Daphne Walker, with
Bill Wolfgramm & His Islanders,
Maori Brown Eyes:
Melodies from Maoriland

(49th State Hawaii/Cord International, 2005)

Maori Brown Eyes isn't Hawaiian music in the sense of being drawn directly from the islands' folk tradition. Full of luau-themed party tunes like "Okey-Dokey Hut" and "Lonely Little Kiwi," it looks like the musical equivalent of a tourist's center, designed to show visitors what to expect without any surprises. But when the first notes of Bill Wolfgramm's steel guitar on the title song send the sound and soul of South Pacific beaches rippling out over the waking world like a Hollywood dream sequence, it's clear why 49th State Records chose Maori Brown Eyes as one of its cultural ambassadors.

Bill Wolfgramm & His Islanders don't try to reach for an impossible imitation of the Hawaiian sound. Instead, they use the steel guitar to suggest a sense of place and time. The lingering notes of "Haere Mai" summon the illusory timelessness of summer afternoons; the clear overlapping harmonies of the band echo the overlapping translucency of clouds and sun or light and water in musical poetry.

As fine as Wolfgramm and his Islanders are, singer Daphne Walker deserves the greatest credit for the nostalgic charm of Maori Brown Eyes. There are still bands playing, and trying to play, the Hawaiian-style steel guitar. But Walker's voice belongs to a lost era of Hollywood musicals and vaudeville acts, when women like Dorothy Lamour and the Andrews Sisters were considered glamour girls. Her vocals are distinctly feminine and charming, but she never tries to sound sultry or even coy. That doesn't mean there's no emotion in her delivery. "Aroha: A Love Song" is sung with such plain sincerity it's hard to hear, like a friend's confession. "Haera Ra, My Love: Song of Farewell" sounds so final it would be the last track of the album even if some foolish recording scheduler had the bad grace to lay in more tracks.

Maori Brown Eyes isn't an authentic Hawaiian vacation, or even authentic Hawaiian music. But when the last notes of steel guitar fade away and take the sea with them, don't be surprised to find yourself with a bit of salt water in your eyes.

by Sarah Meador
12 August 2006

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