PLAYLIST: Songs of John Kameaaloha Almeida

John Kameaaloha Almeida is a towering giant in the history of Hawaiian music in the 20th century. As a recording artist, his body of work numbers in the hundreds of tracks. As musical director for George Ching’s 49th State Records label, Almeida oversaw the production of recordings usable in the dozens of hula studios opening throughout Hawai’i, California, and across the United States. Featured artists on the label include Almeida himself, Genoa Keawe, and Julia Nui, and the signature steel guitar playing of Benjamin Rogers.

One might say that Almeida’s most significant contribution is as a songwriter, a haku mele. A native speaker of Hawaiian, his mele are exquisite examples filled with poetic images of flowers and lovers. While other musicians could rival Almeida’s musicianship skills, precious few of his contemporaries came close to his expressive sensibilities in poetic composition. Many of his songs remain favorites of hula dancers, for they are filled with images that continue to inspire interpretation in movement and gesture.

It would be logical, when looking over the work of a songwriter, to seek out recordings by that songwriter. Who, we might ask, could better interpret the mele than the person who created it? In the case of John Almeida, there is the significant body of his recordings on 49th State Records, and we are extremely fortunate that the masters are in the possession of  someone who is committed to making that work accessible. Michael Cord’s HanaOla label has issued a stream of very high quality CD anthologies, and many of Almeida’s recordings are peppered through HanaOla’s Vintage Treasures series. Extensive historical liner notes are provided by radio personality Harry B. Soria, Jr. Almeida songs, and curatorial expertise is raised to even higher standards with the compilation John Kameaaloha Almeida, 1897-1985 (HanaOla HOCD-49000), issued in 2003.

So I propose to take a different tact here–to offer a playlist of mele by John K. Almeida as recorded by other artists. My choices here reflect my own preferences for classic singing, hula-style instrumentation, and some nods to particular noteworthy moments by otherwise overshadowed performers. Here, in no particular order, is my playlist of John K. Almeida songs.

  1. Ku‘u Ipo Pua Rose. Nā Palapalai, Makani ‘Olu‘olu (Koops2 KPSE-1002), 2002. Solid hula ku‘i ‘ukulele trio with steel guitar highlights by Casey Olsen. A moderate hula tempo. This is the kind of track that brings to mind sinking back in a rocking chair, and enjoying hula dancing by Aunty in her loose mu‘umu‘u, with hip movements all but unseen, alluded to only in the swaying of the ruffles.
  2. Green Rose Hula. Gary Haleamau, Mohala (Liko LR-1003), 1989. Gary Haleamauʻs falsetto singing gained notice in the mid-1980s, when falsetto singing was still relatively concentrated among a small circle of exponents that included the likes of Dennis Pavao, Ledward Ka‘apana, and Tony Conjugacion. Gary had grown up on Hu‘ehu‘e Ranch in North Kona, and his father, paniolo Karin Haleamau, was a highly regarded falsetto singer. Gary‘s astute sense of hula tempos can be attributed in part to his collaboration with wife Sheldeen Kaleohano Haleamau, a well-known hula dancer and now kumu hula.
  3. ‘A‘oia. Kahauanu Lake Trio, He Aloha No ‘O Honolulu (Hula HS-533). Having been affiliated with Hālau Hula ‘o Maiki during my college years, I always default back to this flawless arrangement, used in the teen classes. Aaron Sala put out a fresh take on Ka’upu Aloha (Hula HS-642) in 2005.
  4. Maile Swing.  Anyone tuned into the cultural renaissance of the 1970s could not miss George Helm’s signature recording of this song, recorded live at the Gold Coin Lounge in 1973, issued on LP, and reissued on CD–A True Hawaiian (HanaOla HOCD 3000) in 1996. Another recording that definitely sets my foot tapping is Ku‘uipo Kumukahi’s Nā Lei Kama‘āina o Ku‘u ‘Āina Hānau (Ho‘oli ICD-7801), 1997.
  5. Kapi‘olani Paka. Genoa Keawe, Hula Hou (Genoa Keawe GKCD-110), n.d. This is Aunty Genoa, folks. It does not get better than this.
  6. Pua ‘Ohai. Bill Kaiwa, Pure Hawaiian (Pua P-1002), 1993.
  7. Lovely Sunrise Haleakalā. Nāpua Greig, Pihana, 2007. Is this recording truly the first since Almeida’s own recordings on the 49th State Records label?? And among other things, Nāpua‘s arrangement features some of the most sublimely judicious steel guitar enhancements from Casey OlsenThe group of songs below have just too many recordings to recommend one over others. So here are lists of stand-out recordings for each song.
  8. Beautiful Māhealani Moon. A wonderful use of diminished chords brings sophistication to this tune.
    On 49th State Records:  Benjamin Rogers, Flora Waipa with Pua Almeida & His Polynesians, Joe “Steppy” DeRego, and two instrumental versions by John K. Almeida on Strum Your Ukulele (LP-3423) and Evenings in Paradise (LP-3429).
    Kealoha Kalama, Lei Pua-KeniKeni (KalamaKP-101), 1987.  Reissued on Encircling Love (Kalama KP-1002), 2006. This track is my first choice. Classic hula ku‘i accompaniment, with both piano and steel guitar fillers.
    Loyal Garner. Sounds of Progress (Pi‘ilani PR-3006), 1993. Jazz piano stylings
    Keao Costa. Whee-Ha! (Mountain Apple MACD-2045), 1997. Keao’s voice is in “soft and gentle” mode here, and accompanied solely by Leila Hohu Kiaha’s masterful piano playing.
    Richard Ho‘opi‘i. Ululani (Mountain Apple MACD-2096), 2003.
    Hulu Lindsey. Ho‘anapau (Kahulu KP-1002), 2003. A gifted voice much overshadowed by her contemporaries.
    Iwalani Kahalewai & Nanri, Legendary Musicians of Hawaii (M&H MH-2006), 2006. Two voices in a balanced duet.
  9. ‘O Ko‘u Aloha Iā ‘Oe. A favorite among hula dancers!
    John Almeida’s Hawaiians. Brunswick BF-55093, 1937. Reissued on John Kameaaloha Almeida (HanaOla HOCD-49000), 2003.
    Lena Machado with Dick McIntire & His Harmony Hawaiians. Decca 1493, 1937. Reissued on Rhythm of the Islands: Music of Hawaii, 1943-1952 (Harlequin HQ CD-92), 1996.Recordings not yet reissued from LP:
    Pua Almeida & His Polynesians, Surfrider (Waikiki LP-314).
    Kawai Cockett, Kawai (Lohe LLP-1005).
    Nina Keali’iwahamana, on Auntie Vicki Sings (Hula HS-521). This track is simply heavenly. Aunty Nina’s voice soars in the heavens.

    CD recordings
    Kanilau, He Hawai’i Au (RVR-041), 1993.
    Teresa Bright, Painted Tradition (Pumehana PS-4931), 1994.

  10. Roselani Blossoms. Vocal recordings include:
    Iwalani Kahalewai, An Hawaiian Happening (Lehua SL-5029), 1948; reissued on CD 2008.
    Kaimana, Nā Pua o O‘ahu (Pumehana PS-4901), 1977.  Trio of Haunani Apoliona, Haunani Bernardino, and Eldon Akamine, with Aaron Mahi on bass. A model of Hawaiian language accuracy.
    Ho‘okena, Nā Kai ‘Ewalu (Ho‘omau HOCD-1003), 1993. Reissued on Treasure (Ho‘omau HOCD-100x), 2001. Classic hula in the inimitable Ho‘okena style. Solid, dependable, danceable, enjoy!
    Mary Ann Lim, Mele Hula Vol. 2 (M&H MH-1105), 2000
    George Matsushita, My Leis of Aloha, 2000.
    Karen Keawehawai‘i, Do the Hula! (Kaleolani KR-50017), 2001
  11. Lei Hinahina. Another song with so many excellent performances to choose from!
    Marcella Kalua, Girl from Papakolea (Makaha MS-2502), ca. 1962.
    Leinaala Haili, No Ka Oi (Lehua SL-2051), 1967; reissued on CD 1995.
    Nā ‘Opio o Kuhio (Poki SP-9017), 1976. Children’s chorus.
    Darlene Ahuna, Ku‘u Lei Poina ‘Ole (Hula HS-600), 1996. Reissued on All the Best of Darlene Ahuna Vol. 1, 2003.
    Keali‘i Reichel, Melelana (Punahele PP-007), 1999. Wow. Classic hula with impeccable pronunciation!!
    Lono, Lono I Old Style
    Martin Pahinui, Ho‘olohe [Listen] (Dancing Cat 38054), 2003. This in one of my favorite tracks of this song. To listen to Martin is to hear Gabby’s voice live on.

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8 Responses to PLAYLIST: Songs of John Kameaaloha Almeida

  1. boo says:

    This is a really nice approach. Your descriptions are very evocative and make me eager to seek out the versions I havenʻt heard yet.

  2. amykstillman says:

    Mahalo boo! I really really appreciate the positive feedback!! This was an experiment. Why canʻt we talk about multiple versions, and not just only select the best? This way we can appreciate artists who are not always in the limelight, but have interesting things to “say” nonetheless.

  3. amykstillman says:

    This just received on a direct twitter message:
    1) JKA did not compose Pua ʻOhai. He learned it from kūpuna. My response: mahalo. At the same time, he is credited with recording the song, and its re-introduction on Territorial Airwaves cemented his association with it.

    2) FYI, listen to K. Lake Trio’s ‘A’oia. Pronunciation pretty bad. I was shocked when I listened after many years.

    My response: I am in complete agreement that aspiring to correct pronunciation is what we need to do. I also have a longstanding practice of trying to meet people where they are, and to appreciate what they are able to do. I am sure that there are many connoisseurs who could find faults with many musicians of old. But if that is the case, what will we have accomplished? Will we have diminished the received work of generations past because they cannot measure up to contemporary levels of expected perfection? I certainly understand that we must caution our youth about choosing and using their models with great caution. But is it possible to do that without diminishing what we do have to work with?

  4. Paul Certo says:

    Mahalo for your efforts. I now have more searching to do for recordings.
    As to language, I think we need to keep the perspective that several generations of Hawaiians were denied education in their native tongue. As this progressed, mispronunciation was inevitable. Hopefully, more enlightened efforts and policies are in time to preserve the correct pronunciations.

  5. Norman says:

    A lovely post Amy. Your nod to Michael Cord is very appropriate. On the CD that he put out “Night Club Hula Hawaiian Style/ Volume 6, Vintage Hawaiian Treasures” HOCD2300 you’ll find a wonderful version of “Ku’u Ipo Pua Rose”, performed by Pua Almeida. It’s one of my favorite songs of all time.

  6. Since I am in my forties, most of the Hawaiian music I have heard has been from the last forty years, so when I hear the old recordings of Johnny Almeida, his voice sounds somewhat nasal and stilted in the style of Al Jolson. Do you think he was influenced by that style of singing from the teens and 20s? Those that he mentored, like Genoa Keawe and Joe Keawe have more conversational pronunciation and comfortable rhythm of singing. It is very noticeable on the 49th State recording called “Kaua’i Medley”, a duet between Johnny and Uncle Joe.
    Jesse Tinsley

    • amykstillman says:

      Hi Jesse, mahalo for stopping by! You ask an excellent question. I sometimes hear a kind of singing by men that is clipped–Uncle Johnny used it, but so did son Pua, and Al Kealoha Perry, and Jesse Kalima mā. Al Jolson as an influence? Well, why not? Records circulated, for sure. Who would know?

      Keola Donaghyʻs MA thesis–written in Hawaiian–has some excellent analysis of Uncle Johnnyʻs singing. Heʻs working on an article–in English–about some aspects from the thesis, so I hear.

  7. Alika says:

    He did so much for Hawaiian music. I can’t wait to check out some of the recordings I haven’t heard of these songs.

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