Lena Machado’s Second Life in Film

Perhaps still stinging from the situation she left behind with the Royal Hawaiian Band and its director, Frank Vierra, Lena remained on the West Coast through the late 1930s. She continued to perform at night in the hotels and clubs in and around Hollywood. But Lena’s days were occupied in a new and exciting way.

In 1938 Lena was hired by her friend, Charles Clark, to chaperone his daughter, Mamo Clark, the Hawai`i-born actress who starred opposite Clark Gable in MGM’s remake of Mutiny On The Bounty. (The need for a chaperone is curious since Mamo was 21 years old when the film was released. So she must have been at least 18 years old while it was being filmed. But I digress…) This meant that Lena spent a considerable amount of time on the Hollywood soundstage where filming was taking place. The outspoken Machado offered technical advice on everything from costuming to dance sequences – advice that she felt would help ensure the cultural accuracy of the film. Her advice was largely valued and acted upon – allowing Lena to parlay this unofficial role into paid technical advising engagements on such films as Bobby Breen’s Hawaii Calls, Waikiki, and (nearly 25 years later)Blue Hawaii.

But Lena still made time to return to the recording studio on September 23, 1937 with a group led by steel guitarist Dick McIntire. The one-day marathon session produced a whopping ten sides – more than any other session Lena had done up to that point. The sides were recorded for Decca Records to which McIntire was under contract during this period. So it is likely that for Lena these recordings were a “work for hire” – subcontracted by McIntire as the “girl singer” – as opposed to her own separate contract for such a limited number of sides. Regardless of the circumstances or who-was-working-for-whom, the combination of Machado’s voice and McIntire’s technical prowess on the steel resulted in priceless additions to the Hawaiian music discography. The selections were mostly compositions by other songwriters with only three Machado originals thrown in for good measure. We begin our examination of this recording session with the “covers.”

Click here to listen to Lena Machado with Dick McIntire as you continue to read.

The writing of “Hu`i E” is credited to Lydia Kekuewa with help from publisher Johnny Noble. The song appears in Noble’s early folio Royal Collection of Hawaiian Songs first published in 1929. Noble, an accomplished musician and bandleader who is credited for being among the very first to incorporate jazz elements into Hawaiian music, was also instrumental in helping native Hawaiian composers publish – and be paid for the use of – their original songs. But the addition of “Hu`i E” to Noble’s folio – and crediting it to Kekuewa – is curious to say the least since the song would appear to be based on the hui (or chorus) of a much earlier song entitled “He `Iniki” composed by the Royal Hawaiian Band’s bandmaster Henri Berger and which appears in the same Noble folio as “Hu`i E” only a few pages later. (That the connection between these two songs has not been drawn by any serious researcher continues to baffle me.) Regardless of whom we credit the song to, it is performed to perfection here – at breakneck speed – with Lena trading choruses with rollicking steel solos by McIntire. It is the way I have always heard the song in my head: Despite that the Noble folio indicates that the tempo should be moderato (or around 100 BPMs, or “beats per minute”), Lena and Dick take the tune vivacissimo (or around 160 BPMs). I have never seenvivacissimo used on any Hawaiian song folio, but I do appreciate the irony of discussing Hawaiian music using Latin terminologies. To bring us back to the Hawaiian, “hu`i e, hu`i koni” means “an ache, a throbbing ache” of the heart. So we can appreciate too that the tempo here becomes a musical metaphor for a heart racing in the heat of passion.

A favorite among falsetto singers for its intervallic leaps and notes held long and high in dramatic waltz-time tempo, “Akaka Falls” is most often credited to Helen Lindsey Parker of Hawai`i island (often referred to erroneously as “the Big Island”). The falls that are the subject of the song are about 10 miles north of Hilo on the composer’s home island and are so named for the legend of `Akaka who is said to have leapt to his death from this spot over the guilt of having two lovers. Lena gives us one of the finest ever recorded versions of this Hawaiian classic. Performed in the key of A, listen to Lena effortlessly reach the high F# in every chorus.

Although also the name of a mountain on the island of Hawai`i, the “Mauna Kea” referred to in the song is a ship, and in Hawaiian song craft, a ship is usually a not-so-veiled reference to someone who likes to keep a different lover in every port. And so this is yet another love song Hawaiian style which uses the poetic technique of kaona (multiple layers of veiled meanings and metaphors) to discuss romantic dalliances. There is a kaona of musical arrangement, too: One might expect a song with such sensual underpinnings to be taken (like “Hu`i E”) at a faster tempo, but in the Hawaiian tradition often such songs are performed at excruciatingly slow tempos to further obscure the true meaning of the lyrics. Not often enough performed or recorded, “Mauna Kea” – like so many Hawaiian songs – has more verses than you will ever hear performed or recorded. Lena only sings two of the known 16 verses (but there are probably more), so she never even gets into the real meat of the tale. And Dick takes a beautiful solo chorus on his steel.

Next time: More “covers” from the September 23, 1937 Machado/McIntire session…

 

[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.]

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