Wed, 24 December 2014
I have been waiting to share this piece for days. But you have to wait until Christmas Eve to read (or hear) “`Twas The Night Before Christmas…” (In fact, I think that’s a law in certain jurisdictions that you have to wait – like not listening to “Alice’s Restaurant” before noon on Thanksgiving.)
As I have written here previously, the nature of comedy in Hawai`i is far different than practically anywhere else in the world. At the heart of Hawai`i’s unique approach to humor is that it is one of the most ethnically diverse spots on the planet, and these many different cultures needed to learn to co-exist peacefully on an island. So while the rest of the world has eschewed ethnic humor as perpetuating racism and stereotypes, for many in Hawai`i the differences between ethnicities are so apparent that not pointing them out would be the equivalent of ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. It is the humorist’s job to observe and point out the obvious, turn it on its side, look at it through a different lens, and make us laugh about things we already knew. This often takes the form of “men are different from women because…” and “blue collar is different from white collar because…” In Hawai`i, therefore, if you intend to do humor that is uniquely “local,” you have very little material if you don’t look to ethnic differences. With time, as political and cultural sensitivities have risen to a fever pitch practically everywhere, some have become more critical of such practices. (I just read a tirade on YouTube by some Filipinos about Frank Delima’s “Filipino Christmas.” While half expressed outrage, the other half of the Filipinos referred to Delima as a “comic genius” and indicated that it is possibly the funniest thing they had ever seen. As a Filipino-American, I agree. And I agree all over again every time I put on a hot pink or lime green shirt. Some would argue that stereotypes exist for a reason.)
Humor in Hawai`i is so unique in the comedy universe that it has even merited examination in The Hawaiian Journal of History. In his article Humor in Hawai`i: Past and Present, Dr. Harvey Mindess explores the art of comedy as it has blossomed in such an ethnically diverse locale as Hawai`i.
One of the things the residents of those Islands have to teach the rest of us is that humor—even ethnic humor—can be a friendly way of expressing affection for one another, not a form of demeaning attack. Most of us feel as protective of our ethnicity as we do of our families. It is as basic a part of who we are, as is our masculinity or femininity. As we all know that anti-Semitism and prejudice against Blacks, Indians, Chicanos and other ethnic groups have sponsored unfairness and viciousness on the part of racists, it is no wonder that many members of ethnic groups are highly sensitive to any suggestion that their group may be even slightly flawed. But we are all less than perfect as individual human beings, so how could the groups to which we belong be faultless?
The challenge is to differentiate between ethnic slurs in jokes' clothing and ethnic jokes as they exist in Hawai'i: a mostly-friendly form of kidding each other by unveiling one's own and each other's frailties. The difference between ethnic jokes and ethnic slurs is the difference between a pat on the tush and a kick in the butt.
What the residents of Hawai'i have to teach us in general is even more important. All the foregoing evidence of humor in Hawai'i, from its earliest days to the 21st century, suggests that, faced with threatening or disastrous situations, the Hawai'i populace might be inclined to use their sense of humor to keep their spirits up. And in fact, that appears to be precisely the case.
Any exploration of local Hawai`i comedy must also include an examination of the local (and quite legitimate) language referred to as pidgin – a combination of English, Hawaiian, Chinese, and other languages that came to Hawai`i with its many “settlers.” (Note that while locals call the language “pidgin,” that is not, in fact, the name of any language. It is the technical linguistic term for any new language anywhere that was created locally by its people and which likely would not be spoken outside of that region. And, more accurately still, a new language should rightfully only be referred to as a “pidgin” for the first 25 years of existence. As Hawai`i pidgin is nearly 100 years old, it should more appropriately be called a “creole.”) Pidgin began to gain prominence on stage, radio, and TV in the 1950s and 60s with such hosts and comedians as Kent Bowman, Lippy Espinda, and Lucky Luck. The question we might ask is… Why did these comedians choose pidgin as their medium? Dr. Mindess may hold the answer:
Pidgin, the language created by the immigrant laborers in Hawaii to help them communicate with one another, is a humorous tongue, not a polite one. Like Ebonics for Blacks and Yinglish for Jews, it helps draw its users together by endorsing their inclination to amuse themselves and each other.
Simply put, these comedians chose pidgin as their currency because it is a language that doesn’t belong to any one ethnic group but which was co-constructed by all of the ethnic groups and therefore belongs to everybody.
Still, it is an unusual language to speak – and with such fluency – for a guy like Lucky Luck, a haole born and raised in St. Louis (Missouri – not the Catholic high school in Kaimuki). Melvin Luck (his real last name) stayed in Hawai`i after his tour of duty in the military there and made good as a comedian, disc-jockey, TV host, and sometimes actor. (See the early episodes of Hawaii Five-O for his star turns on the cop drama as well as his cameo in the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii.) But one might argue that Luck’s background is not unlike anybody else’s who came to Hawai`i – he was once a stranger there too – so why shouldn’t he achieve fluency in pidgin?
In the early 1960s fellow pidgin comedian Kent Bowman recorded his version of “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” in pidgin for Don McDiarmid’s Hula Records. (It is included on the #17 album on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i – Mele Kalikimaka – A Hawaiian Christmas Party – which is hosted by Bowman.) But a year or two later, Lucky Luck laid down his version – which was slightly different – on a 45 rpm under the title “Kanaka Christmas.” I thought that those who remember Lucky Luck fondly from “sma’ keed times” and “hanabata days” (pidgin terms – the latter of which I would be happy to translate for the unindoctrinated) would enjoy hearing Luck again after more than 50 years. And for those of you who do not hear pidgin often (or perhaps are hearing it for the first time), there is no finer introduction than Lucky Luck and this humorous take on a Christmas classic which – ironically – does not poke fun at any of Hawai`i’s ethnic groups.
So much more to say, but the story reminds me that I have to go set another trap for the `iole nibbling around my recycling cans. I believe I heard them stirring – possibly a pot of tripe stew.
~ Bill Wynne
Wed, 24 December 2014
When writing about the selection ranking #3 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i, I asserted that The Brothers Cazimero blazed a new path in contemporary Hawaiian music – successfully melding tradition and innovation – to create a new style and sound unlike anything attempted previously. I also mentioned that such innovation – in the face of staunch traditionalism and the offense and injury they would surely leave in their wake – carries with it an element of bravery. In this regard artists like Teresa Bright owe a debt of gratitude to Robert and Roland for an album like A Bright Christmas would not have been possible just a few years earlier before Robert and Roland set the stage and took their lumps from the kupuna so that those who followed wouldn’t have to (or, at least, not quite as severely).
Teresa burst on to the local music scene in the early 1980s while still a student at the University of Hawai`i. She released three albums with then partner Steve Mai`i – the last of which yielded Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award Song of the Year “Uwehe, `Ami, and Slide.” After splitting from partner Mai’i, Bright took a nearly five year hiatus from recording while quietly launching her solo career before reemerging like a butterfly from its cocoon with the 1990 classic Self Portrait which earned her two more Hōkū Awards (for Album of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year) – at which point Ms. Bright’s career was living up to her ambitious name. Self Portrait was audacious in its simplicity – some tracks featuring as few as two musicians, a template with which she was familiar from her duo days. But it was the arranging combined with her voice – which simply can do no wrong – which captivated the hearts of local fans. Teresa was just the artist to usher in the new decade for Hawaiian music.
After the follow up, Painted Tradition, in 1994, only a year later – only two albums into her solo career – Teresa went into the studio to work on her first holiday-themed release, A Bright Hawaiian Christmas. The release was everything fans had come to expect. Possessing a voice that excelled at jazz and pop as well as traditional Hawaiian fare, the first Christmas album moved easily back and forth from the rockabilly swagger of “Jingle Bell Rock” to the surprising “Po La`i E” (“Silent Night”) which is at first softly jazz before a gospel choir emerges and we are transported to vespers at a New Orleans church. It was a beautiful album from top to bottom.
But then, only five years later, Bright gave her fans another Christmas gift with a second holiday album. Entitled A Christmas Season’s Delight, the second album fulfilled the seemingly impossible promise of surpassing the beauty of the first with a power and majesty all its own. From the jazzy waltz-time “What Child Is This” with the vibes leading the way to the Bossa Nova-tinged “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” with full orchestra featuring a lush string section to the astounding “Carol of the Bells” conceived a la The Carpenters and featuring a choir of seemingly infinitely overdubbed Teresas singing all of the parts a capella, A Christmas Season’s Delight was one of the finest holiday albums of all time – not merely in Hawai`i, but rivaling many far more expensive productions from the mainland. It is right up there alongside classics from Barbra Streisand, Diana Krall, and Lena Horne and far surpasses anything any of her contemporaries (like Gloria Estefan or Mariah Carey) ever did for the season.
Because time is the ultimate enemy of the recording industry, neither A Bright Hawaiian Christmas nor A Christmas Season’s Delight are available any longer in their original form. But the best selections from both releases were gathered into a single collection, A Bright Christmas, which was released as recently as 2009 and which is available for streaming from such services as Spotify or Rhapsody or for purchase from iTunes or Amazon.com. I do not usually agree with producers when they cull something they refer to as a “best of,” but in this case Teresa and her crew really did choose the best selections from across the two dozen available to them – including the five songs you here in this set at Ho`olohe Hou.
For the purposes of this survey of the great Hawaiian music CDs intended for the holidays, instead of ranking either of the original releases (both would have easily made the list), I have instead ranked the newer collection – because it is still available for your enjoyment – and reserved that additional spot for another deserving CD. (It is difficult to say which of the other two dozen would not have made the cut, but I would not assume it was the current #25.) So we might say that Teresa Bright has doubly earned this elite position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.
And we also have to imagine that an album would have to be truly great to best either of these two from Teresa and reach the coveted #1 position on this countdown.
Next time: #1 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i…