[Metroactive Books]

[ Books Index | Santa Cruz | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Behind the Music

Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes. How James Houston and Eddie Kamae broke through them to tell the real story of Hawaiian music

By Steve Palopoli

It's not true that history is written by the winners. In fact, history is written by the historians. And sometimes they're a bunch of losers.

Santa Cruz author James Houston had to consider that while he was writing Hawaiian Son, ostensibly a chronicle of the life and times of Hawaiian music legend Eddie Kamae, but in a larger sense a history of the 20th-century Hawaiian cultural renaissance and the traditional-music movement from which it sprang. "Pop" is not a word often associated with Hawaiian music, but the Beatles-esque sensation that Kamae and his landmark band the Sons of Hawaii became on the islands is perhaps the greatest American pop phenomenon to remain unacknowledged on the mainland.

And as with any pop music worth its salt, the story of Hawaiian music has its Behind the Music side. When Houston--and Kamae, who co-authored the book--chose not to shy away from those parts of the story, they were taking on a whole tradition of so-called "positive" stereotyping that has surrounded the genre.

"There's a way that people who've written about Hawaiian music or the Hawaiian cultural renaissance tend to romanticize the musicians," says Houston. "They talk about the power of the voice and the revival of the music and the reverence for the culture. All of which is important, but right next to that you've got the story of guys who are getting drunk and smoking dope and hocking their ukulele and getting put in jail and breaking up and fighting and all the rivalries. They don't necessarily know they're creating a musical renaissance--they're just trying to get through every night as a musician."

Kamae himself sums up it up best in the book: "Hell, if I thought I had to have some kind of vision, I probably would have quit." Houston, on the other hand, was well aware that Kamae's intense quest throughout his life to recover songs, lyrics and other crucial pieces of Hawaiian tradition that were all but lost was a new legend just waiting to be passed down.

"It would be a story that would work as a contribution to the understanding of Hawaiian music," says Houston of his motivation for taking on the book, "but also I hope in a larger context that it has some resonance outside Hawaii in that whole more global story of indigenous people trying to reclaim their culture, trying to reclaim their legacy before it's gone, before it's colonized out of existence."

Not that it was always easy to get that story. In the extensive interviews for the book, Houston had to be extremely patient, especially when it came to difficult memories like Kamae's up-and-down relationship with former band mate and fellow Hawaiian music legend Gabby Pahinui.

"Well, Eddie--Eddie doesn't like to be pushed. He's not the kind of person you can press for information. He'll just change the subject," says Houston. "As a writer, I knew what sooner or later had to be in the story. But when I'd find it out was really up to whatever Eddie was in the mood to talk about. And I kept track of that."

The end result is fascinating not just for its narrative history, but also for the way it ties into the history of narratives. Hawaiian Son is a playful tangle of stories--through much of the book, Houston tells the story of Kamae; in some segments, Kamae tells his own story; in still others, Kamae tells stories about stories that have been told to him. Beyond making for an entertaining read, it's also a knowing nod to Hawaiian tradition.

"The Hawaiian musical tradition in its original form comes from the Hawaiian oral poetry tradition, which is very sophisticated. The poems are telling a story in verses that are very elaborately worked out, and they have these layers of meaning," says Houston. "The first level of meaning is 'The mountain is great against the sky, and the waterfall coming down the side is beautiful, and this flower at the bottom of the waterfall is just getting ready to bud.' When you hear a superficial translation, it's about a mountain and a waterfall and a flower. But in fact the mountain is the man, and the waterfall is the penis and the flower is the young woman who's about to be deflowered. Then underneath that, and inside the song, are the identities of the people that we're talking about, and everybody on that part of the island knows who the song is about. And that's part of the fun of the song."

James Houston will read from 'Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae' on Thursday, Feb. 17, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.423.0900.

[ Santa Cruz | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the February 16-23, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

For more information about Santa Cruz, visit santacruz.com.