Helen Desha Beamer – The Composer Sings

10In an earlier post about Helen Desha Beamer the composer, I made only a passing mention of Helen Desha Beamer the singer. She was, in fact, an accomplished soprano, and this was evident in many of her compositions which require a tremendously wide vocal range to sing. Helen possessed such a range and a clear, pure tone to match, and it is for this reason that Charles E. King personally selected Helen to make the first ever recording of his now extremely popular “Ke Kali Nei Au.” Of course, the song is popular for all the wrong reasons – mostly because there has since been written an English language version (made popular by such singers as Andy Williams and Elvis Presley) known as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” And despite that it has become obligatory to sing the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” at every Hawaiian wedding (particularly those of mainland U.S. and Japanese tourists who may not be any wiser about such matters), the original Hawaiian lyric has nothing to do with marriage. [As an aside, there is nothing more embarrassing than to see a somewhat inexpert hula dancer interpreting the English lyric in dance while the singer is singing the original Hawaiian. You will know from the very first verse when the singer sings “Aia la i hea ku`u aloha” (“Where is my beloved?”) and the dancer is mimicking the clanking of bells with her fingertips for the English language lyric “Soon bells will be ringing.” The lesson here, kids? The English language version of a Hawaiian song maynot be a translation.]

King wrote the original “Ke Kali Nei Au” for a Hawaiian language opera, Prince of Hawai`i, which was first performed at the Liberty Theater in Honolulu on May 4, 1925. Its cast included Ray Kinney (whose birthday we will soon celebrate) as the titular prince. The first recording of “Ke Kali Nei Au” – written as a duet for male and female – did not take place until three years later in a 1928 session for Columbia Records and featured soprano Helen Desha Beamer and baritone Samuel Kapu with Don Barriento’s Hawaiian Orchestra. Make no mistake that – according to Columbia Records discographies – there are numerous Hawaiian music recordings on this label dating to approximately the same time period if we follow the Columbia catalog matrix numbers. Some of these recordings feature the Kamehameha Alumni Glee Club – a rather large choral aggregation. It is doubtful that a record company – even one as large and as successful as Columbia – was going to pay to transport a 28-member chorus to the mainland for a recording session. This means that Columbia records saw enough profit in Hawaiian music to their equipment all the way to Hawai`i – before the advent of the jet plane – to capture these sounds. And why not? According to Hawaiian music historian George Kanahele in his Hawaiian Music and Musicians, in its heyday Hawaiian music represented three out of every five songs played on mainland U.S. radio. This means that despite the uphill battle for today’s Hawaiian musicians to gain traction in sales and popularity outside of their island home, there was once a period in our history when Hawaiian music was the popular music. According to the Hawaiian Music Collection of the University of Hawai`i, the 78 rpm recording of “Ke Kali Nei Au” was released on May 22, 1928. According to my research, it has not been re-released in any format since. This makes this recording truly a rarity. (A copy recently sold on the Popsike auction website for $77 USD.) There is one copy in the archives of the above mentioned University of Hawai`i collection, but for copyright purposes – by which an educational institution must strictly abide – you must be a UH student to access that database. (If you are a UH student, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity.)

But for those of us who cannot access the Beamer/Kapu duet of “Ke Kali Nei Au,” I thought we should collectively experience Auntie Helen’s voice somehow. Columbia Records released a number of Hawaiian music recordings with similar catalog matrix numbers the week of May 21, 1928 – the same week as “Ke Kali Nei Au.” This includes other selections from King’s Prince of Hawai`i featuring different singers and Don Barriento’s band once again. Fortunately for us, these selections include another Beamer/Kapu duet, another love song entitled “Ua Like No A Like,” composed by Alice Everett and published by Charles E. King in one of his early folios. A listen to this recording should give us a glimpse into how Auntie Helen sang and how the rare recording of “Ke Kali Nei Au” might sound if only we could hear it. On this selection we hear both voices loud and clear since they are not accompanied by the full orchestra but, rather, only by a harpist. This recording was made available again courtesy of Kamehameha Schools on their 1997 CD releaseNa Mele Ho`oheno which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Kamehameha Song Contest. We are grateful to the Kamehameha Schools for digitizing – albeit crudely – this rare recording, but as the CD is now long out of print, this 1928 recording remains a rarity.

I hope you enjoyed this opportunity to hear Helen Desha Beamer – typically thought of as a composer – sing for us…

Click here to listen to this recording by Helen Desha Beamer and Sam Kapu.

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