Take an Audio Trip to the South Seas of Yesteryear
When you think of Hawaiian music, what comes to mind? Most likely someone in a floral shirt strumming a ukulele, some wistful lap steel guitar played under swaying palms on an idyllic beach. All accompanied by an exotic hula dancer or two, of course.
This picture is certainly Hawaiian in its way, but a lot of it is Hollywood and the advertising industry’s marketing of an idea of Hawaii. The ukulele, in fact, evolved from a Portuguese instrument, the guitar originally from Spain. Even the well-known floral Hawaiian shirt was purportedly invented by a Japanese immigrant to Honolulu. However, that doesn’t make the picture less authentic, as these instruments and this image have been so adopted by the native citizens and incorporated into the fabric of the Islands to such an extent that they’ve become “Hawaiian”.
This vision of paradise we have owes a lot to the so-called “golden age” of Hawaiian music, roughly the teens to the 1940s, which fed off of, as well as fueled, the craze for all things Hawaii during this time. The music eventually evolved in a few directions, one merging with the lounge and exotica genres in the 1950s and ’60s. They’re all celebrated in the four-disc box set Hulaland: The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music.
A thirst for anything Hawaiian took America by storm in the early 20th century, precipitated by musicians from what was then a U.S. territory (not yet a state) touring the mainland, and the improved accessibility to the islands provided by commercial airlines. In the rush to cash in on (or, less cynically, to extoll) the music, everyone from Dorothy Lamour to Louis Armstrong and Slim Whitman were recording Hawaiian flavored tunes. Many of the tunes captured the romance quite well, many were novelty songs, and many of the performers probably never even set foot on Hawaiian soil (as Edward F. Cline’s brief spoken word comedy bit, “Hawaii Calls”, on disc 1 goes: “How can you write such lovely songs about the lonely shore, the whispering palms and the moon when you ain’t never seen ‘em?” Answer: “That’s why…because I ain’t never seen ‘em.”)
A case in point, Fleetwood Mac’s classic instrumental “Albatross” is played here in a Hawaiian style by a Dutch guitarist (Wout Steenhuis). But does it really matter for us, the listeners? It’s a beautiful rendition, regardless. And that’s the point of this collection. It’s not trying to be a serious musicological study of traditional or “authentic” Hawaiian music (whatever that is at this point). Rather, it’s a sampling of music both from the Islands and music influenced by the Islands. It’s a collection “for the tourist, not the purist”, as the liner notes say.
The box set has the feel of browsing through someone’s well-stocked record collection, and that’s because it is. The collections of three people, to be precise: the set’s producers James Austin (owner of Rockbeat Records) and Jim Allen, both long time collectors of Hawaiian memorabilia, plus artist and musician Robert Armstrong, who provides many of the illustrations in the accompanying book. Disc four is reserved for Armstrong and various other contemporary musicians playing new compositions influenced by the older works.
Above all, this music is meant to be appealing and fun. After all, the artists are trying to evoke a tropical paradise. Much of this succeeds through a cross-pollination with other genres. Jazz and Big Band shine through on cuts by artists such as Louis Armstrong and Jo Stafford (whose “Hawaiian War Chant” is decked out with “tribal” percussion and saxophone…evoking a shipwrecked jazz band perhaps?) and country music seeps in with “Hawaiian Cowboy”, here in two different songs sharing the same title. Slim Whitman’s comes complete with yodeling. Hawaiian-style singing, with the many vowels in the language, lends itself well to the yodel treatment.
The lounge and exotica artists that came later are represented by the usual suspects, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, but also the lesser known like the Waikiki’s and the Lincoln Trio. Hawaiian sounds even found their way into 50s doo-wop in “Jungle Drums”, by the Passions, and into surf rock via the Ventures’ “Taboo” and Rob E.G.’s surprisingly effective “Peter Gunn Goes Hawaiian”.
No collection such as this would be complete without a ukulele spotlight or two, and Roy Smeck (“the wizard of the strings”) dazzles with a 1935 recording aptly titled “Crazy Uke“. “Sweet Georgia Brown”, by Jim and Bob, is another fast-picking uke excursion. For context, and as a further example of the infiltration of the Hawaiian image into the media, tropical-themed commercials and TV show themes (“Hawaiian Eye”, “Hawaii Five-O”, “Betty the Hula Dancer” from a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon) are sprinkled throughout.
Hulaland was created with the intention of highlighting not just the music of the time, but also the eye-catching, colorful Hawaii-inspired art, particularly from sheet music covers. The accompanying 101-page hardcover book is lavishly illustrated with samples of these and also includes essays and blurbs on the music and related topics like surfing, ukuleles and hula dancing. As with the commercials, the book provides a more complete, rounded picture of the Hawaiian craze than the music by itself.
The essays provide historical insight, but one wishes a little more attention had been paid to editing and proofreading. Numerous spelling and punctuation errors, some minor and some not-so-minor (one example being the word “performer” and “performing” being spelled throughout as “proformer” and “preforming”) are present, as well as sentences with extra or missing words. This detracts some but not enough to obscure the fact that the book is a labor of love.
Hulaland is a set to peruse and enjoy in your “little grass shack” on the beach, poolside, or by the fire on a snowy day. The compilers were not intending to provide an academic overview of Hawaiian music, yet they’ve nevertheless created a bona fide cultural and historical document of a genre and time only touched on elsewhere.