Hawaiian Epic Sessions

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I recently watched this superb documentary on PBS called “American Epic Sessions”. To summarize, the film documents the recent recording sessions produced by Jack White and T. Bone Burnett in which they use a rebuilt recording machine from the early 1920s to record a diverse set of artists including Alabama Shakes, Nas, Taj Mahal and others.  It is fantastically done and is highly recommended for any music fan for not only its historical significance but to witness the musicianship of the artists as they navigate the audio demands of recording using this equipment.

I was truly blown away and inspired by this film and it really got me thinking about some of the origins of recording in Hawaii. While I know about many of the first recordings sessions by Victor Records and Columbia that took place in New York and Los Angeles using the new recording technology, I wanted to discover when were the first recordings made in Hawaii. A little sleuthing brought me to the Brunswick Recording company and some sessions they did in Honolulu in 1928. This article discusses the details of the recording session including who was involved and how they were coordinated. You have to scroll down about 2/3 of the way to get to the section about Hawaii. Here are the opening lines:

Twenty-five double records of Hawaiian music interpreted by Hawaiian artists are to be made by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company, and placed in every music market throughout the world.

The recording apparatus, consisting of a “mike,” many hundred feet of wires, the “cutting machine,” and other technical instruments, has been at work night and day in the Gold Room at the Young Hotel carrying out this program.

Mainly old-time standard Hawaiian numbers were recorded. Artists from all over the island group were assembled by Johnny Noble, director of the Moana Orchestra, who supervised the rehearsals. Charles E. King, author of many popular Hawaiian songs, was the musical director.

I’d also recommend this online radio broadcast that features some of the original recordings as well as discusses the history.

Some of the important facts to note is the role of Johhny Noble in assembling the artists and songs to record. As a Hawaii born composer who had many connections to the music artists of the time he was a good choice to find the right talent to feature on this new technology. And you can see from the selection of songs that were recorded he did a nice job featuring not only many of the popular tunes of the time, but also many important “traditional” tunes as well including “Lei Nani”, “Kalamaula”, and “Haleakala”. In fact as the linked article states, a big part of this was that Charles King was asked to be the musical director.

Some other interesting information is that the recording sessions were conducted at the Alexander Young Hotel which was put on the National Register of Historic PLaces in 1980, but unfortunately demolished a few years later. This link will take you to some interesting historical photographs of the hotel.

I am continually fascinated by the new layers of historical information relating to music in and of Hawaii. Listening to many of these old recordings takes me back to a time well before I was born in which you can hear the original recorded versions of many of the songs that have become to be considered classics. To hear the original recording of “Royal Hawaiian Hotel” mere months after it was written for the opening of that iconic hotel by the original artists that it was written for is simply amazing!

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