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Fish & Poi: Hawaiian Independent 78rpm Discs ca. 1945-56

Hawaiian Independent 78rpm Discs ca. 1945​-​56 on Canary Records.

Many hours of Harry B. Soria Jr.’s beautifully researched and presented radio shows of Hawaiian music from the years 1915 – 1959 are archived at

Territorial Airwaves.

U.S. census counted the population of the Territory of Hawaii during the 1940s and ‘50s as less than a half-million individuals of whom about a third were Japanese, a quarter were Caucasian, and a sixth were native Hawaiian (between 60-100,000 people); the remaining population were largely Filipino, Chinese, and Korean. The cultural productivity and international musical influence of the Hawaiians during the 20th century outweighed practically any ethnic group on earth per capita, rivaled only by the performers of the tango halls of Argentina and Uruguay and the Black blues/ jazz / gospel musicians of the United States. Stereotyping of Hawaiian music by outsiders and rapidly changing political and aesthetic views from inside the Hawaiian community have left much of the music that was recorded in Hawaii during the middle of the 20th century mostly unavailable today except on the original discs. This collection of recordings may serve as an introduction to the era for some people who haven’t heard them before and may fill in some gaps for those already devoted to the music.

Preceding the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by agents supported by the United States government in 1893, the archipelago had witnessed a flowering of literature, dance, and music, all of which were born on a foundation of prayer and an understanding that cultural life unified and expressed of the sovereignty of Hawaiians. By the early 20th century Hawaiian culture, having co-existed for centuries with traders and plantation owners, was highly flexible and adaptive to outside influences, while foreign capitalists had suppressed hula dance performances. In that context, Joseph Kekuku (b. 1874 La’ie, O’ahu, Hawaii; d 1932 Morristown, New Jersey) adapted the European guitar, which Hawaiians played using steel rather than gut strings, as an instrument played flat on the lap and using a steel bar to pitch the strings using the left hand, giving birth to the “steel guitar.” That instrumental style traveled the world with Kekuku and a diaspora of musicians who toured widely throughout Asia, Australia, the Americas, and Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and became the basis of much of modern guitar playing, still felt most notably in American country music in the mainland U.S. Hawaiian music (or Hawaiian-referential music) became outrageously popular in the U.S. during the 1910s-‘20s. The idea of Hawaii was a touchstone of the American pop charts for decades and so deeply influenced the past hundred years of music played on plucked string instruments that it would be reasonable to say that much of what is played on guitar today has some Hawaiian antecedent. In parallel to the rise of the steel guitar was a tradition of falsetto singing, particularly among men, which, drawing from a variety of both native and non-native sources, emphasized the break between the registers, as in yodeling.

Celebrity virtuoso native Hawaiian performers made popular records through the 1920s and ‘30s for major American labels. By 1940 Leo Kupina’i’ had established a recording studio in Honolulu, which was used by 25-year-old William Bell Fredlund (b. Michigan Oct 26, 1915; d. 1985) to establish his very productive Bell Records label (the second Hawaiian-owned label, following the HTP label of 1934-40). Raised in Minnesota by an Irish immigrant mother, Fredlund became one of the most important figures in the business community in 1940s Honolulu, employing union musicians. Bell released hundreds of hit records in collaboration with his wife Alice Davis Fredlund and her brother Willie Davis, both of whom were musicians, at a rate of more than a dozen a month for much of the 1940s, including the first discs by the crooner Alfred Apaka, the popular George Archer and his Pagans, singer-songwriter Andy Cummings (b. Aug. 2, 1913, Honolulu; d. June 23, 1995), master guitarist Gabby Pahinui, and many others including records in Filipino and Japanese.

Bell Records built a record manufacturing plant in 1948 in the working class Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu but folded around 1950, supplanted largely by the 49th State Hawaii Record label founded by record dealer George K. Ching around 1947. (49th State’s early newspaper ads magnanimously offered congratulations to performers on the Bell roster who had recently released discs.) Ching worked closely with John K. Almeida (b. Pauoa Valley, O’ahu Nov. 28, 1897; d. Oct 9, 1985, Honolulu), a brilliant blind guitarist, songwriter, and all-around musician, to scout for talent and work in A&R. Almeida had begun performing at age 15 and played in 1917 at Queen Liliuoukalini’s funeral. He was an eminent fixture on the Honolulu musical scene, composing and performing prolifically. In the 30s, he began recording and performing on the radio. In September 1948, his wife and collaborator of nearly 30 years, Elizabeth K. Nahaku, died. It was around the same time he went to work for Ching’s 49th State label; he directed every recording session for the label and performed on many of them.

Ching and Almeida drew much of the recording talent for the 49th State roster from the hotels and nightclubs that had become the lifeblood of Honolulu’s music scene in the ‘40s, including, notably, Genoa Keawe (b. Oct. 31, 1919, O’ahu; d. Feb. 26, 2008) who began performing as a teenager in the late ‘30s and performed for 70 years, earning numerous awards and acclaim as a singer, songwriter, and recording artist. Unlike the performers on Bell, the 49th State roster was non-union. There remains, however, some stigma surrounding the music of the era, connected to the colonialist “tiki bar” culture that grew through the 1930s-‘60s. Very few Hawaiian performers of the ‘40s and ‘50s could earn a living solely on their music. Those who performed regularly relied heavily on the hotels and clubs where the tourist trade was a significant part of their income. (The Cafe Pagoda in Honolulu used the tagline “It’s Fun to ‘Slum’” in their ads in the late ’40s, aimed at tourists wishing to mix with the locals.) As a result, although the local labels recorded a lot of songs that were local hits for Hawaiian (and Japanese) speakers, they also worked hard at finding new hits all the time to feed the record production machine, and that meant some stuff that was for the tourists. The influence of mainland popular music was pervasive, but many of the most influential American performers were those who came by steamship to play in person. As a result, among the popular Black women of the era, it is not Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn, or Billie Holiday who made the biggest mark on Hawaiian music but Nellie Lutcher (b. 1912; d. 2007), partially by dint of her late 1947 appearances in Honolulu, around the time of her hit song “Fine Brown Frame,” which spoke to Hawaiian audiences.

The 49th State label’s eponymous wish for inclusion in the U.S.A came to naught in January 1959 when Alaska became the 49th state of the union, and it was around that time that the label drew to a close, but not before the short-lived Island Recording Studio label had appeared. Island was largely a venue for the Heeheno Serenaders under the direction of Joseph Kahaulelio (b. Honolulu Dec. 14, 1929; d. Honolulu 1985) who had previously recorded for 49th State. Kahaulelio came up through the hotels in the ‘50s and became an important dancer and teacher carrying a more distinctly Hawaiian cultural thread into an era that became increasingly more oriented toward an unassimilated and politicized independent Hawaiian expression in the decades that followed. But it all happened very fast, and there was so little money going around to support most musicians or dancers to develop their work. It is, in a sense, the totality of the work of many people together that so much of what Hawaiian music has retained its core values. In a 2021 interview the radio personality, record collector, and researcher Harry B. Soria, Jr. (b. 1948; d. Dec. 7, 2021) addressed the meaning of the 1940s-50s era music this way:

“There are two ways to look at it. Some people say, ‘oh [the colonialists] outlawed the language and they destroyed the connection [to the past], and we lost our roots.’ But on the other side without hapa haole [half-foreign] music, we wouldn’t have had that string [of cultural continuity] to keep us going to this point so that we would have a generation rediscovering Hawaiian language and writing songs again.”

He was right, of course. This collection by an outsider and novice might open a window and makes clear that there is a person-to-person sharing from the Hawaiian Kingdom through the Territorial era into Statehod of lasting value.

Released May 28, 2023.

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski

Songs are presented in reverse chronological order of their release.