Lena Kaulumau Wai`ale`ale was born in the district of Pauoa in Honolulu on the island of O`ahu on October 16, 1903. The last of five children, Lena was hānai (a Hawaiian tradition in which a child is unofficially adopted and raised by close family or friends of the birth parents) to the Loo Pan family, friends of Lena’s mother. So young Lena was immersed in a household where English, Hawaiian, and Chinese were spoken.
As a child Lena was prone to tinker musically – singing, of course, or making makeshift instruments from assorted otherwise non-musical household items. But Mrs. Loo Pan admonished Lena for such behavior – pushing her toward more productive endeavors and setting the expectation that the young lady would indeed become a school teacher someday, demanding that all time and energy (even at this tender age) be focused on that goal alone. This conflict was escalated to a fever pitch when neighbors entered six-year-old Lena in a talent contest. Lena sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and took first prize. Naturally, Mrs. Loo Pan disapproved and set forth an edict: No more singing. And, as everybody knows, nothing can help ensure that a child will absolutely do something more than telling them that they can’t.
Lena was discovered for the second time when KGU radio station manager Marion Mulroney overheard the teenaged Lena singing while perched high in a mango tree. Mulroney asked Lena to audition, and he was so impressed that he signed Lena to her first professional contract. The radio appearances naturally led to numerous other offers including national tours. According to one newspaper reviewer:
The Pacific Songbird is said to possess a voice of magnificent range and rich timbre fully capable of coping with the demands of a grand opera. Her singing in the film-musical presentation A Trip To The Hawaiian Islands, though limited to the simple but rhythmic songs of her native land, has yet been able to captivate the most fastidious of musical critics with its unmistakable suggestion of exotic personality.
After a few years of touring, Lena returned home to KGU radio and professional engagements around Honolulu. By age 23, she married Honolulu Police Department detective and musician Luciano Machado. And soon, with the addition of Lu’s brothers and a sister-in-law, Lena had her own band.
The timing was perfect for Lena as Hawaiian music was becoming the popular music of the era with – according to Hawaiian music historian George Kanahele in his Hawaiian Music and Musicians – three out of every five songs played on mainland U.S. radio a Hawaiian song. Capitalizing on this craze, in 1927 mainland-based Brunswick Records took on the ambitious project of a binge recording session of what turned out to be a whopping 110 sides of Hawaiian songs by local artists. They set up a makeshift recording studio in the Alexander Young Hotel (on Bishop Street between King and Hotel Streets, just on the edge of Chinatown) and enlisted then hot property in Hawaiian music Johnny Noble as their local A&R (artist and repertoire) man. Noble enlisted the 24-year-old Lena, and she inaugurated the proceedings by waxing the first of these 110 sides, obliging with four selections: Mary J. Montano’s “Beautiful Kahana,” Matthew Kane’s “Ka Makani Ka`ili Aloha,” Charles E. King’s “Na Lei O Hawai`i,” and a medley of “Palolo,” “Lei Loke O Kawika,” and “Na Moku `Eha.”
The only one of these rarities that we can still enjoy is “Na Lei O Hawai`i” which was thankfully preserved for us by Michael Cord and his Hana Ola Records enterprise. Because of the age of the recording and the little documentation that was preserved about recording sessions in this period – especially considering how quickly Brunswick Records was working under less than ideal conditions with artists completely unknown to them – we have no idea of the personnel on this recording except for Lena’s voice since the center hole label simply reads “soprano with Glee Club.” However, it is possible that Luciano and the other Machado family members may have appeared on the other sides (which regrettably we do not have access to) since what little documented history we do have about Brunswick Records sessions also lists “Lena Machado and Machado Troupe” (on the medley mentioned above). It goes without saying that Ho`olohe Houwill continue to go to great lengths to hunt down these historic recordings to share with you.
Because of this early recording, Lena is largely acknowledged as being the first female performer from Hawai`i to record for a large national recording company (beating the 1928 Helen Desha Beamer recording of Charles E. King’s “Ke Kali Nei Au” by just a few short months).
Next time: Auntie Lena follows her records to the mainland and cuts her next sides with a budding steel guitar legend…
[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.]