Amidst an intense summer heatwave, I have been digitizing my Hawaiian LPs. Itʻs been quite a stroll down memory lane. Remember those automatic-changer LPs that we could load up with 3 or 4 platters, and when the records had finished playing, the turntable would turn off automatically? It was my equivalent of todayʻs TVs with sleep timers. Each night for years, I drifted off to moemoe land with my choice of music. Whatever else I listened to, my moemoe music was always Hawaiian–Hui ‘Ohana, Sunday Mānoa, Kahauanu Lake Trio, Emma Veary, Nina Keali‘iwahamana, Hilo Hawaiians, Jack de Mello, Mahi Beamer, Atta Isaacs . . . etc etc etc. These sounds wrapped me in comfort and reinforced nightly my sense of home and ‘āina hānau. This was the soundtrack of my mo‘okū‘auhau.
I was fascinated with the recordings produced by Jack de Mello back then, because the 4-volume boxed set presented Hawaiian music on an unprecedented scale. The boxes had these gold embossed seals on the covers, and the LPs sat in crisp white sleeves, under a pamphlet filled with commentary about the songs. And the tracks themselves–bold orchestral arrangements, a full chorus singing phonetically, and soloists Emma Veary and Nina Keali‘iwahamana, who were as at home with orchestra as they were with ʻukulele ensembles.
I did not come to these recordings on my own; I came to them because my mother loved the singing of Emma Veary and Nina Keali‘iwahamana, and went about acquiring the box sets upon their release. I came to love these recordings because they were constantly filling our little house with these sounds. So many of the songs had longer histories and deeper meanings for mom. She would gaze off into the distance and start reminiscing about hearing other singers singing these songs in other places and at other times, then she would hum along. And it was not long before I was humming along, too; and soon enough my focus extended into searching out reliable sources of lyrics so I could learn those, too. This is how these songs and these recordings came into my sonic psyche with genealogy.
(Mom had her opinions, and her commentary was strewn with rose-colored memories of music sung and heard during her childhood. Her commentary was also strewn with critiques of the musicians of my generation. Which is why I paid attention when she talked about Emma Vearyʻs singing in the language of excellence, which she used for few other musicians.)
Over the years, the Jack de Mello orchestrations have been likened to easy listening, background listening, Muzak, whatever you want to call it. It is commonly accepted that such characterizations are perjorative–that they name a style that no one would seriously admit to listening to seriously.
Well, Iʻve always thought otherwise, that these recordings are diamonds. My most recent digitizing blitz has reconfirmed that perspective, because I decided to digitize all of Emma Vearyʻs LP recordings on de Melloʻs Music of Polynesia label in one batch. You can learn a lot when you do things in concentrated ways. So here are some initial thoughts on these recordings.
Emma Vearyʻs voice is classic. It is a trained, disciplined voice. Which is exactly what is required to sing many of the songs written by Charles E. King. These songs have melodies that require vocal technique. Many of these melodies are unforgiving to singers without vocal training, as they struggle to complete entire phrases on one breath, or soar over a range of notes while barely hitting some or most (or all!) of the pitches in tune. Listen to Emma singing “Kamehameha Waltz.” Its opening phrase “Kū kilakila” covers an octave-and-a-half range. This is not a backyard lū‘au song. This is not a song for backyard singers. At least not if you want to hear it done properly. Emma sings it properly. Every note is right on pitch, and the entire phrase floats out effortlessly.
Any musician with any understanding of technique knows that the most effortless singing is exactly that which demands the most discipline to make it sound effortless. It is not unlike ballet dancing. The dancer is supposed to make us believe that she is floating. Audiences are not supposed to be aware of the years of training and hours of rehearsal and the dozens of injuries and sprains sustained. We are supposed to believe in the illusion of lightness that they create.
Same thing with singers. They hit the notes, they shape the phrases, they give life to the words. Itʻs something pretty challenging to do if you either do not understand what the words mean, or do not possess the technique to hit the notes and shape the phrases. Emma Vearyʻs singing is remarkable, because not only is the musicality on target, but the pronunciation is clear. Words and phrases are put together in ways that make sense. Well, to begin with, the lyrics are correct. That is not something that can be said about many recordings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Careful attention to lyrics is a hallmark of Jack de Melloʻs work. So is his understanding that repertoire like “Kamehameha Waltz” requires skilled voices.
This is not ha‘i singing that is so popular nowadays, thanks to folks like Nā Palapalai, Tony Conjugacion, and the contestants in the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contests over the years, among others. But not all Hawaiian songs were meant to be sung in ha‘i style.
So I urge you all, dear readers, to check out Emma Vearyʻs recordings made with Jack de Mello in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were four LPs issued. I will save for a future post a walkthrough of these LP recordings, because there are jewels there that deserve to be brought out and appreciated anew. In the meantime, do yourselves a favor: click on over to mele.com (or amazon.com or ebay where you might find used copies for less) and get yourself Mountain Apple Coʻs 1996 release that gathers a selection of those tracks on CD: The Best of Emma–A Collection of 25 Hawaiian Classics, produced and directed by Jack de Mello (MACD-2034).
The 25 tracks on the CD were drawn from four LPs released in the early to mid-1970s, and a “Best of” LP was issued in 1978, containing three tracks from each of the four source LPs. And when you get to “Kamehameha Waltz,” do pay attention not only to Emmaʻs vocal agility, but also Jack de Melloʻs orchestration that rises and ebbs with the melody and with the narrative of the mele (poetry). And consider de Melloʻs commentary in the LP jacket notes from the original LP:
The orchestration begins with a statement by the horns which is the opening theme of the song “Imua Kamehameha” (Forward Kamehameha) . . . The theme is developed quickly and we enter into the tempo and the mood of a grand waltz which is in keeping with the big, flowing structure of the song. E ola mau o Kamehameha.
Unlike that dribble I quoted from the Readerʻs Digest box set in my previous post (Soundpainting Paradise), de Mello has a musicianʻs sensibility about the scale of the song “Kamehameha Waltz”–its structure is “big and flowing.” So pairing the grand phrases of the tune and Emma Vearyʻs vocal execution of them with full orchestral sweeping produces a sonic wave where everything is working together.
This is a dimension of Hawaiian music that has gone under-appreciated in recent decades. It deserves to be listened to and enjoyed again.