Sat, 22 November 2014
Continuing our look at Lani Custino and the Hawaii Calls TV show which ran for 26 episodes from 1965-66…
Fragrant flowers cool and sweet / Remind me of my Lani
Blossoms for her hands and feet / But none as fair as Lani
No matter how they try and try / No other hands can hold me
No matter if I live or die / No other arms enfold me
Stars are falling from the sky / They're falling for my Lani
Falling stars are in her eyes / For they adore my Lani
Palm trees by the Ala Wai / Bow their heads before her
How they sigh when she walks by / Just because they love her
When I introduced this song a few days ago by Hawaii Calls singer Sonny Nicholas, it was still premature to tell you who inspired it. If you haven’t guessed by now, legend has it that the song – written by the same Jack Pitman who gifted the world with “Beyond The Reef” – was inspired by the beauty and graceful hula hands of Lani Custino.
I wrote here previously that in Lani Custino Hawaii Calls recruited a double-threat – a singing hula dancer. Although sister Nina is better known as the singer and Lani as the hula dancer, Lani was a member of the show’s wahine vocal trio and – occasionally – a featured vocalist or duet partner for one of the male cast members. But host Webley Edwards wrote the show’s scripts in such a manner that it would have broken the spell he was trying to cast in aural paintings if he had stopped to mention the name of the next performer. Although Hawaii Calls had its stars – and often capitalized on that star power – Edwards just as frequently treated the cast as one unified whole that was the greater than the sum of its parts. Should it matter, then, if Edwards failed to mention a cast member by name?
Conversely, Edwards never failed to mention when Lani Custino was about to dance a hula. This is ironic considering that radio audiences would never be able to see her dance the hula, so how could it matter whether or not he mentioned her name in that moment? Edwards continued this pattern when it mattered a little more – when Hawaii Calls bowed as a TV program and the world could finally see the lovely hula that they had been missing out on the previous 30 years. In this clip, Lani dances and sings for herself as she dances – which likely would not have been possible when taping the radio show (as wireless microphones were yet to be invented), but which was very possible through the magic of video where the song was pre-recorded and the artist would later “lip synch” to the audio track during the video shoot. So Lani is indeed singing here, but she is not really singing and dancing at the same time. She is dancing and lip synching at the same time (a feat which nonetheless should be granted bonus points for degree of difficulty).
Like so many of the other Hawaii Calls TV segments I have chosen to share at Ho`olohe Hou, this one too – despite being filmed in color – has since faded nearly to black-and-white. But that should not detract from our enjoyment of this rare glimpse of Lani’s solo hula which has not been seen in nearly 50 years. It is also a far clearer recording of her gorgeous voice than what I was able to offer from the transcriptions of the original radio shows recorded only a few years earlier. In short, this is probably the best video we have of Lani Custino the singer and the dancer.
At the risk of sounding like a record more broken than these time-ravaged radio transcriptions, I feel a sense of responsibility to point out discrepancies between the performances on the Hawaii Calls radio and TV programs and certain basic tenets of Hawaiian culture and tradition. And this performance offers just such another curious choice on the part of the show’s producers. In introducing the number, host Webley Edwards indicates that they are on location on the island of Hawai`i which is famous for its black sand. But then Lani launches into the song entitled “Waikapu,” a song which speaks by name about the various winds in four different locations on the island of Maui. (For this reason the song is sometimes referred to as “`Iniki Mālie” – meaning “gently piercing,” a poetic reference to the stringing of these winds as they touch the skin.) The producers could have made two equally responsible decisions. If on the island of Hawai`i, they could have performed a song written for an area of Hawai`i. But if the song choice was already a lock, they could have instead shot at a location on Maui. Now here is what makes their creative choice more curious still. The Hawaii Calls TV show frequently did location shoots on Maui. And, in case you need proof, I deliberately edited this clip to include the introductory instrumentals from the steel guitar of Barney Isaacs, and in the first 15 seconds of the video, you see the camera pan to Kuka'emoku, a 1,200-foot peak in the Iao Valley (and so the peak is sometimes referred to as the “Iao Needle”) on the island of Maui. The camera crew was already there on Maui at some point. Why not shoot the song for Maui on Maui?
Such are the minor frustrations that have occupied the recesses of my mind even as I have enjoyed paying tribute to Hawaii Calls.
We say goodbye to Lani Custino for now. But we will see and hear more from her when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates the 80th anniversary of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts next June.
Next time: More of sister Nina Keali`iwahamana from the radio shows…
Sat, 22 November 2014
Continuing our look at both the talented Rodrigues sisters and the Hawaii Calls TV show which ran for a scant 26 episodes from 1965-66…
As with “Lovely Hula Hands” previously, Nina Keali`iwahamana again leads the ladies vocal trio which is rounded out by her singing sisters Lani Custino and Lahela “Mackie” Rodrigues. And, again, Lani dances the hula for us – this time solo. Through the magic of video, Lani is accompanying herself on vocals as she dances – courtesy of the audio tracks pre-recorded in a Honolulu studio before the location shoot. But this time around the scene is in über-vivid color.
When I began attempting to restore some of these Hawaii Calls TV segments to share at Ho`olohe Hou, I was quick to mention that these clips have seen the ravages of time. You may have difficulty believing – as I did – that they were filmed in color as they have since faded nearly to black-and-white. But this is the first of the clips I have shared where the color saturation has not diminished with time – making crystal clear the blue of the ocean and the pink of Lani’s satin holoku. The clarity of video also makes it easier to appreciate the hula by one of its finest practitioners.
“Beyond The Reef” might be the quintessential hapa-haole song (or song extoling Hawaiian places, people, or ideals but written in English). Made famous by Bing Crosby with his 1949 recording, the lovely song was written by Jack Pitman who also composed such hapa-haole standards as “Goodnight Leilani E,” “Fish and Poi,” “Lovely Hula Girl,” and “The Sands of Waikiki.” And every time I hear a Jack Pitman song – songs with such a typically Hawaiian feel that continue to be beloved and performed by singers in Hawai`i to this day – I remain incredulous that Pitman hailed from Regina, Saskatchewan.
So much for the sister act. But there is still more to come from Lani and Nina.
Next time: Lani sings and dances at the same time…
Sat, 22 November 2014
Continuing our look at both the talented Rodrigues sisters and the Hawaii Calls TV show which ran for a scant 26 episodes from 1965-66…
If Nina was known as the singer and Lani as the hula dancer, from this clip it would appear that their respective roles remain intact. But that is only half of the story. Nina has the vocal lead here, but you can clearly hear the Hawaii Calls women’s vocal trio which during this period was all three of original show veteran’s Vicki I`i Rodrigues’ musical daughters – Nina Keali`iwahamana, Lani Custino, and Lahela “Mackie” Rodrigues (who replaced Punini McWayne in the trio with her departure). This means, then, that Lani is accompanying herself on vocals as she dances the hula. All courtesy of the magic of video! The sisters laid down their vocal tracks in a Honolulu studio in advance, and then Lani and the Hawaii Calls hula maids were filmed on location dancing to those audio tracks.
Hey, if it’s good enough for Madonna…
We described Lani’s approach to the hula here previously, and with this video clip she proves she was among the very best of the era – living up to the title of R. Alex Anderson’s song “Lovely Hula Hands.” It was just such a vision that inspired Anderson to compose the song. At a party where a hula was being performed, he overheard someone say, “Aren’t her hands lovely?” And the rest is history. The song was first associated with hula dancer legend Aggie Auld but applies equally well to Lani. For those not yet indoctrinated into the beauty and joy of the hula, it is, of course, a storytelling dance in which the story is told with the hands. Few were better at this than Lani Custino – which is why her hula hands were captured in still frame for everything from travel magazines to hotel showroom posters.
And this raises one of the video’s curiosities. While it may sound like I am repeatedly picking on host Webley Edwards when we are supposed to be celebrating him and his creation, I am not. Or, at least, that is not my intention. I look at it more as ethnographic research – an attempt at putting Hawaii Calls and its players in their appropriate historical and cultural context. Some of the choices the show made – many masterminded by Edwards – would seem inconsistent to some cultural experts, and this is likely because many of the show’s creative decisions were made by a leader who was not Hawaiian and who perhaps did not always seek out cultural experts on such matters. Such thinking is likely rooted in the host’s desire to please his audience more than any desire to please the locals. There is an example of such a cultural inconsistency in this video. After a full run through of the verses and bridge sung by Nina, there is an instrumental section where steel guitarist Barney Isaacs is featured but nobody is singing. If the hula is a storytelling dance in which the hands interpret the lyrics of the song being sung, then when there is no singing, there can be no dancing, right? Sure, the dancers know the words of the song and can sing them to themselves in their heads. But that is not, in fact, part of the cultural tradition. To the Hawaiian people, words have divine or supernatural power – referred to as mana. And for this reason, in the hula tradition, the word comes first and the movement second. Quite literally, there can be no hula when nobody is singing, and so musicians who perform for the hula are well aware that they will not get to “show off” with a solo – at least not during a hula number. The decision to allow the ladies to continue to hula while there are no words being sung is curiously contradictory to the hula tradition.
To add to the curiousness, notice that lead hula dancer Lani Custino disappears from the scene for a full 50 seconds – the camera panning to the two accompanying hula dancers at 2:05 in the video during the instrumental section and Lani ducking back into the scene (from behind a tree, of all things) at 2:57 when sister Nina begins to sing again. Coincidence? Probably not. I have examined this scene a few dozen times now, and my conjecture is that having been trained by renowned hula master Iolani Luahine and fully understanding the power of the connection between word and movement in the hula, Lani very likely consciously objected to the producer’s decision to have an instrumental solo in a song intended for the hula and refused to dance during the instrumental break. And since the song’s tracks were already laid down in the recording studio and could not be changed on location, it would appear that a last minute decision was made to allow Lani to excuse herself from the scene during the instrumental section in order to remain true to the cultural practice and tradition.
There are many more such curiosities among both the TV and radio versions of the Hawaii Calls programs, and we will no doubt examine those in due time. But, for now, it is only to enjoy a scene that few (if any) have seen in nearly 50 years that features Hawaiian entertainment legends who also just happen to be sisters.
Next time: A hana hou from Nina and Lani – this one in Technicolor…
Sat, 22 November 2014
Continuing a topic we began discussing in this space recently, for a short time around 1965-66, Hawaii Calls made a brief entré into the world of television. Edwards felt that radio was a dying medium and that audiences deserved to see the real Hawai`i. Radio could not capture the spray of the waves, the grace and vivid costumery of the hula dancers, or – perhaps most importantly – a friendly smile. Television was the perfect medium to portray paradise in technicolor, but as the radio program was already too costly to produce, a weekly live television show would by no means better the enterprise’s financial situation. The next best thing: Performances by the stars of Hawaii Calls shot at various locations around Hawai`i including junkets to film on Maui and Kaua`i. As a cost-cutting measure, the music tracks for each vignette were pre-recorded in a local Honolulu recording studio and the show’s singing stars – and often a few hula dancers – flown to various locations to film them “lip synching” to the prerecorded audio tracks. This constitutes one of the earliest forms of what today we call a “music video.”
The next logical – albeit tragic – leap from pre-recording the music might be… Why do we need the singer on location at all? As I mentioned previously, one of the radio show’s female singing stars of the 1960s was Nina Keali`iwahamana. Fans of the show would sit at home by their radios ardently awaiting their favorite Hawaiian singer. But, for reasons completely unfathomable, Nina never made a single appearance on any of 26 episodes of the TV version of Hawaii Calls. But as with the radio program, her voice made several appearances on each week’s TV broadcast – almost always anonymously. This, too, is a pity.
But now that we have worked through how to distinguish Nina’s voice from those of her singing sisters, we can appreciate some of the Hawaii Calls TV show clips which beyond a shadow of a doubt featured her unmistakable voice.
In this first segment, Nina sings a song for children. Auntie Nona Beamer composed “Pūpū Hinuhinu” (meaning “shiny seashell” – say that ten times fast!) around 1950 as a sort of lullaby. Inspired by the cowrie shells found on the black sand beach of Punalu`u on the island of Hawai`i (the southernmost point in the U.S.), in this simplest of songs a child finds a cowrie shell, listens to its song, and then lays it down to sleep. This would make for a lovely scene except for certain cultural inaccuracies that come into play as a result of host and script-writer Webley Edwards’ lack of understanding at times of Hawaiian language and culture. First, Auntie Nona refers to the shell as “hinuhinu” because of its shiny outer coating. Some cowries are so small and shiny that they glitter like jewels – which may be why certain ancient cultures value the shells as currency. But none are over 2-3” in diameter. For some reason, here the young lady in the scene is instructed to pick up a queen conch – one of the largest of the Pacific shells and which most ironically has a dull, rough, chalky exterior. In other words, the conch is nothing like the cowrie of which Auntie Nona wrote. More curiously still, Edwards fabricates a story about the menehune of Hawaiian mythology – a legend about a people of dwarf-like stature who are skilled craftspeople but whom nobody has ever seen or heard. A conch shell can be sawn in such a manner as to be used as a trumpet. (If you have ever visited one of the commercial lu`au in Hawai`i, the evening no doubt began with a ceremonial blowing of the conch.) As one story about these little people goes, there was a chief who would blow on a conch shell to try to control the menehune, and in retaliation, the menehune stole the conch from the chief and trumpeted it at all hours of the night to disturb the locals and try to blame it on the chief whose conch it rightfully was. What the conch shell or this legend – or other similar legends about the menehune – have to do with Auntie Nona’s song is not immediately clear. But it is likely just host Edwards trying to weave a more mystical tale around the song than there really was for mainland audiences.
And as I watch the playback of the video one last time, I dearly wish that they would have featured Nina in the song she was clearly singing.
There are more performances by the disembodied voice of Nina Keali`iwahamana from the Hawaii Calls TV show yet to come. There are also more curious disconnects between scene and song to be examined.
Next time: Nina sings while sister Lani dances the hula…
Sat, 22 November 2014
In 2004, while preparing for the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest, I was seeking out the lyrics to a song composed by Ida Alicante, “Ku`u Ipo, Ku`u Aloha, Po`ina`ole” (often referred to simply as “Ida’s Hula”). Tony Conjugacion made the only previous recording of this forgotten but still relevant song, but he and I had lost touch years before. But in the liner notes to Tony’s CD, he remarked that the lyrics to the song came from the songbook of Vicki I`i Rodrigues who had performed with Alicante long ago. Now, in Hawaiian music terminology, “songbook” rarely means a thing you order from Amazon.com. More often it means an archivist or performer’s personal collection – notes (often handwritten) scattered across three-ringers, boxes, and filing cabinets, sometimes orderly, but more likely in a state of disarray. It was my understanding that Auntie Vicki’s daughter was the keeper of her mother’s archives. But I had no idea how to reach her either.
Using my “Phone-A-Friend” lifeline, I rang up revered steel guitarist and music teacher Alan Akaka, and I simply asked, “I need to learn a song. Any idea how I can reach Auntie Nina?” And despite that we are friends, I could sense that Alan was hesitant to give out a celebrity friend’s contact information. But he did the next best thing. He said, “Let me see what I can do.” And about 45 minutes later, an email arrived in my Inbox with the subject line, “Aloha from Auntie Nina!” That was the beginning of a decade-long pen-pal-ship. Not necessarily a friendship since, interestingly, we have never been in the same room together. No, that’s not true. I have been in the audience where she has performed, but my attempts to get backstage to chat with my pen pal have been in vein.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a friend of Auntie Nina’s.”
“Sure, you are.”
(I knew I should have said “nephew.”)
But this is just the way things have turned out for Auntie Nina and me. I will email to tell her I’m coming to Hawai`i – only to discover that she is spending the same month in Las Vegas. She has invited me to events where other Hawaiian music notables would be present, but I was either already committed to paying gigs or other plans that breaking would simply be a social faux pas. So it is with me and my pen pal, Auntie Nina.
But even receiving an email from Auntie Nina still stirs incredulity in me. Nina Keali`iwahamana is one of those celebrities whose portrait (from the cover of an issue of Honolulu Magazine, the image you see here) has graced the wall of my home studio for nearly 20 years. I first heard that voice as a small child, and I thought she might as well be an angel and every day Christmas for it is truly a gift when Nina graces you with a song. Little could I know at the time that the lady whose voice was like the heavenly host incarnate was, in fact, born on Christmas Day.
As I mentioned here previously, Nina’s mother, noted musician, composer, and song archivist Vicki I`i Rodrigues, was with Hawaii Calls since its inception in 1935 until 1951 when daughter Lani took her place in the ladies chorus. Five years younger than her sister, Nina did not join the cast of Hawaii Calls until 1957 – several years after her. But while Lani made the most impact as a hula dancer, Nina sent spines tingling across the Hawaiian music-loving universe with her elegant mezzosoprano. For Nina, singing sounded as effortless as breathing and so you could not help but be put at ease at the sound of her voice. The addition of Nina to the cast was quite a coup for host Webley Edwards, one of whose primary goals for the program was to promote tourism. That voice was like the genie awakened from the lamp but willing to grant your three wishes – perhaps one of these to come to Hawai`i someday and soon to hear the voice in person.
And it’s still just like I remembered it! Nina is still active on the Hawaiian music scene – not with a regular weekly thing in Waikiki or anything like that, but when the project suits her and comports the appropriate sense of historical and cultural importance. Often this means a modern-day recreation of the Hawaii Calls program for live audiences from Japan to New York City. The radio program has been off the air since 1974, and Nina was with it from 1957 until its bitter end. But despite that this was 40 years ago, Nina’s voice has not suffered the ravages of time that some singers’ pipes have through misuse and abuse. Nina took care of her instrument, and it is as glorious as ever. We will explore her recording career when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates her birthday around the holidays. But, for now, keeping with the spirit of our theme the last few weeks, let’s look at Nina’s early years with the Hawaii Calls program.
I have remarked previously how the engineers for the Hawaii Calls radio broadcast – which, during this period, would be Bob Lang – strived to capture the entire experience with the limitation of using only audio. On the opening number here, you can hear the hula dancers using their ipu, a hollowed out gourd that is carefully prepared for use as a percussion instrument for the hula. Nina sings “Miloli`i,” a song which strays quickly from the Big Island town for which it is titled. The song relates composer John Makuakane’s travels from one island to another – including a quick pit stop on the mainland – and the unusual sights he encounters along the way. In Miloli`i (a town on the island of Hawai`i, south of Kailua-Kona and not far from Kealakekua – the town spoken of in “I Want To Go Back To My Little Grass Shack” – or Honaunau – in ancient times a place of refuge during war), a most stubborn donkey. In Waikiki, an elephant (a reference to Daisy, the pachyderm resident of the Honolulu Zoo in the 1930s). In San Francisco, a jet airplane. Of course! How else would he get home? Perhaps on the steamer ship he saw in Honolulu. I have written here previously that Hawaii Calls suffered at times from a limited song library. Even among the few Hawaii Calls broadcasts in the Ho`olohe Hou archives, I have versions of “Miloli`i” by Nina, Jimmy Kaopuiki, and Benny Kalama.
I have also commented here previously that host Webley Edwards’ lack of understanding of Hawaiian language and culture at time perhaps hampered his ability to communicate truthfully about the songs performed on his show. Nina’s performance of “Pōhai Ke Aloha” is a case in point. Edwards refers to this as a “love song” – a mistake made throughout history, even by some singers of the song. But this is not entirely accurate – unless Edwards meant a love song for a family. You have read here previously that early in her career Lena Machado 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” (which means “surrounded by love”) 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. For this performance, Nina is joined by sister Lani and the third member of the ladies vocal trio of that era, Miriam Punini McWayne.
When I introduced the short-lived television version of the Hawaii Calls show, I mentioned the curiosity that the show often featured performers one would never hear on the radio show, and because of the air time afforded these special guests, the TV program never got around to showing certain members of the radio program’s regular cast. Because of her graceful hula, there was nary an episode of the TV show that didn’t feature Lani Custino. But one of the repeatedly slighted was sister Nina whose voice could be heard on one song after the next on the TV programs, but whose face was never shown once in its 26 episodes. Nina could be heard, of course, because the audio portion was pre-recorded in a Honolulu recording studio and then lip-synched by the guest soloists. Nina can be heard as one of the backing vocalists for the show’s guests as well as on a few solo numbers where no singer is shown on screen at all – just scenery or scripted vignettes. So we have the exact opposite problem with Nina and the TV program that we had with Lani and the radio program: You have to really be able to tell their voices apart to know who is singing when they cannot be seen and when the host fails to announce the performers.
Next time: The uncredited voice of Nina Keali`iwahana on TV (sort of)…
Sat, 22 November 2014
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin obituary reads, “Lani Custino, hula dancer from a well-known family of entertainers, died Tuesday in Las Vegas, where she had lived since August 1996. She was 66.”
So this is at least partially true. A more appropriate description of the dynamic entertainer might have been “hula dancer and singer.” But history has painted Lani Custino strictly in her more famous role. For a lengthy period in Hawai`i’s entertainment history from the 1950s through the 1970s, Custino was the equivalent of a hand model for the hula – her graceful hula poses appearing everywhere from iconic album covers to travel magazines to posters for the hotels that dotted the Waikiki strip. So it is understandable that this is what she would be best remembered for. Record producer Jon De Mello once said of her, “Lani Custino sculpted artistic images of this mystical land of aloha. Her graceful hands told the classic story of the song.” The pictorial evidence does not lie. A still photograph of Lani dancing the hula seemed somehow to actually convey the motion of the hula.
Such is the magic that Lani Custino wove with her hula hands.
And why not? Lani was trained by one of the most revered masters of hula kahiko (the ancient hula style), Iolani Luahine, who to this day legend claims was witnessed dancing hula while levitating several inches off the ground. After years of study under such a master, Lani became the quintessential “classical hula dancer,” as one observer described her.
Custino began her dancing career in the hula line of the group led by Dan Wallace at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the early 1950s before taking her rightful place as a hula soloist – first with Haunani Kahalewai at the Waikiki Biltmore Hotel’s Top of the Isle showroom, then with Alfred Apaka in his shows at the Hawaiian Village Hotel, and finally with Danny Kaleikini after Alfred Apaka’s passing. Perhaps it is because she became so well known as a hula dancer that Lani’s parallel career as a singer is often forgotten. Or perhaps it is because she hailed from a family of far more famous singers than her. For this reason I chose to profile Lani Custino the singer before I honor her more famous singing siblings.
You read here previously that singer, musician, composer, and song archivist Vickie I`i Rodrigues was one of the first wahine in the cast when Hawaii Calls bowed on July 3, 1935. Vicki remained part of the show’s iconic ladies vocal trio – as well as its music librarian – until 1951 when one of her talented daughters stepped up and took her mother’s place in the trio. This was the debut of Lani Custino with Hawaii Calls. In Lani the radio program hired a double-threat – singer and hula dancer. But she was more frequently featured as a solo hula dancer – a delight for the live audience, but perplexing for those tuned in at home with their ears pressed tightly against the speakers of their Motorolas. More ironically still, host Webley Edwards – who also wrote the scripts for each week’s program – had a terrible habit of not consistently announcing who was singing which songs. Despite that nobody could see her dancing, Edwards almost never failed to announce when Lani was performing a hula. But he rarely announced when Lani was about to sing. For this reason most casual listeners would have difficulty distinguishing Lani’s voice from those of the other wahine cast members – especially her singing sisters who at various times were also members of Hawaii Calls cast.
So if we can’t tell the players without a scorecard, how do we know when Lani was the vocalist on a number on this program? There are a couple of ways, but it takes well-trained ears (not necessarily those of a singer, although that is no doubt an advantage). First there were the rare occasions when Edwards did announce that Lani was about to step up the microphone, and we can compare those performances to those where he didn’t identify the singer. And we can also compare performances from the radio show with Lani’s many appearances on LP records during that era. She did several albums with her singing sisters – often with the Maile Serenaders, a studio-only aggregation (not a real performing group) with a rotating membership which often included the musicians who were also members of the Hawaii Calls group including Sonny Nicholas, Jimmy Kaopuiki, Benny Kalama, Sonny Kamahele, and the producer’s choice from among steel guitarists Barney Isaacs, Eddie Pang, or Joe Custino (who not at all coincidentally was Lani’s husband). She also made two well-loved albums with her entire family led by matriarch Auntie Vickie – Na Mele `Ohana and Auntie Vickie Sings – on which Lani soloed on such lovely traditional Hawaiian fare as “Ku`u Pua Mikinolia.” Finally, for fans of Don Ho, if you have heard Ho’s Reprise Records debut, The Don Ho Show, on which he sings “The Hawaiian Wedding Song,” Don’s duet partner was lovely Lani. If you have heard all of these performances on which Lani is clearly identified, then you might be able to know when it is her voice featured on a Hawaii Calls song.
The most difficult part of this task is not distinguishing Lani’s voice from her sisters’, but specifically distinguishing it from her more famous sister’s, Nina Keali`iwahamana. But for some this actually makes the task easier because Nina is so widely recorded that her voice is emblazoned on our mind’s ear. Their voices are so similar – but by no means alike – that sometimes the easier method for identifying that Lani is singing is by confirming that it is not Nina singing. When it comes to the singing Rodrigues sisters, if I were jazz critic Whitney Balliett, I might describe the differences thusly… Lahela’s voice is like the `i`iwi bird, flapping occasionally in an effort to remain gracefully aloft in the air and on course. Lani’s voice is like one of its feathers drifting through the air from on high to settle into a comfortable breeze below. And Nina’s voice is the air itself – lighter than either of the other two yet sturdy enough to be able to support both bird and feather. Together, the sisters’ voices in harmony was a symbiotic relationship.
But for now we focus on Mrs. Custino.
Lani opens this set with “Kipu Kai,” composed by the venerable songwriting duo of Mary Kawena Pukui and Maddy Lam in honor of the estate of rancher Jack Waterhouse on the island of Kaua`i. (Waterhouse has another important connection to the world of Hawaiian music. You may recall reading here that at the age of 14 singer/entertainer Bill Kaiwa was hanai – the informal system of Hawaiian adoption – to a family on Kaua`i. Jack Waterhouse is Bill Kaiwa’s hanai father.) Copyrighted in 1956, this would have been still a relatively new song when Lani performed it on this 1957 episode of the radio show.
“Ka `Ano`i” is a very old song that is often attributed to no composer in particular but simply listed as a “Traditional” song. But ethnomusicologist Keola Donaghy researched this song much more thoroughly. From his response to Hawaiian lyrics website huapala.org:
This mele was published in a songbook "Ka Ho`onanea o Nā Home Hawai`i", printed in 1888, by the Honolulu Commercial Advertiser, forerunner of [the] Honolulu Advertiser. The composer is credited as Kamealoha, which may have been John [Kamealoha Almeida]'s adoptive father, Paulo Kamealoha. This song also appeared in the Hawaiian language newspaper "Ke Ko`o o Hawai`i", 29 Augate 1883, Buke 1, Helu 2, pg. 8. It is given as a meleinoa for Kapi`olani, is credited to Kamehaokalani, and includes different stanzas and lyrics from the mele credited to Kamealoha. The melody as it is sung today is different from the way it was sung then.
Published in 1812, the love ballad “Ua Like No A Like” is one of the oldest Hawaiian songs that continues to be cherished and performed by Hawai`i’s contemporary artists. Composed by Alice Everett, a contemporary of Queen Lili`uokalani, it is most often performed as a duet for a male and a female voice. Here, lovely Lani is joined by another Hawaii Calls cast regular, singer/arranger Benny Kalama.
Worry not! We will hear more from Lani and learn about her singing sisters soon. But, first, if Lani was better known for her hula, then we would be remiss in not honoring her hula. And that is not something we can appreciate on a radio show.
Next time: The camera-ready hula of Lani Custino…
Trivia: The three compositions Lani performs here have something most mundane in common. What is it?” (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you are a serious student of the last century’s worth of Hawaiian songs. Medium if you are a student of the Hawaiian language.)