The Buena Vista Social Club: Every once in a while something foreign burns itself into the nation’s musical consciousness—or whatever you wanna call the thing that gets lots and lots of people buying the same record at the same time. It’ll stick around for a while, everyone will play with it, then—poof!—it’s gone. Consumed without appreciable residue, like those rolling papers I used to like in high school. “Club”—I think that was the brand; burned up without leaving an ash. The Samba. The Mambo. Poof! But imagine if one of these fuckers somehow wormed its way so deeply into the national consciousness that folks took it as bedrock, started building music with it the way they used the blues and Child ballads, Chuck Berry and James Brown. Imagine if one of these pop novelty crazes got taken for roots.
It did. What’s rootsier than the steel guitar? Yet Robert Johnson and Bob Wills, Delta bluesmen and hillbillies, owe their keening twang to a neat little landgrab Uncle Sam pulled off in 1900. That’s when the Republic of Hawaii became a United States territory, by pretty much the same process as you “become” pregnant. Naturally, folks on the mainland were curious about their new toy; the Hawaiians were happy to oblige, and soon, ukes and steel guitars (a recent island invention) in hand, they were roaming vaudeville in packs, adding a splash of island exotica to all the Mick acts, ersatz Coons, singing sisters, strongmen, banjo Paganinis. By all rights, that should’ve been it. A couple of years on the wheel, and out—back to the land of fish and poi with a little cash and a shake of the head at the fickleness of the American public.
But that’s not what happened. When ethnic acts went out of style after WW I, the Hawaiians stayed. Performers such as guitar ace Sol Hoopii (pronounced Ho’O-pi’I; Mary Pickford used to hire him to play “The Rose of Picardy” offscreen whenever she had to cry for the camera) and the singing Kalama Quartet made scads of records, toured, did bits in movies, the whole stardom shtick. The Hawaiian craze didn’t really fade away until after WW II—if you can call something that lasted half a century a craze.
So what gave the “weirdly sensuous music of the island people” (as an early reviewer called it) that stickiness? As a couple of recent reissue compilations show, it wasn’t just luaus and leis. Slidin’ on the Frets covers about 1924 to 1938 (frustratingly, Yazoo doesn’t believe in listing dates). Twenty-three tracks of Hawaiian-inflected steel guitar, almost all fantastically rare (the guys who put it together, Robert Armstrong and Sherwin Dunner, are some bloodhounds). There’s everything here, from low-down barrelhouse jazz, all tumbling, blazingly fast guitar runs and express-train rhythm, to ghostly drop-tone studies in weird, but—strange to relate—hardly any Hawaiians. Greeks, Argentines, Venetians, Trinidadians (like jazz, this stuff spread from America to the world), lots of crackers, a couple of homeboys, and a few city slickers. But Hawaiians? Two, maybe three songs.
In fact, that’s the whole point here: The music got absorbed; people used it. Also like jazz, with its slurs and runs and monkeyed-with tonalities, Hawaiian music gave folks a way to break out of the scale, to color between the musical lines. Why at that particular point in time they were so very hot on that sort of thing is above my pay grade to answer; ask a Joyce scholar or an art historian. Yet, as this disc proves, they were. Modernists all.
But if Slidin’ shows what happened when the world met Hawaii, Hawaiian Memories: Rare Transcription Discs, 1936-1947 shows Hawaii meeting the world. All 14 acts here were—at least in part—from the islands. Only a third of the 27 tracks, however, are straight Hawaiian music. They’re great, but it’s the rest I’m interested in—and not just the hot stomps (which, with their jazzed-up steel leads and 4/4 guitar rhythm, bear a close family resemblance to western swing). There’s also a number of synthetic tropical-paradise pop numbers by guys like Harry Owens and the half-Hawaiian Dick McIntyre. Fake as these tracks are, they’ve still got something truly Hawaiian. The Hawaiians manage to find a kernel of eccentric beauty even in the most contaminated context. And paradoxically, they use good old American technology to do it.
The Hawaiians, you see, were the first to go electric. The acoustic steel guitar’s one defect was volume: You had to play the piss out of it to make yourself heard; lots of notes. By the mid ’30s, electric steel guitars were being marketed pretty widely, and these guys went for them en masse. Suddenly—as you can hear on this set—they could relax, let their lines float over the strumming without stress or strain. It’s a new kind of Hawaiian music, but just as adaptable: If the stomps bring Texas to mind, the slow ones are pure Nashville. In fact, Don Helms, Hank Williams’s steel guy, used to play Sol Hoopii solos note for note. Does that mean that one day we’ll catch Ruben Gonzalez riffs peeking out from behind some Stetson-topped yokel’s lonesome twang? God, I hope so.
For Hawaiian Memories, try Roots & Rhythm (1-888-766-8766) or Worlds Records (www.worldsrecords.com).