Old-time Hawaii music manBy John Berger
Jack de Mello now lives on the mainland,
but he's back with a CD rerelease and
an appreciation for technology
Special to the Star-Bulletin
WRITING a musical score for the "Music of Hawaii" series 30 years ago meant, Jack de Mello says, hearing the music "with my eyes," mailing the work to Los Angeles or London, then flying over to conduct the recording sessions with no time for revisions. It was simply too expensive to keep an orchestra waiting in the recording studio while individual parts were changed.
When de Mello and his son, Mountain Apple Co. President Jon de Mello, work on a project these days, they can share ideas and make changes instantaneously via e-mail.
"He records it in his house here, sends me e-mail as an attachment. I get it instantly, listen to it, make my suggestions, go into it and make a few changes, and I send it back. In 10 minutes we have the structure of the whole piece with computers. It's marvelous."
That's only one of the changes that de Mello has seen in the 30 years since he conceived and produced the "Music of Hawaii" series. Mountain Apple released a cross-section of the music from the original four double-album boxed sets on CD earlier this month. The first in the series was recorded over three days in late October 1965. The project -- a musical survey of Hawaiian music from pre-contact chant to the American pop of the mid '60s -- remains an unequaled accomplishment.
De Mello says he approached it with both artistic and financial objectives.
"I wanted to create a new art form based on Hawaiian music and I wanted to enhance the value of my record company. Music can say anything you want it to say as you orchestrate it, so I was able then to write impressionistic versions of island music. If a song was about the wind I had the option of using instruments that gave that feeling."
In addition to using symphony orchestras de Mello used studio musicians and vocalists capable of playing and singing anything from pop to opera. Where pronunciation of Hawaiian lyrics was essential, he used Emma Veary or Nina Keali'iwahamana.
De Mello recorded in London and Los Angeles. One of the reasons for the change in geography was that there were no local recording studios big enough to accommodate the productions and production values he had in mind.
"It had nothing to do with local musicians, but there were no studios here that were 100 feet long and 60 feet wide with sound baffles. You don't need that for advertising agency work. When we recorded in London, I used the engineer who had recorded the Montovani orchestra the previous day so when he set the studio up he knew exactly what I wanted."
The first two-album boxed set, "Music of Hawaii: From the Missionaries to Statehood," was such a success de Mello was commissioned by Ala Moana Center and its parent companies (Hawaiian Land Inc. and Dillingham Corp.) to continue the series. Volume 2 covered the 20th century through the mid-'60s, Volume 3 included Keola Beamer (discovered by de Mello "in a warehouse on Piikoi Street") and the early stirring of the Hawaiian Renaissance.
"When you had all four albums you had the story of the music of our islands -- even chant by Iolani Luahine. It was a project that really blossomed after the experiment of the first album. I use the word ("history") carefully because I knew what I had, but I didn't know what the market acceptability was going to be and it was extremely costly to do."
De Mello has been following the changes in recording technology for more than half a century.
"I started off (recording) direct to disc. We'd cut an acetate disc and that disc was then processed and became the 78. There was no editing. If you made a mistake you got a new acetate and started all over. Then I went to wire (recording) and from that came monaural tape and then two track. Having three tracks to work with seemed like such a luxury.
"The last album I did was 48 tracks. With 48 tracks a guy can do anything!"
De Mello traces his interest in music to his childhood in California. His father had moved there from the Big Island, married, and settled in a small town. Jack went to San Francisco at age 9 to attend a military band school. His interest continued through college and became a career.
His resume includes projects across the mainland and beyond: musical director of NBC in San Francisco, composer of motion picture soundtracks and for television cartoon series such as "The Flintstones" and "Top Cat." He recently completed and sold a library of 300 cartoon music cues and is now working on projects with his son.
De Mello, who looks at least 15 years younger than his 80 years, is thriving on the challenges and creative opportunities provided by computerized recording technology.
"The new technology is so wild. Jon designed a small digital studio for me and cartoon music fits that dimension of synthetic sound. It is a new learning process for me, but learning is a constant process. I hear things on television and analyze them and I listen to all kinds of music.
I'm a great MTV fan, watching what the dimensions are that they're working with and talents like Celine Dion. Jon gets hundreds of demos from young groups and I listen to all of them."
De Mello's first island recording project got off to bad start. He founded the Aloha Record Co. in 1947 and recorded a song titled "Coconut Willie." When the initial pressing was delivered off a Matson freighter he discovered, "I had 3000 waffles. They were all warped and we couldn't play any of them. We had to take them all to the Sand Island dump."
The second pressing arrived intact. As his label grew in size and scope he changed the name to Music of Polynesia. It eventually became The Mountain Apple Co. and continues to be a major player in the local recording industry, with artists such as the Brothers Cazimero, Kekuhi Kanahele, Amy Gilliom and Willie K, Henry Kapono and the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.
De Mello eventually moved to Las Vegas but remained active as a composer, producer and observer of the music scene here as well as nationally. He says he is appalled by the general lack of imagination he finds in many contemporary artists.
"Young artists have to be aware of what's happening in the music that they try to either duplicate or ape or the style that they're in, but they should strive more for originality in their approach and be themselves. In Las Vegas you can put a call out for a group -- rock, pop, hip hop, anything -- and you get 200 groups and they all have albums that they did in their friend's studio, and they all sound like the other group. You have to do more than that.
"My mother used to tell me to hang around lucky people and talented people, and don't waste your time with anybody else. I've continued that my whole life and I taught that to Jon."
1. Learn your craft. The learning process never stops.
Here are a few tips from Jack for anyone who wants to be a musician, composer or record producer:
2. Be an original. We don't need another Mariah Carey or Brandy, we've got them. Do it your way so when people hear it they'll know it's you.
3. Know your market. What is selling, and why?
4. Synthetic instruments work well when used with imagination but not as a substitute for live instruments. "It's like using dirt instead of flour to make a cake. It fills out the shape but once you bite into it you're dead."
5. Develop the discipline to drop things that aren't working and not use things that don't fit. Don't feel you have to use everything you write or record.
6. Simplicity can have more impact than complexity.
7. Know how to edit and know when to stop. "Igor Stravinsky told me, 'Every piece of music has two endings. One where it should end and one where you end it.' " Know the difference.
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