Whom Shall I Say Is Calling?

As Martin Short used to say in his recurring role as Ed Grimley on “Saturday Night Live” whenever the phone would ring, “The phone has such a sense of mystery to it, I must say.” He was so frightened of whoever might be on the other end of it and what they may have to say that often he ended up just letting it ring - never answering it at all.  As we’ve learned from “Downton Abbey,“ such is the angst that came with the installation of the first telephone: Who knows if it rings for good or bad? In this continuing series on the telephone in Hawaiian music, we find examples of both in songs that span more than a century of Hawaiian song.

The earliest reference to the telephone in Hawaiian song that I could locate dates back to the Hawaiian chant form. “Aia I Kohala Ka’u Aloha” may be found in Mary Kawena Puku’i’s book “Na Mele Welo.” A love chant set in the district of Kohala on the island of Hawai’i (often incorrectly referred to as “the Big Island”), it is also the first reference in Hawaiian song to the telephone as a harbinger of bad news. I use the term harbinger since - like Ed Grimley - we cannot be sure if the fear that the singer’s lover - and husband of her six children - has taken a new lover results from some gossip shared via the telephone or if it was because our singer was calling her lover incessantly and - like Ed Grimley - he never answers. The chant says…

Na ke kelepona au i ha`i mai

Ua noho hope `oe no ko lei

It was the telephone that told me

That you are again with your darling

…before - as the chant goes on to say - tears begin to fall. This is the beauty of Hawaiian song:  More often than not, it insinuates - not states - leaving any number of interpretations to the listener.  Because this mele ho’oipoipo -or love chant - may date back more than 100 years, one would be hard-pressed to find a recording of it. However, it was performed as recently as 2005 at the Merrie Monarch Festival by Maile Francisco of kumu hula Sonny Ching’s Halau Na Mamo O Pu’uanahulu - a performance so inspired that it garnered Maile the coveted titled of Miss Aloha Hula. I encourage you to check out the performance here.

Alice Rickard wrote “Kaimuki Hula” some time between 1928 and 1942. How do we know this? The song appears in one of many volumes and printings of  “King’s Songs of Hawaii” compiled by composer Charles E. King. Ethnomusicologist Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman explored these invaluable volumes with me - explaining that there were numerous editions of these over the years, not all of which contain the same songs. My copy of King’s “Green Book” dates to 1950. In it, the reader can clearly see when songs may have appeared in multiple volumes because they receive multiple copyright dates. Most songs in my edition have a 1942 copyright, but those that were published previously and which appear in an earlier volume also have a 1928 copyright date. So I am essentially triangulating the date of “Kaimuki Hula” based on its most recent copyright date and the copyright dates of other songs appearing in this volume.  The song speaks of an affair which was supposed to have been a secret but which likely wasn’t - as evidenced by the recurring refrain hu ana ka makani e, which means “the blowing of the wind” but which is no doubt a Hawaiian-style poetic reference to gossip. There is a mention of the telephone here too:

He aha nei hana a ke kelepono la

Ke kapalulu nei o ke aumoe la

Is that the sound of the telephone?

Ringing so early in the morning?

This is likely a reference to the lovers arranging a meeting at an hour when nobody is likely to hear the details of their impending rendezvous. There are too few versions of this song, but I chose to share one by Myrtle K. Hilo from her album “The Singing Cab Driver” which is still available for purchase or download.

My second favorite composer of Hawaiian songs (I dare not rank them, but I have a most favorite which I will talk about at length in due time) is the legendary Lena Machado. Dubbed “Hawai’is Songbird” because of her powerful voice, Auntie Lena is best remembered as a songwriter who composed both rollicking uptempo numbers filled with kolohe - playful or even naughty - wordplay and love ballads worthy of Cole Porter and Richard Rogers - occasionally in English, but more often in the Hawaiian language. Lena was also a foremost exponent of Hawaiian music - traveling around the world as an ambassador of Hawai’i and its unique culture. My favorite Lena Machado composition is entitled “Aloha No.” Now, let us not confuse the meaning of “no” in English and its sound-alikes in almost every other language which typically mean “no,” “not,” “negative” or “opposite.” In Hawaiian, “no” is a modifier, an intensifer - like an adverb - which means “really,” “truly,” or “a whole hell of a lot.” So “Aloha No” might be translated as “This is the real deal!” According to the the book “Songbird of Hawai’i” by Pi’olani Motta and Kihei de Dilva, “Aloha No” is one of many songs Auntie Lena wrote for her husband, Luciano. It dates to 1949 when one of her many tours took her to San Francisco and away from Uncle Lu - for while he had previously been one of the musicians in Lena’s traveling group, Lu was by this time staying behind at home to care for the children. (In this way her family life - like her music - was most progressive.) Auntie Lena simply couldn’t sleep without Uncle Lu beside her side, and the song speaks of their frequent telephone conversations in which she longs to know that he can’t sleep either.

Ho`ohihi ko`u mana`o ea

I ko leo ma ke kelepona

E haha`i ana i ko moe `ole i ka po

My thoughts are caught up

By your voice on the telephone

Telling me of your sleepless night

I love that this is the rare Hawaiian song which promotes the use of the telephone as an instrument of keeping love alive when two are apart. And yet it has been too rarely recorded. There are versions by Tony Lindsey in the 1960s, Robert Cazimero in the 1970s, and the most recent version by Ata Damasco in the 2000s. But I share with you a version by Kanilau from their out-of-print CD “Ka Lihi `O Ka`ena.” My mind shoots to this version because of my recent exchanges with one of Kanilau’s members, kumu hula Tiare Noelani Ka`aina, who inspires her friends and followers daily on Facebook.

And finally, the latest entry I could find in the catalog of Hawaiian songs referencing the telephone - this one with words from P.K. Kuhi and music by Ken Makuakane. “Aia I Waimanalo Ko Nu’a Hulu” appears to be at the same time a modern love song and one of the continuing cycle of chants for Queen Kapi’olani. (And I confess to having difficulty researching this, and so I have called on none other than Ken Makuakane for assistance. I will update this post with any new information.) It would at first blush appear to be another of the many Hawaiian songs of illicit affairs of the heart with its references to entrancing thoughts, the royal flag which flutters proudly, and traversing a forbidden sea (references to the sea and sea spray being among the most common references to love-making in Hawaiian poetry).

‘Iniki welawela a ka ‘ehu kai

Lamalama ‘ula i ka lani ali‘i

Li‘ili‘i na hana a ke kelepona

Ha‘iha‘i ‘olelo me ka huapala

You felt the sharp pinch of the sea spray

That are brightened by the beauty of royalty

It takes only a minute by telephone

To start a conversation with a sweetheart

Here again the reference to the telephone is likely as an agent in brokering the meeting that will end in delight for those on both ends of the line. This song can be found on Ken Makuakane’s beautiful 2010 CD release “Kawaipono” - available at the iTunes Store or wherever Hawaiian music CDs are sold.

Are there other references to the telephone in Hawaiian song?  Indeed, there is one more of which I am aware. A story for another time - very soon.

Direct download: Telephone_Songs.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:27am EDT