Hawaiian Music in my May Day soundscape

I began drafting this post while sitting at Starbucks on Lewers early this morning. Hip Hop was coming out of the outdoor speaker right above me. Trolleys were waiting at the trolley stop directly across Lewers with Hawaiian music wafting into the mix. Those gigantic tour buses go around the waiting trolley, and their engines drown out everything else temporarily. In the distance, church bells–from Ft. DeRussey, perhaps?

Soundscapes. A useful concept for thinking. How do we experience the world sonically? What soundscapes do we move through? What sounds designed and programmed by others envelope us? What sounds do we choose to put into our ears in order to block out other sounds? Or at least to listen to sounds that we choose for ourselves. 

The hunt for Hawaiian music in Honolulu takes work. No longer does it emanate 24/7 out of commercial broadcast radio. On Sundays, HPRʻs Derrick Malama hosts a show of Hawaiian music that starts at noon. On the street, in a car, aboard The Bus, whatever I choose to listen to requires me to gather the music onto whatever device will play it for me.

Wandering through Waikiki, Hawaiian music is something encountered largely by accident as I walk along the sidewalk. No live street performers, at least not during daylight hours. Larger complexes like Royal Hawaiian Center pipe Hawaiian music in public spaces, through the public address system. Hawaiian music is reduced to retail muzak, sonic wallpaper that is different in every store. Browsers may well not ever hear an entire song, if the browsing experience does not hold their attention.

I head over to The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, to attend the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and Museumʻs annual “Lei of Stars” induction gala. The eventʻs music director, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi, has arranged for attendees to be greeted at the hotelʻs porte cochere by the sounds of the Jeff Teves Trio, playing acoustically, unplugged. We enter the hotel and amble down the corridor toward the fabled Monarch Room, where the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Serenaders welcome us to that space-playing acoustically, unplugged. We find our way to our tables, begin with the pū kani, an oli aloha, and we all sing “Ho‘onani i Ka Makua Mau” to bless the food. As we eat our lunch, we are serenaded by Kimo Alama Keaulana and Lei Hulu; they are joined by Jeff Au Hoy at the piano.

The program is a rich buffet of inductions and tribute performances. This yearʻs honorees are:  Ernest Ka‘ai, Andy Cummings, the Richard Kauhi Quartette, Keali‘i Reichel, and Patience Namaka Bacon. For each honoree, we are first treated to a multimedia presentation filled with fascinating historical and biographical detail. Then family members in attendance are called up onstage to accept proclamations. Finally, there is a musical tribute that showcase master musicians in action. Ku‘uipo Kumukahi sings Ernest Ka‘aiʻs songs “Across the Sea” and “Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a,” while granddaughter and kumu hula Ulalia Ka‘ai Berman dances. To honor Andy Cummings, chanteuse Marlene Sai performs “Waikiki” with lush piano accompaniment by Kenneth Makuakane, then as an encore they offer “Pikake.” The Richard Kauhi Quartette is feted by Senator Brickwood Galuteria and Kamuela Kimokeo doing “Le‘ahi,” with the youthful Alika Young channeling Kauhi on piano; then Kamuela’s father joining in on “My Yellow Ginger Lei.” Keali‘i Reichel is feted by — the man himself, fresh off the overall trophy from Merrie Monarch. His youth among an inductee class of performers whose lives span the 20th century is remarkable, but befitting his commitment to combine new Hawaiian-language mele composition, solid musical values, and hula. Finally, the program is rounded out with a tribute to Aunty Pat Namaka Bacon, who graces the stage. First, kumu hula Doreen Doo and a group of 5 dancers present “Poli‘ahu” and “Pua i lehua ka makani” in Aunty Patʻs gentle style. Then kumu hula O‘Brien Eselu premiered a newly-composed mele by Keola Donaghy and Kenneth Makuakane. Finally, O‘Brien Eselu rounded out the tribute with a heartfelt rendition, complete with audience participation, of “You Are So Beautiful.”

All of the music at the “Lei of Stars” event, from the welcome and lunch entertainment, to the tributes to the inductees, hearken back to days gone by when audiences were treated to live performance and the thrill of hearing master musicians in action. Yes there was occasional fishing for chords; yes there was occasional the singer going one way while the band went somewhere else. But that is a part of the thrill–of appreciating skill as well as artistry, of hearing artists “in the zone.” For listeners accustomed to hearing recordings, where each playing is an exact replication of the prior playing of a track, a live performance is a treat.

And so my May Day soundscape ran the gamut from the street busyness to the sublime beauty of the “Lei of Stars” induction festivities, from the disconnected moving through soundscapes over which I had no control, to the “Lei of Stars” program where Hawaiian music at its best was being honored and enacted. I am grateful for the privilege of taking in such a rich program. And my wish for the generations to come is that they, too, will have opportunities to experience such Hawaiian music in their soundscapes as well.

© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All rights reserved.

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5 Responses to Hawaiian Music in my May Day soundscape

  1. Dani says:

    You painted a lovely image in this post!

    Your third question (2nd paragraph) is very insightful, specifically the idea of programming. I’m just delving into this topic for my thesis, relating it to tourism, marketing, etc. in New Orleans. I wonder how Hawaiian tourist-focused businesses program their visitors to experience the Hawaiian soundscape? What music do they play in their shops, or even in hotel elevators? How does it effect their own identity or perceived sense of “Hawaiianness?” I recently noticed in a bookstore “World Music” section that there were many CD’s of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, and although I could be wrong, I think this is fairly new. Has he become “the poster-boy” for Hawaiian music, and how do natives feel about it? Just rambling – bear with me…

    It sounds like you greatly enjoyed the program here, and I certainly enjoyed your post!

    Take care,


    • amykstillman says:

      Mahalo Dani! Iʻm trying all kinds of new “experiences” like writing without four-syllable words or four-subordinate phrase sentences. Itʻs pretty liberating!

  2. MaryAnn (Bailey) Evangelista says:

    I enjoyed your essay on Hawaiian Music. It is sad that the Old Hawaii with it’s gorgeous music is difficult to find these days. Hawaiian Music is loved by so many of us! However, I must admit that when I lived and entertained there Hawaiian music was everywhere…in fact I don’t remember hearing much of anything else in the hotels or other venues. I was very fortunate as Charles K L Davis taught me so much Hawaiian music & Alfred Apaka Senior to. Bill Kaiwa was there and he was a wonderful entertainer . I sang with Jim Nabors for 2 years at the Dome and his show was filled with a great crew of dancers and singers. All of us had the opportunity to meet entertainers who came from all over the country to see the show. Don Ho was in Waikiki as well and often times we would go down there after our show at the Dome and listen to him serenade his tourists. Paradise Cove had just begun with Marcia Germaine and we had to go through the Cane Fields to get there…but it was worth it. The show was great and the scenery gorgeous!….Sea Life Park had their shows and there were no dressing rooms to speak of….just a make-shift one that the winds would occasionally blow over…The Cazamaro Brothers and Makaha Sons of Hawaii…..There was music everywhere you walked …… Charles was entertaining at Kemo’o Farms and in Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian, Emma Very headlined there with dual pianos, Nona Beamer……Keola and Kapono Beamer…goodness…the music was incredible! Don Conover was at the Rose and Crown….. I am quite sure that I must have left so many out…but it was a time that I hold dear and I hope that some of your readers will recall those days as well. Keep searching for those beloved melodies and wonderful entertainers who still hold Hawaiian music, dance and heritage close to their hearts. It is so important that you share that with your readers and keep the true spirit of Hawaii present. Mahalo nui loa!

  3. Retro says:

    Hi, Amy.

    For about seven years, I had the joy of being the Hawaiian music programmer for Muzak – meaning, I was the one who decided what Hawaiian songs (the material released to the public, not syrupy string arrangements) would be put into the program that you would hear playing on the overhead systems at many of the popular malls, restaurants and the airports around the Islands. I would listen to songs from new releases, categorize them (by language, instrumentation, tempo, gender of vocalists, arrangement and so many other factors), select a few to add to the mix, and they would play based on a complex rotation system (which included factors like making sure the same artists wouldn’t play again for a certain number of hours, or the same song, or two slack-key selections in a row, etc. etc. etc.)

    Prior to my doing so, HPR’s Derrick Malama was the programmer of this service (he was living here in Seattle at the time), and he developed much of the rotation, structure and overall “vibe” of the program; I took what he had built and maintained his excellent programming going forward. He taught me a lot about the music, just by how he created and assembled this mix.

    It’s unfortunate that most people would only hear this mix as background, or for a few distracted minutes. Talking with friends who worked in retail locations that used the service, I learned that many of them recognized the detailed work that went into it; they would describe it as their “dream Hawaiian-music station” — because we played artists and selections that commercial radio wasn’t touching, because we delved deep into albums, because we wanted it to be a sonic atmosphere that would appeal to both tourist and local, to those educated about Hawaiian music and those just tickled peripherally by it.

    That’s the only part of that job I miss (I left there four years ago).

  4. paula says:

    We visited Hawaii in 1989 and had the pleasure of meeting Don Conover at the rose & crown pub. My daughter is there now and I was hoping it was still there. I read that it has since been replaced. We had a great time there on St Patricks day, he sang the Unicirn song for us because it was a favorite of ours! we will always treasure that visit.

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