“The Blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll” sang Muddy Waters a few ( few !) years back.
Have you ever stopped and thought and wondered, however, where the Blues came from ?
We all know the influence of Africa and the Spirituals and the various religious sects that had an input but one that often gets overlooked ( and there’s a clue in the picture and my greeting there, see if you can guess) is…..Hawaii.
Yes, Hawaii, that tiny group of islands dotted 2000 miles from anywhere in the middle of the Pacific.
“Eh ?” I hear you say, “how the jolly flip” ( it is Sunday, after all) “did Hawaii help give birth to the Blues”.
Well, I’ll tell you.
Until the beginning of the 20th C the guitar was , pretty much, the ugly duckling of the music scene. Fiddles and Banjos were far more popular with musicians in the South of America ( as opposed to South America). Then, in the early 1900s, after the American business men had wickedly stolen Hawaii from it’s rightful rulers, things changed.
In order to encourage the sale of their pineapples and coconut postcards, a series of Hawaiin cultural groups were sent out to various exhibitions all over America.
The Americans took the music played to their hearts, there was a boom in Ukulele sales and, even more so, the guitar , which featured prominently in the Hawaiian sound also took off.
The guitar had come to Hawaii ( in various forms) , it is thought, with the Portugese sailors, possibly whalers , who brought their home country instruments with them ( one of which was the ancestor to the Uke).
At some point, a bored Hawaiian ( it is though) picked up a piece of metal ( a railway spike is often cited) and ran it down his guitar and thought “Hey ! That sounds cool” and , as the keening sound produced fitted very well with the swaying rhythms of the local music the style was quickly adopted.
You will also note that many Blues players play the metal bodied “Tricone” and “National” guitars. Look closely and you’ll see that some of them are decorated with engraved Hula dancers and palm trees, not things normally associated with the Mississippi Delta, the reason being that they were developed to allow the guitar to project he volume needed when played in the midst of a mass of frantically strummed Ukuleles.
Thus, without Hawaii there would be no steel guitar, no slide guitar and Blind Willie McTell might have been a Banjo plucker instead.
So, in honour of the sound that made the Blues and , by extension, Rock music what it is today here are a few Hawaiian songs to pass away the listless , tropical hours before Mai-Tai time.
Most come from a wonderful series of CDs called “Vintage Hawaiian Treasures” and date from the 30s-50s ( many were released on the …whoops ..49th State label, named in anticipation of Hawaii’s Statehood being granted. Alaska pipped them to the post).
First up a firm favourite form one of my most adored artistes John Kameaaloha Almeida ( note the Portugese surname) in praise of motoring Holoholo Ka’a. I paticularly like Hawaiian songs that drop the odd English phrase into the lyric “Step on the gas pedal” in this case. A typical “call and response number with female backing group.
Next a number I’ll admit to being biased about. I first heard the song in a hotel lobby in Poipu, Kauai sung by a lovely lady in a mu’umu’u ( it’s not rude). Sitting there , drink in had as the sun set over the ocean and whales spouted ( in the ocean, not the lobby) was just about as good as it gets. The song celebrates the beauty of Kauai, it’s famous “wettest place in the world” mountain and , specifically, the little native violet that grows only there and nowhere else in the world. It’s called Nani Wai’ale’ale ( nani meaning “pretty” and Wai’ale’ale being the name of the extinct volcano that formed the island).
To follow, my favourite duet, the Ho’op’i'i brothers, from Maui. There’s was the first Hawaiian CD I bought using the simple process of asking a local record shop owner what she recommended. She was right ( sideline story, it was a trifle odd to be standing in a shop in Hawaii and noticing a copy of Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping on the wall, this in the days before it became an American sports anthem). The song is Maui Girl, more sprightly, slightly cheeky and featuring the word “Opu” which means, roughly, “belly”.
We continue with the Ho’op’i'i brothers and what is probably my favourite song of all. O.K. I’m biased, it’s about my favourite place on my favourite island. Koke’e. You start from sun baked Waimea, climb up the mountain road, pause, perhaps, to look out over Waimea Canyon and see the White Tailed Tropic birds, which the ancient Hawaiian though were the spirits of the ancestors, glide elegantly far below you or , perhaps, to gaze across the endless ocean with only little, secretive Ni’i'hau and it’s sister Lehua before 2000 miles of water, continue upwards and the trees begin to crowd in, perhaps the fog rolls down and things get cooler and greener. Eventually you arrive at the clearing with it’s little restaurant ( I hope it’s still there) and tiny museum telling of the unique flora and fauna of this special place. I love it, as I write this my heart pines for those soft mists and the green , silent woods. One day, one day…
Sniff…anyway..Hula, we all know it, right ? Coconut bras, grass skirts , swaying hips…wrong, the “real” Hawaiian version is much more stately, the secret , as an old “night club hula” song, says, is in the hands. They tell the story. Here’s John Pi’llani Watkins and group with an old fashioned Hana Chant which give some idea of what might have been the sound that accompanied Hula before the bands got going.
We’re heading for the last roundup now, with the Hawaiian Cowboys and Andy Bright. Little known outside of Hawaii until they suddenly appeared at the Rodeo shows and blew the place apart, cowboys have been a feature of Hawaii for years, mainly on the “Big Island” and Maui where the Parker Ranch cowboys used to drive cattle into waiting boats, riding their horses into the ocean and slapping the water to fend off the Tiger Sharks who thought they were in for a feast.
Phew ! I didn’t mean to write as much but, as you might be able to tell, I’m kind of passionate about Hawaii and it’s music, especially the “old” stuff. I’ll round off with an oddity that, at first sight, seems about as bizarre as it gets, in fact when I mentioned it on RR sonofwebcore thought I was joking. I wasn’t. Harry Lauder really was popular in Hawaii and visited the islands a couple of time. Thus we find “Squeeze” Kamana singing about the Hawaiian Scotchman with totally bonkers bagpipe impersonating steel guitar.
In fact many Scots settled in Hawaii , becoming ( sometimes with dodgy dealing) landowners and prominent citizens.
As always there’s a bonus cut, you may have heard this one…..
Until next time. I wish you a fond “aloha” until we meet again.