I Ulu No Ka Lālā I Ke Kumu

sons in studio

As the tourist economy continued to grow and the realities of statehood began to take hold with the people of Hawaii, a realization unfolded that the musical culture of Hawaii had moved significantly far away from its roots. While the Hawaiian language remained relatively strong in comparison with other colonized nations, musically, profound changes had occurred from the humble chant based beginnings of the pre-contact Hawaiian. As covered in detail in my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 7: This Is Getting Big” by the 1960s Hawaiian music had been deeply mixed and intertwined with the developments in American popular music and along with the concurrent commodification of the Hawaiian culture resulted in a watered down musical identity. So here I will be discontinuing my “World Cup” series of blog posts on outside cultural influences on modern Hawaiian music. By the 1960s the music of Hawaii had become some inundated with outside changes that it no longer contained its own unique musical identity. It was time to go back to the source of where Hawaiian music grew from.

And thus I chose the proverb “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu” for the title of this post. Translated as “the branches grow because of the trunk” this proverb refers to the branches that continued to grow during the commodification of Hawaiian music. While the music found in the lounges of Waikiki, the Hollywood movies of Elvis and the barrooms of the cruise ships may have been the systemized pop music of the Don Ho stage show, many Hawaiians were still playing a style of music that was a continuation of the music that was created from the influences of Mexican ranchera ballads, Madeiran folk songs and the jazzy steel guitar that laid the foundation of the modern Hawaiian sound. The difference being, these musicians were playing this music in their backyards and beach parties, rather than in the bars along Kalakaua Boulevard or lounges of the Moana Hotel.

There were two individuals that were very conscientious of this reality and dedicated themselves to changing what type of music was being played at the popular bars and restaurants of Honolulu; Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui. If you haven’t done so, I would recommend that you read Eddie Kamae’s account of this shift of consciousness in his biography Hawaiian Son.” In this stirring recollection about his meetings with Gabby during a weeklong recovery from near fatal sickness, Eddie recounts his discussions with Gabby about their frustrations with the type of musical demands put on them by the restaurant and showroom owners in Waikiki. At this point Gabby was in high demand as a steel guitar player in the resort music scene and Eddie had been recognized as the number one ukulele performer in all of Hawaii, even having toured the mainland. But they had become restless performing a style of music that had drifted too far from their idea of a true Hawaiian sound. Performing steel guitar in Andy Cummings backup band, Gabby was now playing the jazz and pop styles favored by the Hawaii Calls radio program. Eddie had become well known for his ukulele arrangements of Latin numbers and American standards he performed during Ray Kinney’s luau shows. Something had to give.

As Eddie tells it, it was through these discussions that Gabby began to feel alive. He got so excited that he began to eat and was finally able to regain enough strength to pick up his guitar again. Armed with his ukulele, Eddie began to play the music with Gabby that they remembered from their childhood. The rapid strumming of the ukulele and the finger picking of the slack key guitar along with the traditional ballads and place songs of the early 1900s reaffirmed the original joy that they got from playing music. Calling upon close friend Joe Marshall to bring his stand up bass, they knew they had tapped into something new that was based on the sound they had been missing. The final piece was the steel guitar of the elusive David “Feet” Rodgers who had maintained the traditional steel guitar style of his father, rather than the new pedal steel style that had emerged as the dominant sound.

For the next four months they met regularly honing this new sound. Rather than trying to replicate the sound of the past, they were looking to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. They took the songs of previous generations, but by applying a fresh new musicality to it, developed over their years and years of performing, created something that had never been heard of before. Eddie began to research the archives of the Bishop Museum incessantly, looking for the original vocal and musical arrangements and the original unadulterated verses of long lost Hawaiian compositions.

After these months of long jam sessions, this group, now dubbed the “Sons of Hawaii” debuted their new music at the Sandbox in Honolulu to raucous crowds. People would travel from all over Oahu island to see this new group who had a sound that was distinctly different from what was being played on the “Hawaii Calls” radio show. Gone were the jazzed up chord vamping of the electric guitar, the repetitive downbeat root notes of the bass, the chang-a-langy open chord rhythms of the ukulele and the long drawn out reverb laden notes of the steel guitar. These were replaced by the rapid melodic fingerpicking of the open tuned steel string acoustic guitar, the complex closed chordal voicing and intricate lead lines of the ukulele, syncopated dulcet tones of the stand up bass and the tight staccato flourishes of the steel guitar. On top of this were Hawaiian vocals that, through the guidance of cultural elder Mary Kawena Pukui, were sung with proper intonation and pronunciation with conscientiousness adherence to the original intentions of the composer.

Soon they were one of the highest paid and most in demand Hawaiian music groups in all of Hawaii, as people eagerly attended their shows to soak up this “new” music that so strongly tapped into their ancestral consciousness with clearly an ear and eye on the future. With the release of their debut album “Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii” (so named as Eddie Kamae was still under contract with another label and couldn’t legally identify himself with this recording) and the subsequent album “Music of Old Hawaii” The Sons set down onto vinyl their new sound. 30 seconds into the debut track “Na Ono Na Ia Na Kupuna” you can tell you are listening to something that sounds uniquely fresh, yet is firmly growing from the foundational trunk of the past. This is the moment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries!

These well attended performances and popular first two albums, along with the recordings of slack key guitarists Leonard Kwan and Raymond Kane set the ground work for what would later became known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” in Hawaiian music. They were perpetuating a style that was soon to be actively absorbed into the younger generation that grew up hearing these recordings. Groups starting with The Sunday Manoa, Hui Ohana and later, Olomana, The Makaha Sons of Niihau, Keola and Kapono Beamer, were branches along this tree whose trunk grew from the Polynesian chants of the original Hawaiians.

And through it all The Sons of Hawaii continued to perform and record. Over the years, Gabby Pahinui left, Moe Keale joined, as did Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth and a formidable who’s who of Hawaiian musicians. One of the most influential being the late Dennis Kamakahi, whose original compositions jump started the Sons back into the limelight during the musically dense 1970s when every bar and restaurant in Honolulu were hiring “traditional” Hawaiian music groups. Later avoiding the ever growing reggae infused island music of the 1980s, Eddie Kamae and The Sons of Hawaii trudged on with new members Braddah Smitty, Goerge Kuo, Gary Haleamau and Paul Kim. With the passing of Joe Marshall, Ocean Kaowili joined and later Mike Kaawa. Always with their ever present palaka shirts, The Sons of Hawaii held high the candle of this new Hawaiian music sound with over 10 albums of music to draw from.

As a “Spiritus Mundi” took hold on the consciousness of the world with an emphasis on where we came from and the cultural identifiers of our past, so it did in Hawaii in well. Led by Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui, a concise musical language was developed to reflect this changing consciousness. This became the framework of the type of music being produced in the backyards and barrooms across Hawaii.

A parellel could then be drawn to the growing folk music scene of the 1960s in America. Much like The Sunday Manoa and the like were drawing from The Sons of Hawaii, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Cosby, Stills Nash and Young, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds were the new groups drawing from the foundation laid by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, The Weavers, Lead Belly and Big Bill Broozny.

Today as American musicians are looking back to these folk music traditions to create a new sound rooted in the past to oppose the electronic and pop laden music of today, will Hawaiian music do the same? Well that is a complex question and one I would like to address in more detail in a future post. Mostly because almost the opposite thing has happened here in Hawaii. Even though the popular music in the islands today is a watered down rhythm and blues reggae style called “Jawaiian”, “traditional” Hawaiian music has remained strong.  But again through the demands of the tourist industry to create a standardized form of Hawaiian music, the original intentions of Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui and other members of the Sons of Hawaii have been misconstrued. The idea as I see it is to coninue to grow. To continue to be the branches growing from the trunk. And this is the idea of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. But unfortunately this has not happened. Instead the branches have ceased to broaden. The same branch has continued to grow in one direction, never having expanded into new territory. Unfortunately this will cause the branch to collapse under its own weight. So today I ask my fellow musicians and lovers of Hawaiian music to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. This is what I strive to do. Use different instrumentation, compose new mele with variations in tempo, key and rhythm. Experiment, try new things. Adapt and incorporate new sounds from music you enjoy. But always remember the trunk you grow from. Never forget that “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu”, “the branches grow because of the trunk.”

 

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