Slack Keys and MP3s

Two Bay Area collectors put the spotlight on vintage Hawaiian music

Dodge's new CD collects two dozen prime examples of these cross-cultural classics, including many by the best-known artists in the genre, as well as a few bands that have been all but forgotten. Although Dodge doesn't shy away from well-known material, there are also a few rarities he wanted to get back in print, such as a 1934 version of Sir Harry Lauder's "A Wee Doech 'N Doris," an old English music hall hit with a zippy Hawaiian twist.

"I always wanted to put out a record that was just my favorites. It was great that George [Morrow, of the Old Masters label] just went with it." Dodge is also thankful to other collectors, including Dave Stewart, who opened up their record collections to help fill the disc's playlist. Although such cooperation seems to fly in the face of the stereotype of the competitive über-collector, Dodge says that the days of secretive artifact-hoarding are coming to a close, largely because so many once-elusive songs are now available on reissues or through online music trading.

"It's a little removed from reality, the whole trophy thing," Dodge says. "It's just a vestige of the time when you really couldn't hear it unless you had it. In this day and age, you can probably hear just about anything on a CD. Even Hawaiian stuff -- you go and get 10 CDs from labels like Harlequin or Yazoo and suddenly you've got a big Hawaiian collection of songs from the '20s and '30s."

Stewart, who is half-jokingly referred to by Dodge as "one of the new kids" in the vintage music scene, has a new release as well -- one that's bringing contemporary technological savvy to the vintage world. Although the Bay Area native started out collecting jazz 78s as a teenager in the late 1970s, he gradually found himself drawn in by the Hawaiian style and soon amassed hundreds of rare releases. Stewart's approach to reissuing this music is unique, using MP3 compression technology -- normally a tool of the Internet -- to increase the amount of music he can offer record buyers. His self-released collection of old-time Hawaiian music, Waikiki Is Good Enough for Me: Hawaiian MP3s, features 188 songs -- the equivalent of five or six standard CDs -- on one single CD-R disc.

Although he was never a big Napster buff, Stewart says he quickly recognized the technology's potential to help collectors like himself reach out to a new generation of music fans. "At first I just did it for my own amusement. I work at a computer all day and bring in music to listen to. You can either take in a big stack of CDs every day or you can take those CDs and compress them down to MP3 format and burn 'em onto a single disc. At one point I decided to record all my old 78s onto CD. I started about two years ago, and it was pretty much for my own convenience. I had a bunch of people at work who aren't interested in old records but who like Hawaiian music so I made copies for them. Then I brought some out here [to the swap meet], and the feedback was good. Finally, it got to the point where I thought, "Hey, I could try selling this thing!'"

As for the expected decrease in sound quality, Stewart says, "I was really surprised when I started making the transfers. With MP3s or any kind of compression, there's going to be some loss of quality. You can really notice it with rock music or rap -- that kind of loud pop music. But the limitations of the MP3 format didn't seem that great when I started recording my Hawaiian 78s; it sounded exactly like my CDs. The old recordings were so simple, they just don't strain the system the way a modern recording would. I can't distinguish any loss of quality at all."

Unlike conventional releases, the Waikiki collection can't be played on a normal CD player. To hear the tracks, you need a computer fitted out with a disc drive and speakers. But listeners who are MP3 literate can manipulate the data any way they want to, either playing the preset song selections that Stewart programmed onto the disc or making their own playlists by shuffling the MP3 files around in the anarchic Napster tradition.

The disc includes several songs that have been out of print for over 70 years and nearly two dozen that have never been reissued in any format. Like Allan Dodge's collection, Stewart's has a wide range of styles, from hot jazz-oriented material to sweet ballads and even some of the older, pre-Europeanized Hawaiian folk styles. The biggest coup is the inclusion of Sol Hoopii's complete early works, recorded in 1925 for the microscopic L.A.-based Sunset label, two years before the guitarist signed with Columbia Records and became a national star.

Following the success of their two recent releases, both Dave Stewart and Allan Dodge have more projects in the works. Dodge's next Hawaiian record is a collection of oldies by Andy Iona, a Honolulu native who pushed the hapa haole style into a jazzy, big band direction. Stewart says his next release is likely to be a return to his jazz roots, another massive MP3 set focusing on rare releases from the Sunset/Hollywood label. In the meantime, both collectors say they'll keep attending the monthly swap meet in El Cerrito, digging for buried treasure.

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