The Golden Voice of Hawaii

alfred apaka
With little fanfare and almost no mention in mainstream media, one of the most significant re releases in the history of Hawaiian music occurred over the summer. On July 24th Universal Records released a remastered version of the seminal album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” originally released in 1963. This album by the great Alfred Apaka was for years only available on vinyl and from a time starting in the 1990s as downloadable mp3s. By releasing this remastered version, which is available on Amazon and iTunes, Apaka’s round, clear baritone is captured in its full glory. Many classics of the Hapa-Haole era such as “My Isle of Golden Dreams, “Old Plantation”, “Far Across the Sea”, and “Hawaiian Love Call” are found here, showcasing the sound that helped establish Hawaii as a tourist destination around the world.

For those of you not familiar with Alfred Apaka he is perhaps the most talented pure singer to ever grace the stage here in Hawaii. Apaka was born into a musical family, his father Alfred Sr. being a talented singer himself who was taught by his his aunt Lydia Aholo, the hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani.(source) Alfred Jr. became part of this musical legacy learning from his father and starting his own group called “Alfred Apaka and His Hawaiians.” Soon Alfred was noticed by the influential orchestra leader Don McDiarmid and offered the position of lead vocalist for the “Royal Hawaiians.” (source)

This opportunity exposed Apaka to new audiences throughout the 1940s enabling him to tour the U.S. mainland, perform with Ray McKinney, be featured on the influential “Hawaii Calls” radio program and also perform at the Moana Hotel with the “Moana Serenaders.” (source) But it was a luau performance at Don the Beachcomber’s that he was seen by Bob Hope. This served as his big break as he was soon to be featured on national TV and radio along with Hope and Bing Crosby and later on the Ed Sullivan show. (source) Here you can see a performance of Apaka from his first appearance on the Bob Hope show in April 1952 singing “Beyond the Reef.” As you can hear from the applause he was a hit and well received.

Soon Apaka was signed by talent agents Joe Glaser and Jay Faggen in hopes he could compete as a crooner to stand along the likes of Bing Crosby and Perry Cuomo in the burgeoning easy listening and pop standards market. (source) Destiny had other ideas for Apaka though as he was taken under the wing of businessman and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. (source) Having missed the resort boom in South Florida and Palm Springs, Kaiser was determined not to do the same in Hawaii. (source) Having built the Kaiser Hawaiian Hotel (later renamed the Hilton Hawaiian village) in Waikiki, Kaiser was looking for a top star to headline his Tapa Room entertainment lounge. Kaiser found that person in Apaka who performed there starting 1955. Here is video of Apaka performing courtesy of the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Soon Apaka began recording on the Decca and ABC record labels and his popularity was steadily growing as his performances were the main attraction in Waikiki during the exploding tourist market of the 1950s. It is well documented that America had a new found fascination with all things Hawaiian, and now with an established entertainment market, all the big record producers from the mainland were coming to Hawaii hoping to make a big buck off of the premier stars of the Waikiki lounges. And here was Apaka with an established fan base, notoriety and a set of widely accepted and heard recordings. Apaka was now poised for his big national coming out party. As Deon Kane harpist with Honolulu Symphony related in an interview, Alfred was a strikingly handsome man, with a world class voice and an accomplished showman (source), and there was no doubt that Apaka would become a star in the now popular American lounge music scene along the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

What was up next for Apaka was a nationally televised performance with all the promotions and sponsorships one could want to ensure exposure. But what was to happen is one of the great tragedies in 20th century American music. In January 1960 while practicing handball at the local YMCA Apaka suffered a sudden heart attack at the age of 40 and died.(source) This became known as the “The Day Hawaii Cried” (source) as Hawaii lost one of its great talents who could stand along side the greats of his profession and even surpass them much like Duke Kahanamoku did some 50 years earlier. And much like Duke helped establish Hawaii in the eyes of mainland America after becoming a Territory, so was it looked upon for Apaka as Hawaii looked to establish itself in its newfound statehood.

Fortunately there are 6 albums of Apaka material around for us to enjoy. And finally his last album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” is finally available in its remastered form. Whether you are a fan of “hapa haole” music or not, everyone can enjoy the pure vocal musicality of Apaka’s voice on this album. While the term “hapa haole” and the validity of its usage is topic for another blog post, what Apaka represented is a Hawaiian man who was looked upon to stand among the luminaries of the most popular musical form in America. We can only imagine what would of came of Apaka as he moved into the pop standards market of all the greats and had the opportunities to perform in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and the other great musical metropolises of the era.

So while it is unfortunate that many were unaware of this important release, those who are paying attention can hear the influence of Alfred Apaka all over Hawaiian music. Whether it is the complex scripted stage shows still popular at the hotel luaus, the standarized harmonized trios at the tourist bar or even the soaring falsettos performing in high end theatres across Japan, all who perform Hawaiian music today owe their livings to Alfred Apaka Junior.

And it was the great Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole who was able to sum up Apaka’s influence best when being interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin shortly before his death. It was at the ceremony to reveal a statue of Apaka in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Hotel when this icon of Hawaiian music said “He was definitely one of my biggest inspirations, maybe the biggest. He’s the first guy people think about when they think of Hawaiian music. The red carnation lei, the spotlight on the ukulele player in the middle, the hula dancers coming out every once in a while…he invented all that.” (source)

In that sense Apaka is a true embodiment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. He created something new and fresh and put it on stage in the early years of Waikiki’s growth for all the world to come and see. It is just unfortunate that he couldn’t return the favor and take it out to all those who didn’t get a chance to see it. As another great of Hawaiian music Eddie Kamae said, “He was a classy Hawaiian person, he really made Hawaii look good around the world. He had the personality and the talent to compete internationally. He opened the door for Hawaiian musicians, not just Hawaiian music, to be taken on the level of Mainland acts.” (source)

So yourself a favor, pick up some of Alfred Apaka’s music, readily available on iTunes, Amazon and other major music outlets and take in the smooth, timeless baritone of Alfred Apaka Junior, the Golden Voice of Hawaii.

The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 7: This Is Getting Big

By the 1940s Hawaiian music had become an established genre in music circles throughout the world. From its beginnings as an isolated chant based musical form based on its Polynesian cultural roots and through the adaptations brought on by the influences from cultures from around the world, the music of Hawaii became its own distinct sound. You can read the first six parts of this blog series to trace this development.

So at this point we come to an interesting crossroads where it is hard to differentiate between what was influencing Hawaiian music and how Hawaiian music was influence other musical forms. In my last blog post I laid out my theory that both American Jazz and Blues and Hawaiian music, while both having existed mutually exclusive from each other, began to coexist by the 1930s. The musical interaction now resulting from increased touring and exposure by Hawaiian musicians allowed the two forms to borrow from each other and evolve simultaneously. This sets up the next shift in the landscape of Hawaiian music, as American music starts to expand itself as a form into something that is called Big Band music.

Really when we talk about Big Band music, we are referring to an expansion of the Jazz and Ragtime sounds of the 1910s and 1920s into something that involved a larger orchestra and a greater variety of musicians. The string ensemble of bass, guitar, ukulele, banjo and steel guitar, now included violins and other string instruments, a brass section and percussion. Sometimes people refer to this as “swing” music. Whatever the case may be we do see a shift occur in the 1930s and into the 1940s in which an emphasis is placed on a bigger sound with extended soloing to support dancing and live performance.

So how did this influence the music in Hawaii? Much like I discussed in my last post looking at jazz and ragtime influences, with the advent of Hawaii as a exotic vacation destination and the need to support the growing tourist markets, Big Band music was what was played at hotels and restaurants not only in Hawaii, but in Los Angeles and Hollywood as well. People were looking to immerse themselves in this new foreign culture, and Big Band music was a very accessible and familiar way to do that.

You cannot underestimate the influence of the popular radio show “Hawaii Calls” when we look at this new interest in Hawaiian music. Broadcast from the Moana Hotel in Waikiki this weekly radio show reached over 750 stations throughout the world at its peak. People tuned in from all over the country to get their Hawaiian music “fix.” To dream of these faraway islands and imagine escaping to its palm lined white sandy beaches. WWII had familiarized and opened up Hawaii to those on the mainland and people were very interested in feeling the laid back island lifestyle that Hawaii represented.

Singers like Alfred Alpaka, John and Pua AlmeidaNina Keali’iwahamana became household names in America. People were exposed to other artists such as Martin Denny, Hilo Hattie, Arthur Lyman and Ed Kenney. This helped shape the musical form known as hapa-haole music and clarify its characteristics. Lush strings, steel guitars, jazzy chord voicing and soaring vocals became the veritable sound of what was Hawaiian. While some elements were stripped down form the big band music it was based on (gone was the jumping horn section) and other elements were emphasized (mainly the vocal being at the center of the performance), it still had its roots firmly planted in the jazz, ragtime and big band sound it came from.

Over the course of its run from 1935 to 1975 the Hawaii Calls radio program broadcast over 2000 episodes which reached over 700 stations throughout North America, the Pacific Rim and even to Europe. It helped launch the career of hundreds of musicians, hula dancers and lounge performers who would continue to perform in the hotels and tourist sectors of Hawaii for years to come. This influence is still alive today as any tourist coming to Hawaii has become to associate “Hawaiian” music with this sound. Whether it is Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” or Elvis” “Blue Hawaii” all these songs owe their existence to the Hawaii Calls radio programs. Next to the Kamehameha Schools music program, it is the single most important and influential source of Hawaiian music and musicians in the entire world.

You can read more about Hawaii Calls from the broadcaster himself Web Edwards in this excerpt from the program of a performance at the Hawaii Theatre someone reproduced on a music forum.

Through the popularity of the first recordings of Hawaiian music in the 1920s, the exposure of Hawaii through servicemen passing through in the 1940s to the popularity of the Hawaii Calls radio program created a massive tourist industry in Hawaii that is still going strong today and remains the number one industry in Hawaii. As this industry has grown, so has the demand for music that is “Hawaiian.” People want something that is familiar, likable and easy to enjoy. By incorporating elements of Jazz, Ragtime, Blues and Swing, a unique musical genre called “Hapa-Haole” music was created. These songs, usually easy going in nature with song topics centered around the beauty of Hawaii and the relaxed lifestyle supposedly found here, created a high demand for musicians in and around the Waikiki area who could supply this music. Highly versatile singers were desirable and ones that could not only play the well known songs from the Hapa-Haole genre, but popular songs of the American Songbook as well, as people were nostalgic for the songs of their homeland while far way in the islands.

Musician and Singer Don Ho systemized and standardized this type of performance. By the 1960s after statehood was established in Hawaii, the tourist industry had become completely commercialized. By adding even more layers of approachable pop elements, such as light strings and organ, into the arrangements, Don Ho represented all that this new emerging tourist industry wanted.

So while the original intention of the Hawaiian musicians of the 1940s into the 1950s was to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries, by synthesizing Jazz, Blues and Swing into their music, by the 1960s the music of Hawaii was anything but boundary pushing. To soothe the demands of the tourist market, the music became homogenized and watered down. The distinguishing elements of Hawaiian music, the syncopated rhythms, the bouncy improvised steel guitar and the poetic double entendre imagery of the Hawaiian language were replaced with pop-based string arrangements, simple universal themes of love at a faraway place and the crooning vocals typical of a Las Vegas nightclub musician. This led to other convoluted musical forms such as tiki music and exotica that blurred the lines between something uniquely Hawaiian and based on the root forms native to the Polynesian area with something created and perpetuated from an outsider’s viewpoint with an emphasis on musical and cultural elements not felt or experienced by the native Hawaiian or kama`aina individual.

The years from the 1940s to the 1960s were an exciting and dangerous time for Hawaiian music and its musicians. As interest in Hawaii grew and demand for things Hawaiian exploded, the music reached a tipping point in which it teetered on the edge of become a mockery of itself. The distinct sound created here had been absorbed and adapted by American musicians and now Hawaiian musicians were adapting that new sound, which they had a hand in creating and developing in the first place, into their own music. Hawaiian music was caught up in a maelstrom of its own creation in which it was in danger of losing its identity through the demands of a highly commercialized tourist industry that wanted to commodify the Hawaii culture for its own consumption.

All this time Hawaiian musicians were simply interested in working and supporting their families. Being a new state and isolated from the consumerist and capitalistic ways of the American public, the Hawaiian was not aware of this commodification that was occurring at the expense of their Hawaiian culture. At home and in the schools and governments, demands to become more American distracted the people of Hawaii from nourishing and developing the unique characteristics that gave Hawaii its worldwide appeal in the first place. And unfortunately as victims of their own isolation and innocence, Hawaii was very close to losing this completely as the American commercial monster is often too big for any native culture to bear.

But as with anything, often it is at the breaking point that the most important changes and developments occur. My next blog post will look at how a select group of Hawaiian musicians, searching for their identity in the complex web of American commercialization, discovered their roots and thus their soul. I will look to establish that as a world wide consciousness began to unfold, fighting the established norms of homogenization that were trying to take over the world, cultures and folk identities of the people took root once again in Hawaii. I will look at how next the true moment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries began to express itself. It is often in the moment when all the lines are blurred and no boundaries are present, that true breakthroughs can occur and be felt the strongest. EO!


The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 6: Made In America?

sol hoopii

This is a continuation of my multi-part blog series in honor of the World Cup on the musical influences from outside cultures on Hawaiian music. So far I have covered influences from Mexico, Portugal, the American Missionaries and European Military Marches. Today appropriately enough on the 4th of July I would like to look at the complex relationship between two distinct musical art forms: Hawaiian music and ragtime and jazz of the early 1900s.

With this post I think it is important to address something before getting into the details. I think this area of analysis concerning the mutual influences between Hawaiian music and ragtime and jazz is a very under examined aspect of the musical history of our country. Details about who heard what and what actually influenced whom has not been specifically looked at. A lot of this post is my own opinions and a lot more research needs to be done. Any ideas anyone has about this topic are welcomed and I encourage anyone who is reading this to post in the comments section to help deepen the discussion in this area.

There is a specific starting point that we can use as a moment in time when the relationship between Hawaiian and American music began. While there had been knowledge of Hawaiian music in America before 1915, it was the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that really put Hawaiian music on the map. Prior to that there had been American exposure of Hawaiian music, most notably through 1901’s Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo. There, Frank Ferera performed with the Keoki E Awai troupe, which led to a series of gigs with local vaudeville performers. We also have to acknowledge the work of Albert “Sonny” Cunha’s and his hit records such as “My Honolulu Tomboy” and “My Honolulu Maid” as well as what is considered the first Hapa-Haole tune, here sung by the McDowell Sisters in 1905, “My Waikiki Mermaid”.  

More importantly though it was at the seven month long exposition held in San Francisco during 1915, in which over 17 million people visited the Hawaii Pavilion, that truly exposed Hawaiian music to the masses. Here the Royal Hawaiian Quartet and the song “On the Beach At Waikiki” became a sensation. These performances led to a strong interest in Hawaiian music by a collection of important New York music publishers of the time who were referred to as the “Tin Pan Alley.” You can read more about “Tin Pan Alley” here. It was the work of these influential songwriters that created a huge wave of popularity for anything and everything Hawaiian. Within a few years Hawaiian music was the number one selling musical genre by Victor and Ellison Records. These early “Hawaiian” tunes were mostly comical and contained un-Hawaiian titles like “Yacka Hula Hickey Dula.” What this did though, was create an interest in Hawaiian music and that in turn led to a number of Hawaiian musicians traveling to the mainland to perform.

So let’s briefly look at the musical landscape of America at this time. In the early 1900s, before recording technology became readily available, popular music was through piano sheet music sales. Ragtime was the most popular musical form and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was the number one seller. Based on the “ragged” rhythms of St. Louis and New Orleans, ragtime was a combination of the syncopation of African spirituals and coincidentally, military marches. (See my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 5: From Prussia With Love”). From here during the 1910s Jazz and Blues music made its way up from the MIssissippi Delta and began to be infused with the popular ragtime music of the era. By the 1920s through the work and popularity of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, jazz was an established musical art form and a uniquely American one at that.

What is interesting to examine at this point is the what and who was influencing the music coming from Hawaii and the American south. The reason I point this out is that with the surge of Hawaiian musicians performing in America by the late 1920s there are strong similarities between the two forms of music being created by these two mutually exclusive cultures. Were musicians from Hawaiian hearing early jazz records and adapting their style based on the syncopation and improvisation so common in that music? Were jazz musicians of the south incorporating the stylish improvised solos and odd time signatures found in early Hawaiian music to what they were doing? Or did the music of Hawaii and the American South develop exclusive from each other. Were they coincidental advancements made thousands of miles apart, simply the result of similar musical histories such as church hymns, military marches and European ballads?

These are the questions I am interested in answering. And at this point further research is needed. What we do know is that in the 1920s artists like Sol Ho`opi`i, King Bennie Nawahi and Sam Ku West were touring all over the United States performing at dance halls, hotels and restaurants. Here the emphasis was on the exotic sounds of the Hawaiians. The music was fast paced and lively, often accompanied by non-sensical “hula” dances. With Hawaii becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and a need for entertainment on the long ship voyages, Hawaiian musicians were hired to perform on the steamships and in the newly built hotels of Hawaii.

Simultaneously, during the establishment of these touring circuits, recording technology began to improve to the point where portable recording machines could be transported around the country. These were used to record these “exotic” new sounds. Whether it was the easily recordable bright sound of the steel guitar and the naturally strong Hawaiian singing voice that could easily move the recording needle to penetrate the thick recording cylinders, or the already built-in audience for Hawaiian music, these Hawaiian musicians were the most sought after for recording in the 1920s.

What resulted was a co-existence of Hawaiian and jazz music throughout the United States. It isn’t unfathomable to see how touring Hawaiian musicians were hearing the sounds and styles of American jazz and blues and the American jazz and blues players were hearing the sounds of Hawaiian music. As with any cultural art form they must have borrowed from each other and adapted what they were doing on what they heard. I doubt that there was much musical exchange before these one on one relationships developed. The question is how much exposure to each others music through cylinder and early 78 recordings did the American South and Hawaii have? Again this is an area that requires further study.

I believe that there were musical developments that were beyond just mere coincidence. While these occurred in geographical areas that are mutually exclusive from each other, they are based on what I understand to be shared musical histories. The exposure to each others music through touring and the increased popularity of jazz and Hawaiian music only solidified this similarity and encouraged borrowing. After World War I as the United States began to establish a truly unique and unified cultural identity, music was a common ground between all aspects of this new country, including the newly (albeit illegally) acquired Territory of Hawaii.

The years between 1900 and 1929 are a complex and deeply interwoven tapestry of development in American music. It involved new technology, new modes of transportation and new interest in creating something American. The roles of African-Americans in the South and Hawaiians are a part of that, but their relationship with each other is something that needs to be studied and examined further. It would interesting to see what information researchers in the field of ethnomusicology could uncover if they committed to investigating this complex time of musical development in America.

I purposely left out an examination of the Hawaiian steel guitar in this discussion as that is a whole other area of study, but one that is important when discussing these relationships. For more information in that area I suggest you read “The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instrument” by Bob Brozman which is a wealth of information about the development of the Hawaiian steel guitar and its use in Hawaiian as well as jazz and blues music.

While this series of blog posts has focused on how outside musical cultures influenced modern Hawaiian music, this situation is unique as I see American jazz and blues as at first existing mutually exclusively from Hawaiian and then coming together to have a simultaneous influence on each other. What we can say is that these relationships helped HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries and create sounds here in Hawaii and elsewhere that had never been heard before. We cannot forget how important this music was throughout the world as jazz became hugely popular throughout Europe as did Hawaiian music. Also the popularity of Hawaiian music in many Southeast Asian countries through the touring of Tau Moe, and not discounting the influence of the steel guitar on modern Indian music.

So from here on out as I look at the influence of big band music, folk and country music and Caribbean music in Hawaii, I am really looking at how Hawaiian music influenced themselves, as all those musical forms are based on jazz and blues music, which as I just argued, were partially influenced by Hawaiian music. I truly see the music being created and recorded in America between the years 1915 and 1930 as being the golden years of artistic expression. Everything was new and fresh and musicians and artists were looking to create something uniquely modern. In that way it embodies completely the concept of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.

Come back for future posts as I look at how American Big Band music, American folk and country and Caribbean music comes back to influence the music being made in Hawaii. Again, if you have further ideas about the relationship between Hawaiian music of the 1920s and American jazz and blues, please comment as I am interested in deepening the discussion of this complex relationship. Happy birthday America! And Ua Mau Ka Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono!