Lena’s Legacy Lives

Discussing Lena Machado’s life and music, three themes emerge loud and clear. One is that she was one of the great voices in all time in Hawaiian music. Another is that she is one of the most prolific and important composers in Hawaiian music history. And the third – the one that perhaps gets lost in the shuffle between the first two – is how forward-thinking Lena was about the presentation of Hawaiian music. She loved to experiment with sounds (such as instrumentation), tempo and rhythm, and arrangement. In so doing, she opened a door for future generations of Hawaiian music artists to similarly “experiment” but – if following Lena’s example – in a way that moves the Hawaiian music tradition forward respectfully without altogether abandoning what at its very core makes Hawaiian music “Hawaiian.” Of course, in her time, as you have read Lena took her “lumps” from audiences, critics, the previous generation, and even her own family for going too far too fast. Lena took the criticism gracefully – confident in herself, and confident that if Hawaiian music were to remain popular and relevant to the next generation, it has to evolve with ever-changing styles and tastes. So I thought we would close this tribute to Lena Machado with three more recent recordings of her compositions by artists who – like Lena – have consciously chosen to push the envelope and push a button or two in order to push on the boundaries of the still – after these many years – rigid definitions of Hawaiian music.

Click here to listen to this set of Lena Machado compositions as you continue to read.

The set opens with an artist largely known for her contributions to the slack key and steel guitar idioms – one of the few women to focus on either. But in a departure from her typically traditional Hawaiian music recordings, Owana Salazar went into the studio in 2004 to create the highly praised Hula Jazz which, while not the first melding of jazz and Hawaiian music, is certainly one of the most successful. Perhaps this is because – like Lena before her – Owana pushes as the boundaries gently and lovingly with one eye and one foot firmly planted in her Hawaiian roots. She achieved this blend by bringing together some of Hawai`i’s finest jazz musicians – Kit Ebersbach on piano, Steve Jones on bass, and Noel Okimoto on drums and vibes – with three of Hawai`i’s finest steel guitarists – Alan Akaka, Casey Olsen, and Greg Sardinha. She then carefully selected songs which lent themselves to this blending of styles and cultures – including two by Lena Machado, of which you hear “Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi” performed here. The intro relies on some very tight and intricately arranged interplay between the players, after which they are permitted to stretch out as if they were in a smoky jazz club in Greenwich Village in 1955. Okimoto goes lightly on the brushes, and Olsen’s steel sits out until the instrumental solo, then comping Ebersbach’s piano until Jones’ bass solo in the bridge, after which Ebersbach and Olsen trade two bars at a time. As you listen, you can feel Machado’s approval and almost imagine the lady herself taking the lead vocal.

Zanuck Kapala Lindsey has led a number of groups over the last two decades that have deliberately aimed to move the Hawaiian music tradition forward. He has led Hula Joe & The Hutjumpers, Ho`omalie, and, most recently, Kapala – all of which have combined every musical influence its members have ever encountered in support of solely Hawaiian compositions to create somehow a cohesive whole. In this case, Ho`omalie gives Machado’s “Pohai Ke Aloha” a rhythm-and-blues treatment that is more reminiscent of a church in New Orleans than Kawaiaha`o. I have written here previously that the idea of kaona (or hidden meanings) in Hawaiian music may not necessarily be restricted to lyric content. Often the musical arrangement carries with its own intentional or unintentional kaona – a funeral dirge being performed as an uptempo number or a joyous song of love and contentment being performed at the tempo of a dirge. But “Z” and band take this notion perhaps to its further extreme. If “Pohai Ke Aloha” is a song of love, joy, and respect for a family and their home, Ho`omalie has effectively belied the song’s true lyric content by concocting an arrangement that sets a tone somewhere between midnight “sneakin’ around” rendezvous and the soundtrack for a bawdy striptease. Which do we believe? Students of Hawaiian language, music, and hula will tell you that the power resides first with the word. Z and company have done nothing here to dilute the all-powerful message of love and joy in Lena’s lyric. If anything, with this arrangement they have made the casual passer-by stand up and take notice of Machado’s important message. The question most will ask is if this was accomplished with respect? And my only answer to that question is that respect lies in the ears and hearts of the listener.

Finally, unlike Owana Salazar who comes primarily from traditional Hawaiian music but who decided to dabble in jazz, Keahi Conjugacion is primarily a jazzer who made a brief and most interesting foray into Hawaiian music. Coming from a family of music superstars – her brothers are multi-instrumentalist Brother Noland and kumu hula, composer, and falsetto legend Tony Conjugacion, her aunt is singer Elaine Ako Spencer, and her uncle is singer, pianist, and composer Sam Ako – it would only be natural that Keahi would follow suit. More importantly, Keahi comes from a family of boundary-pushers and risk-takers – Noland one of the first to combine the Hawaiian and reggae genres, and Tony having dabbled in everything from Broadway to the blending of traditional Hawaiian chant and hip-hop. It has always been obvious that the Great American Songbook is Keahi’s first love, and her voice is suited to the songs of Cole Porter and the Gershwins. But in the same year Owana would make her foray into jazz, Keahi would make her foray into Hawaiian – surprisingly, the two to achieve similar results. Here Keahi lovingly caresses the lyric to “Ei Nei” – which Auntie Lena composed for beloved husband, Lu – with the help of her husband, Dan Del Negro, and he percussion of Buddy Fo (whom you previously heard lend his Latin rhythms to The Invitations version of Machado’s “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha”).

There are countless other examples of Lena’s compositions being performed by a new generation of artists from Hawai`i. But these songs and stories will have to wait until we celebrate Lena’s birthday again next year. In just one week we have celebrated Lena Machado’s birthday by recounting her music career in 15 articles – more than 18,000 words (or 30+ pages) of text – bolstered by 46 songs – more than two hours of music – making this tribute the most thorough in the history of Ho`olohe Hou. And why not? Since discovering Hawaiian music as a child more than 40 years ago, Lena has been one of the most influential artists in my own development as a musician, and it is no statistical coincidence that I perform more songs written by her than those of any other composer. I never met Lena Machado, but I love her, and now that you know a little more about her, I hope you love her too.

Leave a Comment