Linda Dela Cruz,
Hawaii's Canary
(Cord International/Hana Ola, 2005)

Hawaii's Canary is another in Cord International's continuing series of archival reissues documenting the commercially recorded traditional music of America's 50th state. Most of this material has been hard to find on the mainland. To a non-Hawaiian, moreover, Hawaii's musical history can be positively intimidating in its richness and complexity. One wonders how so small a place could have produced so many distinctive, almost preposterously melodic songs and tunes.

An outsider who has heard just enough to want to hear more barely knows where to begin. Here, Cord performs a needed public service, the equivalent of those small reissue labels such as County, Yazoo, Revenant, Smithsonian Folkways and others that make old-time string bands, early bluegrass, rural blues and other regional American styles readily available in anthologies put together by individuals of wide knowledge and superior taste.

Linda Dela Cruz, who retired some years ago from a long, dynamic career in the islands' entertainment venues and recording studios, got her initial inspiration from Lena Machado, known fondly as "Hawaii's Songbird." Possessed of formidable vocal talents and trained by a steel-guitar playing uncle, Dela Cruz (born Lillian Leialoha Keawe'ehu) began singing in clubs and restaurants at a young age. As her reputation spread, she sang with some of the best bands of the period and started cutting records in the mid- to late 1940s. The first 11 selections on this disc are from those sessions. Listening to their mature perfection, one can scarcely believe that Dela Cruz (b. 1929) was still in her teens.

Her vocal range is a natural wonder. As the deeply informed liner notes -- by Hawaiian-music disc jockey and scholar Harry B. Soria Jr. -- observe, it "climbed the peaks of any soprano register in one moment, and descended to the deep guttural chants of her ancestors in the next." The material, comprising 23 songs spread over the entirety of Dela Cruz's recording career, is uniformly excellent and sometimes so beautiful ("Ke Ala O Ka Rose" and "None Hula," for but a couple of examples) that it threatens to transport listeners into some tropical parallel universe from which they may wish never to return.

Only two of the songs, from late in Dela Cruz's career, are in English. My favorite of these, "Come My House," is a calypso-accented piece sung with Harold Kaheakulani Hakuole as a good-natured ribbing of Hawaii's various ethnic groups and their mutually exasperating ways.

I will spare you the further superlatives that come to mind, but I will tell you that I expect to be listening to Hawaii's Canary for a long time to come. There is nothing ephemeral about songcraft on this level.

by Jerome Clark
19 August 2006

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