After spending most of the 1930s on the West Coast – working the clubs and hotels around Los Angeles and consulting on Hawai`i-themed Hollywood productions – Lena returned to Honolulu just before the outbreak of World War II. During the war years she committed herself to entertaining servicemen on O`ahu and the neighbor islands. She also returned to radio station KGU – where she got her start – where she hosted her own weekly radio show from 1943 to 1946 – a show broadcast around the world. Lena’s radio program house band included steel guitarist Sam Ka`eo, Lani Sang and Roy Ah Mook Sang on guitars, George Pokini on bass, Sonny Nicholas on guitar, “Little Joe” Kekauoha on `ukulele, and Edith Na`auao (Lena’s niece) on piano.
Now this is where oral histories fail us from time to time – or, at least, let us agree that writing down an oral history does not make it a written history if so much time has elapsed before the writing. In exploring Machado’s life and work, I have repeatedly cited one essential volume on the subject: Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena written by Lena’s hanai daughter Pi`olani Motta. While Machado was groundbreaking – both musically and in terms of advancing women’s rights – not everything she did could possibly be a first. That is the romanticizing that is a natural by-product of oral histories. In the book Motta claims that with the 1940s radio program Lena “became the first woman in the United States to host her own radio show.” While radio historians disagree about which woman was the very first to host a radio program, there are numerous possibilities which predate Lena’s stint at KGU by more than two decades. But the likely real first was Eunice Randall, a 19-year-old who read stories to children two nights a week on Boston’s radio station 1XE, earning her the title of “The Story Lady.” (The likely second woman in radio was New Jersey’s Bertha Brainard who by 1921 was hosting “Broadcasting Broadway” – a program of theater reviews and rushes for upcoming shows on Newark’s WJZ radio.)
In fact, such is the nature of research in general: Once we begin to corroborate – or dispel – oral histories, the mythologies begin to unravel like a souvenir lei gone all mamae with time. In her account of Machado’s recording activity during this period, Motta offers up several verifiable inaccuracies. She states that Lena “last recorded in 1940 on Decca Records with Dick McInyre and his Harmony Hawaiians.” But you already know that according to the Decca Records discography, there was only one such session which paired Machado and McIntire on September 23, 1937. Motta goes on to state that “During the early and mid-‘50s, a series of recording and convention contracts took Aunty Lena on extended tours of the continental United States…” The tours no doubt took place, but recording could not have been the impetus for Lena’s travel in the 1950s because well-documented discographies indicates that she did not record between 1949 (in Hollywood) and 1962 (in Honolulu). And the discographies notwithstanding, if Lena had participated in any recording session throughout that decade, surely one or more of those recordings would have materialized by now.
But this is not an attack on oral histories – an essential part of an ethnographer’s toolkit. It is simply a reminder to put oral histories in context and to confirm and corroborate whenever possible with a different kind of data from another source.
According to Motta, the band with which Lena would next record would be led by Danny Kua`ana and Bernie Ka`ai Lewis. This is yet another mythology that has been espoused even by record collectors and Hawaiian music historians. But it is verifiably inaccurate. While Machado would eventually wax sides with Kua`ana and Ka`ai, her next sessions were with a different – and historically important – aggregation. For the record (pun intended), Lena’s next foray into a recording studio during this period would not be for more than a decade after the September 23, 1937 session. During another stay in Hollywood in 1947, now under contract to Columbia Records Lena cut four sides on November 5 and another four on November 6 with a group led by steel guitarist Tommy Castro (of the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room) and which included Joseph “Steppy” de Rego. Castro even arranged these sides. Regrettably, the seemingly exhaustive Ho`olohe Hou archives have been exhausted since I can only locate two of these eight sides. (But rest assured that I have calls and emails out to a half-dozen collectors from Hawai`i to the U.K. to obtain these sides for our examination and historical completeness.) But it is well worth listening to the two sides to which we have access – one the first recording of a then-recently-written Lena Machado original.
Like the song “Mauna Kea” recently discussed here, “Na Ka Pueo” is another Hawaiian song about a ship – this one called the Pueo. And like the ship in “Mauna Kea,” the Pueo is actually a not-so-veiled poetic reference to a lover who is likely to be unfaithful. “Na Ka Pueo” pre-admonishes the lover to be faithful, saying “Malama iho `oe ke aloha / Kuleana no`u e hiki aku au” (“Take care of my love / Your responsibility until I return”).
Lena’s husband, Luciano, was a detective with the Honolulu Police Department. Later in his career Uncle Lu befriended a new recruit, William Sheather, and over time Sheather and his wife, Sophie, became good friends of the Machados – visiting each other’s homes for food, fun, and hospitality Hawaiian style. The Hawaiian songwriter will often compose a song to celebrate the birth of a child to family or friends. And so Lena wrote “U`ilani” for the Sheather’s first born, Donni U`ilani Sheather. “U`ilani” is an interest springboard for discussion about Lena’s approach to songwriting. According to hanai daughter Pi`olani Motta, it was important for Lena to empathize with the subjects of her songs. Motta writes:
Aunty Lena had an amazing talent for concentrating on her subject – for becoming what she was writing about. I think this is especially true in a song like “U`ilani” because of Aunty Lena’s inability to have children of her own… When her parents brought her over to visit, Aunty Lena paid close to attention to the way they interacted: father, mother, and daughter. The song “U`ilani” was inspired by this careful observation – by Aunty Lena’s ability to put herself into the shoes of these loving parents and to address U`ilani as if the darling little girl were Aunty’s own gift “from heaven above.”
This explains the English-language lyric in the out chorus: “U`ilani, my own…” And that is the value of oral histories.
Next time: More of Lena Machado’s 1940s Columbia sides – with still a new and different band…
[Editor’s Note: Biographical information provided by the quintessential volume on Lena Machado’s life and work, Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena by Pi`olani Motta with Kihei De Silva. For more information about this historically and culturally significant artist, I encourage you to read this book cover to cover. Highly recommended.]