Hawaiian Music in Australia
By Graham McDonald
In 1924 Hawaiian musician and entrepreneur Ernest Ka’ai toured a show called A Night in Honolulu through EJ Carroll’s chain of theatres around Australia. This was Australian audiences’ first exposure to Hawaiian music, actually performed by Hawaiians, and the show was a hit.
Ka’ai toured another show in 1926 and several of the performers made the first recordings of Hawaiian music in Australia over the next few years as part of the newly emerging Australian record industry. These included the duo of Queenie and David Kaili whose Sydney recordings between 1927 and 1932 were included in the Sounds of Australia in 2012.
The popular style of Hawaiian music was a blend of traditional or recently written songs from Hawaii and songs from commercial songwriters composing somewhat in the style of the original music but with English lyrics which became known as ‘hapa-haole’ or half-white. The music was distinctive in its use of the ukulele and the steel guitar as accompaniment and learning to play these instruments quickly became a common social activity.
The popularity of Hawaiian music in Australia almost exactly parallels the period of the 78rpm disc in Australia, or at least its manufacture. Within a few months of the opening of the first pressing plant in Sydney in 1926, the first Hawaiian recordings were being made there. By the time of the first 7” 45rpm single being pressed in 1955, Hawaiian music was a faded lei drifting away on the outgoing tide.
Over that 30-year period there really wasn’t a great deal of Hawaiian music recorded in Australia: only about 200 songs recorded and less than 100 discs issued. There were also a very limited number of people involved. David and Queenie Kaili released 23 discs from 1927 to 1931 for Parlophone, almost a quarter of the total, as well as producing their own live shows around the country.
Also working on the variety circuit at the time of Ernest Ka’ai’s second show in 1926 was a young entertainer named Charles Wade, who learnt the basics of Hawaiian music and ukulele playing from the Kailis. Within a decade he had changed his name to Johnny and was Australia’s best known performer of Hawaiian material. He appears on around half the Hawaiian records recorded and released in Australia.
The early 1930s saw the formation of The Hawaiian Club in Sydney. The Club sold musical instruments, provided lessons for them and acted as a social organisation. Within a few years it had grown into a bigger business and spread interstate, both to capital cities and regional centres, offering lessons and social activities. The Club had its own radio program, teaching studios in the suburbs and house bands making recordings for Regal Zonophone. Various Hawaiian Club groups in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide recorded between 1937 and 1940, though there was a small core of musicians who keep appearing on the recordings.
Vocalists were almost always Johnny Wade or the duo of Norm and Arthur Scott, otherwise known as the Singing Stockmen. Les Adams was the main steel guitar player and the three Kahn brothers – Jango, Ernie and Neville – played steel or Spanish guitar. Little is known about the Kahn brothers except that Jango taught and performed regularly in Adelaide and Neville worked often with Johnny Wade in the postwar years.
This 1937 recording has vocals from Norm and Arthur Scott, Les Adams on steel guitar, Johnny Wade and Neville Kahn on guitar, and Ernie Kahn on bass.
When It’s Night-time in Nevada – The Singing Stockmen with The Hawaiian Club, Regal Zonophone G-23524 (1937), NFSA Title 190464
From a couple of years later, another Hawaiian Club recording this time with: Eric Kahn, bass; Norm Scott, ukulele; Neville Kahn, steel guitar; Johnny Wade, Spanish guitar and vocals. There is a more sophisticated recording technique, especially on the steel guitar.
Aloha Oe – Hawaiian Club Quartet, Regal Zonophone G-23807 (1939), NFSA Title 312218
One of the fascinating things about this music is that the Hawaiian Club performers didn’t feel any obligation to perform exclusively Hawaiian-themed material. Certainly they recorded songs like 'Rose of Waikiki’, 'Sweet Hawaiian Chimes’ and 'Aloha Oe’, but also, as we have just heard, songs about mountains or deserts such 'When It’s Night-time in Nevada’, 'There’s a Home in Wyoming’ and 'Colorado Sunset’. So we have to ask what makes this 'Hawaiian music’ Hawaiian? Certainly for these Australian musicians, there is no direct cultural attachment, other than touring appearances by performers such as the Kailis, so it comes down to not much more than the choice of material, use of the steel guitar and a ukulele in the rhythm section.
Summer Sweetheart – Adelaide Hawaiian Club Quintet, Macquarie 656 (1940), NFSA Title 314405
Sometimes an interest in Hawaiian music was as much opportunistic as anything else. During the 1930s, these were professional musicians trying to make a living in hard economic times. A band leader named Bert Mars, who had been around since the early ’30s broadcasting with a band called The Canadians, recorded four sides in 1938 with his Rocky Mountain Boys and then again the following year with the South Seas Romancers. He also turns up playing guitar in photos of bands with Wade and the Kahn brothers.
The outbreak of war in 1939 marked the effective end of the Hawaiian Clubs as businesses. Johnny Wade spent the war years singing more mainstream popular music with bands such as the Trocadero Dance band and George Trevare’s Orchestra but started recording with His Hawaiians in 1946, with Neville Kahn on steel guitar.
What is also noticeably absent in the recordings from the 1930s is any sense of Australianness in the songs themselves. There had been spurts of nationalistic songwriting in the 1920s using Australian place names, but there was no sense that local Hawaiian performers needed to do anything other than perform material from the vast hapa-haole repertoire coming out of the US. Hints of other Pacific islands did creep in with songs such as 'Fijian Farewell’ and 'I’d Like to See Samoa of Samoa’ but no Australian references appear until the late 1940s with the development of the tourism industry in Queensland.
Don’t Sing Aloha When I Go – Johnny Wade and His Hawaiians, Regal Zonophone G-25059 (1946), NFSA Title 190797
Over the next few years hints that the performers of Hawaiian music were actually in Australia crept in occasionally. In 1947 Keith Branch and his South Sea Islanders recorded 'Where the Blue Gums Turn Red in the Sunset’, but it sounds as much country as Hawaiian and is notable for an unusual, staccato style of steel guitar playing.
Where the Blue Gums Turn Red in the Sunset – Keith Branch and His South Sea Islanders, Regal Zonophone G-25131 (1947), NFSA Title 686741
A more sophisticated postwar tourism industry was developing. Flying boats would bring the holiday makers and both the airlines and the resorts were eager to promote resorts in Northern Queensland.
Wade and his band recorded 'Magnetic Island’ in 1950 and the same year The Royal Hayman Hotel on Hayman Island produced a double-sided 12” 78 with John O’Connor and George Watson’s Hawaiians performing 'Pack Up a Dream and Head for Hayman Island’ on one side and Max Blake and the 3DB Orchestra on the other singing 'I Lost my Heart on Hayman Island’.
Magnetic Island – Johnny Wade and His Hawaiians, Columbia DO-3342 (1950), NFSA Title 308280
Pack Up a Dream and Head for Hayman Island – John O’Connor and George Watson’s Hawaiians, Royal Hayman Hotel (1950), NFSA Title 307353
There were few female singers who recorded Hawaiian music in this period. Bernice Lynch was the daughter of one of the Hawaiian Club founders in the early ’30s. She recorded a mix of Hawaiian and country songs for Sydney-based Fidelity Records in the early ’50s including this one by well known Australian songwriter Reg Stoneham.
Memories of a Lovely Lei – Bernice Lynch and the South Sea Islanders, Fidelity FY 1058 (c1953), NFSA Title 306693
Bob Farrington is another band leader of the 1950s who has disappeared from view. The NFSA collection includes three 78s his trio recorded for Prestophone, a Melbourne independent label in the ’50s.
My Hawaiian Maiden – Bob Farrington’s Hawaiian Trio, Prestophone A56-25 (1956), NFSA Title 305686
The great song of the whole Australian Hawaiian genre has to be 'I Lost my Heart on Hayman Island’. It was written by prolific songwriter John Ashe and has been recorded at least five times. While the original 1950 recording for the Royal Hayman Hotel has its charms, Johnny Wade’s 1955 Columbia recording has that little something extra.
I Lost my Heart on Hayman Island – Johnny Wade and His Hawaiians, Columbia DO-3852 (1955), NFSA Title 309289
Coyle, Jackey & Rebecca, Aloha Australia in Perfect Beat, 1995.
Australian Record and Music Review, a journal of discographic research published for almost 20 years until 2007.