Continuing our examination of Lena Machado’s 1949 recording sessions for Columbia Records with a group led by Andy Cummings and which included falsetto singer and `ukulele player Danny Kua`ana and steel guitarist Bernie Ka`ai Lewis… Lena chose five “covers” and three of her own compositions for these sessions. This time around we focus on her originals.
You are already well aware of Machado’s many accomplishments – as a performer and songwriter, of course, but also as a broadcast pioneer and an early advocate for women’s rights. Those who knew Lena say that she was ever dignified in every aspect of her life. Lena composed ““Ku`u Wa Li`ili`i” (sometimes called “Hupe Kole”) for the most uncharacteristically undignified moment of her young life. Like so many girls who desire to grow up more quickly, when Lena was twelve or thirteen she began asking for the trappings of adult woman couture. She didn’t receive these until her sixteenth birthday, but she wasted no trying all of it on with the notion of debuting the new Lena at a street fair. Lena put on the corset, long dress with petticoat, stockings, and high-heels and made for the fair on the streetcar. But despite the admonishment of the conductor, poor Lena couldn’t sit down in that get-up! To spare herself further embarrassment, she got off the streetcar and walked the long walk to the fair. But it was not long before Lena’s feet were killing her in those heels. She persevered because she was enjoying the admiring looks from potential suitors. But eventually it was all too much – hat falling to one side, the heat and the walk taking its toll on her hair, sweat dripping… And so she gave up and walked home – barefoot, since her feel were so swollen the shoes wouldn’t go back on. Upon her arrival at home, seeing Lena in her disheveled condition, her hanai mom, Mrs. Loo Pan, scolded, “Auē, hūpēkole kaikamahine – trying to act like a grown-up lady when you’re only a runny-nosed kid!” Lena waited 25 years to write down the tale, long enough for it to have a happy ending:
A nui a`e he wahine u`i (I have become a beautiful woman!)
Interestingly, although the lyric content does not call for it, the group takes “Ku`u Wa Li`ili’i” with a Latin feel – much like the arrangement we would have expected for the earlier recording of “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha.” From this recording it is clear that Lena’s fascination with Cuban and Puerto Rican music has not yet waned, and “Ku`u Wa Li`ili`i” marks one of the earliest – if not the first – use of Latin rhythms on a Hawaiian song on record.
You will no doubt understand “Ei Nei,” one of the few songs Lena ever wrote in English. “Ei nei” is a contraction of “e ia nei” which might be translated as “you, there,” and it has since come to be a term of endearment like “My darling.” But Lena did not mean just any “darling” for she did not call just anybody “ei nei.” The song was for her husband, Luciano, for “ei nei” was their pet name for each other. We know that she wrote the song for Lu since in the song sheet “Ei Nei” is capitalized which signifies formal direct address – as if “Ei Nei” were actually Lu’s name. Hānai daughter Motta previously explained the effect of night on Lena and her songwriting: It was the time of day when the light and the growing silence made Lena pensive, and this was when her songwriting was most fruitful. Although Lena was at home when she wrote it, the song harkens to any of her many tours when she and Lu were separated for long periods of time. Lu could have been sitting right next to her at the time, but still Lena writes, “There’ll be no one in your place, Ei Nei.” I have heard the song sung incorrectly often – in fact, nearly all the time – since Lena’s recordings of the song do not make clear the real words of the opening line. Most sing “Aloha wau iā `oe” (“I love you”), but that is not what Lena wrote. She wrote “Haroha wau iā `oe” – “haroha” the Māori equivalent of the Hawaiian “aloha” – to honor Lena and Lu’s great friends, Herbert and Dorothy Hano, restaurant owners they befriended while on tour in San Francisco. Dorothy, who was of Māori descent, would always greet the Machados with a cheerful “Haroha!” But I am fairly certain that I have never heard anybody who performs this song sing “haroha” – not even Lena, who would often sing in such a manner as masque certain sounds in order to keep the inside jokes inside. Only written in 1948 (a year before these sessions), this marks the first recording of this now oft-performed classic.
“Holo Wa`apa” – one of Machado’s numbers to this day, especially for falsetto singers – means “canoe ride.” But is it really about a canoe ride? Sure, Auntie Lena uses Hawaiian poetic technique to full effect here, but the song both is and is not about an actual canoe ride that Lena took with none other than famed beach boy Duke Kahanamoku. Accordind to Lena’s hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta, in her Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena, Lena used the exhilarating in writing the song. Lena said she found trying to help Duke and the boys steer the canoe “like holding on to a racing horse. (This would explain the line “Kohu Mine ku`u lio holo nui” – “Just as if I were riding a horse.”) This experience is also where she would have heard such terms as “port hard” which she also worked into the lyric. Kihei de Silva refers to the Motta-Machado translation of the song as “deceptively simple” – with nary a reference to the intimatekaona (or veiled poetic meaning) of the song. This may be because when Lena created a hula for her song and taught it to her dancers, the dance she taught them was strictly about a canoe ride, and that’s all. You had to be a Hawaiian or speak the Hawaiian language very well to know that Lena might be singing about something else – lines such as:
I mua a i hope pa`a ke kūlana (Row forward then back, steady as she goes)
Mea`ole nā ale I ka luli mālie (Feel the gentle swaying of the waves)
Kūpaianaha ē ka hana a nā ale (I could feel the workings of the waves)
The artfulness in the writing of “Holo Wa`apa” justifies Motta’s assertion that “Aunty Lena knew how to celebrate Hawaiian sexuality without being crude or obvious.”
The arrangement for this recording of “Holo Wa`apa” opens surprisingly with slack key guitar. Not only is slack key on wax a fairly new concept (Gabby Pahinui is credited with making the first slack key recording only two years earlier in 1947), we cannot know which of the session personnel – Andy Cummings? Danny Kua`ana? Bernie Ka`ai? – is the slack key player heard here.
Finally, to round out the set I throw in one more cover – the last remaining tune from the 1949 sessions. “Olu O Pu`ulani” is often credited to Helen Lindsey Parker (who wrote, among numerous other favorites among Hawaiians, the venerable “`Akaka Falls” which Lena covered in her 1937 sessions with Dick McIntire). In a long standing Hawaiian tradition, Parker composed “Olu O Pu`ulani” to honor the birth of a child.
It would be thirteen years before Lena steps foot into the recording studio again – and for the last time.
Next time: Lena Machado in the 1950s and a first listen to her final recordings…
[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.]