Hawaii Calls – Jimmy Kaopuiki

I have written here at Ho`olohe Hou previously – likely in reference to The Sons of Hawaii’s Joe Marshall – that while bass players in other musical idioms (such as jazz) are often revered, in Hawaiian music the bass player is an afterthought – a necessity, of course, but never the front man or the “star.” While this is true of all Hawaiian music throughout its history, a notable exception is the Hawaii Calls radio programs which perhaps made a more grievous error: It often featured their bass player’s vocal abilities but rarely credited him. 

Albeit more than 50 years late, that all changes today if I can help it. 

Google “Jimmy Kaopuiki.” Finished yet? Don’t give yourself carpel tunnel syndrome clicking away to solve the mystery of one of Hawai`i’s most seen, heard, and recorded bass players. You will find a few credits for him on the few vintage Hawaiian music albums that have been reissued as CDs. (And they are too few.) But you will not find a single portrait of the man, but you will find a scant few pictures where the caption indicates that he is present but likely hiding behind the steel guitarist. The bass player is part of the rhythm section in any band in any genre of music, and the mark of a good musician in the rhythm section is not merely that he knows his instrument. It is that he knows his instrument and is content to spend his career making others sound good while he remains largely anonymous. It is a support role that must be fulfilled admirably. 

And that is the best description I can offer of Jimmy Kaopuiki about whom there is little other information floating around. 

If you are a fan of Hawaiian music, you have no doubt heard Kaopuiki as he is probably the most recorded bass player in Hawai`i from the 1950s through the 1970s. His name appears on countless record covers, but that is not really a “credit” since those covers – especially those for LPs by the Hawaii Calls cast – usually offer long lists of names without clarifying which musician plays which instrument or which singers sing which songs. But make no mistake, Kaopuiki was the bassist on most of your favorite Hawaiian music albums, even those on which he was not credited – from the Maile Serenaders to the New Hawaiian Band, from Alfred Apaka to Hilo Hattie, from Vicki I`i to Bill Kaiwa, from Mahi Beamer to Danny Kaleikini, from Japan’s Ethel Nakada to Nashville’s Tennessee Ernie Ford. In fact he was so busy as a performing bassist with so many aggregations throughout the 1960s, one has to wonder when Jimmy had time to sleep. 

So by his associations we can assume that Kaopuiki was the musician’s musician, the consummate professional. Otherwise he would have been sitting at home waiting for The Lucky Luck Show to come on rather than rushing to his next gig. Long time boss Danny Kaleikini – for whom Kaopuiki served not merely as bassist but also as musical director and arranger for his long-running show at the Kahala Hilton Hotel starting in the mid-1960s – came closest to extoling the virtues of his long-time musical associate. In an interview with Linda Andrade Wheeler for her book Aloha: The Spirit Within You, when Wheeler asked how he became so polished as an entertainer, Kaleikini responded by watching, observing, and learning from local professionals like Kaopuiki. 

But while Kaopuiki’s distinctive voice was often the first one heard on a Hawaii Calls broadcast each week – kicking off the show with an up-tempo number – he was rarely credited by host Webley Edwards as the vocalist. We needn’t wonder why, however. This was not a deliberate slight. It was simply that Kaopuiki was not the star of Hawaii Calls. He was a member of its rhythm section. He was the bass player and occasional vocalist, and yet today he remains one of the most recognizable voices from the show – a voice without a name. Ho`olohe Hou sets the record straight today with a brief tribute to Kaopuiki with selections he led on late 1950s and early 1960s Hawaii Calls broadcasts – most of which have likely not been heard since they first went to air more than 50 years ago. And, surprisingly, on a scant few, Edwards identifies the man behind the voice. But on others, as you will soon hear, only the most ardent fan would know that it was Jimmy Kaopuiki at the microphone. 

Jimmy opens the set with Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ “Ta-ha-ua-la,” a peppy reworking of the song that came to be known as the “Hawaiian War Chant.” Originally composed by Prince Leileiōhoku, one of na lani `eha (or “the heavenly four,” the affectionate name for Hawai`i’s last reigning royal family, two brothers and two sisters who were also amazingly talented composers), the lyrics for “Kaua I Ka Huahua`i” speak of love and desire. How hapa-haole musician, composer, and arranger Johnny Noble co-opted the lyric, changed the tempo, and ascribed the exact opposite meaning to the lyric than what the composer intended remains beyond most ethnomusicologist’s comprehension still nearly 150 years later. It may have been for this reason that composer Isaacs wrested back the lyric and did some creative word play to give the song back its more sensual nature while retaining the jazzy feel. Kaopuiki’s playful voice is perfect for just such a junket. 

A fairly new song at the time Jimmy performed it on Hawaii Calls, “(Look Out For) The Girl In The Hula Skirt” was composed by Prince Kawohi (the stage name of Ernest Kawohilani) and Steve Graham (the pseudonym of Michael H. Goldsen). The songwriting pair only copyrighted the song in 1955, and it first appeared at about that same time on Prince Kawohi’s album At The Luau. Steel guitar aficionados will no doubt appreciate the efforts here of Jules Ah See. 

Finally, Jimmy performs the snappy love song “Palolo” from the prolific pen of Charles E. King. One source cites “Palolo” as a mele pana, or a song honoring a place. I have to take issue with this given the lyric content. Despite that the song takes place in Palolo Valley on O`ahu, the poetry clearly uses kaona (Hawaiian-style poetic metaphor) to describe something more intimate. In Hawaiian mele (song craft), the rain is often a veiled reference to love-making. Here King’s reference is not at veiled as in some other examples: 

Ka ua no ia olu ka mana`o / The rain is soothing to my thoughts 

Ho`oni a`e nei i ku`u pu`uwai / Despite my pounding heart 

Pumehana kāua i ke aloha / Warmed by our love 

I ka pili i ke anu o ke kuahiwi / We snuggle, the mountain is cold 

Ua lawa kāua e ke aloha / Our love making has ended 

Honi iho nei ho`i i ka pu`uwai / Kisses return to remain in my heart  

I laila no wau i ka po nei / Last night I was there 

A ua paia kou puka i ka laka ia / Trapped by rain 

I don’t think we have yet adequately given Jimmy Kaopuiki his due. But it’s an excellent start, I think. 

Next time: More of Hawaii Calls bassist and vocalist – including his knockout falsetto…


Direct download: 14_Hawaii_Calls_-_1957-1962.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 7:09am EST

Bill Kaiwa Gets Merrie

Continuing to celebrate the November 16, 1836 birthday of Hawai`i’s last reigning king and one of its most prolific composers, David Laʻamea Kamanakapuʻu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua…

When trying to decide which of Kalākaua’s songs to present and by which artists of the last 100 years (the songs of Hawai`i’s last royal family have been favorites of musicians to arrange and record since the invention of the 78 rpm record in 1898), I focused on one of my favorite periods in the history of Hawaiian music: the 1960s and 70s. But I ran into a dilemma. One artist recorded more songs composed by na lani `eha (the Hawaiian royal family of brothers and sisters) than any other during that period. If I had included all of his renditions of Kalākaua compositions, we would have heard from nobody else! So I set aside all of his recordings for a special set at Ho`olohe Hou.

So here is Bill Kaiwa’s tribute to the music of King Kalākaua!

Bill Kaiwa will receive his own tribute here in due time for he was extremely influential in Hawaiian music in his time. He appeared on the Hawai`i entertainment scene during the critical period when many of the elder statesmen (and women) of the genre were passing away and many of the new generation had no interest in the music of the generation before. The young people who did find interest in their Hawaiian roots may have had the best of intentions but often presented the music and the history of it carelessly – playing a wrong chord or singing a wrong note here and there, and mispronouncing a Hawaiian lyric or two. This was where Bill Kaiwa was an important role model for other musicians in this period. Known as “The Boy From Laupahoehoe” for his breakout hit song composed by Irmgard Aluli, Kaiwa had no connections to the small town on the Big Island but was, in fact, from Papakolea on O`ahu and later hānai (or adopted in a Hawaiian tradition) to a family on Kaua`i. (In later life he kept homes in Kane`ohe on the windward side of O`ahu and a home on Kaua`i – but never the Big Island.) Despite being only in his late 20s when he made his splash on the Hawaiian music world, he did so with the stateliness of the kupuna – not only in the way he dressed and spoke, but in the way he presented the music of yesteryear and, perhaps more importantly, in the way that he cared for it – gathering up every precious forgotten song that would be shared with him by Lyons Nainoa or John Almeida, squirreling away the words and the melodies in his memory banks (for he could not read or write music). When I would call him up and ask him to teach me a song, he would simply sing it to me over the telephone. This is about as traditional a form of cultural transmission as one can find in the modern era.

Kaiwa was the original Renaissance man – his talents going far beyond his musical abilities. In addition to being a scratch golfer, he was also an artist specializing in painting and sculpting. As I write this, there sits beside me on the end table a poi pounder carved of beautiful Hawaiian milo wood – a gift from Bill Kaiwa. And still this unassuming man signed his autographs “Billy.” If one could rip time and space and patch them back together to suit themselves, I could envision Uncle Bill whiling away the hours chatting with King Kalākaua for I think the two would have had much in common.

But despite being a Renaissance man, Kaiwa’s music was not stuck in another time. He found the means of being respectful to Hawai`i’s past while forging his own path forward. With the help of a like-minded arranger – Benny Saks – Kaiwa took traditional Hawaiian song in a direction suitable for and attractive to the young, hip generation. Here are a few of his takes on the music of a century earlier from the pen of King Kalākaua…

The king wrote “E Nihi Ka Hele” for his wife, Queen Kapi`olani, to bid her safe travels as she departed for England to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria, a dear friend. The title comes from the legend of Pele and Hi`iaka and means “tread softly.” The piano of Benny Saks and the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len lead the way safely here for Kaiwa’s vocals on his second LP, More From Bill Kaiwa.

Because the title translates to “I Throb For Liquid,” many have mistaken King Kalākaua’s “Koni Au I Ka Wai” for a drinking song. But a closer examination of the kaona bears out that this is yet another song about the thrill of lovemaking. Here the tune is taken in a little less future-looking vein from an album that departed from Kaiwa’s usual modern mode. He recorded Kama`aina Songs with the Maile Serenaders, an all-star aggregation with ever-changing membership depending on who was available for the recording session that day. (The Maile Serenaders were not a group per se and never performed live, but was merely the name affixed to any and all studio musicians employed by Hula Records from time to time to back its other artists on their recordings.) This time the backing vocals are provided by Iwalani Kahalewai and Pua Almeida, and the musicians are Herb Ohta on `ukulele, Jimmy Kaopuiki on bass, Eddie Pang on the steel guitar, and Almeida on the rhythm guitar (the last three of which were members of the cast of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts).

As with his compositions “Kīlauea” and “`Akahi Ho`i,” Kalākaua published “Waimanalo” under the pseudonym of “Figgs.” Notice that Kaiwa’s sound has evolved again for the new decade. Recorded in the 70s, This is Bill Kaiwa took on a decidedly country-western feel – a sound Kaiwa would stick with for his next few outings in the recording studio. Joining Uncle Bill here are Wayne Reis, Hiram Olsen, Bobby Larrison, and Billy Hew Len. And if you think you recognize the voice singing in duet with Kaiwa, perhaps it’s because it was Hawai`i’s beloved Cyrus Green.

We will hear more from Bill Kaiwa when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates his birthday in February. For now, I am so enjoying this tribute to the music of King Kalākaua that I think it is still too soon for this 178th birthday celebration to come to a close.

Next time: Today’s Hawaiian music artists continue to honor the music of their king… 


Direct download: 02_Kalakaua_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:22am EST