Lena Machado — he leo ha‘i mai ka lani, he haku mele mai ka na‘au. A voice from the heavens, a composer from within. A towering presence in Hawaiian music.
Her mele are a priceless legacy. The lyrics come from a deeply Hawaiian place, one where Hawaiian expression comes effortlessly. The tunes are shaped to showcase ha‘i singing, rising and dipping at choice moments for maximum singing and listening pleasure. And the harmonies she used! Lena‘s songs are jewelry. The mele and tunes are precious gems that are set in exquisite harmonies. She drew on the harmonic vocabulary of her entire world, stepping outside Hawaiian musicʻs limits of 4 or 5 chords. She loved to use crunchy diminished chords — “Ma ka poli iho NO” The bridge section of “Kaulana o Hilo Hanakahi” challenges any musician who is used to playing in only one key. From her own songbook published in 1962: [key of C] Db7 – D7 – Eb7 – E7 – Eb7 – D7 = D7 +5 – G7. Or “Moanike‘alaonāpuamakahikina” opens C – E7 -a minor. Who does that in the first three syllables of a stanza?
Her recordings of her own songs are valuable reference points. She is the composer, so listening to her recordings gives us an idea of what she had in mind. But, equally importantly, her songs have inspired other artists to put their spin on them. So here are some comments on songs and recordings.
Lena recorded “Ho‘onanea” in 1935 and in 1962, and both recordings are on the anthology of her recordings. Two musicians with whom she worked and recorded extensively, recorded their own versions: Dick McIntire and Ray Kinney. Remaining in that mid-century vein is the recording by the Harmony Hawaiians, reissued on the Australian Cumquat label. The song was a mainstay of the Kodak Hula Show, sung by the full complement of the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club on all of their recordings through the years. Definitive ha‘i performances come to us from Genoa Keawe (All Time Hula Favorites on Poki Records) and Joe Keawe (40th State Records). Flowing nahenahe singing from Iwalani Kahalewai (An Hawaiian Happening) in the low alto range, and Kekua Fernandes (Straight from Hawaii to You) in the high falsetto range. Then we get to the 1970s, and not one but two iconic performances that defined an entire generation of listeners. George Helm, recorded during live during gigs at the Gold Coin Lounge, slowed down the tempo, and combined his soaring falsetto voice with his distinctively individualistic Kahauanu Lake-inspired style of strumming. And Robert Cazimero (Robert Cazimero, reissued on CD titled RUC), using his piano self-accompaniment and staying entirely within his spectacular tenor range, signifies the gentleness of the song and evokes the elegant atmosphere of poi suppers in curio-filled kama‘āina homes. Karen Keawehawai‘i (The Best of Karen Vol. 1) combines a ha‘i-inflected vocal style with a flowing accompaniment punctuated by piano and cello–combining the ha‘i and the flowing approaches in one track. On the nahenahe side of things: the quartet Kanilau (He Hawai‘i Au), and the songbird voice of Elodia Kane (Elodia Kane). Exquisite hula-friendly arrangements from Darlene Ahuna (Bridge Between Generations) and falsetto-contest winner Gary Medeiros (Aloha Festivals 4) are balanced by the vocal pyrotechnics of Willie K (The Uncle in Me) to which a hula dancer would be a visual distraction. There are other recordings too. But this selection covers a representative range between the ha‘i and the nahenahe, between the hula-friendly and the musical showcases.
Kamalani o Keaukaha
Lenaʻs homage to the hospitality extended by Keaukaha residents, the song proclaims “Beautiful are the fragrant flowers, sweet-smelling.” Hilo residents who have recorded the song include Darlene Ahuna (Classic Hula), kī hō‘alu artist Keoki Kahumoku (Liko), and Uncle George Na‘ope (Among My Hawaiian Souvenirs). George Helmʻs recording (A True Hawaiian) received extensive radio play in the 1970s. Among songbirds, Marlene Saiʻs 1960s recording (Authentic Hawaiian Songs on the Sounds of Hawaii label) was reissued in the 1970s (Mele No Ka Oe on the Lehua label), and in 2006, Marleneʻs daughter Mahela recorded her own hula-friendly version.
Sonny Chillingworthʻs early 1960s recording (Sonny on the Mahalo label) is among the earliest of the handful of recorded versions. Other male singers of this song include Joe Keawe (Hawaiiʻs Falsetto Returns), Ledward Ka‘apana (Jusʻ Press) and Tony Conjugacion (on the re-recording of Hawaiian Passion in 2003). Women who have recorded this song include Linda Dela Cruz (Hawaiiʻs Canary), Melveen Leed (Melveen with the Best of Slack Key), Ku‘uipo Kumukahi (E Ku‘u Lei, E Ku‘u Ipo) and most recently, Napua Greig (Pihana), who sings with the voice of someone twice her age.
Robert Cazimeroʻs solo recording, with the choral accompaniment of members of his Hālau Nā Kamalei, set the bar high on this song, that few since have tried their hand at it. His recording overshadowed an earlier recording by Tony Lindsey (Indebted To You). Recordings since Robert’s soaring voice are from the quartet Kanilau (Ka Lihi Kai ‘o Ka‘ena), Ka Hīmeni ‘Ana winners Mānoa Voices (Mānoa Voices), and Lorna Lim on her Nā Hōkū Hanohano award winning Polinahe.