What Iʻm listening to: uh, let’s call it “Hawaiian musicians in unexpected places”

morning aloha, dear readers! To flag and share some of those head-scratching moments, Iʻm starting a new thread called “Hawaiian musicians in unexpected places.” The lesson here is simple–never judge a book by its cover.

For starters:  would you give the following CD a second look?

Lifescapes Hawaii 1 of 4

Hawaiian music fans know, from decades of experience, about stereotypes that have been marketed and perpetuated despite our best effots to educate what could be called “the unwashed masses.” Hawaiian music fans know about stacks and stacks of budget LPs and CDs, from having seen them in the bins at Tower Records or Borders over the years. (A moment of silence . . . ) While diehard Hawaiian music fans would never admit to actually purchasing these presumably maudlin CDs, such fans would at least expect these recordings to contain the work of uninspired studio bands on budget labels who circle the globe in one weekʻs worth of sessions–Monday is Italy, Spain, Greece; Tuesday is Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil; Wednesday is Hawaii [sic], Tahiti, etc. etc. Hawaiian music fans steer clear of those budget CDs that target the vacation and new age crowds. Right?

But as a scholar, I am supposed to suspend judgement. I am supposed to verify and confirm before passing judgement. So this CD appears on ebay; I think to myself “yeah, right.” But I click “buy now” anyway. (With postage, itʻs still under $5. I can afford to contribute to the economy at that level.)

The CD arrives in my mailbox several days later. Plastic jewel case is cracked and scratched, but liner notes are in mint condition, as if they had never been removed from the case. My first presumption, and budget label strategy #1 — the cover photo is all there is; the back side is blank. Not entirely correct. There is a photo. But wait–budget label strategy #2 — the printing on the back of the liner insert reproduces the photo and tracklist  the back of the jewel case. Okay, business as usual. But wait–the insert is folded, meaning that there are actually four panels. So–am I holding budget label strategy #3–of printing on the one side (which, when folded, yields printing on pages 1 and 4 but the inside pages are blank)? Common sense would dictate that 2 blank pages inside a folded insert is a waste of expensive glossy paper, so there must be something printed inside the insert. Am I holding budget label strategy #4–that the inside is simply a visual / photographic catalog of other similar thematic releases by the label?

And here is where presumptions such as the above get exploded. Open the insert, and here is what is printed:

Lifescapes Hawaii 4 of 4Look at the list of musicians. Benny Kalama on ‘ukulele (ukelele–argh!!) Casey Olsen and Greg Sardinha on steel guitar!! Hiram Olsen on guitar, Kalani Fernandez on bass. Kapono Beamer on multiple instruments–meaning that at least some of the tracks will feature kī hō’alu.

Really, folks, this artist roster is a who’s who in Hawaiian music. But then, another set of presumptions potentially rear their ugly heads; presumptions like “these guys sold out to be doing stuff like this;” or “this is just more tourist crap.”

Between the two sets of presumptions laid out here, it would seem that the musicians are caught in a toxic swamp. How could respected musicians of this caliber stoop to the level of budget label fluff?

Paradigm shift needed here. Itʻs actually simple. Musicians ply their craft as work for hire. This is a gig. This is the kind of work that helps these guys pay the mortgage (or rent), pay the credit card bills, pay the car payments (to get to gigs), pay for the gas in the car to get to gigs.

Moreover–gigging musicians have to maintain a reputation for delivering quality, in order to ensure that future gigs will contine to come their way.

Pop the CD in, and listen. And yes, the craftsmanship on these songs is at the level of mastery one would expect from oldtimers like Benny Kalama and Hiram Olsen and Kalani Fernandez. Itʻs CLASSIC, folks. And a very judicious mix of 1950s style steel guitar music with 1970s (and later) slack key across a very iconic song list:

Lifescapes Hawaii 2 of 4

Songs that Hawaiian music fans know and love–and love to sing. “Hi’ilawe.” “ʻO Makalapua.” “Ku’u Lei ‘Awapuhi.” The tracks are instrumental. The artistry is solid. Pa’a.

Never judge a book by its cover.

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2 Responses to What Iʻm listening to: uh, let’s call it “Hawaiian musicians in unexpected places”

  1. Russell Letson says:

    That is indeed a nice disc–and not the only one of the world or folkish series (particularly of the celtoid kind) that Target has offered. Quite a few were produced in the Twin Cities (where the company started), using such well-respected local players as Dean Magraw, Laura MacKenzie, Peter Ostroushko, Dick Hensold, Dan Newton, and others one might have heard on Prairie Home Companion.

    You’ve probably seen the Lifescapes kiosks at Target stores–I haven’t paid much attention lately, but you used to be able to push a button to get a sample, and while a lot of the stuff was quite New-Agey, I could tell that, say, the piping CDs were the real thing, so I picked up a couple, and, sure enough, there were Laura MacKenzie and Dick Hensold. And the Parisian disc was all Dan Newton on accordion.

    I also note that some of these titles are going for strangely high prices on Amazon–not sure what’s going on there.

  2. Kailani says:

    Aloha,
    My sweet baby brother gave me this very music, in a cassette format, many years ago. I fell in love with the artists’ music on it. It was the first time I had ever heard those particular Hawaiian Musicians/Artists. I gave the cassette away, many years after, but bought it online again a few years ago in mp3 album format. I think of my dear, sweet brother (now deceased) every time I listen to it, and how he introduced me to such beautiful music of Hawaii’s, by such very talented people as who are on The Lifescapes album. E malama pono.

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