Narda and I spent last evening at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Kahulanui, a Hawai’ian swing band, was in town playing to a packed house of people in really bad aloha shirts. Hearing jazz riffs on Hawai’ian tunes took me back to the 1940s.
Much recorded Hawai’ian music of the era was written by non-Hawai’ians. Some of it was downright demeaning; “I got me a gal with a skirt of shredded wheat, a rope around her neck and doughnuts on her feet.” … “she dances night and day for a dollar and a quarter.”(Becky, I ain’t comin’ back no more – Bert Carlson and Harry Decker – New York) But some orchestras played big band music with Hawai’ian words and overtones. Jack De Mello and Harry Owens were two very popular bands. Hilo Hattie’s comic hulas delighted fans. My father’s uncle Johnny Cahill traveled America and Canada playing steel guitar with one of the orchestras. My grandmother, Hessie Iaea, listened to Alfred Apaka on the Hawai’i Calls program every week.
With the coming of the 50s and 60s, more serious Hawai’ian musicians emerged. Genoa Keawe, Kui Lee and Nona Beamer wrote many wonderful Hawai’ian songs and with the 70’s came Gabby Pahunui and Sonny Chillingsworth and the slack-key revolution. Genuine Hawai’ian chanting accompanied bands like Hapa, and the old hulas emerged from the missionary bans and brought a revolution to hula at the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.
I have been fortunate enough to meet the old and the new. Andy Cummings and Sol Bright performed for us at a fundraiser for ALOHA Association on Maui in 1973. I met Gabby in Hana that year and palled around with the Hoopii brothers, the best Hawai’ian falsetto singers. I met Keola Beamer and Ray Kane in Tacoma at a performance.
But here’s the thing about Hawai’ian music; just like the folk music that is the genesis of country and western music it originates on someone’s front porch or in the living room. My family all sing and many of us play some instrument. Some dance hulas. At my Grandmother’s house in San Francisco we children watched and listened to dance and music performed by elderly relatives. It is an experience I treasure to this day.
Last evening’s performance was a tribute to a period of time when Americans first experienced Hawai’ian music. Jazz, and the island version of scat singing, once performed by Sol Bright and Andy Cummings was performed by Kahulanui. Lolena Naipo Jr. grew up playing bass violin, accompanying his father and grandfather while standing on a milk crate in order to reach the neck. He brought his band from the Big Island to Olympia and a good time was had by all. The band was dressed like a Hawai’ian Blues Brothers edition. Jitterbug dancing was in my mind but absent from my ancient knees so I just sat back and had a good time. Here’s the kicker; trombones, trumpets and saxaphones can blend with guitars, ukuleles and steel guitar. Catch this band if it comes around.
Book note: I'll be at Hart's Fine Books in Sequim, Washington signingcopies of Kolea between 5 and 8 on April 1 and at Third Place Books in Ravenna in Seattle on the evening of April 10. Come by and talk story. Russ Cahill