Falsetto Heroes - George Matsushita

Eigi "George" Matsushita was born September 10, 1934 in Tokyo, Japan. This extraordinary gentleman had a more than 40 year career in Hawaiian music in his home country - starting at the tender age of 19 with Poss Miyazaki and His Coney Islanders, then later with Takashi Kobayashi's Blue Hawaiians, and then finally forming his own group, the Island Kings as long ago as 1960.

By the 1990s, George was already long well respected in Hawai`i for his efforts in preserving traditional Hawaiian music in Japan - and, particularly, for his outstanding falsetto. And so he had the rare opportunity to make not one, but two recordings in Hawai`i with some of the greats in Hawaiian music - living legends such as Hiram Olsen on guitar, Aaron Mahi on bass, Byron Yasui on `ukulele, guitarist Sonny Kamahele, Mahi Beamer at the piano for a few numbers, and Alan Akaka on steel guitar. (I am not too proud to say here that I, too, count these legends among my best friends in Hawai`i or anywhere.) And these recordings dispel a myth recently perpetuated in the wake of the release of a brand new Hawaiian music CD in 2014.

Earlier this year, a duo considered among the young lions of Hawaiian music - husband and wife team Kellen and Lihau Hannahs Paik, known professionally as Kupaoa - recorded an album with a Hawaiian music group from Japan known as Kaulana. The two groups teamed up for the beautiful new CD entitled Na Pua Mōhala, and this CD has been getting a lot of play in my home. (Kaulana holds the rare distinction of being the first and only international group in history to win a Na Hoku Hanohano award, the Hawaiian music industry's highest honor for achievements in Hawaiian music.) However, the Mountain Apple Company, which produced Na Pua Mōhala for Kupaoa and Kaulana, refers to the collaboration erroneously as a "first-of-its-kind project." Not so. There is a long history of Hawaiian music artists from Japan collaborating with the local Hawaiian music artists in Hawai`i. So numerous are such collaborations that I don't even know where to begin. But we know that Japanese-born Hawaiian music superstar singer Ethel Nakada recorded in Hawai`i with members of the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus (including steel guitarist Jules Ah See) as long ago as 1960. (That record remains coveted by Hawaiian music collectors still today.) In 1969, Pua Almeida traveled to Japan to make a solo steel guitar recording with the finest Hawaiian music artists there. In the 1980s, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd traveled to Japan to make a series of recordings with Hiroshi Wada and the Mahina Stars. In the 1990s, singer and slack key guitarist Agnes Kimura began making a series of recordings with local Hawaiian artists including Alan Akaka, Nina Keali`iwahamana, `Iwalani Kahalewai, and others - many with Audy Kimura at the engineering console and Keith Haugen producing. Then there are George Matshushita's two CDs recorded in Hawai`i in 1998 and 2000. And, finally, in 2005, Japan's Hiroshi Okada, winner of the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest, came back to Hawai`i to record for Hula Records with steel guitarist Casey Olsen, guitarist Kai Artis, and bassist and producer Baba Alimoot. This makes the Kupaoa/Kaulana collaboration in 2014 a seventh-of-its-kind project at best.

But I digress with the fact-checking... It's just that good music can stand on its own merit and should not require marketing hyperbole.

Because we are concurrently celebrating the birthday of composer Helen Desha Beamer this week, the set opens with George gracing us with "Kawohikukapulani," the song (as mentioned previously) that Auntie Helen wrote as a wedding gift for her youngest daughter (also named Helen, or as she was known by her Hawaiian name, Kawohi). Listen as George's falsetto gets higher and clearer with each of the three or four key modulations in this beautiful arrangement by former Royal Hawaiian Band leader Aaron Mahi. This is from George's 1998 CD There's No Place Like Hawaii which - like so many recordings featured here - is no longer in print.

From the 2000 CD My Leis Of Aloha (also out of print), we hear George perform "Mahalo E Hilo Hanakahi," a song written by falsetto singer and hula master John Pi`ilani Watkins which extols the virtues of the beauty of the town of Hilo and the hospitality demonstrated by its residents. Anybody who has ever been to the Merrie Monarch Festival knows it's all true.

Because we featured a Lena Machado song sung by Joe Keawe, I thought we should also feature a Lena Machado song performed by George Matsushita. We hear him in the beautiful waltz-time number "Kamalani O Keaukaha" which Auntie Lena composed for the people of Keaukaha on the island of Hawai`i. "Kamalani" means "favored child" - Auntie Lena's collective reference to the people of Keaukaha and the impression they made on her when she toured Hawai`i. The composition dates to 1934 - making it one of Auntie Lena's earliest. This song is a favorite of falsetto singers because of its challenging melody. This version is again from George's There's No Place Like Hawaii release.

Finally, from the same CD still, the set closes with "Nani Waimea," a brief ditty penned by Sam Koki in which he describes his abiding love for home in Kamuela, Waimea, Hawai`i.

I hope you enjoyed this opportunity to hear a falsetto voice you have likely not heard before. And your blogger thanks you for indulging him in his obsessive pursuit of truth-finding about the history of Hawaiian music on record.

~ Bill Wynne

Direct download: 11_Hoolohe_Hou_-_September_2014_Part_1.mp3
Category:Falsetto -- posted at: 7:54pm EST

Falsetto Heroes - Joe Keawe

Josaiah Keawemauhuli was born September 10, 1918 in Holualoa, Hawai`i. But almost as soon as he left his home on the Kona Coast and landed in Honolulu, he became the protege - as many young Hawaiian music artists did in that era - of the legendary musician and composer John Kamealoha Almeida. Joe first performed with Uncle Johnny on radio station KGU's Playground Quarter Hour. He soon after went into the studio to record for the then brand new 49th State Records company for which Uncle Johnny handled what is now referred to as "A&R" (artists and repertoire). In fact, the label was so new that Joe was the very first artist to go into the studio (49th State's "studios" typically being artists' homes, recording remotely right in their living rooms or kitchens) and release the very first single on this burgeoning label.

As a falsetto singer, Uncle Joe was most unusual. While falsetto singers are often criticized for decreasing in volume as they go higher in their range, Joe Keawe possessed a rare clarity and projection throughout his vocal range - making him the perfect singer not only for rollicking hula numbers, but also for tender love songs.

But like many (in fact, most) professional musicians in Hawai`i, Joe did not earn his living on his music alone. He was an entrepreneur. Joe and his wife first owned a travel agency and, later, a chain of Hawaiian and Japanese restaurants both in Hawai`i and on the mainland.

Joe Keawe should be considered of critical importance in the evolution of falsetto singing in Hawai`i. Yet, surprisingly, rarely do his recordings find their way on to CDs or MP3s in the digital era. Michael Cord of Hana Ola/Cord International Records owns the rights to entire back catalogs of Hawaiian music from its golden era, and this includes the 49th State Records library. And yet very few of Joe's singles for that label have been remastered and re-released, and he has not merited - as have Linda Dela Cruz, Bill Ali`iloa Lincoln, or George Kainapau - an entire full length reissue devoted solely to his music. Pity. But I attempt to remedy this today in honor of Uncle Joe's birthday. And because we have honored Uncle Joe before at Ho`olohe Hou (which is still available for your listening and learning pleasure), I have chosen to spin only vintage discs from the 1940s and 50s that I have not featured on this blog previously and which have not been reissued by Cord or any other label.

The set opens with Joe singing "Kane`ohe," a mele written by Abbie Kong and published by Johnny Noble which employs the first installation of electricity in this windward side residential community as a metaphor for a love affair. ("Kane`ohe" means "bamboo man," and those of you familiar with the geography of O`ahu no doubt understand why. If you don't, I refer you to a map of O`ahu.) On this first selection you hear one of the signature sounds of so many 49th State Records recordings: the mandolin as handled by session producer Johnny Almeida.

The set continues with a pair of songs written by one of my favorite composers, Auntie Lena Machado, who ranks - in my humble opinion - as my second favorite haku mele (or "weaver of song") behind Uncle Johnny Almeida. What may be little known about this pair of songs is that they were intended by Auntie Lena to be part of a "song cycle" of three songs written in the same time period which - when put together - complete the story arc of so many love affairs: love won, love enjoyed, and love lost. "Mai Lohilohi Mai `Oe" (not heard here because Uncle Joe never recorded it) speaks of flirting and the invitation to love. "Ho`onanea" speaks of sharing a relaxed (hence the title) romantic encounter. And "Kau`oha Mai" - sometimes referred to as "The Keyhole Hula" - is the sad ending in which the woman returns home only to find another in her lover's arms. And although this is too often the story arc of a love affair, all three songs were based on events that happened to friends or acquaintances of Auntie Lena's.

When she composed "Kau`oha Mai," Lena understood the boundaries she was pushing - especially for a female composer. Like many Hawaiian songs which express some covert (or overt) sexuality - "Nanea Kou Maka I Ka Le`ale`a" and "Hali`i Ka Moena" come to mind - the composer must choose his or her words carefully. This is at the heart of the poetic technique known as kaona in which there are many layers of veiled meaning which repeat listening - and the aid of the hula - will help elucidate. If we were to sing the English equivalent of what Lena wrote...

Ki`ei aku wau / I peered

Ma ka puka ki `ea / Into the keyhole

E honihoni `ia ana / Being kissed repeatedly

Ko ihu kapu `ea / On your ihu kapu (forbidden opening), yep

... this would no doubt be considered by most to be risque. But not in Hawai`i - and in the Hawaiian language - because historically their cultural views on sexuality are much different and the body and all of its uses are not considered "dirty." Although we now understand that Auntie Lena was among the most artful of composers to be able to choose words carefully while still making her intent quite clear - which is one of the reasons singers love to sing her songs and her compositions remain among the most sung by Hawaiian musicians still today - she was right to be concerned for when she began performing the song in public, indeed Lena received complaint letters. Such is the evolution - or devolution - of a culture since this could be viewed as the once more liberal views of the Hawaiians being superceded by more modern - and conservative - western views.

The other reason falsetto singers love to sing Lena Machado songs is because they were written by a falsetto singer for a falsetto singer. Auntie Lena was a marvelous falsetto (although, the vocal technique being the same for the woman as for the man, it is rarely referred to as "falsetto" when women sing in this manner). And so she wrote songs which utilized the large intervallic leaps that allowed her - and other falsetto singers - to utilize the technique often referred to as ha`i, or the break between the full voice and the high, upper register (or what might sound like yodeling). Joe uses his ha`i to full effect in the major 3rd leap that is heard throughout "Kau`oha Mai." (And again you will hear Uncle Johnny's mandolin.) You then hear Uncle Joe's fluid approach to "Ho`onanea." Your host should have spun these two tunes in the reverse order since in my version of Auntie Lena's story arc, the lovers break up before they ever get to enjoy the affair.

Finally, Joe closes the set with a song often associated with him, a staple of his repertoire. Another love song, "He U`i" speaks of flirtation with a suitor that has already been taken by another. It is hard to top the original recording by the song's composer, Danny Kua`ana, which has more of a swinging jazz feel. Here Joe takes the tune at hula tempo in the first of what would be two recordings he would make of this song - nearly 30 years apart.

Ho`olohe Hou has honored Joe Keawe previously. (Click here to check out more of his recordings not featured here.) But I hope you have enjoyed this follow-up tribute to travel agent, restauranteur, and falsetto singing legend Joe Keawe.

Direct download: Joe_Keawe_2_September_2014.mp3
Category:Falsetto -- posted at: 6:31am EST

Happy Birthday, Joe Keawe!

Joe Keawe is acknowledged as one of the legends of Hawaiian falsetto singing.  Yet, inexplicably, only about three of his dozens of singles recorded for the 49th State Records label in the 1940’s and 50’s have been remastered and reissued on CD.

I thought I would honor Uncle Joe by celebrating his September 10th birthday with you!  Check out this edition of Ho'olohe Hou to learn more about the life and music of one of my falsetto heroes!  (Listen carefully and you will also hear the mandolin playing of Joe’s mentor, Uncle Johnny Almeida.)

Recommended Listening:

A scant two or three of Joe Keawe’s 49th State singles have been reissued on CD through the remastering magic of Michael Cord and Hana Ola Records. 

However, Uncle Joe returned to the studio in 1977 – a mere 32 years after his first recording – to record his first and only full-length LP, and that beautiful recording has been reissued on CD.  Check out Hawai’i’s Falsetto Returns” on the GK Records label.





Na Ka Pueo

Joe Keawe

45 RPM Single

49th State

Kukuna O Ka La

Joe Keawe

45 RPM Single

49th State

Ho’okipa Paka

Joe Keawe

45 RPM Single

49th State

Pua Lilia

Joe Keawe

45 RPM Single

49th State

All above selections out of print.

If you would like to hear more of Joe Keawe's long out-of-print recordings, send me an e-mail at bill@hoolohehou.org.

Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_09-10-09_-_Joe_Keawe.MP3
Category:Falsetto -- posted at: 9:03pm EST