Lena Machado is one of the towering presences in Hawaiian music over much of the 20th century, of great significance as a vocalist and as a haku mele songwriter. Her recording career began on Decca Records in the 1920s, and she enjoyed a long and productive association with bandleader Dick McIntire. Decca was one of the earliest of the record labels involved in Hawaiian music that began to focus on Hawaiian music popular among Hawaiians as well as mainlanders, in constrast to other record labels producing vast amounts of instrumental Hawaiian guitar recordings, and songs in which Hawaiian guitar was featured more prominently than vocals.
Among other things, what this means is that Lena Machado‘s recordings are practically the earliest appearance, on commercial recordings, of ha‘i singing by a woman. The term ha‘i literally means “to break.” It is a vocal technique that descends from the indigenous Hawaiian chant tradition. In modern hula ku‘i singing, the term ha‘i names the yodeling technique used to emphasize the sonic difference between the chest and head registers of the voice, and the movement between the two registers. We may never know how prevalent women ha‘i singers were before that, simply because they are not prominent on the sound recordings we have available to us. But what is certain is that Lena Machado‘s career established a foundation for a long and distinguished line of successors–including Genoa Keawe, Norah Keahi Santos, Linda Dela Cruz, Leinaala Haili, Myrtle K. Hilo, Pauline Kekahuna, Myra English, Kealoha Kalama, Tina Ka‘apana, Ida Keli‘i Chun, Agnes Malabey Weisbarth, Marcella Kalua, Leilani Sharpe Mendez, Karen Keawehawai‘i, Moana Chang, Darlene Ahuna, Amy Hānaiali‘i Gilliom, Raiatea Helm, Natalie ‘Ai Kamau‘u, Nāpua Grieg. There are others, no doubt. This is just for starters.
In her songwriting, Lena Machado created tunes and mele that showcased her own singing. Which means that so so many of her tunes were designed to showcase ha‘i technique. (Or is it that her tunes and mele are appealing to ha‘i singers because of the opportunities for having a good time with ha‘i?!!)
Of course any playlist of Lena Machado songs would call attention to her own performances and recordings of her own songs. We are fortunate that many of her recordings have been remastered and issued on compilations of vintage recordings. We are also fortunate that the anthology of her own recordings, issued on Michael Cord‘s HanaOla label, features exhaustive historical commentary by radio personality Harry B. Soria, Jr.
Our good fortune increased with the publication of the songbook Lena Machado: Songbird of Hawai‘i, lovingly compiled by Lena‘s hānai daughter Pi‘olani Motta, and enhanced with incisive commentary from scholar-extraordinaire Kīhei de Silva. (Click here to read about this volume on the Ka‘iwakīloumoku website, which sadly is all but defunct now. To order this volume, pick up the phone and support Native Books in Honolulu, with a toll-free call to 800-887-7751. Or check with online vendors such as Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, etc.)
The Playlist: There are so many good songs, like “Ho‘onanea,” “Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i,” “Holo Wa‘apā,” “Aloha Nō,” “Moanike‘alaonāpuamakahikina,” “Kamalani o Keaukaha,” “None Hula”–the list goes on and on. And there are so many singers to choose from — Robert Cazimero,” George Helm, Genoa Keawe‘, Sonny Chillingworth–the list goes on and on. Stay tuned. In my next post, I will offer a playlist of tracks.