Helen Desha Beamer Gets “Da Caz” Treatment

I could choose almost any composer in the history of Hawaiian music and turn around and immediately think of a Brothers Cazimero recording of one – or more – of that composer’s songs. Not surprising given Robert and Roland’s longevity in the Hawaiian music “biz” – 40 years if we begin counting with Sunday Manoa, closer to 50 years if we count their extracurricular activity performing with their parents’ band when they were still very young. (Roland was, in fact, a bass player first – performing well under age at clubs where he otherwise would not have been permitted, his mom and dad “covering” for him, but so young and so small having to stand on a chair to reach the top of the upright bass nonetheless.) The duo have more than three dozen recordings to their credit (not counting those as Sunday Manoa). So that is a catalog of more than 400 songs. Surely they have favored some composers over others. And to that end, Da Caz have covered the works of Helen Desha Beamer (and I am working from memory here) at least three times. I thought we might continue our celebration of Auntie Helen by taking in more of her compositions in the contemporary style of the Brothers Cazimero.

Click here to listen to this set of Helen Desha Beamer songs performed by The Brothers Cazimero.

Robert recorded “Mahai`ula” for his first solo release – simply entitled “Robert Cazimero” – in 1978. Robert, a kumu hula (or “hula source,” the keepers of the hula and all related rites and rituals), has often made the dancers themselves sing as an integral part of the performance of the hula. So Robert’s dancers learn to sing as well as they learn to dance. You hear the men ofHalau Na Kamalei sing with Robert here on this song Auntie Helen wrote   Despite that this was Robert’s solo recording debut, you hear with him the guitar as played by none other than his brother, Roland.

Recorded at Brown Sugar Ranch in Waimea, Hawai`i from September 1 through 11, 1980,Hawaii, In The Middle Of The Sea remains my favorite Cazimero album of all time – so much so that I have been through five copies of the vinyl in the more than 30 years since it was released until the digital release on MP3 very recently. For these sessions Robert and Roland selected not one, but two of Auntie Helen’s compositions. The brothers put their contemporary spin – harmonically and rhythmically – on “Ke Ali`i Hulu Mamo” with a melody by Auntie Helen and a lyric by Helen’s aunt, Keakealani Keanomeha. The song speaks of Kahanu, the Princess Kalaniana`ole, and the home she made at the time in Kona on the island of Hawai`i. The brothers cycle through any number of key changes at breakneck speed and switch audaciously between a Latin-tinged rhythm and a more cha-lang-a-lang hula feel. And they have even more audacity still to end on a 9th chord that is not even in the key signature they are playing in. (I have wracked my brain for 10 minutes trying to notate that chord. Music theorists, how do we notate Eb9 when playing in the key of Gm?) In the early days of the Brothers Cazimero, listeners often wondered how they got their rich full sound with only two musicians. Much of this is attributed to Roland’s orchestral approach to the guitar – playing full six-note chords (while other guitarists might play only three or four strings at a time) punctuated with octaves and single-string counterpoint to the vocal. (Roland attributes this style to listening to such Hawaiian rhythm guitar greats as Pua Almeida as well as such jazz guitar greats as Lee Ritenour with whom Roland had the opportunity to work when recording his solo LP Warrior in 1983.) The sound can also be attributed to the fact that Roland chose as his primary axe a 12-string guitar in which each of the usual six strings is doubled – each pair of strings often called a “chorus” – and in which many of these pairs are tuned in octaves – which is like playing two guitars at one time, giving him that fuller, richer sound. But here is the last dirty little secret: A stereo pick-up. The pick-up is the device that translates string vibrations into amplified sound. On the guitars Roland was using during this period, the stereo pick-up essentially divided the guitar into two halves – the first, third, and fifth pairs of strings being fed to the left channel of the mixing board, the second, fourth, and sixth pairs of strings being fed to the right channel. This gives us the effect of hearing a different guitar in our left ear than in our right ear. This effect is most pronounced when Roland plays some single string melody or counterpoint and some of the notes come out of the left speaker and some of the notes from the right speaker. Thus proving the duo was as adventurous technologically as they were musically. In fact, for these two, these truths may have been inseparable. (For the record, the Brothers Cazimero were also the first to produce an all digital recording in which no analog recording, transfer, or mastering devices were used: 1989’sHawaiian Paradise.)

The set closes with a song from the same album as above: “Na Kuahiwi Elima,” or “The Five Mountains.” Auntie Helen was traveling with her dear friend, Annabelle Ruddle, from Paniau (Annabelle’s home for which Helen wrote the song of the same title) to Kawaihae on the island of Hawai`i. Auntie Helen captured in snippets of lyric the sights they experienced on the drive, and by the time they reached Kawaihae, both the melody and words were finished! Along this drive, Helen and Annabelle spied five mountain peaks: Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, and Kohala on Hawai`i and – peeking over the Alenuihaha Channel – Haleakala on the island of Maui. The song opens with an introductory verse the brothers devised which lists these five mountains, and that intro is again song by Robert’s dancers of Halau Na Kamalei. The song continues in typical Cazimero duo fashion, but as it progresses, you hear the brothers joined by the angelic voices of the Honolulu Boys Choir – perhaps a nod to Auntie Helen’s Kamehameha Schools roots and the annual Kamehameha Song Contest they hold.