hawai`i’s last reigning royal family who also just happened to be among the most prolific and artful composers in Hawai`i’s history). We hear Emma tackle with aplomb everything from a movie theme to a then recent pop tune that landed on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Singles of 1975. She even makes an attempt at comedy (without wavering from her usual high standards for class and dignity). 

I usually caution my readers who spend countless hours surfing the internet for factoids from these halcyon days not to believe everything they read. But, this time, from the “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear” department, while Bud Dant did employ an orchestra complete with trumpets, saxophones, and strings every evening at the Royal, the backing vocals you hear on such selections as “I Am Hawaii” weren’t actually there. They were overdubbed on to the live recording back at Sounds of Hawaii studios. This is why I don’t offer any of the “exactly as it happened” hyperbole that accompanies live recordings. This one, you might say, was “Photoshopped” a little bit. 

Interestingly, despite a career that lasted much, much longer, Emma at the Royal was to be the grande dame’s last foray into a recording studio. But surely there must have been video of Emma in that era, right? Actually, not that era, but, perhaps, the era before. 

Next time: Emma in motion (and why we have that video in the first place)... And where are the other ladies of the Waikiki nightclub scene in the 1970s?... 




Direct download: 02_Emma_Veary_1.mp3
Category:After Dark -- posted at: 6:55am EST

Alvin Okami

As I write this, the KoAloha `Ukulele Company headquarters is packing up for a move from their modest space in an industrial center on Kohou Street in Kalihi to a new, more luxurious factory/showroom in the `Iolani Sportswear building in Kaka`ako. Not a long trip, but a whole hell of a lot of work for the thoroughly sawdust-encrusted environment of an `ukulele factory. 

This is “Pops” Okami’s dream coming true over and over again. If you have seen the documentary film The KoAloha Story (and, if you haven’t, you should), then you already know that Alvin Okami is the original renaissance man who will transition seamlessly from inventing a device to more easily insert fret wire into the neck of an `ukulele (at just the precisely spaced intervals to ensure perfect intonation) to serenading you with a song he wrote (probably just this morning before breakfast). Always working, always thinking, always dreaming, ever diversifying, these are not merely the keys to Okami’s success. They are the secret to his seemingly eternal youth. 

Son Alan largely manages the operation for his dad, while another son Paul creates beautiful new `ukulele designs and creates the templates for making these by hand with utmost accuracy and precision by the handful of craftsmen who work in the KoAloha shop. On my last visit to Honolulu, at Alan’s suggestion I stopped by KoAloha’s old factory for a visit and tour. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Alan was busy with the business that afternoon, but he yelled up the stairs to his father who bounded down the stairs to greet us. And from that handshake grew a fast friendship that was rooted in our mutual love of the `ukulele as well as the Great American Songbook and songwriters like Cole Porter and the Gershwin Brothers. Before we knew what was happening, we were pushing tables out of the way for an impromptu concert from Pops who debuted for us some of the new compositions he wrote for his first ever CD release. (His wife, Pat – a hula student studying with kumu hula Tony Conjugacion – even graced us with the hula that Tony created for one of Pops’ new songs.) A successful businessman like Okami might have bankrolled and produced his own CD. But he didn’t. The septuagenarian was discovered – for the second time in his lengthy career – by a producer on the West Coast who helped bring Pops’ dream of a full-length recording of his compositions to fruition. 

The first time Pops was discovered he wasn’t yet old enough – or even father enough – to merit his popular nickname. Alvin was discovered the first time in the early 1960s by `ukulele virtuoso Herb Ohta (known professionally as Ohta-San). Back then Okami – who, perhaps egged on by his mentor, Ohta, went simply by his first name – was an up-and-coming singer who specialized in the popular standards he so loved – his voice reminiscent of Andy Williams and Matt Monro. It was a voice built to sing movie theme songs. But instead he was singing in the modest environs of Honey’s, the joint owned and operated for more than 20 years (at that time – the early 1960s) by James and Honey Ho. The ringleader of each evening’s musical madness was, of course, a then virtually unknown Don Ho. You have already read here the story of Waikiki Swings, an unauthorized recording made by Hula Records of an evening at Honey’s after its move to Kalākaua Avenue in Waikiki. Alvin was clearly the standout of that evening in the mind of Hula Records president Flip McDiarmid who personally made the tape that became the album – as evidenced by the fact that of the 13 tracks on the LP, three of them were Alvin Okami performances (one more than Ho got). And because Honey’s was also the proving ground for Kui Lee’s latest compositions, Alvin performed three of Kui’s originals that fateful evening – “Lahaina Luna,” “The Days of My Youth,” and “I’ll Remember You.” This means that Alvin – not Don Ho – premiered on record these three Kui Lee compositions – including the one that would put Ho on the map, “I’ll Remember You.” It just so happens that Ho’s versions were released first and were distributed worldwide by Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records, while Alvin’s were released on Hula Records which had little distribution outside of Hawai`i. Had it been the other way around, today we might be asking Alvin Okami for an encore of “Tiny Bubbles.” 

But everything turns out the way it is supposed to. For all of his success, Pops is the most even-keeled, modest, and – dare I say – happy human being I have ever had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of. And perhaps this is because it wasn’t handed to him, you know? Pops struggled, his family struggled, and so he never stopped thinking, dreaming, creating – until he created the thing on which he and his family could rely. When I asked Pops why he waited so long to release his first CD, he said it was because he was “too busy with other things.” Those other things, it turns out, were findings ways of surviving. Now that he and his `ohana are not merely surviving but thriving, Pops could turn his attention back to his first love. And the world should be glad he did for the CD is absolutely beautiful and a testament to Pops’ love not only of his Hawai`i, but his America. After all, he lived the American dream. Why shouldn’t he be a proud American?... 


Direct download: 03_Waikiki_Swings.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 5:22am EST