Wed, 26 November 2014
By now, if you have read any or all of the previous four articles in this series on Benny Kalama’s years with Hawaii Calls, you likely concur with me that Tony Todaro’s comments about the man in The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment are not hyperbole after all. Kalama lives up to every facet and dimension of the legend that he has become.
And if you listened to the first article in this series, you heard Benny perform a novelty tune that became forever associated with him (much in the same way that “No Huhu” became eternally associated with Barney Isaacs). Despite being of Hawaiian-Portuguese descent, Benny went at the medley of the traditional Scottish folk song “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” and Sol K. Bright’s “Hawaiian Scotsman” with verve, gusto, and his finest Scottish brogue. For Hawaii Calls radio audiences, this medley became one of his most famous and well-loved performances. So imagine what it must have been like to actually watch the very animated and comical Kalama perform the song live? Well, we don’t have to imagine because just such a performance was captured at least one time – and once is all we need to remember – for the television version of Hawaii Calls which aired a too short 26 episodes during the 1965-66 season.
Although I rarely find myself at a loss for words, for now there is nothing more I can think to say that Benny doesn’t say for himself with this performance. He exuded talent, humor (which fellow cast members have gone on record as saying was most genuine, both on stage and off), and aloha that we can actually hear and – now – see. We will hear from Benny a few more times as we approach the final era of Hawaii Calls in the 1970s. And Ho`olohe Hou will doubly honor Benny Kalama again next June when we celebrate both his birthday and the 80th anniversary of the launch of the Hawaii Calls radio program.
I hope you have enjoyed these rare performances by Benny Kalama as much as I have enjoyed sharing them with you.
Next time: More of the gentlemen of Hawaii Calls in the 1960s…
Wed, 26 November 2014
More from Benny Kalama and the Hawaii Calls radio program from the period 1957-1962…
Benny displays his exquisite falsetto again on Lena Machado’s composition “Ho`onanea.” If you have read about the song here previously (when Ho`olohe Hou paid tribute to Machado), then you already know that host Webley Edwards employed his usual brand of understatement when he described the song’s meaning for the radio audience. While it is true that “ho`onanea” means “to relax,” this is not a song about coming home from work, kicking off your shoes, and cracking open a Primo. This is a song about the relaxation that comes from being intimate with your special someone.
Ma ka poli iho nō `o ho`onanea / Lose yourself here in my arms
E ake inu wai a ka manu / I long to drink deeply of love
Edwards’ all too brief explanation of this most poetic of Hawaiian romantic songs speaks to the reality that Hawaii Calls was a family show, and the censors in that era would likely not tolerate the indelicacies of the song’s true meaning – regardless of how it was couched.
There have been many Hawaiian songs composed to honor a person, their home, and their hospitality. One such song is “Wailana” which was written for the home of the Cummings family of Waimanalo. To whom we should attribute the composing of this song remains in question for some researchers. Some say it is one of the many songs written by King Kalākaua. But my 1929 edition of Johnny Noble’s Royal Collection of Hawaiian Songs indicates that the song was composed by Malie Kaleikoa. (It was copyrighted by the publisher, Noble, a year earlier in 1928.) Like the Lena Machado composition “Pōhai Kealoha,” the poetry in the song could speak either to love of a place, a person, or even an entire family or the romantic love for a special someone. And I will need to consult with my experts in the Hawaiian language in order to resolve this conflict.
I repeatedly use this space to marvel at the number of songs that are written with typically Hawaiian flair and feel by songwriters who live far, far from the islands. “Moana” is just one of these songs. Written by the mainland haole troika of Mel Ball, Lew Porter, and Moss Gorham, the song seems tailor-made for Kalama’s falsetto. But while the song’s melodic and harmonic structure are typical of Hawaiian song, the lyric content is not typical of the hapa-haole genre which – by definition – should extol some unique virtue of Hawai`i as a place or its people. The only Hawaiian word here is the name of our protagonist, and all of the sentiments expressed are largely universal. Without the Hawaiian name, the lyric could be a popular song from practically any time, any place. The composers even choose the “rose” as opposed to some flower indigenous to Hawai`i – giving away this song’s true nature as being “foreign” to Hawai`i. As the only ever recording of the song in Hawai`i was by Benny Kalama (on the seventh album in the series stemming from Webley Edwards’ contract with Capitol Records, Hula Island Favorites in 1958), one must wonder how the song fell into Kalama’s or Edwards’ hands and if the song was ever intended to be Hawaiian at all – the composers possibly taking a song they had written by another title (“Joanna?” “Susannah?”) and replacing the titular woman with a more Hawaiian-sounding name. Either way, Kalama made magic with it both on record and on this live broadcast which dates to right around the time the LP featuring the song was released.
I think there is still time for one more from my hero, Benny Kalama. In fact, it is a moral imperative.
Next time: Benny appears for the first and only time on the Hawaii Calls TV show and reprises a song he made famous on the radio program… This is a MUST see…
Wed, 26 November 2014
In my last article I explained that as musical director and arranger for the Hawaii Calls through the 1960s until its unfortunate demise in 1975, Benny Kalama’s work was the backbone of both the radio and TV versions of the program. But despite that his voice was heard constantly on the TV show, he was rarely seen. Despite this, his vocal performances are worth hearing once again, and the hula that he accompanies is exquisite – as you are about to see.
Like “Miloli`i” before it, “He Mana`o Ko`u Ia `Oe” has long been associated with Benny. He performed it many times on the radio program, here again on the TV program, and reprised the song 20 years later for one of the few LPs released under his own name, He Is Hawaiian Music (which you have read about previously here as I count it among the 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life). It is a song in which Kalama gets to show off his one-of-a-kind ethereal falsetto. The song is intriguing for its meandering melody and wandering harmonic structure – making it a challenge for novice musicians to navigate. It’s a song you really have to know (and heaven forbid the singer ask to sing it in a different key than you play it in). If the lyric sounds somewhat repetitive, that is completely intentional on the part of the composer. This is one of a family of songs which celebrate the major islands of the Hawai`i archipelago by naming each island’s most famous flower. But here the composer puts a twist on that model by bringing into play a woman on each island. Poetically speaking, then, this song is a little confusing. Taken together, the woman and the lei could be symbolic of the hospitality of each island. Or it may be about another kind of hospitality – like certain other Hawaiian songs, involving someone with a wandering eye (or heart) who has a different special sweetheart wherever they roam.
This has always been one of my favorite hula performances, too. Notice how the hula has been choreographed to feature only one dancer at a time – one for each woman on each island Benny sings about – and then the four ladies come together for the final verse in which the women are sung about collectively. The costumery and presentation have the feel of the type of hula we might have seen had we been alive during the reign of King Kalākaua. As the Merrie Monarch Festival of hula was inaugurated only a year before this clip was filmed, and because in its 50-year history the festival has often featured performances of hula in the style presented during the monarchy, one can only wonder if the creation of the festival influenced the Hawaii Calls performance here or vice-versa.
From the “Don’t Believe Everything You Read On The Internet” files, certain popular Hawaiian song lyric websites indicate that we do not know who composed this beautiful mele. But many believe we do. The song is often attributed to legendary steel guitarist Sol Ho`opi`i who introduced the song when he performed it first in the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding starring Bing Crosby. (We discussed Ho`opi`i previously here in the context of his work with Lena Machado.) Kalama clearly concurs with this assertion since he credits authorship of the song to Ho`opi`i on his He Is Hawaiian Music release.
As I am enjoying this tribute to one of my heroes, why stop now?...
Next time: A hana hou from Benny Kalama’s radio days with Hawaii Calls...
Tue, 25 November 2014
When writing about the short-lived Hawaii Calls radio show previously, I mentioned that that one of the curiosities of the TV version of Hawaii Calls (which ran during the 1965-66 season) was that Webley Edwards frequently featured performers on the TV show who never appeared on the radio program previously, and this sacrificed precious airtime for some radio show regulars who rarely appeared on the TV version of the show. Such was the case with Benny Kalama whose disembodied voice made many an appearance on the program – usually accompanying a lovely hula number – but whose face only appeared once in 26 episodes. Here is one of those performances.
I have also mentioned here that the radio version of Hawaii Calls at times suffered from a somewhat limited music library – making the show a bit repetitive for those astute enough to recognize that they were hearing the same song over and over again every few weeks. So I have versions of “Miloli`i” from the radio show by Nina Keali`iwahamana, Jimmy Kaopuiki, and Benny Kalama. But Benny was the only cast member to be “honored” by performing the song for the TV version of the program. 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. The hula is performed here by Gloria Beck and Kahili Del Costillo.
Despite being performed by many stars of Hawaii Calls, this would hereafter remain Benny’s song as he recorded it the same year as part of Webley Edwards’ recording contract with Capitol Records on the cast’s 17th studio album, Waikiki After Dark.
Next time: A hana hou from the disembodied voice of Benny Kalama for the Hawaii Calls TV show...
Since the song written in her honor has been heard twice now on Ho`olohe Hou, the picture here is of Daisy the Elephant in the company of an ardent fan at the Honolulu Zoo circa. 1900.
Trivia: Daisy suffered a horrible fate. Does anyone remember what happened? (Difficulty Rating: Medium if you were old enough to be there. Easy if you have Google.)
Tue, 25 November 2014
Benny Kalama is probably the least publicized entertainer in the superstar echelon in Hawaiian musical history. True – everyone knows about his musicianship, but he does everything so well he is simply taken for granted. Similar to movie stars who perform with excellence but are never nominated for an Oscar.
When it comes to arrangements for Hawaiian songs, Benny is incomparable. He plays all stringed instruments as well as any musician. His mellow baritone and smooth falsetto vocalizing should rate him as one of Hawaii’s greatest singers. Benny’s conducting is absolutely flawless, and his pleasant demeanor makes his actions seem effortless.
For as long as I have been writing about Hawaiian music, I am fairly certain I have never quoted from this book. With no offense intended to the author – a transplant to Hawai`i who became one of its most beloved composers of hapa-haole songs – his tome about the history of Hawaiian music is filled with hyperbole as it focuses primarily on Todaro’s personal friends (or, at least, entertainers he considered friends or perhaps just entertainers he hoped would be his friends if he wrote the utmost complimentary things about them). But I quote him here because I have heard every moment of Benny Kalama’s work on record, and, quite frankly, Todaro’s description paints the perfect portrait of a musician I have admired since childhood and who I count among my heroes. I fancy myself a writer, but I admit that I could not have put my sentiments about Benny Kalama in writing any better than Todaro did.
When it comes to Benny Kalama, words like “incomparable” and “flawless” are the furthest thing from hyperbole. They should be considered understatement.
When writing previously of such Hawaii Calls stalwarts as Sonny Nicholas and Jimmy Kaopuiki who were not the “stars” of Hawaii Calls but who might otherwise fall into the category of “They Also Served,” I asserted that the rhythm section is too often relegated to anonymity – that a good musician in the rhythm section not only knows his instrument but is content to spend his career making others sound good. It is a support role that must be fulfilled admirably, and this is what Todaro means when he compares Kalama to those actors who make the film more special but are “never nominated for an Oscar.” Kalama’s name may have been slightly more recognizable than the others, but he made few recordings under his own name – remaining content to arrange and conduct and make the artists with whom he collaborated sound even better than they knew they could sound.
You have read about Kalama here before when I paid tribute to one of his earliest musical aggregations – the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders, led by his friend Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs. And I also tribute him when I began my series on 12 Hawaiian Music LPs That Forever Changed My Life. But we have not yet spoken about Kalama in the context of perhaps his most famous role: arranger for the last few years of the 40-year run of the Hawaii Calls radio show.
This was by no means Benny’s first stint on radio. He had previously performed on “The Voice of Hawaii,” a weekly broadcast from Honolulu station KGU beamed on a national hook-up. During this period he worked off and on with Alfred Apaka, and around 1955 Kalama backed up Apaka in his show in Las Vegas. So when Henry J. Kaiser appointed Apaka the Entertainment Director of his newly opened Hawaiian Village Hotel in 1957, Kalama was Apaka’s first choice to join him there as a musical director and arranger where he spent the next nearly 15 years – staying even after Apaka’s death and working with (among others) Hilo Hattie. Although it is little documented, Apaka credited Kalama with helping him achieve his tremendous success – Benny coaching Alfred years earlier in developing his vocal style and unique phrasing.
And here is where the history becomes less than entirely clear. Benny joined the Hawaii Calls cast in 1952, but we cannot know if it was Apaka (already a cast member) who recommended him to show creator/host Webley Edwards or if Edwards recruited Kalama directly based on his already two decades of credits on the local music scene. But it matters little how he got there. Kalama was the perfect addition to the cast as he could play any instrument handed to him (but listen closely and you will hear – not just in this segment, but in any of the segments previously featuring any of the Hawaii Calls singers – Kalama’s rhythmically exciting `ukulele style). He was also adding his arrangements fairly early on with Apaka performing on the radio show arrangements Benny created especially for him for their evening shows at the Hawaiian Village. (Listen again to Kalama’s arranging touch on the Broadway classic “Bali Ha`i” which I posted earlier.) With such effortless talent, Kalama would eventually become musical director and arranger for Hawaii Calls in 1967 with Al Kealoha Perry’s retirement. But as we are not yet there in our chronology, let’s first take a look at Benny Kalama the singer.
The set opens with a song rife with kaona (Hawaiian-style poetic double-entendre). “Lepe `Ula`ula” hails from the Waimea area of the Big Island which is home to one of the nation’s largest ranches. So our protagonist is a cowboy who claims to have caught his lover with a lasso. The composer writes “`Elua wale iho ho`i māua / Ka hau hāli`i a`o Waimea” (“Just the two of us covered by the dew of Waimea”), and those who understand kaona will tell you that typically whenever rain, mist, or dew are mentioned, it is a not-so-veiled reference to love-making. Because the song is cowboy-themed, it is usually taken at a peppier clip than the relaxed tempo Benny takes here. He is accompanied by the ladies vocal trio of sisters Nina Keali`iwahamana and Lani Custino with Punini McWayne. (The third sister – Lahela Rodrigues – would not join the cast for a few more years.)
If the lei is the most precious symbol of affection the Hawaiians can give, what could be more precious than a lei of flowers? A lei of stars, perhaps? In 1949, composer R. Alex Anderson published the now classic “I’ll Weave A Lei of Stars,” but a few years later, another composer extended Anderson’s analogy to outfit the object of his affection with a lei of stars, a gown woven from the skies, and a rainbow for a shawl. Benny sings that oft-forgotten follow-up, “To Make You Love Me, Ku`uipo.”
Finally, a novelty number with which Benny will forever be associated. With his best Scottish brogue, Kalama weaves a medley of the traditional Scottish folk song “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” with the song of the “Hawaiian Scotsman” composed by Hawai`i’s own Solomon Kekipi Bright. Benny performed this song many times both live and on record, and it became one of his most famous and well-loved performances. Listen here also as steel guitarist Jules Ah See mimics the sound of the bagpipes with his Magnatone steel guitar.
There’s still much more to come from one of my musical heroes – including a glimpse (or three) at Benny Kalama on video.
Next time: Benny sings another novelty tune… this time in Hawaiian… for TV!...
Trivia: “To Make You Love Me, Ku`uipo” was composed by a future Hawaii Calls cast member. Can you name him? (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you have Google.)