BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Like a lot of mainland lovers of Hawaiian music, my first exposure to Genoa Keawe was through what I later learned was her signature tune—“Alika”—which appeared on a couple of compilation albums I bought during the ’80s and ’90s to feed my insatiable hunger for music from the Islands. At the time, I had no idea that Keawe, or “Auntie Genoa,” as nearly everyone calls her, was regarded as a true living legend in Hawaii and that her career dated back to the 1940s. All I knew about her was that one song that had completely stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it, and still amazes me to this day.
In a sense, what captivated me about the song is a bit of a gimmick. In Hawaiian singing there is a technique known as ha‘i, in which the soprano voice ascends from a regular “chest voice” to a higher, airy “head voice,” as the singer modulates the notes, connecting them in what sounds like a uniquely Hawaiian form of yodeling. On “Alika”—a song written by Charles Ka’apa that ostensibly memorializes a ship named the “Arctic” that docked in Kauai in the 1770s (though many believe the song has a risqué double-meaning, not uncommon in Hawaiian songs)—there’s a spot where Keawe sustains a single quavering note for 14 seconds before it “breaks” and moves to other notes at the end of the vocal phrase. Ukulele, guitar, steel guitar, and double- bass rhythmically propel the song under her soaring vocal. That was her original studio version from her 1965 album Party Hulas. In a live performance of the song recorded in 1978 at the Waimea Music Festival on the 1990 CD The Rough Guide to the Music of Hawaii, the longest ha‘i passage stretches to an astonishingly tense 24 seconds, and the audience explodes with cheers once it is resolved. It’s quite a feat, even more impressive for its apparent effortlessness.
So, those vocal gymnastics are, frankly, what hooked me initially, but as I dug deeper and investigated the broad scope of Auntie Genoa’s entire career, which spanned from the 1940s until her death at the age of 89 in 2008, I discovered a masterful singer (and fine ukulele player) who had a profound influence on Hawaiian music during the entire second half of the 20th century. She was also, by all accounts, a wonderful human being.
Genoa Leilani Adolpho was born to a Catholic father and Mormon mother on October 31, 1918, in a part of Honolulu today known as Kaka‘ako. The family moved from Oahu to Kauai for a few years when Genoa was six years old, then back to Oahu, where the family settled in the northeast coastal town of La‘ie, which began as a Mormon settlement in the 1860s and remains a major center of Mormon culture to this day. One of 11 children, Genoa (called “Lei” in her family) was formally baptized into the
Mormon faith at the age of 12.
“I loved singing ever since I was a little girl,” she told Burl Bulringame in the invaluable, long out-of-print book Da Kine Sound: Conversations with People Who Create Hawaiian Music. “A lot of my early music training was from singing in the choir of the Mormon church… In the choir it was mostly classical, church music, and some Hawaiian music. When we had contests with kids from outside Islands it was mainly Hawaiian songs.” She stopped her formal schooling after the eighth grade and at 16, in 1935, married Edward Puniwai (“Puni”) Keawe-Aiko, moving into the home of her mother-in-law in the Kahana Valley, Oahu. It was there that she learned to speak Hawaiian from her mother-in-law: “She could hardly speak English,” Genoa recalled. “She spoke Hawaiian to me and I learned it from her. I spoke English to her and she learned it from me… I guess everyone thinks their language is the most beautiful language, but I really think Hawaiian is so beautiful.”
In her late teens she started singing bandstand shows in Kailua (north of Honolulu), “and sometimes we would sing in officers’ clubs. This was before World War II. We did a lot of pop tunes then.” For a while she sang in George Hookano’s band, but she didn’t sing as much Hawaiian music until the war was nearly over, when she landed a regular spot on a KULA radio show hosted by Johnny K. Almeida, the well-known blind Hawaiian multi-instrumentalist (including ukulele) and writer of more than 300 songs. She also sang on KULA with the Honolulu Rapid Transit busman’s choir and was a regular participant on “Boat Days” in Honolulu Harbor, serenading arriving passengers. To further help make ends meet she used to sell leis going from bar to bar on Hotel Street in Honolulu, danced hula at the local YMCA (“for $3; it was good money then”), and also drove a taxi for a period. Somehow, amidst all that she managed to raise her family, eventually numbering 11 children.
In 1946, it was Almeida who facilitated her signing with Honolulu record store-owner George Ching’s then-new 49th State Hawaii Record Company (the company name anticipating by 13 years Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, when it became the 50th state). At 49th State she cut well over a hundred sides, first on 78s, then 45s, with a variety of small groups, including Genoa Keawe and Her Hula Maids, Genoa Keawe and Her Hawaiians, and Genoa Keawe and Her Polynesians. She moved on to LPs with the Hula Records label, and also found a home on local television, where she often appeared on a show called Lucky’s Luau.
From the outset of her recording career, her repertoire mixed traditional Hawaiian songs with tunes popularized by the first generation of Hawaiian artists to make 78s, including one of her biggest influences, the great soprano Lena Machado. She also had her ear out for contemporary numbers that fit her style, and wrote some songs of her own, too. She usually accompanied herself on ukulele, and sometimes featured her oldest son, Gary Aiko, on guitar, son Sam Aiko on bass, Benny Rogers on pedal steel guitar, and a variety of bass players, including her husband Edward (who passed away in 1985) and Violet Lilikoi. In later years, her youngest child, Eric Keawe, occasionally played guitar with her, as did her niece Momi Kahawaiola’a. Her granddaughter Pomaika’i (Eric’s daughter) also joined in on many performances—dancing hula, singing, playing ukulele; whatever was needed.
It’s true that at any moment at any performance, Auntie Genoa might be joined by one or more graceful hula dancers—friends, family members, folks in the audience; usually not planned and always welcome, as the dancers’ moves become physical poetry in the same way that lyrics are sung poetry. “I like to sing songs that you can dance hula to,” she told writer Audrey Coleman back in 2007.
She taught herself ukulele at a very young age and was a steady and reliable rhythm player throughout her career; not flashy, but always supporting her vocals as needed. “She definitely had her own style of playing,” son Eric, now in his mid-60s, tells me over Zoom from the Oahu set of Aquaman 2, for which he was working as an extra that day. “If you ever watch her on video and watch her strumming style, a lot of the things the kids are doing today is what my mom did many years ago. You can do the one-finger pick or the one-finger strum or you can do the fan strum—my mom was doing the fan strum long before everybody else.
“Mom’s first ukulele was a Martin,” he continues, “and if you look at the old pictures, it was the small redwood soprano Martin. Eventually it evolved to the concert Martin. At that time, Kamaka was not making high-end ukuleles; they were doing the Pineapples and the small sopranos, and Martin was the best-sounding uke. She really loved her Martins, and then, eventually, as Kamaka evolved their small sopranos to the concerts, they provided my mom with her ukuleles, whether it was four-string or, eventually, the six-string she loved.”
Hula Queen of Waikiki
Auntie Genoa’s steady rise in popularity during the late ’50s and all through the ’60s was certainly abetted by the Hawaii craze that accompanied statehood. Honolulu became one of the hottest vacation destinations for mainland travelers, and (for better or worse) Waikiki Beach exploded with hotels and nightclubs catering to the tourist trade. This was very good news for musicians, and Keawe had no problem filling her gig calendar—basically for the rest of her long career. She played all the major hotels in Waikiki, sometimes for extended runs, and also an assortment of restaurants, taverns, and other venues; some long-gone now but fondly remembered: Fort DeRussy, Club Polynesia (which she co-owned for a while), the Aloha Grill, Knights Inn, Hawaiian Village, the Sierra Café, Steamboat’s, the Biltmore Hotel, the Halekulani Hotel, the Waikiki Sands restaurant, the Ala Moana Hotel, and, for the last 14 years of her life, the Marriott Waikiki Beach Resort. In the mid-’60s, too, she started to play more outside of Hawaii, with a number of highly successful trips to Japan and Southern California.
Another important development in her career during that period was launching her own record label—quite bold and unusual for that time. “I wasn’t happy with the deals the record producers were offering musicians,” she told Lynn Cook in 2007. “It seemed like the producers made all the money while we did all the work. I figured I could do it myself, so I got some backing [from an L.A. couple who were big fans], and in October 1966 I launched Genoa Keawe Records”—out of her house.
Eric Keawe recalls, “We were all involved with it as a family. We would take the phone calls from record stores, and they would place orders and we would pass them along to my mom. They’d say, ‘We need this many Hulas of Hawaii, this many Genoa Keawe by Request.’ I don’t think they imagined the distribution was all from home. Mom built a downstairs room to be able to keep the inventory, and we had a flight of 70-something stairs to the road. My big brothers and I would have to carry all the inventory down the stairs. My sister Miriam was the bookkeeper at the beginning. Mom eventually took over the books, maintaining accounts receivables and payable.” It was a family operation for distribution and making deliveries to record stores on Oahu and mailing to the outer island vendors, with Auntie Genoa sometimes delivering records personally.
In the 1970s, Auntie Genoa diversified further by opening the Hawaiian School of Music, Language, and Hula in beautiful Pauoa Valley, near downtown Honolulu. It included a hula school (or halau), Hawaiian language classes, and even ukulele instruction, which she handled personally much of the time. The school was in operation approximately from 1971 to 1979.
During the last decades of her life, Auntie Genoa’s status in the Hawaiian music world only grew, even though she never really changed with the times or incorporated new influences. People loved her traditional, old-school hula style, which was a throwback of sorts to the Hawaii that lives in the imagination of so many, even today. Later in her career, she got to bring the hula to such diverse spots as Carnegie Hall in New York City (where “they were doing hula in aisles,” she told Coleman); the USSR, from Moscow to Siberia, a cultural exchange in the spring of 1988 with a large group of Hawaiian artists and hula dancers; Alaska; Brazil; Tonga; Tahiti; Switzerland; and other non-tropical climes.
In the 2000s, she was showered with numerous awards, including the National Endowment of the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, the O’o Award from the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce, two Na Hoku Hanohano awards (one a Lifetime Achievement honor), a University of Hawaii Honorary Doctorate from Windward Community College, and induction into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. Not to mention countless state and city honors over the many years of her career. She performed at numerous benefit concerts through the years for a wide assortment of causes and charities, and gave generously to the Mormon Church. Advanced age didn’t slow her down much: She could be found strumming her uke and hitting those unearthly high notes at festivals all over Hawaii, and every week at the Waikiki Marriott, up until her passing from cancer on February 25, 2008. “I think my mom had an aura about her,” Eric Keawe says. “Whenever she entered into the room or played at an event, she touched people with her big smile and the love that she really had for everybody. It was in her personality and it was in her music.”