Julia and I went to a Hawaiian Falsetto Contest this weekend that celebrated the Hawaiian tradition of men singing in that high range an octave above normal. This was part of the month-long series of festivities known as Hawaii Island Festival 30 Days of Aloha.
It’s hard to describe the impact of three full falsetto voices in perfect harmony projected through microphones, accompanied by ukuleles and steel string guitars. Their voices filled the body. Frankly, I was perplexed and in awe. The falsetto range just did not match the visual of these big masculine Hawaiian men playing their instruments furiously and pouring their hearts out. Their stories included losing their wives to the hereafter, drinking themselves out of their sorrow, regretting time in jail and more. One wild-eyed ex-con tenderly dedicated a song to his mom and then crooned a sweet melody written by the last ruler, Queen Liliuokalani. And from what I could tell, the music always included some reference to the ‘āina, the land. I say “from what I could tell,” because all of these songs were sung in Hawaiian. There was only one that was partially translated, a lovely church hymn. But my inability to understand the words did not hinder me from feeling the meaning: love, happiness, sorrow, regret.
Then there was the frail Japanese elder who was originally not on the program. He came all the way from Japan to be with “the Big Island People I love so much,” and even brought his own backup band. This octogenarian told us that he’s the only performer in Japan to sing Hawaiian falsetto music. Somehow that’s not surprising. Bowing deeply before his first song, he entertained us with one Japanese melody sung in falsetto, and then warbled a traditional Hawaiian number. Before his final song, he told us he will come here after he dies because he loves the Big Island. Strumming his ukulele, he began his third song. While I couldn’t pick out his words, it had a familiar melody that remained out of reach until he got to the refrain: yippee kai ae! A country song warbled in broken English by a Japanese octogenarian at a Hawaiian falsetto contest. Such a bewildering blur of cultures and music!
But Hawaiian falsetto has always been a blending of cultures. It evolved from early chants, missionary hymns, and the yodeling of the Spanish-Mexican paniolos brought to the Big Island in the 1830s. The paniolos also introduced the guitar. Portuguese immigrants who worked the sugar cane plantations sang falsetto, too, and brought the ukulele to the islands. Later the steel string guitar gained favor and Hawaiians innovated with slack strings to produce slack key guitar. This rich brew of cultures and instruments steeped for over 100 years to create the Hawaiian falsetto tradition, leo ki’eki’e.
For the most part, this was a testosterone affair. Occasionally these men invited daughters to sing harmony with them. And one woman played guitar and sang with a performer whose stage presence was openly gay. He must have been quite the comedian because the audience howled. I found it hard to understand his Pidgin. My ear is not yet tuned to that channel.
Many of the performers also asked wives, daughters, cousins and hānai (adopted family) to join them in hula. What I hadn’t understood until that evening is that specific songs go with specific hulas. So when a vocalist invited dancers to join in, often many different people came up, males and females of all ages. They all danced in perfect unison, as if they had danced together for a long time.
And then, just when I thought I had some of this male tradition figured out, the headliner came on: a sensual full bodied woman singing in ranges so low it hurt my throat to listen. Her beautiful cross-dresser son/daughter joined her for most of the performance, taking the higher range part. They blew me away with their performance. Later I found out that they’re from a hugely talented musical and hula family in Hilo and both have recorded albums. Her grandmother was Edith Kanaka‘ole, an influential woman in the Hawaiian Renaissance movement of the 1970s striving to not only preserve Hawaiian traditions, but bring them into active use in Hawaiian lives.
I went to bed that night telling myself that I must immerse myself more in the Hawaiian culture. It can only be an enriching experience.
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