September-October 2006

A Hawaiian Musical Treasure: Genoa Keawe

By Audrey Coleman

It was a few minutes before six on a tropical December evening in 2001 when Michael and I strolled on to the Moana Terrace of the Marriott Waikiki. We managed to claim one of the few remaining tables clustered near the performance platform. As we ordered our Mai Tai’s, I noticed a white-haired lady dressed in a floor-length pink and white flowered mumu, moving gracefully among the tables, greeting people. Two flower leis bedecked her shoulders and another floral cluster adorned her ha ir on one side, setting off a beaming smile and bright eyes. Michael grinned. “That’s her.”

On business trips to Honolulu, my husband had discovered Auntie Genoa’s Thursday night show. I was about to be initiated to a Waikiki institution.

The musicians were in place now: one man at the upright bass, another seated with a Hawaiian steel guitar on his knees, and a dark-haired woman readying her acoustic guitar. Genoa Keawe joined them and picked up the ukulele from her chair. A strong, sweet soprano poured forth over her rhythmic strum, filling the terrace like a refreshing, fragrant breeze. Some songs she sang in Hawaiian, some in English, some in a combination of the two. At times her voice broke into a kind of yodel effect that intensified the enchantment. During one number she held a high note for what seemed like a minute or more, and then moved up to the next note and held it almost as long, to joyful applause.

In the course of the show, individual women would rise up from their tables and approach the platform to dance hula to Auntie Genoa’s singing. Sometimes Auntie would gently encourage them, “Come on, dear, come right up…” I particularly remember a lithe Japanese woman with short-cropped hair, moving in flowing curves, her chin was upturned to the sunset. Her expression was serene as she danced to a voice that seemed to float up to the sky.

Since that first encounter with the magic of Auntie Genoa, I have had only one other opportunity to attend her legendary show at the Marriott Waikiki. That second time, when she came to our table, I told her how we had scheduled our five day trip around seeing her Thursday night show. She leaned over with a smile and I kissed her on the cheek. I will never forget the softness and sweet fragrance of her cheek. The picture Michael took of us together is a cherished souvenir.

This fall we have an opportunity to see her here in Southern California. On Saturday, October 28, Genoa Keawe, age 87 and in fine vocal form, will headline the Whittier College Aloha Series concert. It’s a show that Auntie – a name of affection Hawaiians bestow on esteemed elders – has taken to the mainland and around the world. “At Carnegie Hall (in 1998) they were doing hula in the aisles,” she told me in a recent phone interview. She remembers Russia fondly: “The children at the high school in Siberia were so enthusiastic!” In Japan, a frequent destination, “people are so happy to be coming up and dancing on the stage.”

As other luminaries of Hawaiian music pass on, Genoa Keawe remains a vibrant representative of a musical tradition that in her youth was considered quite modern. That style of social Hawaiian music is sometimes called chalangalang, a Hawaiian pidgin term that suggests the ukulele strumming that accompanies the voice. The yodel effect -- that break between the lower vocal register or “chest voice” and the upper register or “head voice” is called ha’i, which is Hawaian for “break.” Some call it “female falsetto,” but the term falsetto is usually used to describe the male “head voice” sound.

Born in 1918, the youngest of 12 children, Genoa Keawe grew up in the Honolulu area and in Laie, on Oahu’s north shore. The earliest songs that attracted her were in English. In fact, although her parents spoke Hawaiian, their children were forbidden to speak it in the schools. The songs she loved were light, romantic and often witty compositions that emerged as a form in the early decades of the 20th century, following the 1893 American annexation of Hawaii. Because of this foreign influence, they were termed hapa haole songs, literally “half-foreign.” When I asked Auntie which song she had particularly liked as a girl, the familiar soprano voice launched into a well known hapa haole number, Little Brown Gal:

It's not the islands fair that are calling to me

It's not the balmy air nor the tropical sea

It's a little brown gal in a little grass skirt

In a little grass shack in Hawai`i…

She also remembers being fascinated as a child by recordings of European-American yodeling and wanting to sing that way herself. As a young girl, she prayed constantly to be able to sing with a beautiful voice.

Then there was her passion for hitting high notes, which got her into trouble at a Christmas party talent contest she entered at age seven or eight. Auntie recalled, “They said anybody who wants to come up and sing, just come up and join us. I stood up in front of the audience and I started singing…

Down the chimney white and black comes dear old Santa Claus

Leading with his big moustache…

“Then I’d start the next verse another notch higher, and then another notch higher until I couldn’t sing because it was too high for me. So I had to sit down and I cried right in front of the audience. My sister came in front of me and said, ‘Why are you crying? You’re not supposed to cry!’ and I said, ‘I cannot sing the song. It’s too high for me.’ The audience was laughing at me.”

Luckily for her future audiences, young Genoa recovered from that embarrassing incident, and at age 12 joined the choir of the local Mormon Church. She loved singing the hymns. At the same time she was a devoted fan of radio personality Johnny K. Almeida, a blind singer-composer who broadcast a Hawaiian music show from Honolulu. She taught herself the ukulele as a child even though her brothers would try to hide their instruments from her. To this day she learns all songs and ukulele accompaniment by ear.

Shortly after graduating from eighth grade at 16, she met and married Edward Keawe, who played upright bass. Her bell-like soprano continued to develop along with her growing family of what was be 12 children. When she heard performer Rahab Kekauoha sing, she fell in love with the singer’s soprano vocal ability. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law taught her the Hawaiian language, opening up a new repertoire.

Another important influence was singer Alice Namakelua, a composer of Hawaiian songs.” She had a high voice, an old style soprano,” said Keawe. “She liked my singing and she helped me with the Hawaiian words and phrasing. That’s the only way I learned to sing Hawaiian songs is from Alice and my mother-in-law.”

However, it was composer/performer/broadcaster John K. Almeida who led Genoa to embrace the Hawaiian music she is so well known for today. She had been singing pop material with local bands since in the early 1940s when one day Almeida, who was broadcasting on KULA radio, asked for “anyone who could sing” to come to the station and perform. Genoa Keawe happened to be hanging out with some girlfriends, who dared her to take the radio host up on his offer. She did just that, singing a hapa haole song titled “For You Lei,” which she dedicated to her niece Momi Bee, then celebrating her tenth birthday. (Momi now performs with Auntie Genoa at the Waikiki Marriott every Thursday night and will be with her for the Whittier College show.)

Johnny Almeida was so taken with Genoa’s voice that he asked her back to perform on his show numerous times. “Oh, he was a wonderful entertainer,” she recalled. “He played the banjo, the mandolin. He composed songs.” He influenced her to focus on a Hawaiian language and hapa haole repertoire and helped her polish her musical phrasing.

It was a composition of Johnny Almeida that Genoa Keawe chose for her first recording in 1946. Maile Swing was an immediate hit on the “49th State” label. Maile is a vine with long, shiny fragrant green leaves, often used in the making of leis made for important occasions and hula dancing. Notice the use of English in this Hawaiian-language song, a feature found occasionally in Hawaiian songs even today.


Sweet and lovely     Sweet and lovely

Ke onaona o ka maile         Is the maile’s fragrance

Ho’oipo ke ‘ala       A delightful odor

Sure I ka pili poli… That clings to the bosom…

Genoa Keawe’s career took off. She recorded over 140 singles on the “49th State” label alone, and then moved on to Hula Records. She backed up other singers on many recordings, too. Eventually, in 1966, she started her own record company, Genoa Keawe Records which her son Eric Keawe manages.

She formed groups -- Genoa Keawe and her Hula Maids, Genoa Keawe and Her Hawaiians, and Genoa Keawe and Her Polynesians. They delighted audiences in Honolulu at venues such as Club Polynesia, the Aloha Grill, the Waikiki Sands, Fort DeRussy Officers Club, the Ala Moana Hotel Poolside, and the Hawaiian Regent, now known as the Marriott Waikiki Resort and Spa –to name a few!


’s son Eric shared memories of a tour that took Auntie Genoa and Her Hawaiians to Southern California over 30 years ago. In 1967 they did a one-month stint at Hop Lui's "Latitude 20" Night Club in Torrance, California. Eric was 11 years old. “It was a buzzing place with a lot of locals coming and going. Performances were full almost every night from Tuesday to Saturday. It was fun. On our off days we'd go to the horse races or down to Tijuana, Mexico.”

Aside from listening to Auntie Genoa’s lovely voice, audiences enjoyed the solo spots she gave her musicians, who included her husband Edward Keawe on bass, Auntie Pua Rogers on guitar, Uncle Benny Rogers on steel guitar, and Lena Motta on ukulele. Eric recalled the comic performer of the group, Auntie Naughty Abbie. “She always stole the show with her hilarious Princess Pupule song. She did other songs like The Cock-eyed Mayor of Kaunakakai and Coconut Willie.”

One of the hula dancers featured in that show 30 years ago will be performing in the October 28 show at Whittier College, Auntie Mapuana Yasu. Another old-time hula dancer, Auntie Florence “Flo” Koanui will join her.

“I like to sing songs that you can dance hula to,” Auntie Genoa shared. (That would be the modern auana hula accompanied by ukulele or guitar, not the ancient kahikoauana and helped nurture renewed appreciation of Hawaiian culture by opening a studio in Honolulu. It housed a local halau (hula school), and offered Hawaiian language as well as ukulele classes, the latter taught by Auntie herself. She closed about 25 years ago, but the halau continues to thrive at a different location. style.) Auntie herself danced hula

Ethnomusicologist Amy K. Stillman says of Genoa Keawe’s importance to Hawaiian music: “In addition to her unrivalled falsetto technique, bell-like yodeling, and her trademark ability to hold high notes for over two minutes, Genoa Keawe is particularly significant for her focus on presenting repertoire for the modern hula.”

In the year 2000, Genoa Keawe received the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts, the National Heritage Fellowship, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington D.C. She has received the Na Hoku Hanohano award (the Hawaiian recording industry’s equivalent of the “Grammy”) twice, as a lifetime achievement award and as female vocalist of the year. She holds an Honorary Doctorate Degree of Humane Letters (2005) from the University of Hawaii Board of Trustees at the Windward Community College Hawai’i Music Institute, and in 2001 took her honored place in the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.

She has also influenced singers from the younger generation. Amy Hanaiali’i Giliom and Raiatea Helm have embraced the ha’i style that Keawe perfected, performing with the legendary singer on several occasions. Her grand-daughter Pomaika’I Lyman has also developed her style of singing and is currently working on a CD project.

Speaking of generations, here’s another accomplishment: Genoa Keawe has 12 children, 38 grandchildren, over 50 great-grandchildren, and over 25 great-great-great grandchildren!

Family will play a major role at the October 28 performance in Whittier. Auntie Genoa’s musicians will be Gary Aiko, her eldest son with his deep baritone on the bass, Eric Keawe, her “number 11” son, on guitar, Pomaika’I Lyman, her grand-daughter (and Eric’s daughter) on ukulele, and Momi Kahawaiolaa, Auntie Genoa’s niece, on guitar. Alan Akaka will play the steel guitar.

Many of Auntie Genoa’s most popular songs are available on CDs. Three of my favorites are Genoa Keawe by Request (Genoa Keawe Records, 1998), Auntie Genoa Keawe: Aloha to Aloha Grill (Genoa Keawe Records, 1979), and Genoa Keawe and Her Hawaiians (U’ilani Productions, 1996). The latter two were recorded live. I also recommend Lovely Hula Hands (Cord International/Hana Ola Records), a marvelous compilation that includes Genoa Keawe along with Johnny Almeida, Naughty Abbie, and other great Hawaiian musicians from years past.

Of course, nothing can replace seeing and hearing Auntie Genoa in performance. On October 28, we are likely to hear her signature song, “Alika,” which describes a ship sailing the Arctic (of all things!). It’s the one in which she holds a high note for something like a minute, then moves up a note and holds it even longer.

 Can she still hold notes that long? Will people from the audience rise up and dance hula in the aisles? Her son Eric has no predictions. “There may always be surprises for all of us. Auntie Genoa’s shows are very luau style, which means anything can happen.”

The box office number for the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College is 562-907-4203 . Find more information on the Center’s Aloha Series on-line at .

Audrey Coleman is a writer, adult educator, hula student, and passionate explorer of world music and culture.