Slack Keys and MP3s

Two Bay Area collectors put the spotlight on vintage Hawaiian music

On a Sunday morning in El Cerrito, as the gray skies turn to drizzle, several silver-haired, denim-clad collectors at Down Home Music's monthly 78 rpm record swap pack up early. As he usually does, Allan Dodge has brought his vintage instruments with him, but with the wet weather he leaves his guitars in the car. Joined by fellow collector Dave Stewart, Dodge goes prowling for rare discs in the back room of the Bay Area's primary roots music record store instead.

Dodge is a local antique-music aficionado and a founding member of the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a renowned revival string band that includes filmmaker Terry Zwigoff and cartoonist R. Crumb. The locally based group, which plays live only a few times a year and records even less frequently, is one of the foremost purveyors of the old-timey blues and jazz of the prewar era. The band also showcases Dodge's passion for Hawaiian pop from the '20s, '30s, and '40s, playing such ancient songs as "Hula Medley" and "Moana March" (both released on the 1976 album R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders Number 2, which is now available on CD as Chasin' Rainbows).

As avid record collectors and scholars of Depression-era pop, the Serenaders also contributed to several reissue albums that proved essential in reviving Hawaiian music. In the early '80s guitarist Bob Brozman, who joined the Serenaders in 1978, produced two Hawaiian-themed albums for the Arhoolie label: a collection of rare material by Kalama's Quartet and a compilation called Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics.

Dodge was one of several collectors who supplied material for those now-classic albums, adding cuts from his huge library of 78s. Today, years later, Dodge is compiling an album of his own and releasing it on San Mateo's Old Masters label, in the hopes of renewing interest in his beloved Hawaiian sounds. Titled From Honolulu to Hawaii: Jazz, Blues & Popular Specialties Performed Hawaiian Style, Dodge's record explores the connection between vintage Hawaiian songs and the jazzy hits of the pre-big band era. While many Hawaiian collections focus on the flashy guitar work of trick pickers like Sol Hoopii and Roy Smeck, Dodge's disc indulges in the softer side of the style, with material ranging from Hawaiianized versions of popular standards such as Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave" and Harry Warren's "Coffee in the Morning" to vocal numbers out of the barbershop tradition. The compilation also includes plenty of hapa haole tunes -- jazzy novelty songs that mix English lyrics and Hawaiian slang to paint an idyllic picture of a laid-back tropical paradise.

"The record industry has always had this Orientalist fantasy that it's exploited," explains Dodge, while poring through the discs at Down Home. "It just went on and on with songs like "Old King Tut,' which project some kind of romantic fantasy, this romantic image of this place that looks better on record than it does in reality. It's the exotic nature of it that makes it entertaining."

The other key element was the sweet "slack key" sound of the Hawaiian steel guitar, and the wildly inventive guitar work that Hawaiians initiated. The slack key style originated in the late 1800s, when islanders adapted the Spanish guitar brought to Hawaii by European and Asian immigrants. Hawaiian musicians developed odd tunings and a technique that involved passing a steel bar over the strings to bend and distort the notes. The steel guitar created a sensation in Hawaii and on the mainland, where it became a staple of both country and blues tunes and a novelty effect on countless pop and jazz recordings.

As Dodge notes, California was intimately tied to the growth of Hawaiian music in American popular culture. The booming film industry and the West Coast's vibrant vaudeville circuit provided ample opportunities for work, making California a natural beacon for the talented players. A major turning point came in 1915, when San Francisco hosted a yearlong event that proved pivotal to the worldwide interest in the music and culture.

"It really started with the Panama-Pacific Exhibition," explains Dodge. "That was the beginning of "world music,' in a way. Sol Hoopii was there, and Dave Apollon played the mandolin. The Furtado Brothers came from Guatemala. A lot of those guys had been touring earlier than that, but the Exhibition started a real craze for Hawaiian music."

Most of the work was in Los Angeles, where musicians appeared in films or played nightclubs such as the Seven Seas, but the Bay Area also had its share of Hawaiian talent. RCA Victor recorded countless sessions in its Oakland and San Francisco studios; stars like David Kane were regulars on local radio stations, and legendary showman Sol K. Bright had a residency as the bandleader at the Fairmont Hotel. Because many of the best Hawaiian musicians lived in California, their records were more common here than anywhere else on the mainland, which partly explains why Bay Area collectors have been so instrumental in reviving the old style.

"There are certain records that you can find over and over -- at least on the West Coast," Dodge explains. "People went to Hawaii as tourists and brought them back."

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