Sol Hoopii,
King of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar:
Acoustic & Electric

(Cord International, 2006)

There are few albums that would be more fitting for a relaxing day at the beach than King of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. This album needs to breathe under a vast sky. Don't even listen to it in your car on your way there. And putting it onto your iPod or some other MP3 thingamajig would also be a huge mistake. Although it is digitally remastered, the original 78 rpm recordings must have had many of the choral vocals on the same track or singing into the same mic. It gives the album a quaint feel (similar to one's initial discovery of Billy Holiday's recordings), but if you listen too closely, or if you are too close to the speakers, the singing will probably be piercingly uncomfortable. All the words sound in one trebled blur. Fortunately, though, the remastered work does bring a relative crispness to Hoopii's guitar work, which, after all, was the point of this compilation. The songs themselves are somewhat ordinary island music, mostly traditional standards of Hawaiian folk -- only one track was written by Hoopii and even that one wasn't written so much as it was really co-written.

When the guitar is not shadowed by choral vocals (and in such cases one may be reminded of some mariachi band or maybe Ruben Gonzales and his Buena Vista Social Club cohorts -- which is to say, as I've already said, there's a distinct island sound), the listener's ears will tingle at the somewhat bluesy and dreamy island strumming and finger picking of the steel that was responsible for Hoopii's popularity. On these tracks, covering Hoopii's work from 1927-36, Hoopii is toying with a few different fancy guitars, a couple of which are the Rickenbacher "Frypan" and the Rickenbacher Bakelite Electro.

Accompanying the disc is a fine bunch of liner note provided by Harry B. Soria Jr. (including some antiquary photographs of Hoopii, his bandmates and his guitars).The notes provided are full of interesting and helpful information concerning the history of the Hawaiian steel guitar and Hoopii's professional resume of sorts. Because I am geeky like that, I very much enjoyed reading about such as it perhaps helps me appreciate the music just a bit more. Although Hoopii is credited with bridging traditional Hawaiian folk music with American jazz and blues, along with inventing a number of new tuning styles, I still consider most of these songs to be generally unimpressive.

Whereas many other reviewers have marveled at the genius of his innovative playing, with my limited experience of Hawaiian music, I cannot pinpoint any such moments of greatness on the album. All I know is I know what I like and what I don't. Some tracks are lulling and duller than others, such as the somnolent "Hualalai" and "Akaka Falls," which offer a bit of a monotonous strum-hum, conjuring images of waves lapping white sands, lulling us all to sleep. Other tracks are simply swingin' with Hoopii playing rapidly within bluesy keys and scales. We hear this right off the bat in the opening track, "Palolo." Similarly in "Hula Blues," he invokes the ghost of Robert Johnson and I would have been less surprised to hear that this album had come out of Mississippi rather than Hawaii.

I am wondering what kind of reference points I can use to place Hoopii's Hawaiian sound. Trying to compare his work to that of other popular Hawaiian musicians like Don Ho or Israel Kamakawiwo'ole is like trying to compare Foojoy's product line to the poetry of Han Shan (which is simply a bit more obscure way of saying we'd be looking at apples and oranges). An American influence is more strongly felt in these recordings than ever on the albums of either of the other aforementioned Hawaiian musicians. Though Hoopii appeared in the background of a number of Hollywood films, his music doesn't create a pop-nauseas as Ho's may and his voice never fills up on soul like Iz's was able to.

All in all, King of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar is worth a listen, though maybe not worth a purchase. It's cool, it's chill. It's an appropriate album from which to learn something new about the development of Hawaiian music throughout the earlier half of the 20th century. Other than that, though, it's nothing to get too excited about.

by Kevin Shlosberg
21 April 2007

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