Various Artists: Hawaii: Songs of Aloha [DVD]

Jamie O'Brien

Various Artists

Hawaii: Songs of Aloha [DVD]

Label: SDR Films
US Release Date: 2002-03-12

In 2000, Hawaiian PBS (Public Television) produced a program entitled Hawai'i -- Songs of Aloha for national broadcast. Now, it is available in DVD form.

I must confess, the spoken introduction did not whet my appetite. The steel guitar and ukulele provide background music to images of a sailing boat, a palm tree, lapping waves, a surfer (all pure kitsch), and the rich baritone voice comes up announcing: "From our 50th state, 3,000 miles at sea, a spectacular presentation -- gorgeous music, graceful dance and the beautiful aloha spirit of the Hawaiian people. Hawaii as you have never heard it before." This is all too smooth, too creamy for the music and dance to be taken seriously. But sometimes it's worth delving a little deeper, so let the program continue.

Hawaiian music has many sides, ranging from chant to slack key to traditional to contemporary and more, and many of these styles are captured to one degree or another in this 77-minute program. The first musicians on stage, for example, are noted for their diversity and are part of a new generation which is likely to gain fame on the mainland.

Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Willie K performed together for a many years during the late '90s. Willie K has always struck me as a great rocker with strong cultural roots, whereas the control and power of Gilliom show a mixed background with classical and traditional origins. Together, they recorded three momentous albums and garnered a number of awards. They perform "Palehua", a song the couple wrote on a traditional theme. Gilliom sings with warmth and affection while gazing at the hula dancers of Aloha Dalire who gracefully weave the tribute to the mountain in the title. (Many Hawaiian compositions describe geographic locations. As the singer describes the beauty of a place, the dancers use body language to illustrate the lyrics). Willie K's guitar accompaniment dances around the melody with gentle arpeggios, runs and slides set on a subdued accompaniment from the house band.

The pair returns toward the end of the show for two more numbers. The first is perhaps a little obvious, "The Hawaiian Wedding Song". Willie K sings in Hawaiian, Gilliom in English, and I imagine many a person who has vacationed in the Islands will find this a high point of the evening.

Willie K comes into his own when he performs "Ki Ho'alu Man", his tribute to slack key legend, Gabby Pahinui. His tenor voice is filled with admiration and enjoyment as he recalls his younger days and his introduction to the music. Interestingly like many contemporary musicians, he uses a flat pick rather than a finger-picking style even when he moves into the Pahinui classic song, "Hi'ilawe".

The Brothers Cazimero are almost synonymous with Hawaii. For many years, Roland (bass) and Robert (12-string guitar) have delighted audiences throughout the world with their singing and playing. They have performed with some of the best musicians Hawaii has known. Here they sing three songs, two in Hawaiian and one in English. Although their vocal ranges seem remarkably close, their good use of counterpoint, falsetto and switching lead, enables them to create a diverse sound. They are joined by dancer Tehani Kealamailani Gonzado on one song and by three male dancers on another, adding a strong visual element.

The tunes may be familiar, and at times veer close to easy listening, but the brothers constantly attract attention with their distinctive performance, as shown by the harmony on "Ku'u Ipa O Hokule'a" or the bluesy guitar on "Na Pe'a O Hokule'a"; they get under the skin. Similarly, as is common with many Hawaiian performances, the history, origins and culture of the islanders, as well as the features of the land and ocean along with the life found there, are constantly explained as so many of the songs and tunes revolve around these elements; shows often risk turning into classrooms. But this impression soon vanishes as they draw their audience deeper into a song with their explanations that serve to make songs come more alive.

O'Brian Eselu and his dancers bring old Hawaii to life. The hula they perform at times seems a world apart to the more modern dance performed elsewhere in the show. Athletic and powerful, this is more like the fire of volcanoes or the strength of a tempest than the rippling waters and snow-covered mountains of the Dancers of Aloha Dalire. These men are warriors. The traditional chanting also seems to come from deep within the earth: The glottal stops and aspirations of the Hawaiian language are more apparent in this context than the flowing vowels and rolling consonants heard in song.

There is something 'Spanish' about the Makaha Sons (Louis 'Moon' Kauakahi and John and Jerome Koko). Three voices, two guitars and a bass, they open with a medley, "Drums of the Islands/Waterfall", to the backdrop of some of the most spectacular scenes in Hawaii. But their performance moves into overdrive when ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro joins them on "Noho Paipai". Shimabukuro takes lead breaks on his humble little instrument, including a dynamic 'duel' between the uke and Jerome's guitar. The first impression is that his style revolves around speed in strumming and chord changes, along with his rushing around the stage and his infectious grin. However, the youthful, exuberant musician is not merely a showman, he is an amazing musician able to draw different sounds and effects from his instrument. He constructs his solos integrating styles normally found on more 'legitimate' instruments. Without doubt, Shimabukuro's performance is a true highlight of the whole program.

Finding an adequate description of Na Leo, a trio that formed two decades ago, is no easy task: A development of the 'girlie groups' of the '60s, soul singers, or something else? The moment you come up with one definition, Angela Morales, Lehua Kalima Heine and Nalani Choy will veer off in the opposite direction. What is obvious is that each woman is a strong singer and each has her own distinctive voice, capable of both melody and harmony singing. Here they perform two songs: "Sugar Cane Shack", a rolling, soulful song featuring each singer taking the lead on a verse and adding sweet harmonies on the chorus; and Heine's longing interpretation of "I Miss You My Hawaii", which with the wrong singer would become sweetly sentimental, but here is a moving recollection. The first song is performed with the 24-VII Dancers, who present another more modern facet of dance as they weave and wend their way around the stage.

"Hapa" is Hawaiian for "half", but it is also the name of one of the best duos to have emerged onto the music scene made up of Hawaiian Keli'i Kaneali'i and New Jersey-born Barry Flanagan. "Lei Pikake" is sung by Kaneali'i with Flanagan providing a harmony and adding an intriguing guitar accompaniment as the Aloha Dalire Dancers return to the stage. They lift the tempo on their second number, "Haleakala Ku Hanohano", again with the strong tenor lead, sympathetic harmony and guitar line.

Fulfilling with its promise to present the biggest stars from the Islands, attention is turned to slack key guitar and modern-day legends Ledward Ka'apana and Cyril Pahinui. Seated side by side with grins bursting off their faces, they perform "Mauna Loa", Pahinui providing the strong accompaniment for Ka'apana to demonstrate his prowess. They follow this with a duet in which they exchange leads, each demonstrating his own approach to guitar playing. The audience response is heartening as they acknowledge the performance with applause and appreciative laughter. (Ka'apana has a sense of humor which he demonstrates on his six-string).

The Kamehameha Schools were founded a century ago partly to foster Island culture and tradition among Hawaiian youth. Indeed, many of the program's performers attended the schools. And the evening draws to a perfect end with the Kamehameha Schools' Glee Club performing two songs so closely identified with Hawaii, "Hawaii Aloha" and "Aloha 'Oe", separated by a bilingual version of "Amazing Grace". They are joined for a moving reprise of "Aloha 'Oe" by the evening's musicians and dancers as well as the audience.

Elizabeth Kapu'uwailani Lindsey hosts the program with short introductions which draw together influences and traditions of the material as well as descriptions of the artists. She has a warm, inviting voice and a calm, knowledgeable presence that create an atmosphere that draws the viewer in.

And returning to the opening music, the six-piece house band really deserves a mention for its supportive and complementary accompaniments. Not once do the musicians overstep the mark. Instead, they constantly enhance the performances, keeping the limelight on center stage.

The show was recorded in the atmospheric Hawaii Theater Center. The lighting and stage crews work well. The stage is lit in such a way that it appears to be a pearl, while the décor is limited to plants; the backdrop is of a night sky with a full moon. This simplicity enhances the appearance of the artists, creating a setting in context with the Islands without distracting from the performances. Occasionally, filmed scenes of Hawaii add emphasis to the songs and dances. In the main, cameras and crew are kept out of view, which fosters the feeling that the show is about the relationship between those on the stage and those watching. Overall, it is a tasteful, enjoyable production.

However, the show is not without its faults. On the one hand, the program lives up to its claim that it features Hawaii's biggest stars -- many are here. But the emphasis does seem to be more on contemporary music. Amy Gilliom, among others, is a wonderful falsetto singer in the traditional style, yet that approach to music is not presented in any sort of depth by anyone. Slack key is given a pair of tunes by two of the finest performers, but who was responsible for the sound of the instruments? And what excuse can there be for the incorrect titling of "Mauna Loa" (every piece of music is named on screen)? Also, with the technology of DVD's, it's a pity that there are no parallel tracks with interviews about the music and the dance with the performers.

But having said that, I've returned many times to the program finding more and more things to enjoy, and I am still not tired of it. It is a grand opportunity to appreciate the likes of the Brothers Cazimero, Na Leo, and others I do not usually listen to. I learn more and more about slack key playing each time I look at and listen to Ka'apana and Pahinui. Shimabukuro still amazes me. Hawaii -- Songs of Aloha is very, very good -- but perhaps, it could have been even better?

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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