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.”

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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