various artists,
Territorial Airwaves
(Cord, 2004)

The Soria family has been active in broadcasting on the Hawaiian Islands since the very earliest days of radio. Harry B. Soria Jr. grew up amid his grandfather's and father's collection of native recordings as well as their friendships with the performers themselves. In 1979 he started a radio show featuring musical forms forged (and sometimes buried) in Hawaii's past. Twenty-five years later the show, titled Territorial Airwaves, lives on, and this gorgeous CD, a survey of 20 selections from 1936 into the 1970s, celebrates the happy occasion.

It all sounds like "Hawaiian music," but that's a concept that has evoked varying impressions in mainland America over the decades. When I grew up, it was country songs of a faux-Hawaiian character (Hank Snow and Anita Carter's "Bluebird Island") or pop tunes such as Elvis's kitschy pleasure "Blue Hawaii." In the 1920s and '30s, Hawaiian music was a mainland fad, an inspiration to popular singers of various stripes and to rural blues guitarists such as Casey Bill Weldon and Oscar Woods. Perhaps the most lasting impact was on hillbilly musicians; the steel guitar and dobro, integral to so much country music, take their inspiration from the Hawaiian steel guitar. Examples can be heard on the 2000 Yazoo collection Slidin' on the Frets: The Hawaiian Steel Guitar Phenomenon.

As this recording makes clear, mainland musicians influenced their Hawaiian counterparts, too. A goofy instance is the cha-cha "Malia My Tita," a 1958 record by Buddy Fo & the Imitations. "When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop" (by, of course, Hilo Hattie) is the sort of novelty song our grandparents and great-grandparents found vastly amusing. Melveen ("Hawaii's Country Girl") Leed's Nashville-sound arrangement of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" does nothing to render Patsy Cline's version obsolete, but it's not bad either. Though cut by a late-1950s group called the Surfers, "Hula Eyes" disappoints by failing to be the great surf-guitar instrumental one might have hoped for; instead, it's a dorky orchestral pop song of the type that puts the listener at risk of aural sugar shock.

That, however, is a danger only rarely encountered here. Though I have heard it many times (both in its original 1947 form and in the later, more densely textured arrangement on the classic 1972 album Gabby), "Hi'ilawe" by the immortal slack-key master Gabby Pahinui -- sort of the Lead Belly/Robert Johnson of Hawaii -- still seems to me one of the loveliest pieces of music ever to float up out of the human soul. It is followed by "E Mama E," sung by Genoa Keawe in the Hawaiian falsetto style -- the sort of thing that could stop your heart if you aren't careful. Pua Almeida's Club Pago Pago Orchestra's "Ho'oluana" lets you know what Hawaiian big-band jazz was like.

My favorites, inevitably, are the more traditional pieces, but the notes remind us that even the island standard "Aloha Oe" was "set to the melody line of the Christian hymn 'The Rock Beside Me,' by Charles Crozat Converse." Like so much traditional music before the era of recording, Hawaii's earliest, "purest" styles are lost. Distant memories survive in the first recordings and in the repertoires of revivalists (of whom Hawaii has produced a distinguished crop), but like any other people, Hawaiians borrowed and absorbed, the familiar and the novel in constant conflict, embrace and synthesis. If you want to know what that sounded like, Territorial Airwaves is the best imaginable place to start.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 2 October 2004

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