Hawaii's Man of Steel

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Red Devils, a Manhattan quintet, tear into Dinah-tear it up, rather, and toss it like confetti over the giddy audience. Music historian Robert Armstrong defines the band's sound as a "unique blend of jazz, pop and hokum," and a few seconds into Dinah, the listener surrenders to the mélange. The plucky violinist takes a solo, then a guy going infectiously nuts on tissue paper and comb. Finally it's steel guitarist King Bennie Nawahi's turn. He attacks the melody while caressing his instrument; his solo, like the best improvs, seems both wild and thoughtful. The full band convenes for a last mad-dash chorus, racing to Bennie's steel pulse. Who can hear this music, this musician, without feeling awe and joy?

The year of this recording by the Red Devils, a studio band that cut only a few sides, was 1931. America had started to realize that its economic Depression was more than a fad, like flagpole sitting; it was a way of life. Yet pop music remained a larkish enterprise. Financial devastation may have swatted America, but from the evidence on records and film sound tracks, people kept on humming and strumming.

Few artists expressed the verve and virtuosity of classic-era pop as smartly as Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi. The Honolulu native taught himself the acoustic slack-key guitar (resting on the lap, it is played with one hand manipulating the strings and the other moving a steel bar). He then adapted the Hawaiian style to almost every form of music percolating through vaudeville, speakeasies and country halls. He was as comfortable playing Broadway songs, New Orleans jazz and country laments as he was his native tunes. And with versatility went a distinctive instrumental voice, one that smiles at the extra few notes he tosses into a melodic line, at the weird mix of sliding tones and pizzicato panache.

Nearly as astonishing as Nawahi's achievement is his obscurity. He is not to be found among the 3,300 musicians listed in the Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. A thrilling new 23-tune set, Hawaiian String Virtuoso (on the Yazoo label), gives ample aural proof that King Bennie deserved his royal honorific as much as jazz gents named Duke and Count. One listens to the set, culled by Armstrong and Sherwin Dunner from rare originals, and the '30s guitarist in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown comes to mind-the one who was right up there with Django Reinhardt. And one thinks he should have been a Hawaiian.

Nawahi was born in 1899, one of 12 children. As a teenager he played for pennies in the parks of Honolulu, often teaming with Sol Hoopii, who was later Bennie's chief rival as a steel guitar star. By his early 20s, and now adept in guitar, mandolin, ukulele and one-string cigar-box fiddle, Nawahi was ready for the mainland-and vaudeville.

His timing was perfect. The uke, inexpensive and easy to learn, had become the prime accessory for jazz agers. Hits like Ukulele Lady, Hula Lou and My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua made the Hawaiian sound, in its perky pop mutation, the hottest "world music" of its time. Nawahi, a showman as much as an artist, aimed to please. He could run through Kitten on the Keys at warp speed, or play Turkey in the Straw on the steel guitar using his foot as the steel bar.

This may make Nawahi seem a musical stunt man, but the Yazoo CD reveals him as a gifted instrumentalist having serious fun. He could be the star (on the briskly wailing Ticklin' the Strings, the jaunty May Day Is Lei Day in Hawaii) or the sideman, accompanying New Orleans stride pianist Fats Pichon (Wiggle Yo Toes) and hillbilly Slim Smith (Otto Wood, the Bandit, with Bennie playing mandolin, harmonica and two guitars). He worked in many pop dialects and in dozens of bands-for a while, with the young Roy Rogers-but there was one constant: inventive exhilaration. Even Nawahi's blues numbers are fizzy; they borrow the 12-bar form but don't dwell in the trouble-I've-seen mood.

In 1935 Nawahi's optimism was tested. While driving one night, he suddenly went blind. He never regained his sight. Still, he kept playing in nightclubs and restaurants for 40 more years. And in 1946 he achieved a feat no blind person has ever matched: he swam the 42 km from Catalina Island to the California coast. For 22 hours Nawahi was led through the turbulent waters by a bell ringing in a small boat ahead of him. As always, music was his guide and inspiration.

If Nawahi has a legacy, it is not the glissandoing guitars that greet tourists on the Big Island and moo in the background of Don Ho oldies. It is three generations of guitar rule breakers and trend shapers in pop, country and rock: Les Paul, Link Wray, Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck. But Nawahi needn't be seen as a primitive progenitor. His music speaks-sings-to anyone in need of instantly raised spirits. The pill you take to feel peppier is a Bennie.