The first installment of Joel Gunz’s music column Blood, Sweat & Vinyl examines the greatest hits album, My Isle of Golden Dreams, by Alfred Apaka.
“We can regain paradise every night in our dreams.”—Sigmund Freud
Once, I was the center and source of a birther conspiracy. Through some now-forgotten mix-up (a confusing trip to the airport? a long-distance call from my Aunt Mary on the Big Island?), I came to believe that I’d been born in Hawaii and not, as my birth certificate stated, Portland, Oregon. (Sorry, President Obama.) I was three, maybe four, at the time and, thanks to that imagined connection, developed a fast fondness for all things Aloha: the alien and flagrantly red anthuriums my aunt sent us each Christmas; my mother’s ono kine sushi made with canned tuna and boiled carrots; the exotic slack-key guitar music that ended up in rotation with my parents’ Sinatra, my older sisters’ ballet Tchaikovsky.
A one-kid conspiracy, it ran deep. I actually felt homesick for the islands. For solace, I’d crawl into the lap of the mai tai-smooth baritone of the great Hawaiian crooner Alfred Apaka. We owned two of his records, but his posthumous hit compilation My Isle of Golden Dreams (Decca, 1963)—the first record I was allowed to play on the family stereo by myself—was the one that did it for me. As my personal guide to Hawaii, Apaka, who’d died six years before I was born, might have been the first person I’d ever mourned, adding a melancholy layer to the music of my erstwhile paradise. Some people are born at the wrong time; I was born in the wrong place as well.
And so, when my new copy of the album arrived in the mail a few days ago, I tore off the shrink wrap and placed it on the turntable only to be immediately swept away to that distant land of my childhood. Which is exactly what hapa-haole (half foreign) music—of which Apaka was one of the greatest proponents—is designed to do. Usually sung in English, hapa-haole casts a spell, beckoning listeners to return to their beloved island—whether it be in an imagined tropical latitude, one’s childhood, or Peter Pan’s Neverland. The impulse is as universal as it is impossible to fulfill.
While such themes are no doubt good for Hawaii’s tourist economy, hearing the album for the first time on vinyl in I don’t know how many years, I heard another message come through as well. In Apaka’s voice, I sensed something sad and unsettling. These songs of love for his homeland came at a price. They don’t celebrate Aloha life in the present; rather, they speak of separation and loss, of a yearning to return to the idyll. They’re about Paradise Lost. Here are a few selections:
“My Isle of Golden Dreams”
From its first note, the title track swoops in to announce the record’s intentions with a sexy, full-octave glissando on the lap guitar, sweeping up as if from the depths of the South Pacific itself. A slow, languorous waltz, this lullaby gently nudges listeners to drift into a peaceful dream, where one can “hear the voice of my land / A-calling me.”
Like many songs that made it into the hapa-haole canon, this song was written by haoles—lyricist Gus Kahn (“Toot Toot Tootsie,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me”) and composer Walter Blaufuss, for the 1919 Broadway show Hello, Alexander. Although the play was soon forgotten, the song stuck around and became a mainstay among whites and Hawaiians alike.
Both lachrymose and erotic—and with the reverb cranked to eleven—this classic ballad guarantees transport back to my own private isle every time. Reduced to its essentials on the page, “Ebb Tide” features a repeating pair of eighth notes and a half note that roll up and down over a simple ABA structure as if surfing the crest of a tidal wave. The ebbing/flowing dynamic structure completes the theme of the lyrics. Meanwhile, its evocative themes offer opportunities for lush orchestral ornamentation (cf. Sinatra’s version) or, in this case, layers of ambient ocean sounds—pounding waves, squawking seagulls, and all.
Evocative as Apaka’s version is, my favorite is by the ukulele master Herb Ohta, a.k.a. Ohta San. As a kid, I’d stack his Ukulele Isle LP (Decca, 1973) on the record-changing spindle atop Apaka and listen to the albums on alternating sides, taking in both versions of the tune, more or less back-to-back. In Ohta’s hands, the ukulele—too often abused or dismissed as a toy—really is transcendent. Nowhere is this more evident than in his rendition of “Ebb Tide,” which exploits the simple, stringy tone of the instrument to convey the bare emotions of the song. Hanging behind the forward-pressing 12/8 pulse as if reluctant to face the end of the melody, his jazz-infused picking invokes the last night of a honeymoon or the feel of warm tropical rain on one’s face—neither of which I’d experienced, obviously, when I first heard the song.
The Hawaiian people have long had a complicated relationship with the West. Two centuries of dealing with American missionaries, military generals, and carpetbaggers will do that to you. Unlike the native mainland tribes who were shunted off to faraway reservations, the islanders were fated to stay put and watch the Americans appropriate their property right out from under their feet. That story is embedded in their songs: it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface of their wistful odes to the magical trade winds to discover an underlying pool of sadness.
Fittingly, Ohta—a polyglot music expert—derives much of his style from the bossa nova, tapping into the Brazilian tradition of saudade—a yearning for something or someone that one has loved and lost, such as a person, a place, or a past. (After all, he did rise to popularity in the 1960s—the decade of the Brazilian invasion in pop and jazz.) In a few years, I would turn my attention the work of Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and others, prompting me to study Portuguese just to get closer to the bossa nova and the samba; but my first taste of Brazil came by way of the South Pacific.
“Princess Poo-poo-ly has Plenty Papaya”
Okay, I get it. Times were different. Still, it’s hard to just sit back and enjoy the innocent ribaldry(?) directed at poor Princess Pupule’s papaya:
Princess Pupule has plenty papayas
She loves to give them away
And all of the neighbors they say
Oh me-ya oh my-ya you really should try-ya
A little piece of the Princess Pupule’s papayas ….
Written by Harry Owens (cf. “Sweet Leilani,” 1934), leader of the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra and founding host of the radio show Hawaii Calls, Owens was an early hapa-haole devotee. Ensconced at the Moana Hotel in Waikiki, his live broadcasts were transmitted around the world via shortwave. Using tricks like a mic planted on the beach to underscore his show with surf sounds, his show was instrumental in building up the Hawaiian mythos—and attracting planeloads of tourist cash. At the same time, the music perpetuated a lot of negative stereotypes and even mocked the language with made-up words. Still, many Hawaiians themselves celebrate hapa-haole today for helping to preserve their culture and language, especially during its early years when other forces militated against that. It’s a difficult topic. There are no easy answers, and it’s a testimony to the Hawaiians’ grace, humor, and sense of perspective that they make room for this music in their culture. What’s a liberal white guy like me to make of it?
After years of regular appearances on Hawaii Calls, Apaka took a cue from the show’s popularity. For the last five years of his life, he held forth at the Hawaiian Village Hotel’s Tapa Room in Honolulu with a lavish nightly revue of his own. Let’s take a moment to imagine how his backup hula dancers likely interpreted the finer points of “Princess Poo-poo-ly has Plenty Papaya.”
After years of war between rival groups, Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I united the archipelago under his authority, and from 1795 on, the House of Kamehameha ruled peacefully and prosperously. But then the Americans started coming around. Their sugar plantations filled cookies, Cokes, and dentists’ chairs around the world—a win-win for these prospectors and the Hawaiian nation alike. Guests of the monarchy, the Americans were respectful. They fell in love with the islands. They intermarried. It couldn’t last. The sugar barons wanted a seat in the government. The U.S. Navy wanted a spot to harbor their ships. Unfair trade tariffs hobbled national interests. In 1887, King David Kalākaua was forced to all but abdicate his authority to the sugar-white oligarchy. Foreigners on their own soil, the native peoples were stripped of their right to vote. Five years later, the U.S. finished off the monarchy with a bloodless takeover. Per Hemingway, they lost their paradise gradually, and then suddenly.
Written by the great Hawaiian poet Mary Jane Montano, “Old Plantation” is a mele—a chant—memorializing the estate of one of the last American families to remain loyal to the monarchy. A song about better times, it’s a love letter, not only to a past Hawaii, but to a past America as well, in remembrance of our culture as they’d like to remember it, at its best. Apaka sang this mele in his mother tongue. Here’s a translation:
The soft breezes whisper from the woodland
Where the shadows and gay moonbeams play
From afar dream voices call me back again
To scenes of yesterday
Fond mem’ries recall those days so grand
Of my own dear Hawaiian land
Old plantation how I love you
‘Neath your trees I seem to roam
My heart yearns just to return
To my old plantation home
The blossoms are nodding ‘neath the dewdrops
As the birdlings are seeking their nest
Soon in dreams I’ll see my old plantation
Home when all the world’s at rest
Dear homeland I’ll journey back to thee
While the moonbeams are kissing the sea
Old plantation how I love you
‘Neath your trees I seem to roam
My heart yearns just to return
To my old plantation home
“I Wish They Didn’t Mean Goodbye”
Tiring of the ruse, one day my mother finally relieved me of my birther narrative, only for me to replace that misapprehension with more questions, like: Why did they allow me to believe it in the first place? I still feel the sting of realization that my family wasn’t entirely to be trusted with the truth. While I don’t think we ever fully recover from these casual, minor childhood betrayals, it also prepared me to interpret the world independently. It would take a while for that to come to fruition—but I’m getting ahead of myself. For the time being, paradise lost was doubled, but I still had my first favorite record. If this album was meant to cure my homesickness for a home that never was (cf. the Germans’ Sehnsucht), then “I Wish They Didn’t Mean Goodbye,” the final track, reinfected me.
In February 1960, Apaka inked a deal for a nationally-broadcast TV special; unfortunately, just a few days later, his life was cut short by a heart attack. It’s easy to imagine that this song would have been his sign-off for that show:
Oh why must we say goodbye?
I’ve heard that word in every land
‘Ke ora te tura’ the Polynesians say
Farewell, dear friend
We’ll meet another day
From far Japan, ‘sayonara’ they cry
I wish they didn’t mean goodbye
I hear ‘au revoir’ and long for gay Paree
In Rome, ‘arrivederci,’ they fondly say to me
As I sail from fair Hawaii I hear ‘aloha oe’
Oh, I wish they didn’t mean goodbye
Sigmund Freud found meaning in the early stage of childhood—the period in which we can run naked and not feel ashamed—seeing it as a sort of Edenic time in our lives:
“When we look back at this period of childhood it seems to us a Paradise; and Paradise itself is no more than a group phantasy of the childhood of the individual. That is why mankind were naked in paradise and were without shame in one another’s presence; till a moment arrived when shame and anxiety awoke, expulsion followed…. But we can regain this paradise every night in our dreams.”
Eden isn’t something we were ever meant to inhabit forever—but the yearning for it is eternal. Alfred Apaka allows me and other expatriates of paradise to return to a Hawaii of the mind, the isle of our golden dreams.