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By Request - A Song To Hawai’i

hwnmusiclives's Podcast

Release Date: 01/19/2013

It has been some time since I sent a Facebook “friend” request to someone whom I noticed “liked” our mutual friends’ posts about vintage Hawaiian music. I wrote and told him that we should be fast friends because he has impeccable taste in Hawaiian music. Now, more than two years later, my friend and new Ho’olohe Houfan Kamarin Kaikea Lee writes to me to inquire about a song forgotten by all but the old timers…  

He was listening to a classic 1960s album by Pua Almeida called “My Son Pua” on which he sings a medley of two songs - one Hawaiians sing all the time to this day (Helen Lindsey Parker’s classic “Akaka Falls”) and a song you will rarely hear anymore. He asks about this song which begins with the magical words, “The winds from over the sea sing sweetly aloha to me…” And how can a song go from there to anywhere but heavenly?

The seldom heard but heavenly waltz-time tune is often simply called “The Winds From Over The Sea” for its first line, but its real title is “A Song To Hawai’i.” The rightful composer has been contested, but as noted by ethnomusicologist Dr. Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman (in a scholarly article, "Aloha Aina": New Persecptives on "Kaulana Na Pua", The Hawaiian Journal of History, Volume 33, 1999), at least two generally credible sources credits J.D. Redding with composing the song: Jack Ailau’s Buke Mele Hawaii and Charles E. King’s Book of Hawaiian Melodies (1923 edition). Interestingly, despite that the song dates back to at least 1923 - and possibly earlier - I cannot find in my archives or in any publicly available electronic materials (spelled Google) any versions recorded until the 1960s and none recorded since. This song seems to have had a very specific moment of popularity in time, and we can only speculate about the sudden fervor (statehood and the ensuing spike in tourism?) and its just as sudden demise (perhaps the somewhat archaic waltz time which renders the song impossible for the hula). It is all very odd because scores of other hapa-haole songs (songs which extol the beauty and virtues of Hawai’i but written in the English language) remain very popular despite their quaintness in these modern times.

I located a number of versions of the song - all dating to the early 1960s. A sole instrumental version is not included here, allowing us to focus on several vocal versions which are notable on any number of counts and which allow us to hear the beautiful lyric over and over again.

The first is a version that some in the know might think is still in print but which, in fact, is not. There is a practice among record labels that I personally find confusing - reissuing “Best Of”or “Greatest Hits” collections by an artist but recycling the cover art from an iconic recording by that same artist. One might look at the cover of the reissued collection and say - inaccurately, based on the picture - “I had this record when I was a kid. How I would love to hear it again.” I can cite numerous cases of this grievous error in the Hawaiian, jazz, and pop music worlds. And one of these is a collection entitled “The Best of Lucky Luck.” Lucky Lucky was the public handle of Hawai’i radio and TV host Bob Luck who could find his way through a song with his own unique panache - especially when accompanied by a stable of some of Hawai’i’s finest musicians.  “The Best of Lucky Luck” was issued using the same cover art as the original 1960s release “Have Fun With Lucky,” but while many of the songs on “Have Fun” were reissued for the “Best Of,” not all of the songs were - specifically, those that featured these illustrious sidemen but not Lucky Luck. (The rest of the “Best Of” is rounded out with selections released previously only as 45rpm singles.) So those who picked up “Best Of” may ultimately have found their favorite song missing. And one of the missing is “Winds From Over The Sea.” Under the leadership of arranger Chick Floyd, the amazing singer and songwriter Mel Peterson gives us a charming rendition while the familiar voice of Charles Kaipo Miller makes it a medley by singing “Aloha No Au I Ko Maka” in Hawaiian - all wrapped up in Joe Custino’s lush steel guitar. This version has likely seldom been heard since its release nearly 50 years ago and has yet to see the light of day on CD or MP3.

We then hear from Hawaiian baritone Bob Pauhale Davis who recorded all too rarely himself but who was called upon to participate in numerous sessions for Margaret Williams’ Tradewinds Records label in the 1960s. We hear him sing “A Song To Hawai’i” here with the assistance of a trio of ladies’ voices known as The Kamaha’os and slack key guitarist Leonard Kwan (who is not playing in the slack key style and likely not even in a slack key gutar tuning). This is from the Tradewinds album “Party Songs Hawaiian Style,” and in stark contrast to the Mel Peterson/Charles Kaipo Miller version which is exceedingly well produced in the recording studio, the Bob Davis version is the kind of simple folk music you would hear at backyard parties - then as even still today. And, frankly, most of the time, I prefer that style.

We then hear from one of my favorite albums of all time from one of my favorite performers - composer, hula master, and falsetto singer extraordinaire Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln from his eponymously titled LP also on Tradewinds Records. With the able assistance of Lei Cypriano, Annie Hu, and most underrated and seldom heard steel guitarist Eddie Pang, Bill launches into “A Song To Hawai’i” in his full baritone - which, despite the beauty and fullness of tone, may be a momentary disappointment for those expecting his soaring falsetto. But Uncle Bill ultimately does not disappoint. (He never could!) After a brief ritard after the first chorus, he launches into a chorus of falsetto yodeling typical of the singing style of the paniolo (cowboys) of his once home of Hawai‘i island (sometimes erroneously referred to as the Big Island). And then another ritard and Uncle Bill is off to the races with a near double-time waltz chorus of falsetto yodel. Curiously, he pronounces “winds” with a long “i” sound - a deliberate old-school mispronunciation intended to conjure up thoughts, perhaps, of old western films and Nelson Eddy.

Both the Bob Davis and Bill Lincoln recordings are available in MP3 format from iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, and other reputable download sites courtesy of Cord International/Hana Ola Records. But as cited in a previous Ho’olohe Hou post, these might not be considered remasters since they do not sound noticeably better in their digital reincarnation than the vinyl originals. The versions here are from my original vinyl copies.

But all of these versions left me hungering for… I don’t know. Something was amiss. Each of these versions was different, and yet somehow none managed to capture all of the beauty and magic of the lyric. I then listened to the version my friend Kamarin first mentioned to me which began this whole pursuit - the version by Pua Almeida. And I was immediately reminded of an earlier Ho’olohe Hou post about the Makaha Sons’ Moon Kauakahi and his aim to make the sensibility of the arrangement of a Hawaiian song reflect the story the lyric is typicallyleft to convey on its own.  And Pua Almeida’s version of “A Song To Hawai’i” does this. Performed as a medley with “Akaka Falls,“ the song opens with the ethereal harp of De Wayne Fulton - the cascading arpeggios of chord tones mimicking the falls and its splashes and ripples. When we get to “The Winds from Over The Sea,“ Will Brady’s flute obbligato floats mystically over Pua’s voice like a tone poem to those winds. The medley closes with a reprise of “Akaka Falls” in which the flute and harp dance together like the winds and waters they portray - a love song to Hawai’i in both words and music.

Dedicated with aloha to Kamarin Kaikea Lee for the joy in hearing these treasured recordings again.