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S2E19 – Song Stories and Lineage

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The importance of song backgrounds and their stories as part of the musical experience.

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Edited for clarity.

Aloha kākou, Welcome to the Live ʻUkulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. In this episode I want to talk about song backgrounds and knowing the stories of your songs. It’s something that I think is fairly important and really gives life to the music that you enjoy.

Want to send a big shout out to Joel at Hawaiʻi Music Supply and Uke Logic strings. He sent me over a new, a number of sets. I haven’t even opened it up to look at how many strings are in each packet. I’m sure there are more than 10 maybe? But actually, as this episode is going live, we’re probably doing an interview this same day that you’re hearing this. Got him scheduled for a little talk story session, bring you some of the background of his kind of insight into creating those Uke Logic strings that I’ve been using for the past couple of years. They’re really great. Definitely check them out if you haven’t already. He’s got a little Etsy store and they’re also available on Hawaiʻi Music Supply –

I’d like to throw a little bit of a request your way. A help wanted ad if you will. You know, I really like doing this podcast. I love the production side of things and recording and the mixing and the editing, and certainly talking to amazing ukulele people and, you know, bringing perspectives to you folks about how I think about ukulele and how my guest interviewees think about ukulele. But part of the process I don’t like is transcribing the audio so that it becomes text embedded on a webpage. I think this is important for accessibility purposes and also for search engine indexing, but it’s not something I get super jazzed about when it’s that part of the production process. So this is a call out to anybody who might be inclined with a keyboard and maybe have a slight understanding of Hawaiian language in case I throw in a Hawaiian word here or there, who might be interested in volunteering some time to help revise an automatically generated transcript. I would love to be able to bring someone else – or several people – into the fold to help with this part of the process. If you’re interested, please shoot me an email or you can find my contact on the website.

I spent the first week in September over on Maui, crazy as that is in this crazy time in crazy town at Uncle George Kahumoku Jr.’s Slack Key and Ukulele Workshop. Had a great time, got to catch up with all my friends from the music industry, all these great instructors, teachers, musicians, and amazing people that I’ve come to know over the past… I mean, I’ve known some of them for many, many years, 15 years, but some of them I’ve met a little bit more recently or gotten to know a little bit more recently since I started teaching at the workshop. And so it was great to be able to reconnect with these folks, especially after so long in kind of a lock down state of just staying home and laying low.

And we had a great time. Got to participate in the uncle jam, which started a couple of years ago because Uncle Ledward Kaapana just always gets up super early, kind of before the sun comes up, he’s awake, he’s got his cup of coffee and he’s just jamming. And a lot of times he likes to go live on Facebook, which is neither here nor there, but eventually the rest of the instructors kind of caught on to this little routine and started showing up. And like Uncle Sonny Lim would come out and you wake up in the morning and come out for breakfast and they’d be there jamming. And then, you know, it just grew and grew until it became kind of the thing to do in the morning for the instructors. And then there would end up being a group of five or six of us every morning, just playing songs. Sometimes for Facebook live sometimes not. But just a chance to kind of catch up, talk story, talk about the songs, kind of reminisce a little bit, hear a little bit of the background of some of these stories.

And that’s always been one of my favorite bits as that’s been happening. It’s a chance to get to know these legendary musicians better and hear the stories of the songs and, you know, “Hey, did you know that, you know, so-and-so wrote this song” or “so-and-so performed this song” You know, just like all the background and all the really meaty details that brings the music to life and makes it more than just a song that you strum the chords to and you sing the words to. All of these songs have a progression. There’s kind of a lineage for the song. You know, when it first arrived, when it was covered by somebody in a different way, they kind of changed it. Or when this person learned the song or when that person learned the song. And it’s such an interesting place to sort of see that in action.

Cause you’re hanging out with these guys they’re older uncles. They’ve been around in the music scene. You know, they were at kind of the height of their fame and their careers in the seventies. Uncle Led was in Hui ʻOhana and Uncle Kevin Brown was in Waiʻehu Sons and Uncle Sonny Lim was in the Lim Family. And you know, they’ve got the lineage and all these songs that they know and that they play. They all came from somewhere. And it’s not just this random song that they just learned to play. Usually – from my experience – there’s always… There’s usually a story or, you know, they heard it on an album at one point. You don’t think of famous musicians as learning a song ever. You think of them just arriving with all of the music that they put on a CD.

But these songs come from somewhere and having a chance to hear the stories has kind of made me realize how important this is – at least to me – but I think also to other people. It’s a richness that you can bring into your ukulele playing. Knowing the history of the songs that you play, especially with Hawaiian music, because it’s, there is a little bit more of that connection. It’s not quite as distant as it would be for maybe mainstream music where you wouldn’t necessarily know all of the details of the writing of the song or the lineage of the song. But with Hawaiian music, a lot of times that is preserved kind of word of mouth. And because these Hawaiian musicians are so much more accessible, it’s possible to like, you know, walk up to them after the show and say, “Hey, what is the story behind this song?” And because of that, I think a lot of the stories and the knowledge of, you know, what came, when can be found out. Of course there are a ton of mysteries. There’s a lot we don’t know, there’s, you know, many, many things that I would like to be able to ask of folks who have passed already. Just to have a better understanding, but I think it’s good to acknowledge that we do know a lot. There are a lot of resources out there.

So I’ve recently come into some old Hawaiian music. Some obscure albums that I haven’t heard before. And it’s been really fun to kind of see how just a handful of albums can really piece together your understanding of the history of a song and when it happened and where. Like I got hold of the old Olomana record, Come to me Gently, I think it is. And the last track on that album is “E Kuʻu Sweet Lei Poina ʻOle.” And this is a song I’ve heard Uncle Led play forever. It’s one of his favorite songs. He always pulls it out at jams and at shows and stuff. And so I’ve gotten really used to hearing this song done by him. And I don’t know if Uncle Led learned the song off of the Olomana record. It’s hard to say without actually asking him. I hadn’t heard this rendition before the workshop. So I didn’t have a chance to talk to him about it. But from all I can tell, this is one of the first recordings of that song.

And so it’s interesting to see that, you know, if that was where it first popped out, how kind of downstream the song has changed and been adapted by these different artists. And you think of it as like, oh, this is a song that so-and-so does. And I know this version of the song, but in reality, it came from a completely different place. And in all likelihood there were personal connections that kind of brought that song to pass. Like if I was to learn “E Kuʻu Sweet Lei Poina ʻOle,” I would have that Uncle Led connection and kind of feel like I learned the song from him. Even though he never actually taught me the song in a lesson or anything, just hearing it done by him and hearing how special that song is to him, if I were to play it, that would be my connection. And maybe he has a connection to Olomana or the auntie who wrote the song that is part of his lineage. It’s all just kind of interesting. And I think that the more dots like this, you can put together with the songs that you play, the more meaningful the music is. You have a lot bigger connection to the song when you play it.

I know that a lot of folks just kind of learn songs because it’s what is available or what is being taught on a YouTube lesson or something. And, you know, maybe a song like “Riptide” or “I’m Yours,” maybe they are really catchy and they’re fun to play, but it’s hard to have like a deep connection to the source of the song. Because like, I don’t know anybody who knows Jason Mraz. I don’t know anybody who knows what’s his name in Australia, the Vance Joy guy who does “Riptide.” That kind of fame disconnect of being in the mainstream of music. It’s a little bit less relevant and getting information is, you know, maybe hearing the story of the song… It’s less personal maybe. But certainly with Hawaiian music, it’s possible to go back and sort of see where these different songs evolved from.

Because that’s another difference in Hawaiian music and in mainstream music is that Hawaiian music is heavily based upon kind of covers of songs that have moved from being maybe new at one point, but they’ve become traditional songs. Whereas a song like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” it’s been covered a lot of times, but it hasn’t necessarily become traditional. You know, Judy Garland is still kinda… It’s kinda thought of as like her song, no matter who does it. It’s like, oh, it’s Braddah IZ’s version mashup of Judy Garland’s song. Or Brittni Paiva’s arrangement of Judy Garland’s song. But in Hawaiian music, a lot of times these songs, they either start out so old that it’s kind of been forgotten who first did them, or they were written before there was even recording technology. So there’s no recording of the original author of the song playing the song. Or it’s been recorded early enough that it’s moved through so many iterations in so many covers, that we just know it as done by our favorite artist or on our favorite album. That’s how we know the song.

It’s very interesting. And kind of a different culture that it’s really built upon… You would be hard pressed to become a rock band that does just covers. I mean, how many cover rock bands are like famous. Cover bands usually live in kind of that party scene where they’re playing to folks who maybe have strong reminiscent connections to those songs, but as a general, they don’t go a whole lot further than that. Usually they go further because they end up writing their own songs and recording their own songs. And those songs are new and unique and interesting. But that’s not so much the case in Hawaiian music. You can make a completely legit career out of Hawaiian music that is not your own. And you’re just playing covers of traditional songs or covers of songs that other folks have done already. And lots of people do that. They don’t necessarily write their own Hawaiian music. They just cover other people’s Hawaiian music and they have completely legit professional careers around that.

And so, because there’s that abundance of material, kind of in the pipes of history, there are so many versions of each song to listen to and absorb insight from. Or to to kind of track backwards in time. For instance, if you were to look up Wahine ʻIlikea, there’s a popular like kani ka pila, ukulele song that people like to jam. If you maybe live in the mainland, but don’t know a whole lot of Hawaiian songs, a lot of people really connect to Uncle Dennis Kamakahi’s songwriting style because it’s a little bit more kind of contemporary, a little bit more familiar to the Western ear ,as opposed to more traditional traditional Hawaiian music. And so songs like “Wahine ʻIlikea” or “Pua Hone,” “Kokeʻe,” those kinds of songs tend to get played a lot – in my experience – at more maybe Western folk, mainland folk jams. And so if you take the history of any one of those three songs. Those are like three of his more famous tunes. And look at when he wrote those, when he first recorded them, when they kind of first became a thing. And then down the line from there, find as many different covers as you can.

I’ve heard “Kokeʻe” so many times played by so many different people at so many different jams, you know, countless different jams, countless like casual ukulele covers of that song. But I’ve also heard the song played very intimately in person by Uncle Dennis, like in lessons or at a workshop concert, kind of a thing. But I just got my hands on the Waiʻehu Sons album, and there’s a “Kokeʻe” on there. And this album is from, you know, gotta be from the seventies. It’s got that song. So maybe Uncle Kevin Brown was one of the first people to adopt that song and to cover that song. And even after hearing Uncle Kevin play that song so many times over the years at Uncle George’s workshop. You know, I think especially after Uncle Dennis Kamakahi passed, everybody was a little bit… There was a little bit more of a remembrance to his songs and that playing his songs were a way to remember Uncle Dennis and all the good times we had with him as a person. So Uncle Kevin plays the song all the time. Uncle Kevin was in the Waiʻehu Sons. I didn’t realize that they did a crazy cover of “Kokeʻe” on their album. And because you hear Uncle Kevin Brown play “Kokeʻe” just, you know, solo guitar, singing, or leading a jam, it’s kind of as you would expect, how everybody plays “Kokeʻe.” You know, probably right along the lines of how Uncle Dennis did it. But on this album they’re singing like major seventh harmony through the whole thing. It’s just like this bizarre jazz arrangement. Kind of like real, not necessarily loungy, but sort of got that complex harmony sound that’s almost too dense. It’s like kind of schmoozy sounding. It’s really interesting. But to know that maybe he plays the song one way when he’s playing it by himself or live. And then the fact that he recorded this really interesting version on a past album that not many people have heard, it’s just, it makes the song so much more rich because you know, it has that history of, well, Uncle Dennis wrote it, then maybe the Waiʻehu Sons picked it up. They changed it a whole bunch. They made it their own, they put it on the album and then, you know, it continues to evolve.

And if you were to find all the recordings of “Kokeʻe” and listen to them all, there’s probably a lot that are just like the original or just, you know, straight down the middle kind of bland arrangement-wise. And then there are going to be some that change the song, make it more interesting. Maybe over the course of all those covers the general vibe of the overall interpretation of that song has changed. I honestly can’t say that I’ve heard Uncle Dennis’s original recording of that tune. I’m not sure that I’ve heard it. And so has it changed, just as a general… Just like our internal knowledge of that song, has that changed? I would say probably at least a little bit. And the more time goes on and the more people cover it, the more it’s probably going to change.

It kind of reminds me of “Kawika” that the Sunday Manoa played is that that actually started out, I believe late 1800s as a chant for David Kālākaua, Hawaiʻi’s last king, right? And this chant was performed probably as a hula and performed oli style. And then Sunday Manoa came along in the late sixties and they turned it into more of a like chordal harmonized, traditional Hawaiian music… Even if it wasn’t that style song before, they put it into that framework. And now everybody knows “Kawika” as [sings riff] with that legendary ukulele picking part. That’s how people know the song now. They don’t necessarily think that it used to be an oli and it that it kind of evolved over time to become that. And then the Kaʻau Crater Boys covered it. They kind of… That was mostly, you know, a take on Peter Moon’s version with the Sunday Manoa, but they had their own little thing that went with it. And that maybe changed everybody’s perception of the song a little bit more so that when we play the song in our head, maybe we’re hearing Peter Moon on the ukulele kind of meets Troy Fernandez on the ukulele. Just kind of that perception of what the song is has changed. And when you listen to people play it now. Like there was a young scholarship student at the workshop who played “Kawika” at the open mic night and, you know, he totally shredded balls on it. It was really cool to hear him play that. And he had his kind of his own take. Kind of more modern, maybe. Kind of a modern interpretation of the same song that pulled from that legacy of what the song has become now.

And so this is as deep a rabbit hole as you want it to be. But maybe just take one song that you play on ukulele. Especially if it’s a Hawaiian song. And try and trace it as far back as you can. Find the original recording. Start there and listen to it. And sometimes it’s going to sound as you know it. Sometimes it’s going to be completely different or, you know, very much a surprise like, wow, that is not how I play the song or that’s how I know the song. That’s not the arrangement I’m used to. Or the presentation I’m used to. And then from there find as many recordings of the song as you can and work your way up through time to kind of see where… You know, if the original recording is very much how you play the song and how you know the song, that’s cool. Take that for what it is. Find some other versions. Try and find out as much about the story and the writer and what it’s written about as possible. But it’s especially a treat when you go back to that original version of the song and it’s significantly different from how you know the song. Because something changed along the way to bring you to that point. And for most ukulele players, you know, it’s not necessarily the latest generation of ukulele players playing it at a kani ka pila who are changing the song dramatically. They heard it somewhere like that already and they’re playing it as done by so-and-so.

So if you can trace from the original version, that’s very different from what you know, and work your way up through time through the different covers that have happened… You know, where did things branch off? Where did things start to kind of turn towards the version that you know? It’s very interesting to listen to music, kind of with that historian intent and try and find out where that happened. And by hearing all these different arrangements and all the different covers of a song over time, it’ll actually give you a lot more ideas for how you can play the song. If you hear all the ways people have changed it before, it’ll show you all the ways the song can be changed. And hopefully it’ll give you some ideas for how you can change the song a little bit to again, tweak it and kind of keep pushing that legacy further on down the line for the next generations.

A couple of really great resources for Hawaiian music… As far as mainstream music goes, I’m not so sure. That’s always been harder to find information on outside of like Wikipedia or whatever. You’re kind of on your own. But with Hawaiian music there are a few resources. The He Mele Aloha book. The blue book that everybody has at jam sessions by Carol Wilcox, Kimo, Hussey, Vicki Hollinger, and Puakea Nogelmeier. That’s super valuable because there’s usually a paragraph to accompany the song with as much detail as people know about the composer and the origin and maybe lost lyrics or, you know, the exact date when it was written or who they think it was attributed to. All those kinds of things is very interesting.

The other one is who, which takes a similar approach and sometimes repeats the same knowledge that’s from the book. It’s just kind of like the online version of He Mele Aloha. But a lot of times there’s actually additional information that has been pulled in from third-party sources. I’m not sure who is behind Huapala. I would like to find that out. And I should look into that a little bit more. But it’s always very interesting seeing… Sometimes the citations differ, you know, He Mele Aloha may say the song is by somebody and Huapala may say that the song is by somebody else. And so you kind of got to do some detective work and figure out what’s going on.

And then the last one is Has a lot of interesting discussions about Hawaiian songs. And if you ever go on Google and you’re looking up a song and curious about, you know, “E Kuʻu Sweet Lei Poina ʻOle” composer or tuning or whatever descriptive word you want to try and add depth to your knowledge with in Google. And you search and comes up, usually it’s worth a click to go scroll through and see what people have to share. Because a lot of the folks on Taro Patch are folks that actually live in Hawaii, or they have connections with Hawaiian musicians and they have taken the time to go down the rabbit holes and to approach these Hawaiian musicians and ask about the stories and ask about the origins of these songs when possible. And so that’s a real great resource if you ever run across it in your travels.

But I want to thank all the instructors and students at Uncle George’s workshop. So great to see everybody. So great to reconnect, and it’s just amazingly awesome to play Hawaiian music in person again, and get to jam and remember what it feels like to share music as a community. You know, we were able to go through the workshop and be pretty COVID safe the whole time. So hats off to Uncle George and Aunty Nancy for making that happen. I know a lot of us were kind of a little bit uncomfortable with the whole idea and not sure if we wanted to actually go and we’re kind of hoping it would cancel. But the fact that it went through and the fact that we all ended up there, it was a beautiful time. And I think there was a lot of good learning, you know, between the students and the instructors. And certainly as an instructor, getting to see all of my peers and my heroes and inspirations and all of these legendary musicians who kind of come together at the workshop, very cool. Always a privilege and something that I will definitely treasure for the rest of my life. Those memories that we make at events like that at the workshop.

So definitely if you want to try and get involved next year, check it out. The George Kahumoku, Jr. Slack Key and Ukulele Workshop. One of the premier Hawaiian music workshops in the islands. There should be a great lineup. There’s a great lineup every year, but next year should also be fabulous. Hope to see you there.

And yeah, just wanted to share some thoughts about kind of song background. Cause it’s something I’ve been thinking about hearing this new Hawaiian music from these albums I’ve gotten and also hearing the songs in person and the stories in person from these uncles who I love and respect so much. And it just, it means so much to hear their insight about these songs that they play and that maybe I’ve learned to play because of them, because I hear them play it. Like, that’s a great song. I would love to, you know, at least do my little version. It’s not going to be necessarily as good as what they can do. But my little version. And then to hear their take on it, to hear their story. Like, oh, did you know this? Did you know that? Those are the kinds of things that just really make Hawaiian music special. That connection in that community around the music. As opposed to it being an exclusive thing. Hawaiian music is an inclusive thing. And so take that as you will. Examine some of the songs you already know, or you thought you knew. You know, what can you learn more about them? There’s always more to know about songs and about music. It will deepen your connection.

Thanks for tuning in. I will catch you on the next first or third Saturday of the month, whatever comes first. I’m thinking as we get towards the end of the year, I’m going to take November and December off. So October will be the last month of podcasts until the new year. Give myself a break, reset, collect some ideas, maybe even record some podcasts up in advance. So I’m not scrambling at the last minute.

If you’re so inclined, check out my new ebook, Step-By-Step: Single String Ukulele Playing. It’s a great intro if you’ve ever wanted to get into picking, but weren’t sure how. Or if you’re just a beginner player and you want to try and get started with something that’s a little bit more melody based, as opposed to just strumming chords, go check it out. It’s the price of a fancy coffee and it’s a hundred pages of lessons that will hopefully take you through a lot more days than a fancy coffee would.

I’ll catch you in the next episode. Until then, be well, take care of one another out there and enjoy playing your music. Aloha.

brad bordessa avatar About the author: Brad Bordessa I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from an off-grid cabin in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once jammed with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me