Musical journey


POSTED: Monday, August 17, 2009

Hawaii's first 50 years as a state were eventful ones for Hawaiian music.

No one anticipated in 1959 that Hawaii was nearing the end of an era in island music. Hapa haole music with island themes, often written by Hawaii residents, played in a certain style and sung almost entirely in English, had enjoyed a long run of worldwide popularity. In 1959 the romance of Hawaii was personified by vocalist Alfred Apaka singing hapa haole standards such as “;Beyond the Reef”; and “;Waikiki”; at Kaiser's Hawaiian Village (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village). Apaka's romantic baritone and spotless white attire made him the stuff of countless female fantasies—men came to Hawaii hoping to find a compliant “;little brown gal,”; but women dreamed of Apaka.

When Apaka died of a heart attack while playing handball in January 1960, he left a void that no one was able to fill.

Apaka might well have survived the changes in visitor demographics and musical trends that resulted from the explosive growth in visitor numbers, helter-skelter development and the victory of rock 'n' roll over traditional American pop. Overall, however, big changes were taking place. When Don Ho & the Aliis—Al Akana, Rudy Aquino, Benny Chong, Manny Lagodlagod and Joe Mundo—opened at Duke Kahanamoku's in 1964, they represented a dramatic break with traditional hapa haole music. Mundo's arrangements reflected the growing influence of American rock and pop in Hawaii—and the fact that the Aliis could play almost anything Ho called for.

By the time Don Ho & the Aliis broke up in 1969, Ho had become the best-known Hawaii entertainer in the world. He would remain so—and reign as Waikiki's biggest star—until his death in 2007.

As the '60s ended, an entirely different type of music was coming to the fore. Sunday Manoa explored new approaches to Hawaiian-language music and sparked a cultural revolution that would become known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. The renaissance inspired a massive revival of public interest in traditional Hawaiian music that was sung in Hawaiian and that had originally been written for people who understood the language. The Sons of Hawaii had been priming the pump, as it were, for almost a decade, playing exquisite traditional-style music; Sunday Manoa's “;jazzed up”; arrangements piqued the interest of a new and generally younger audience.

The '70s also saw the emergence of a completely different style of local music. The contemporary sounds of Cecilio & Kapono and Kalapana were written entirely in English and drew on mainstream rock, R&B, pop and modern folk music rather than Hawaiian or traditional hapa haole music. Both acts became island superstars: C&K drew an audience of more than 10,000 to the Waikiki Shell in 1974, and C&K and Kalapana together drew an estimated 30,000 to Aloha Stadium in 1976.

Reggae rhythms began percolating through local music in the early 1980s as Henry Kapono Kaaihue released “;Stand in the Light”; in 1981 and Brother Noland hit big with “;Coconut Girl”; in 1983. By the end of the decade, Jawaiian music had become so popular that various people were claiming legal ownership of the word, and 10 years after that two major radio stations in Honolulu had all-Jawaiian music formats. Various local derivatives of Jamaican music continue to be hugely popular today.

And then there is the phenomenon of “;IZ”;: Born in 1959, Israel “;IZ”; Kamakawiwo'ole rose to fame as a member of the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau, quit the group under acrimonious circumstances in 1993 and went on to bigger success as a solo artist before dying of weight-related health problems in 1997. In death “;IZ”; become an icon thanks to the skillful marketing of producer Jon de Mello. “;IZ”; was the third Hawaii recording artist—after Glenn Medeiros and Don Ho—to have a recording certified gold by the Record Industry Association of America, but he is thus far the only one to have an album also certified platinum.

Amid a half-century of changes, some things have stayed the same. In 2009 as in 1959, Hawaii's music is recognized internationally, albeit not always in forms that might be embraced here. Self-renewing, nonpolluting and with a very small “;footprint”; in terms of the amount of physical space it occupies, Hawaiian music is one of the islands' most salable products.

And, also as in 1959, there are concerns that Hawaiian music is endangered and that other forms of music are taking over. Similarly, perceptions of what constitutes Hawaiian music continue to change.

Critics and guardians of culture have opined at various times, for instance, that pianist Richard Kauhi's arrangements were “;too black”; to be considered Hawaiian and that the Brothers Cazimero weren't “;playing it right.”; With the passage of time the Cazimeros' music has been redefined by others as “;traditional,”; and Kauhi's arrangements are recognized as classics.

Today we worry about the future of the Hawaiian steel guitar and decry the desire of so many young local musicians to impersonate Jamaicans. History suggests that youthful steel guitarist Jeff Au Hoy will inspire another generation of steel guitarists and that some form of reggae-style rhythm will eventually be adopted and adapted to the point at which it will be accepted as Hawaiian music.