Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Early Hawaiian Classics by Kalama's Quartette

Often we Americans have poked fun at traditions beyond our ken.  This happened to four-part harmony since the mid-Sixties.  Barbershop quartets were thought to be hopelessly square.  The teaching of singing in parts was abandoned by schools.  Of course we were content to listen to some great harmony singing from The Beach Boys, Beatles, Byrds, et. al., but the average Joe and Jill would have no clue if asked to participate.

I wonder if we shy away from four-part harmony in part because of its intensity?  It can touch the brain and heart in equal measure.  The ever-growing cohort of modern Shapenote singers have discovered this intensity, and many a secular humanist has been drawn to those expressions of stark theology--alongside believers of all stripes--simply due to the joyful power gained from singing with three other harmonies joining in.

Kalama's Quartette is, by those standards, powerfully masculine even as they proffer sensitive bardic beauty.  Not one, but two steel guitars weave virtuoso accompaniment to Hawaiian songs of place and circumstance.  These were recorded eighty years ago, but I always feel like these guys are whispering in my ear, serenading me through time zones and cultural difference as if it were the easiest thing in the world.  Mike Hanapi's falsetto at the top, and the phenomenal bass vocal of Bob Nawahine, are filled in by William Kalama singing tenor and picking ukulele, and Dave Kaleipua Munson singing baritone and playing guitar.  Together, they evoke an intimate scene of making music by serious moonlight.  The steel guitars and voices bending from pitch to pitch mimic water's sinuous quality.  The call and response style moves at the frequency of lazy waves repeatedly kissing the shore.

The group can take on humorous themes, but most of these pieces inspire a kind of gravitas, if not spiritual wonder.  Caveat auditor: they could make you cry without warning.