We have been exploring Lena Machado’s life in the 1930s – much of it spent in Los Angeles after a professional run in back home (with Royal Hawaiian Band leader Frank Vierra). Her time in and around Hollywood resulted in two recording sessions – the latter of which (with a group led by steel guitarist Dick McIntire) resulted in the release of ten sides, three of these compositions from Lena’s own pen, two never recorded before. Let’s listen to the debut recordings of what have since become classics of the Hawaiian repertoire.
Most curiously, “Ho`oipo Hula” (often referred to simply as “Ipo Hula”), Lena’s most oft performed and recorded composition, is the only one of her original songs not to appear in the book about her life, Songbird of Hawai`i(written by her hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta, with help from composer and Hawaiian cultural specialist Kihei de Silva). Perhaps this is because it is assumed that this is the Lena Machado composition that every Hawaiian music fan and musician already knows. Fortunately, it is the one I know best as it is one that I have been performing regularly for over 25 years. It is a love story that takes place on my favorite part of the island of O`ahu, the windward side and the Ko`olau mountains. Lena writes, “He wehi a he lei o ke onaona” – “A song and a lei of fragrance.” While a lei is a wreath of flowers worn around the neck and among the precious of gifts a Hawaiian can bestow (attendant with all of its sacrosanct rituals and ceremonies for the giving, wearing, and disposing of afterward), because of its important symbolism to Hawaiians the lei is also a metaphor for a precious someone – someone whom you might desire to be as close to you as a lei could be to your body. She goes on to mention “ka wehi a ka ua” or “the adornment of the rain” – rain typically being a Hawaiian metaphor for love-making. And we know that there was some difficulty in the lovers being together when Aunty Lena writes “`Owau ho`okahi ke none nei / I neia hana nui a ke aloha” (“I alone would take the trouble / To make so much love”), but we know that the effort was worth it when she closes with “Lei pili a kaua / Hana kupaianaha” (“The lei that belongs to us – an extraordinary affair indeed”).
A huge fan of Latin music and its rhythms and instrumentation, Lena wished to acknowledge the popularity of such Latin artists as Xavier Cugat and Tito Puente – and dances like the rhumba and mambo – during this period in Hollywood. According to hānai daughter Pi`olani Motta, Aunty Lena viewed Latin music as rhythm and joy and sincerely desired “to celebrate the way that two different cultures could respect and enjoy each other.” So she decided to write a song tinged with the Latin feel and rhythms but utilizing her typically Hawaiian poetic technique. “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha” is one of the most scandalous notions the thoroughly modern Machado ever came up with. She pictured a flirtatious young woman with a feather boa – the titular “baby” – dancing to these Latin rhythms, and she used the kaona (or veiled meanings) of the boa as a metaphor for… (You know… Some things I have to leave up to the reader and their imagination. After all, that is what Hawaiian kaona is all about!) And, for good measure, Lena threw in “hot cha cha” where the Hawaiian songwriter might usually say instead “`ea, `ea” as a nod to Cugat and his many recordings for the cha-cha. Make no mistake: Lena knew that she was pushing the boundaries of the Hawaiian music tradition again with this song. But according to Motta, Aunty Lena used to say, “…as long as your foundation is Hawaiian, your ribbons and frills can go wherever you want them to go. But be sure that what you say in your words and your heart is Hawaiian.” The trendsetting Machado paved the way for every Hawaiian music artist that came after her – not only in incorporating Latin rhythms into the Hawaiian music idiom (a template that would be followed a few years hence by such artists as Jesse Kalima, Richard Kauhi, Buddy Fo, and arranger Benny Saks), but in introducing the newfound freedom to experiment with colors, sounds, and textures that had not previously been part of the fabric of Hawaiian music. The debate between tradition and evolution in Hawaiian music continues to be waged today, but it was Lena Machado who liberated the Hawaiian musician to try new things as long as their heart was in the right place.
What is circumspect about this first recording of “E Ku`u Baby Hot Cha Cha” is that despite conceiving of the song as a response to Latin rhythms and instrumentation and likely performing the song that way live since writing it a few years before, the arrangement here is strictly in the swing meter of the hula. One can only conjecture why Lena eschewed the sound and feel that she herself believed should go with this lyric (and vice-versa), but it is highly likely that either McIntire or the record company A&R guy did not believe that Lena’s concept for this song was “Hawaiian enough” and would likely confuse the radio and record markets. It would not be until years later that Lena would realize her vision of what her unique song should sound like in a recording with a completely different group.
“Kauoha Mai” (misprinted on the record label as “Kaneohe Mai”) is the Machado composition that she had recorded previously – about three years prior with a group led by steel guitar great Andy Iona. While artists do revisit their songs periodically throughout the years and put a new spin on them, it is unclear why Lena would record the same song twice in such a short period of time. Except for the tempo, the 1937 arrangement with McIntire is almost identical to the 1940 arrangement with Iona – right down to the tag ending. (For more information about “Kauoha Mai” and to hear the earlier recording with Andy Iona, see this previous post on an earlier period in Lena Machado’s recording career.)
This recording session does not mark the end of Lena’s stay on the West Coast. On the contrary, Lena received the most auspicious offer from San Francisco Mayor Angelo Joseph Rossi to lead a Hawaiian group at the 1939 World’s Fair. Lena dubbed her group the “Hawaiian Strollers” because they had no permanent location at the fair. But when fair organizers realized that Lena and the Strollers were drawing more than a thousand visitors a day, they extended their original six-month contract to the full duration of the World’s Fair – three years! – and built them a Hawaiian-themed pavilion.
Next time: It would be ten years before Lena would step into a recording studio again…
[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.]