100 Years of Hawaiian Music
Hawaiian music, however flexible, has its own distinctive personality.
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The Thirties: Hawai‘i Calls Takes Over the World
It was a simple concept, Hawaiian music performed and broadcast live to the nation, but when radio personality Webley Edwards orchestrated the first performance of Hawai‘i Calls from under the banyan tree in the courtyard of the Moana Hotel on July 3, 1935, it was the beginning of a global phenomenon. “For so many years, Hawai‘i Calls was the strongest thing going,” says Donald “Flip” McDiarmid III, president of Hula Records. “Just about every artist who was around performed on the show, either as a guest musician or a member of the cast. You got your stardom from that.”
Edwards tended to emphasize atmosphere over authenticity in crafting each live performance (he set up microphones on the beach to capture the sound of the Waikīkī surf), but, with Harry Owens acting as musical director, the show attracted the best Hawaiian musicians of the day, including Vicki Ii Rodrigues, Alfred Apaka, Johnny Almeida and Haunani Kahalewai. The resulting show was a potent ambassador for Hawai‘i.
“A whole generation around the world grew up listening to Hawai‘i Calls,” says Soria. “There are so many people who have moved here who are 80, 90 years old, who say, I can remember listening to Hawai‘i Calls every Saturday. It was that far-away fantasy, that lure of Hawai‘i. The music just brought it out.”
That Iconic Sound
The '20s ushered in radio and amplified recording techniques, but, in the early 1930s, the instruments themselves became amplified. The steel guitar, which had previously struggled to be heard in a crowded dance hall, now could be a lead instrument, and quickly became one of Hawaiian music’s most identifiable elements. Sol Hoopii was one of the most renowned players in the ’30s, with his black, Bakelite Rickenbacker electric guitar.
Singers, too, capitalized on the steadily improving quality of musical equipment. Lena Machado and George Kainapau, in particular, learned to make the most of amplified microphones when developing their falsetto voices, resulting in nuanced techniques that would be much imitated by their successors.
Hapa Haole Goes Hollywood
The Great Depression put a damper on the recording industry, but Hawaiian music’s popularity on the Mainland seemed immune to economic hardship. The growth of hapa haole music that had begun earlier in the century escalated in the 1930s, with composers such as R. Alex Anderson and Andy Cummings cranking out hit after iconic hit.
The peak came when Harry Owens’ “Sweet Leilani,” from the blockbuster movie Waikīkī Wedding, won an Oscar in 1938 for Best Song. “After that Academy Award, there was an amazing explosion of Hawaiian music, as had never been seen before or since,” says Soria. “Every major pop star from Bing Crosby to Dorothy Lamour was doing Hawaiian music. Every album had to have at least one song that was Hawai‘i-themed, or at least tropical.”
George Kainapau became a falsetto phenomenon in the ’30s. “Once microphones got better, and people got a chance to hear that voice, wow,” says Harry B. Soria Jr. “It was really a golden period for him.”
Essential Cuts of the Thirties
1933: Lena Machado’s “Ho‘onanea”
1934: Charles E. King’s “Lei Aloha Lei Makamae”
1934: Helen Lindsey Parker’s “‘Akaka Falls”
1937: Irmgard Aluli’s “Puamana (Sea Breeze)”
1938: Andy Cummings’ “Waikīkī”