Music of Hawaii
Tickling the Strings - 1929-52
Harlequin HQCD28
Music of Hawaii
On a Coconut Island - 1928-50s
Harlequin HQCD46
Music of Hawaii
On the Beach at Waikiki - 1914-52
Harlequin HQCD57
Music of Hawaii
Rhythm of the Islands - 1913-52
Harlequin HQCD92

I've heard it said several times, indeed it seems to have become common sense, that you can't make music as if Punk never happened.  Which is odd, because the people who say that, generally, are content to remain ignorant of the important influences on twentieth-century popular music.  They wouldn't thank you for pointing out that the blackface minstrel show was a more pervasive influence, and that, unlike Punk (and all the other tendencies whose names are commonly prefixed to 'Rock'), its influence was musical as well as ideological.

The same goes, in truckloads, for Hawaiian music.  The current revival of interest may be twenty-odd years old, but it proceeds with great difficulty, for Hawaiian music has yet to live down its vulgar associations: with 1950s American suburban kitsch, with cultural colonialism, with Vaudeville & Hollywood, and with unashamed pleasure.  The great irony is that it's the very pervasiveness of Hawaiian influence - the undeniable popularity of Hawaiian music, demonstrated by its commercial exploitation by the early recording & film industries - which obliges 'serious' music lovers to deny that influence.  Even those who are no longer embarrassed to admit that they enjoy Hawaiian music, persist in regarding it as a quaint aberration, or as just one item in an international menu of arcane minority or 'alternative' musics.

I took my mother to see Ry Cooder's Chicken Skin Revue.  Her musical taste is arguably wider than mine, and certainly younger.  She liked Cooder, she loved the gospel trio; she enjoyed the blues, the rock 'n' roll, the Tex-Mex - but, she said, she 'could have done without the Hawaiian stuff'.  I was shocked that she should turn up her nose at the most expertly played Hawaiian music she was likely to hear, but I was missing the point.  She wasn't likely to hear any Hawaiian music, by choice; for her, and for many people born since the 'twenties, Hawaiian music is inherently embarrassing, and so cannot be played well enough.  Her father, on the other hand, loves it.  Of course he does - in his time, everyone did.

It may well be possible to make music as if the Pacific had been left to the Polynesians.  It is surely not possible to attain an historical understanding of modern popular music, without acknowledging the astonishing extent to which it was shaped by Hawaiian music - and (lest we get carried away) by the Iberian influences which formed what we know as Hawaiian music.  It seems too obvious to mention (but I'll keep mentioning it, anyway), that the most plausible source of all slide guitar techniques is the influence of Hawaiian steel guitar.  It may be, also, that the Hawaiian slack-key tradition is largely responsible for the modern proliferation of guitar tunings.  For that matter, perhaps the unprecedented popularity during this century of the guitar itself may be attributed to Hawaiian influence.  The ubiquity of the ukulele (originally a Portuguese 'baby guitar') throughout the '20s & '30s can certainly be put down to the Hawaiians.  Not only was it the accompanying instrument chosen by many a star of Vaudeville & Variety; in terms of genuine (i.e.  participatory) popularity, the uke was to the youth of the jazz & swing eras what the steel-strung guitar was to become to the skiffle, rock 'n' roll, folk & beat generations.  Add to these considerations a penchant for falsetto singing and for yodelling (a vocal technique which is also built into the Hawaiian approach to melody and the sound of the steel guitar), and it's hard to see how the importance of Hawaiian music can be denied.  A surprising number of people are willing to believe that American music has been profoundly & significantly affected by a single exotic influence.  Many of them, however, would rather believe that the influence in question was not turn-of-the-century Hawaii, but seventeenth-century Senegal.

These four CDs, on the British label Harlequin, demonstrate beautifully the part played by Hawaiian music in the pop mainstream of the first half of the century.  Just as effectively, they show why that is a problem for those who claim an interest in musical traditions.  Most previous compilations of pre-WWII recordings have been produced by blues &/or guitar enthusiasts, and have tended to concentrate, reasonably enough, on guitar virtuosity.  There's plenty of that, here; indeed there's hardly a track amongst the generous total of 94 that isn't an impressive example.  Benny Nawahi and various Moes appear throughout the series, Sol Hoopii & Sol K. Bright are missing from only one volume each, Frank Ferera appears on two.  That's not to mention, of course, many more obscure masters, including some whose names are probably lost to us forever.

'Tickling The Strings' (Nawahi's 1930 tour de force) is the sort of title we like such compilations to have.  It indicates what is supposed to interest music lovers.  The names of the three subsequent volumes, though also the titles of recordings included, reflect a more popular attitude to the music, suggesting an explanation both for its improbable erstwhile pre-eminence, and for the stout resistance of right-minded listeners today.  As well as the guitars, and a range of musical settings, from the classic small string bands, through various more or less jazzy combinations, to full size swing bands, there's a great deal of singing here, and when it comes to songs, this music has a built-in difficulty.  Just as opera is best listened to in Italian - provided you have no knowledge of Italian - Hawaiian songs are easier to take, these days, in Hawaiian.  But the international commercial exploitation of Hawaiian music has gone on virtually throughout its development, and the practice of writing songs in, or partly in, English is as old as the century.  Hawaiian songs are almost never about industrial disasters, labour struggles, alcoholism, crime or venereal disease.  Apart from some songs in praise of various native royals (which are never in English, anyway), they're usually about trees, flowers, fish & other natural delights, leaving home, returning home, or having a nice time on the beach.  Not much there for the seeker after a worthy alternative to the inanities of pop music.  Then there's that happy-savages-proffering-innocent-and -uninhibited-sex thing.  An awful lot of wiggling & giggling goes on in these songs.  That very rhyme, of wiggle with giggle, crops up in at least three different songs in these collections and there are at least two versions of all of them.  Incidentally, 'On a Coconut Island' is a recording by Louis Armstrong, with prominent Hawaiians on all the stringed instruments, and Lionel Hampton on vibes; and that's the sort of song that rhymes 'island' with 'smile and', in the chorus.

All of which, frankly, is fine with me.  None of the lyrical content is at all offensive, and much of it is amusing.  Much of it, of course, is not in English.  In fairness to the Hawaiians, it should be mentioned that songs in their own language seem to rely on a good deal of wordplay which obviously isn't susceptible to translation.  The Tahitians, apparently, tend to be rather more direct.  They are well represented, especially on CD46, which includes two recordings of Tahiti o Tera, one by its composer Augie Goupil, and one under its French title Les Femmes d'Amerique by George 'Tautu' Archer and the Pagans.  The song complains that American women are very pretty but too expensive, whereas Tahitian women are free.  "Vive Tahiti, le pays des amours!".  This may reflect the colonial fantasy, as do all the paeans to flirty, grass-skirted 'hula girls'; or it could just be fair comment on Americans.  On the same disc, another Tahitian group, Les Tamarii Tahiti, sing a song which is very nearly Red River Valley - a timely reminder of the crucial role played in forming this music, by cowboy song, another heavily exploited & widely despised culture.

Clearly, 'Hawaiian' is a generic term.  For our purposes, it takes in pretty much the entire Pacific.  CD92 even includes an example of Indonesian Krontjong, in which the sweet-voiced Miss Ninja is accompanied by Victor Tobin's Sweet Java Islanders, a classic island string band including steel guitar, with locally characteristic violin thrown in.  Tobin, incidentally, was also a member of a popular Indonesian band called the Hawaiian Big Boys.  The Honolulu Queens, who appear on CD57, were a quartet of women from the Dutch East Indies, who were based in The Hague throughout the war years.

Apart from the Hawaiians' more or less distant island neighbours, there were of course many 'Hawaiian' performers who were not islanders at all, ranging from the dedicated adoptive specialists to the professional entertainers who routinely included some Hawaiian material in their shows.  Gruss Mir Mein Hawaii on CD57, is a recording by Mike Danzi, an American steel guitarist who lived in Berlin before the war and led an Hawaiian Quartet which included one Hawaiian.  Tiger Shark on CD28, is a well-known steel guitar instrumental by the Hawaiian Islanders, who were in fact four British brothers called Hodgkinson.  The name H.M.Barnes, on CD92, disguises The Blue Ridge Ramblers, and this splendid 1929 recording of Honolulu Stomp is actually a duet by Russell Jones on steel guitar & Lonnie Austin on piano.  The notes comment that 'this is the only Hawaiian title recorded by the Ramblers', which is not surprising , as there was nothing Hawaiian about them.  It is odd to read of Lonnie Austin (who died in April of this year) without reference to the fact that he was one of Charlie Poole's regular sidemen.

The importance of these CDs, then, is that, together & singly, they provide a representative survey of this music's recorded development, from the rough diamonds of the first generation of players to the sophisticated confections of the swing band modernists (Dick & Lani McIntire, Ray Kinney & Andy Iona are all well represented).  It's hard to recommend any one volume, except by reference to personal favourites.  If you want a sample, you may as well try the latest release.  It offers the greatest chronological scope, and some seminal moments.  As well as the highlights mentioned already (H.M.Barnes, Miss Ninja), it includes the first recording of Tomi Tomi, by performers from the cast of 'The Bird of Paradise', the 1912 New York production which is credited with starting the Hawaiian craze, and a side from the 1933 session in which the electric steel guitar was first recorded.   An important event, for those who think that 'electric' & 'acoustic' are musical categories.   It also has two of the four sides recorded in 1932, by the mysterious Coral Islanders - who, for my money, come as close to perfection as anything ever did.   They were recorded for the Mexican market, as was the similarly obscure Jose Encinas, who recorded four sides in 1922, and is represented here by a rare example of the archaic 'self-accompanied' steel guitar style.   If you want one convenient collection, this may serve your purpose until CDs are replaced by something else.   On the other hand, you may well find that you have to have the other volumes, in due course.   'Don't suppose it will work on my mom, though.

David Campbell - 24.6.97

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