Remembering the Godmother of All Hawaiian Music…
What can you say about Genoa Keawe? The lady with the Italian name and the sweet Hawaiian heart and the voice to match? If you don’t already know about her, then you don’t know Hawaiian music. Anybody who has performed Hawaiian music in the last 60 years credits Aunty Genoa with inspiring them. She was not the first Hawaiian voice I heard when I was growing up. But I quickly understood that she was the best I had ever heard or would ever hear. And so Genoa Keawe became my raison d’etre.
When I wrote about Myra English recently, I talked about the many parties at the homes of our Hawaiian friends – despite that we were 5,000 miles away from Hawai’i. (Hawaiians will be Hawaiians wherever they are, and I, for one, and am thankful for it.) At those all-nighters, records were spun, and everybody sang along. When Party Hulas fell from its perch atop the spindle on the record changer, that was when the party truly began, and it was how I learned all of the Hawaiian “standards.” Aunty Genoa only picked the best songs – the songs that would pierce straight through to the hearts of the old-timers – and she sang them with meticulous Hawaiian pronunciation. Could one have a better teacher of Hawaiian music than Genoa Keawe?
And then there is the voice…. Ah, yes, the voice – the voice of an angel, or, no, really, a one-woman heavenly host commanding that you will listen and you will love Hawaiian music if she has anything to say about it. “As long as I’m alive, Hawaiian music will still be alive,” she was captured saying to KCCN’s Brickwood Galuteria. But she was only half correct. I wonder if she realized how many fires she lit, how many acolytes she bred – literally and figuratively – who would make sure that nobody could ever forsake Hawaiian music or forget her?
For the first 30 years of my life, Genoa Keawe was a voice and an image on an album cover that graced – and continues to grace – my walls. But then one miraculous evening – October 5, 2000 (one does not forget such critical moments) – on the occasion of my first visit to Hawai’i, I went to the Waikiki Beach Marriott in the hope of catching a glimpse of my hero – my idol – and maybe an autograph. But something far more pivotal and life-altering occurred. Her son, Gary, told her that I was in the audience and that he had heard me sing, and he encouraged her to call me up to the stage. I sang – as well as one can under those circumstances, like one is singing to save their life or is auditioning for God – and apparently I passed the test. I am certain that I forgot some lyrics and hit some bad notes. But Aunty Genoa lived up to the things I had read and heard about her. “The foundation of all Hawaiian music is great love. If you are glowing with love, then you are playing and singing the songs right,” Aunty Genoa once said. She must have seen or heard that love in me. What she did not know was that the love was spawned by her.
Thus began a friendship that endured until Aunty Genoa’s passing on February 25, 2008. Sure, I saw her over and over again at the Marriott on Thursday evenings – where she held court for over a decade for standing room only crowds, often in torrential rain storms, even as she was privately suffering with the illness to which she ultimately succumbed. But I also saw her in private life – at the parties hosted by her contemporaries, often in honor of their milestone birthdays. When there was a guest artist or if her granddaughter, Pomaika’i Keawe Lyman, took the stage for a while, Aunty Genoa would take a seat next to me – quietly encouraging me, holding my hand, asking me why I hadn’t moved to Hawai’i yet, why I hadn’t released a CD, or cracking kolohe and risking that everyone knew that I was not paying attention to the stage (one of her biggest pet peeves). All of my heroes were getting up there in years. They lived through their trials. Aunty Genoa would be the first to tell you that being a professional musician wasn’t easy, and being a woman in that industry harder still. But she would also tell you that to survive it you need to have the heart of a child and believe in a power larger than you. Her humor and her tremendous unwavering faith were the cornerstones of her craft.
The last time we spoke was Sunday, November 4, 2007. (Like I said, you don’t forget such moments.) I hosted a radio program by the same name as this blog, Ho’olohe Hou. And I put together a three-hour program in honor of her 89th birthday earlier that week on October 31st. (You celebrate Halloween. I celebrate Genoa Keawe’s birthday.) About 20 minutes into the show, I received an email with a subject line in all capital letters: “CALL ME RIGHT NOW.” The email contained an “808” telephone number. I dialed, and Aunty Genoa’s son, Kaleo, picked up. He said, “Somebody wants to talk to you.” And he put Tūtū on the phone. By this time I had known her for so long and felt so close to her that I began calling her “Tūtū” (“grandma”) like her myriad grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. And Tūtū chatted with me for about an hour and a half. She asked to speak to me because she was dialed into the radio program, and after the first few songs played, she had a flood of memories that she was compelled to share, and she wanted to share them with me. With each next song that played, Aunty Genoa would remind me who wrote the song, how she came to learn or fall in love with the song, and who was singing and playing with her on the recording session. And then sometimes she simply couldn’t – couldn’t remember the details at all. It is a long journey from 1947 to 2007, and nobody could blame Tūtū for letting a few of the details escape after a more than 60 year career. But with each record that did not bring back a memory, she would ask, “Where did you ever find this?” And I explained to her that I was sitting in a room that at that moment was a shrine to her – a sea of hundreds of 78s, 45s, LPs, open reel tapes, and assorted live recordings of undetermined origin (what one might call “bootlegs,” of which she would surely not approve, but you could not lie to Tūtū). And she thanked me for giving her back memories of moments she had not up to that point recalled having lived in the first place. And it was then that I think she understood what I had been telling her since the first night we met – that I was her biggest fan, and that she had been my raison d’etre. When she said “Thanks, boy” and hung up the phone, she probably knew that it would be the last time we would ever speak. But I didn’t. I was devastated at her passing, and I am still devastated every time I think of her. As if she were really my Tūtū.
Since its inception as a podcast in 2006, Ho`olohe Hou has honored Aunty Genoa on her October 31st birthday. Since her passing on February 25, 2008, she has been a Ho`olohe Hou honoree twice a year. You will hear countless rarities from Aunty Genoa’s lengthy career throughout each day during the last week of February. But Genoa Keawe is not someone to be remembered for a moment or even a day or a week. Genoa Keawe was and remains the heart and soul of Hawaiian music. If you don’t love her and what she stood for, I enthusiastically recommend a visit to a cardiologist.
~ Bill Wynne / Ho`olohe Hou Radio
In loving remembrance of Genoa Leilani Adolpho Keawe
(October 31, 1918 — February 25, 2008)