Tue, 9 December 2014
If you celebrate Christmas and you love music, then you likely have your favorite Christmas LPs, CDs, or MP3s. And if you are like me, you probably can think of one artist whose Christmas album you feel was an abysmal failure. (I can think of several.) But you can probably also think of one artist you love who should have made a Christmas record but never did.
For me, that artist is Nina Keali`iwahamana. The singular voice of the Hawaii Calls radio programs for nearly two decades and one of the three singing daughters of musician and composer Vicki I`i Rodrigues, Nina’s career has been guided seemingly by the principle of doing what she wanted to do when she felt like doing it. This is evidenced by a solo career spanning nearly 50 years but which has yielded only a handful of albums under her own name. There are the albums she made with her mother and equally famous brothers (Boyce and Ioane) and sisters (Lani and Lahela). She has been the featured voice on albums by `ukulele stylist Herb Ohta and steel guitarist Bud Tutmarc (the latter of which featured Nina singing the Great American Songbook of Cole Porter and the Gershwins). She has also teamed up for duet releases with both Charles K.L. Davis and Bill Kaiwa. But there has been not a single solo album from Nina since the 1970s when she teamed up for a popular series of albums (produced rapid-fire) with arranger/conductor Jack de Mello for his Music of Polynesia label. So with so little output, it would be presumptuous to expect a holiday album.
But you may have read here previously about a Christmas album which features no names on its cover. Simply entitled Mele Kalikimaka – A Hawaiian Christmas Party (and ranking at #17 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.), the album largely featured the cast of the Hawaii Calls radio program. It simply wasn’t entitled Hawaii Calls Christmas as there was already an official LP by that title. In other words, this is the Hawaii Calls holiday album that few know about. More importantly, Nina and her sisters Lani and Lahela were featured on a half-dozen of the albums selections.
In my previous post about this remarkable album, you heard Nina and brother Boyce duet on “Spring Spends The Winter In Hawaii.” In this set I offer three more from the signature voices of Hawaii Calls. Nina and sisters remind us of the true meaning of Christmas with “Po La`i E” (“Silent Night”) and the Harry Belafonte hit “Mary’s Boy Child.” Then Nina fulfills my Christmas wish – for if ever there was a song I would have wanted to hear her sing that I feel epitomizes this holiday, it would have been Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” from my favorite holiday musical of all time.
Nina mentions reaching down (or over) to another set of islands for the Caribbean-influenced “Mary’s Boy Child.” But the truth is that the song was written by composer, arranger, and choral conductor Jester Hairston who in his time was considered the leading authority on African-American spirituals and choral music. The song was not originally Christmas-themed. A friend asked Hairston to compose a song for a birthday party where the guests would be natives of the West Indies. So Hairston composed a song – “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” – for the occasion in the style that he hoped the guests would find familiar. It would not be until years later that Hairston was commissioned to write a holiday song for Walter Schumann’s Hollywood Choir, and Hairston recycled the calypso-themed tune and rhythm for “Mary’s Boy Child.” It is an interesting ethnographic point that many believe the song to be composed by a native of the West Indies when, in fact, it was composed by a native of Belews Creek, North Carolina. And it makes one wonder whether or not – with appropriate study and practice – a native of New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or even Tokyo could perform Hawaiian music so convincingly that most would believe it was recorded by a native Hawaiian.
By the way, despite his songwriting and arranging background, Jester Hairston would best be remembered as Henry Van Porter on Amos ‘N Andy.
So if you were truly interested in hearing a Nina Keali`iwahamana Christmas album end-to-end, you might purchase the six songs she led from Mele Kalikimaka – A Hawaiian Christmas Party and marry these to the four selections she led on the Hawaii Calls release A Merry Hawaiian Christmas. Those ten songs would make an amazing playlist for your iPhone, iPad, or other music listening system.
In case she is reading, here’s wishing Auntie Nina a happy Hawaiian Christmas and all good things in the year to come.
And now you can tell people you’ve heard “Silent Night” sung by a real live angel.
~ Bill Wynne
Tue, 9 December 2014
For his label’s first holiday release, Hula Records’ owner Donald “Flip” McDiarmid II assembled a cast of his label stars for something not unlike a TV variety program hosted by Andy Williams or Perry Como. The artists went into the studio to professionally record their holiday favorites, somebody wrote a script, then an engineer haphazardly laced together the dialogue recorded later with the songs recorded earlier to make it sound like a bunch of friends were casually sitting around the hearth for an impromptu holiday gathering and sing-along. But it was anything but, and without the festive visuals that usually accompany such holiday fare – the Baldwin grand piano, the roaring fire, the pretty girl singer in a red dress and a Santa cap with the white pompom flopped askew in a not-quite-accidentally-sexy way – the concept falls flat.
However, what McDiarmid did accomplish was giving the world the second of two holiday LPs which largely featured the cast of the Hawaii Calls radio program. It simply wasn’t entitled Hawaii Calls Christmas as there was already an official LP by that title,but most of the artists featured on Mele Kalikimaka – A Hawaiian Christmas Party were indeed Hawaii Calls program regulars. In other words, this is the Hawaii Calls holiday album that few know about.
The set opens with Jimmy Kaopuiki leading the men of Hawaii Calls in an Alex Anderson composition, “Holiday Hula.” Barney Isaacs plays the brief-but-joyful steel guitar solo. Composed by the same gentleman who gave us “Lovely Hula Hands,” “Haole Hula,” and countless other hapa-haole gems, the lyric to this song published in 1954 was rarely heard between this 1960s recording and the recording from only the last few years by Robi Kahakalau. There is also a lovely instrumental version by `ukulele player Kalei Gamiao.
Next brother and sister Boyce Kaihiihikapuokalani and Nina Keali`iwahamana – both stars of Hawaii Calls during this period – team up for our theme song here in New Jersey, “Spring Spends The Winter In Hawaii.” But then Hilo Hattie rubs it in a little worse with her reflections on Christmas weather in Hawai`i – among other nuances of the holiday that differ in the islands – with “Santa’s Hula” featuring the steel guitar of Joe Custino.
And, of course, the host for this faux fest is none other than Hawai`i’s favorite faux senator K.K. Kaumanua, the alter ego of comedian Kent Bowman.
Despite the stilted dialogue and forced holiday fun, because of the stellar cast of characters the album merits a spot on Ho`olohe Hou’s 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i. Because the album has been rereleased in the digital era, you can still enjoy the entire album on Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming music services or by purchasing the MP3 version from iTunes, Amazon.com, and practically anywhere MP3s are sold.
But there is more to the story. Nearly half of the album featured the voice of Hawaii Calls singing star Nina Keali`iwahamana. So is this also the Christmas album that Nina’s fans have always longed for?
Next time: #16 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… And more from Nina and the Christmas album her fans wish she had made…
Direct download: 17_Christmas_-_Various_Artists_-_Mele_Kalikimaka.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 5:12am EDT