In an era in Hawai`i when it was not yet culturally acceptable for women to be professional entertainers, where did one find their role models? We have already discussed one trend-settingwahine who defied cultural norms of the period to publicly engage in singing and songwriting – Helen Desha Beamer. But there was also Lizzie Alohikea, an accomplished songwriter and singer with the Royal Hawaiian Band. It had long been Lena’s wish to sing with Lizzie, and the wish came true in 1925 when bandmaster Mekia Kealaka`i offered her a regular position as featured vocalist with the band – beside her hero, Lizzie Alohikea. The mentor/student relationship between Lena and Lizzie ultimately blossomed into a friendship. And Lena performed with the band for nearly a decade.
After a revolving door of bandmasters, the Royal Hawaiian Band enlisted Frank Vierra in the early 1930s. With this change in leadership Lena’s relationship with the band took a turn. A professional and a modern woman, the forward-thinking (and – dare I say – brave) Machado took Vierra to court to fight for equal pay for the band’s growing number of female members. She won the case but subsequently found the stress on her relationship with Vierra (and, perhaps, with the male band members) too much. So Lena took a leave of absence from the band and – after a brief tour of the neighbor islands – headed back to the mainland where she performed at hotels and night clubs in and around Hollywood. The return to the Los Angeles area afforded Lena the opportunity to go into a recording studio with a group of musicians who were becoming fairly well known across the country and around the world but who for the better part of their career were pretty firmly entrenched in Hollywood (in order to take advantage of its many opportunities as they arose).
For the first time since the historic 1927 Brunswick sessions, in 1935 Lena went into Freeman Lang Studios in Hollywood (known primarily for producing early radio shows and commercials) with a quartet led by none other than steel guitar wunderkind Sol Ho`opi`i and including Harry Baty (later of The Polynesians, Los Angeles’s most famous Hawaiian music export of the 1950s) on guitar, George Piltz on the `ukulele, and a still unidentified bassist. The group cut four sides in a single session. And while the combination of Machado’s voice and Ho`opi`i’s steel was pure magic, there was another element that made the results of the session even more special: thesongs. For while Lena had previously only performed and recorded songs written by others, the 1930s were the beginning of her most fruitful songwriting career. I have often said that the best songs for falsetto singers to sing are songs written by other falsetto singers because those who sing in this style understand the elements that give the style its characteristic sound – the huge intervallic leaps, the quick trills, and the ha`i (or break between the full voice and the high, upper register which sounds like a brief yodel). Auntie Lena was a marvelous falsetto (although, the vocal technique being the same for the woman as for the man, it is rarely referred to as “falsetto” when women sing in this manner). And so she wrote songs which utilized these melodic devices to how off her vocal prowess. Arguably Machado did this better than any other falsetto-singing songwriter (with the possible exception of John Pi`ilani Watkins).
Now add to this a real flair for the Hawaiian language – Lena’s unique way of expressing the indelicacies of everyday life and love. She could write about flirtation, new love, mature love, distant love, lost love, friendly love, physical love, infidelity and indiscretion, and assorted other foibles in such a way as to be humorous and gut-wrenchingly truthful at the same time. If we were to line up Machado’s compositions end to end – not necessarily in chronological order, but in some other more logical manner – what we would find is her song cycle to life. And she said it all with an amazing economy of language – saying a mouthful in very few words, choosing each one carefully. She became the songwriter’s songwriter – one of the greatest Hawai`i ever produced.Nobody disputes this. So let’s listen to some of her earliest compositions sung by the composer herself.
According to Lena’s hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta, in her book Songbird of Hawai`i, interestingly the first three songs Lena recorded are just such a song cycle as I described earlier. Together, they form a serial that is reminiscent of so many love affairs: love won, love enjoyed, and love lost. “Mai Lohilohi Mai `Oe” speaks of flirting and the invitation to love. “Ho`onanea” speaks of sharing a relaxed (hence the title) romantic encounter. And “Kau`oha Mai” – sometimes referred to as “The Keyhole Hula” – is the sad ending in which the woman returns home only to find another in her lover’s arms. And although this is too often the story arc of a love affair, all three songs were based on events that happened to friends or acquaintances of Auntie Lena’s (althoughMotta believes that “Mai Lohilohi Mai `Oe” is not entirely second hand news since the style and lyric content hints at something far more personal).
When she composed “Kau`oha Mai,” Lena understood the boundaries she was pushing – especially for a female composer. Like many Hawaiian songs which express some covert (or overt) sexuality – “Nanea Kou Maka I Ka Le`ale`a” and “Hali`i Ka Moena” come to mind – the composer must choose his or her words carefully. This is at the heart of the poetic technique known as kaona in which there are many layers of veiled meaning which repeat listening – and the aid of the hula – will help elucidate. If we were to sing the English equivalent of what Lena wrote…
Ki`ei aku wau / I peered
Ma ka puka ki `ea / Into the keyhole, yep
E honihoni `ia ana / Being kissed repeatedly
Ko ihu kapu `ea / On your ihu kapu (forbidden opening), yep
… this would no doubt be considered by most to be risque. But not in Hawai`i – and not in the Hawaiian language – because historically their cultural views on sexuality are much different and the body and all of its uses are not considered “dirty.” Although we now understand that Auntie Lena was among the most artful of composers to be able to choose words carefully while still making her intent quite clear – which is one of the reasons singers love to sing her songs and her compositions remain among the most sung by Hawaiian musicians still today – she was right to be concerned about boundaries – for when she began performing the song in public, indeed Lena received complaint letters. Such is the evolution – or devolution – of a culture since this could be viewed as the once more liberal views of the Hawaiians being superceded by more modern – and conservative – western views.
Despite that Auntie Lena was writing in the hula ku`i form (songs written for the hula where a single melody and chord structure are repeated over and over again – the composer eschewing melodic and harmonic complexity in favor of focusing on the lyric content), it is clear – even in her earliest compositions such as those heard here – that she was taking this song form in new, more modern directions. While most hula ku`i songs are built upon three chords in the scale (the tonic, dominant, and subdominant – often notated as I-IV-V – the foundation of most hulamusic), listen to what Lena is doing with these songs. “Mai Lohilohi Mai `Oe” bounces around a series of secondary dominants (often referred to as the “cycle of fifths,” or, in the key of C, bouncing from F to A7 to D7 – the audacity of skipping the dominant G7 altogether), while “Ho`onanea” is built stunningly around an augmented chord substituted where one would expect to find the dominant seventh chord (V7). These are both elements firmly rooted in jazz, but Lena is already at this point incorporating them into the Hawaiian idiom – something few of her contemporaries were yet doing. You also hear the aforementioned intervallic leaps that allow the falsetto singer to show off a little – such as the repeated major third leap in the melody of “Kau`oha Mai.”
And now that you have listened, you no doubt understand the reason falsetto singers love to sing Lena Machado songs to this day.
Motta makes an interesting observation about her hanai mom’s songwriting:
Night was when her feelings were strongest, when her emotions stirred restlessly inside her. She did most of her composing at night when the rest of the house was asleep and she was by herself. This is when lines like “A`ohe o’u moe pono i ka po, i ka hana nui a loko” and “Kahi a ka mana`o e lauwiliwili nei” came to her. In just a few words or less, she could show how she was drowning in love – how she wanted this relationship so badly.
Finally, Lena wrote “Kamalani O Keaukaha” after returning from a tour of Hawai`i island. In it she celebrates the loving and gracious hospitality of the people of the Hawaiian homestead lands in Keaukaha who followed Lena from stop to stop when she performed all over their side of the island. Motta remarks that it more often than not took time for Lena to “turn an experience into a song” – often years and years after the event. But Machado wrote “Kamalani O Keaukaha” within a year or two of returning home from the Hawai`i island tour – so moved was she by Keaukaha and its affection. “Kamalani” means “favored child” which here Lena uses as a poetic term of endearment referring to all the people of Keaukaha.
Next time: Auntie Lena sticks around L.A. a while longer and cranks out a few more quintessential sides with yet another legendary steel guitarist…
[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.]