Aloha ‘Oe to Two Hawaiian Treasures

By Audrey Coleman

Two beacons of traditional Hawaiian culture have passed away in recent months, leaving vivid memories for the audiences they entertained and rich legacies for the students they inspired. Nona Beamer (August 15, 1923 - April 10, 2008) was a noted chanter, composer, singer, and teacher of hula, who established "Hawaiiana" as an area for scholarship and education in Hawaii. Genoa Keawe (October 31, 1918 - February 25, 2008) set the standard for female Hawaiian falsetto singers through today with her uniquely sweet soprano and heartfelt interpretations. Both remained active in their kupuna (elder) days when I was privileged to see them perform.

Nona Beamer appeared at the Japan America Theater several years ago along with her son, well-established slack key virtuoso and composer Keola Beamer and other members of their extended family. In her eighties, she could project her melodious voice as the narrator of a Hawaiian folk tale while her son played guitar and her daughter-in-law danced hula. She would improvise and joke, on occasion even hiking up her dress to the knees to demonstrate a hula step. This would prompt a deep mock-grown from Keola followed by the comment (which I heard in other performances) "Here comes another year of therapy!"

The last time I saw her was at the world conference on hula, Ka'aha Hula, held at Maui Community College in 2004. In addition to performing with Keola and the family, she participated in a panel for the Hula Preservation Society, which she helped found. What stands out for me is the deep concern she expressed at a lack of precision and thoughtfulness she often observed in hula dancers. She gave the example of a dancer using hand movements to convey holding a baby and then moving on to different hand movement. "What happened to that baby?" she asked, almost accusingly.

Hula was Auntie Nona's baby from a young age. By age 11, she was teaching hula in her mother's hula studio and had absorbed the art of her grandmother, Helen Kapuailohia Desha Beamer, an accomplished dancer and prolific composer. Attending the Kamehameha School reserved for children of Hawaiian ancestry, she broke down barriers that the missionaries had imposed there-the prohibition of hula and Hawaiian language. In fact, as a child she was expelled twice for speaking openly in Hawaiian. But by 1949, with degrees from Barnard College and the University of Hawaii, she was back at Kamehameha School as a teacher, reintroducing standing hula for women and many other aspects of traditional Hawaiian culture. To hear her melodious voice telling stories from her family's ancestral home on the Big Island accompanied by Keola Beamer's guitar, listen to The Golden Lehua Tree: Stories and Music from the Heart of Hawaii's Beamer Family (Starscape Music, Lahaina HI 1996).

Genoa Keawe, known to her fans as Aunty Genoa, had been performing in her weekly show at the Marriott Waikiki's Moana Terrace for over 10 years when I first heard her or rather, visited her in 2001. Before the 6:00 p.m. show, wafting around from table to table in her floor-length flowered mumu, she would greet old friends and fans alike with a sparkling smile and words of welcome. When the show began, she would pick up her ukulele and serenade the audience with her strong, sweet ha'i, the Hawaiian term for the falsetto or head voice, always proving that she could hold a high note for over a minute-until applause virtually drown her out. Genoa Leilani Adolpho Keawe-Aiko spent most of her childhood in La'ie on the North Shore of O'ahu and received her early musical training in the choir of the local Mormon church. She dreamed of a singing career from the age of 12, but sometimes had to support herself driving a taxi or selling leis while she sought singing gigs. Performing pop material with local bands, she attracted the attention of radio personality and composer Johnny Almeida, who influenced her to focus on the Hawaiian language and hapa haole (Hawaiian English language) repertoire which subsequently made her famous.  At age 88, she brought her band and extended family to Whittier College, performing an Aloha Series concert with the sparkle and vigor of a performer half her age.

Aunty Genoa inspired a new generation of female falsetto singers, among them Raiatea Helm and Amy Hanaiali'i Giliom. Helm will be featured among other male and female singers at the First Annual Aloha Falsetto Festival on July 13, 2008 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Festival organizer Mitchell Chang is dedicating the event to the memory of Aunty Genoa. Tickets and more information on the program lineup are available at www.AlhoaFalsettoFest.com. In the meantime, enjoy the sounds of leo ki'eki'i (falsetto singing) found on the many CDs of Genoa Keawe. There is one I treasure particularly: The first time I saw her perform, she was selling CDs between sets. When I asked her which one from over a dozen I should select for my first Aunty Genoa CD, she handed me Genoa Keawe: By Request (Genoa Keawe, 1998). Beside the picture of a raven-haired, smiling songstress strumming her ukulele are the handwritten words, "Aloha No" Audrey, Genoa Keawe.


Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of world music and culture.