Darlene Ahuna,
Bridge Between Generations
(Cord International/Hana Ola, 2004)

I have given up thinking, as I once did, that I've heard all the good tradition-based music that's out there -- happily, that well is close to bottomless, it appears -- but even so, Darlene Ahuna took me aback. I know a little about Hawaiian music, though not nearly as much as I'd like. I do know enough, however, to recognize a master when I hear one, and is Darlene Ahuna ever.

Ahuna -- in early middle age, to judge from the album photos -- carries on the older styles of Hawaiian music, like all traditional musics in danger of being eclipsed by the disposable pop concoctions that pound out of radio stations and inescapably into ears, willing or otherwise, everywhere. Bridge Between Generations is her sixth album and the first I've heard. It is exquisite and perfect, just one glorious song after another, sung mostly in the Hawaiian language (which, I learned, Ahuna does not actually speak). She plays 12-string rhythm guitar in front of a small string band, which includes her husband and co-producer J. J. Ahuna along with other island musicians well versed in native sounds.

I was introduced to traditional Hawaiian music three decades ago, when I heard the late Gabby Pahinui's classic Gabby (1972) on a small island-based label. The master of slack-key guitar, Pahinui was sort of the Robert Johnson or Lead Belly of Hawaiian folk. The liner notes provided no English words to the songs, but even so, I knew instinctively that they were deeply romantic celebrations in which natural landscape was the true subject even if the lyrics voiced, if only ostensibly, man-woman love sentiments. Later, when I read translations, it turned out that I was right. I wasn't right because of any particular wisdom or psychic insight; it's just that the music itself is so richly expressive that it communicates plainly and eloquently on its own level. The liner booklet with Ahuna's record gives us the English words, but you needn't consult them if you aren't so inclined. Her singing and the band's playing are their own language.

Every cut is a treasure, but it is likely that the first one to jump out at you will be the medley "Blue Hawaii/Sweet Leilani." Practically everybody has heard Elvis's version of the former, written originally for the 1937 Bing Crosby film Waikiki Wedding, but known to those of us who weren't around then as the title song of a really dumb Elvis movie. ("Really dumb Elvis movie" is an exercise in repetition if ever there was one). Yet Ahuna sings it not as a kitschy pop song but as a Hawaiian song, and you will quickly forget that you ever heard it any other way.

Another gem is "Kalama'ula" which, like so much of Hawaii's roots music, feels as much like reverie as performance. Ahuna's vocal caresses the lyric, which floats sensuously over Ken Emerson's acoustic steel guitar. Translated, the first verse goes, "It is truly real and alluring in the beauty of Kalama'ula."

It is truly real and alluring, the beauty of Darlene Ahuna's music. If I'm really lucky, I'll hear a more beautiful record this year, but I'm not counting on it. And if not, I'll have this one -- and, I hope, other Ahuna records -- to carry me through.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 23 July 2005

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