Some of the biggest names in 21st century Hawaiian music have banded together on the 2020 CD release of Aloha: Radio Hawaii. Subtitled A Musical Journey To The Golden Age Of Hawaiian Song, the 13-track, 40-minute album features a range of musicians and some of the best guitarists around, including Ken Emerson (Hawaiian steel guitar, ukulele), Jim Kimo West (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, ukulele) and Dean Parks (electric guitar, Hawaiian steel guitar), while also featuring a wide range of supporting musicians. A lot of the album features instrumental selections with the musicians recreating classic Hawaiian favorites from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century although, vocalist Tavita Te’o does appear along with some other truly vintage sounding singers appearing as if by magic singing in native Hawaiian. Kimo explains, “Yes, the label is in China, they do very good work! Everything was recorded this past winter including the vocals. We recorded at the legendary A&M / Henson studios in Hollywood the old way - just sitting in a circle with no headphones, using vintage mics. It was mixed in 32-bit 96k Dolby Atmos in addition to regular stereo.” Recorded in L.A., the album was superbly produced by Rhymoi Records head Yunchuan Ye and the CD packaging is brilliantly designed while the studio sound, crafted by engineer Dave Way, is also noteworthy. The timeless tones of traditional Hawaiian music live on thanks to the fascinating sound of Aloha: Radio Hawaii.
mwe3: Dave, you did a great job on the Aloha Radio Hawaii album. How did you meet up with Yunchuan Ye and Rhymoi Records and become involved with Aloha Radio Hawaii album and set about recording the tracks? You mentioned you wanted to record in Hawaii but it was recorded in Los Angeles right? I’ve been a huge fan of Hawaiian music since the late 1980s but even I wasn’t prepared for this much greatness. Do you think there might be a second album?
Dave Way: Oh thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Mr. Ye and I met when I was asked to mix an album for him that a friend of mine named Ross Garren was producing. Mr. Ye came to my studio and we talked afterwards about doing another project together and the idea of something with a Hawaiian theme came up. So, after he left I thought about it some more and presented him an idea for a bit of a historical overview of Hawaiian music. But it quickly became apparent that our budget was just not going to allow for such a broad range of styles with a bunch of different musicians and singers. So, I suggested maybe we focus on just one era, which just happened to be my favorite era of Hawaiian music and that’s the jazz influenced Hapa Haole music of the 1930s ‘40s and ‘50s. Mr. Ye was adamant that whatever we did that it be authentic and beautiful. And I strived to do just that at every point in the process.
mwe3: You are credited as both sound engineer and music director of Aloha Radio Hawaii. What was involved in performing each of these roles? Also, how did you assemble such a fantastic group of musicians to interpret these vintage Hawaiian songs? You knew Jim Kimo West, who recommended Ken Emerson and then you brought in Dean Parks and the other musicians? First, I thought the recordings were recorded in the 1930s, and you had overdubbed! lol But it’s to your credit that they’re all new tracks.
Dave Way: Well the term music director is really more of a live production term. In the recording world, we would use the term “producer”. And Mr. Ye and I agreed to share the production credit though on the CD it does say music director. I’ve been doing the engineering and mixing side of things for so long that I really don’t have to think about it too much and so that leaves me more room to concentrate on the production aspects of the recording - song choices, arrangement, performances, making the musicians feel comfortable and getting the best from them. Since our budget was not huge, time was of the essence and we needed to record all the music in two days. So, having a group of top musicians was the only way to do it. And I was fortunate to get some of the absolute best. When I first knew that I was going to do this project, my first call was to Jim “Kimo” West because I know he knows this music so much better than I do and that he would be a great help in keeping it authentic.
At first we were going to record in Honolulu, but once we got into the budgeting of everything, we realized that it was just too complicated and expensive as compared to doing it in Los Angeles where, not only do we have such amazing musicians who are well-versed in this music, particularly the jazz element of this music, but we also have some of the greatest recording studios in the world with amazing microphones and acoustics. So, if the priority was to make the best album possible, the clear choice was to do it in Los Angeles. I knew I wanted Kimo to play on the album and he recommended his good friend Ken Emerson who is an expert in this style of Hawaiian guitar which is not something many people can do well.
The rest of the band are all good friends of mine and top studio musicians, who I knew would bring soul and beauty to this music. Dean Parks is one of the most famous studio musicians in history and anytime you can get him on your session, you want to do it. I knew Dean is a big fan of this style of playing and would be a key person to have on board. Plus, he plays clarinet and saxophone. David Jackson and James Cruce are also great friends and musicians. Nick Mancini and Aubrey Richmond as well. The only key factor left was to find vocalists. When we were looking at recording in Hawaii, Kimo had recommended an engineer friend of his to help me out named Dave Tucciarone, who knows all the great Hawaiian musicians on the islands. I sent Dave a couple of tunes that I was thinking of including on the album, one of which was “Aloha Oe”. I found an a cappella version on Spotify that I thought was just beautiful and was thinking of starting the album with something like it. I sent Dave the Spotify link which was from someone named Tavita T’eo. Dave wrote back saying “Oh I know Tavita, I’ve actually worked with him. And he actually lives in Los Angeles for a good part of the year.” I couldn’t believe it. It was a sign. He put me in touch with Tavita and once he came on board I knew we had the makings for something really special and that doing it in Los Angeles was absolutely the right way to go.
mwe3: When did you become an expert in Hawaiian music and what is your favorite style of Hawaiian music?
Dave Way: My knowledge of Hawaiian music is cursory at best. Though I’ve learned a lot while making this album. I’ve always loved those sounds and relaxed feelings, particularly when I’m in Hawaii. But this style has always been a favorite of mine as I’m a big lover of jazz. It’s just one side and one era of the broader scope of Hawaiian music, which has always been a direct reflection of its beautiful environment and people.
mwe3: Tell us about recording in the different studios in Los Angeles. You mentioned the Dolby Atmos sound and why you thought the album would sound better with that kind of mix? Do you think the Dolby Atmos mix can be applied to other recordings in the future and can you cite another example of producers / engineers using that type of sound?
Dave Way: So, we recorded all the basic tracks at Henson studios in Los Angeles. Henson is one of the great recording studios in the world and I always love working there. I knew we wanted to record as much together, live in the studio, as possible and that the sound of the room would be a big part of the recording. This is an authentic approach to how the music of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s were recorded. It’s also my favorite way to record. We did a few overdubs - mainly Dean’s clarinets and sax parts. Then we overdubbed Tavita’s vocals at my studio, Waystation, as well as Aubrey’s couple of fiddle parts. I then mixed the stereo version at Waystation.
I’ve been interested in Dolby Atmos for a couple of years now and, knowing how we were going to record this mostly live, I really thought it would lend itself well to an Atmos recording and mix. So, I set up lots of room mics and made good use of them for both the stereo mix and the Atmos mix but the Atmos mix is where I think it really opens up and feels like you’re actually in the room with the players. I did the Atmos mix with my friend Steve Genewick, who has done many, many Atmos mixes and he was a big help in making sure I didn’t mess it up. I’ve since upgraded my studio for Atmos mixing and I’m really excited about doing lots more in the coming years. I’m a big believer in the format and I hope I can help convince people to check it out.
mwe3: It would be great if Aloha Radio Hawaii could reach many more ears. How can you spread the news about this great album even in these troubled times of the virus and other looming issues? Are you hopeful about the future of music and what other music projects / plans are you looking forward to in 2021?
Dave Way: The music scene today has been hit very hard by Co-vid. Musicians are having a particularly hard time because they’re not able to play to audiences which, for most of them, it’s solely what they do. Venues obviously are taking a big hit too, but it really affects the whole ecosystem. But thankfully, with some changes, we’re still able to record. I’ve actually been busy as ever and the one thing I’ve learned in these last six or seven months is that creative people just will not stop being creative. They have to do it. So. I know we will always have music and I hope I’ll continue to be able to help bring that music to ears around the world.
An interview with Ken Emerson, Dean Parks & Jim “Kimo” West
mwe3: Can you tell us how you joined forces with Rhymoi Records and all the musicians on the Aloha: Radio Hawaii album? The producer Yunchuan Ye seems like a true devotee of Hawaiian music. What were some of the discussions about who played what on the album?
Ken Emerson: Mr. Ye is really into traditional music. I could tell he has a great grasp of classic Hawaiian musical styles. The songs picked for this album really covered a lot of musical territory, and for the limited time allowed, we came in with a well-rounded view of Hawaiian musical history.
Dean Parks: Dave Way called me and asked me if I would play pedal steel and various guitars and sax, on a traditional Hawaiian music project, recorded in the Dolby Atmos format. I said, “yes”!
Jim Kimo West: Engineer and producer Dave Way has been a friend for a number of years as he worked on the last few “Weird Al” Yankovic records. I was on the “Strings Attached” tour with Al last year, working with an orchestra every night. Dave called when we were in Toronto and told me about the project. Since it was going to be a tribute to the “Golden Age” of Hawaiian music, I told him that we really need to have Ken Emerson on board as he’s an expert in the music of that period and the world’s best lap steel player for that style. Dave Way rounded out the crew with some other excellent players like studio legend Dean Parks and bassist, David Jackson as well as vocalist Tavita Te?o.
mwe3: Aloha Radio Hawaii has a traditional yet modern take on that classic Hawaiian sound. Did you want to bring that classic Hawaiian music sound up to date on this new album and also to make this album as authentic as possible?
Ken Emerson: I think we sort of just fell into a groove right away. It was a real natural feel in the music, the chemistry was right there with the players. I had only performed with Jim “Kimo” West out of the bunch, but by the second or third tune on the run downs, I already felt like we were a band that had played together for a while. That made it comfortable. The songs tend to lend themselves into a vintage groove as some of them were composed in the 1920's and ‘30s. Since we played them live with no overdubs, that also helped make the songs flow well and capture the essence of the eras. Certain takes can have real personalities and some of these tunes were surprising on the playbacks. We knew we had gotten on to something special.
Dean Parks: I tried to make it as original sounding as possible, not to update it in any way, although the recording and performing techniques were extremely current. The original recordings were done by musicians and artists who had played the pieces for quite some time, as I understand it. We, on the other hand, came together and did a large amount of music in a very short time, with no previous rehearsal. Modern recording made that possible. A key element was David Jackson’s excellent music prep team. Charts were accurate, and allowed us to immediately dive into the feel and the sound, since the written music was so complete. And, in the saxophone trio and solo clarinet parts I did, these layering techniques were impossible in those earlier days of recording. Dave Way’s mastery of the recording process and the Atmos format, made these techniques “invisible” to the listener… It is impossible to discern which element were overdubbed, and which were done with our large tracking group. And, knowing that much of the original recordings were done with very few microphones, maybe only one, he maintained that sound. However, now we have it in Stereo and in Dolby Atmos, an impossibility before now. This was part of the fun of the project: an authentic rendering, but with sonic luxury of immersion.
Jim Kimo West: Yes, it was really about playing the music as authentically as possible, but the recording process was definitely updated! We used many vintage instruments and played live in the studio, using no headphones - the old way! But the whole thing was recorded in Dolby Atmos surround sound.
mwe3: Do you feel Aloha: Radio Hawaii is a kind of modern-day Exotica music, kind of in the spirit of or with the same appeal of the Martin Denny or Les Baxter sound? Who are your favorite Hawaiian guitarists and guitar styles and how did that authentic approch affect the choice of music that was played and covered on the album?
Dean Parks: The album, I believe, is honoring the traditional Hawaiian recordings, while Martin Denny etc, were trying to use the elements of Polynesian musics to create a commercial product during the birth of High-Fidelity recording. My first instrument, at age 5, was a Hawaiian steel guitar, and I had learned some Hawaiian songs then. Later, after I had been established as a session guitarist, I became interested in Jerry Byrd and Joaquin Murphy, and Sol Hoopi.
Ken Emerson: Some of that exotica vibe is there, the vibraphone and steel guitar are very complimentary instruments and capture that feeling. For myself, it was an opportunity to feature the steel guitar stylings of some of my heroes - like Sol Ho'opi'i, M.K. Moke, Jules Ah See, Dick McIntire, Jerry Byrd… Many of the songs picked were steel guitar oriented and lended a hand in keeping it authentic.
Jim Kimo West: Well “exotica” was not really a thing until much later with folks like Martin Denny so the sound is pretty true to the earlier era. I’m more of a slack key player but, we did not use that on this record as slack key wasn’t really popularized until the 1070’s, even though it’s been around since the mid-1800?s. Dave came up with the playlist and he did a great job picking some real classics!
mwe3: Tell us about working with all the fine players on the album. The singer Tavita Te’o sounds excellent too. You guys have a great chemistry! Also tell us about working with Dave Way, the sound engineer. I was amazed by the sound. It’s like vintage but better sounding. How did Dolby Atmos influence the sound?
Ken Emerson: Tavita is wonderful, finding a singer of that caliber is not easy to find on the mainland, he was another solid choice for his part. Dave Way was so easy to work with. He lets musicians do what they need to do with no pressure at all. That makes the sessions go smoothly and in the long run, saves time for everybody. He is very organized and has a feel for the creative part of music that has to happen to achieve a quality product and sound. A true professional in every way, and, he's just a great guy to be around.
Dean Parks: During my later Hawaiian steel guitar learning, I had met Ken Emerson, and I learned a lot from him. A couple of years ago, James Kimo West’s album appeared on my Grammy list - I am a voting NARAS member. I loved his record, voted for it, and he won the category. So when Dave Way told me that both Kenny and Kimo were involved, I was thrilled. I knew the music would be great, but also that I would learn a lot! I was also confident that Hawaii’s music would be in good hands with them… and I was correct!
Jim Kimo West: We were all having a lot of fun with this project and all the players were really terrific. We had some charts made up but we’d often deviate from them and work things out in the studio. The whole thing was tracked in two days! There were a few unusual microphones set up for the surround sound but we pretty much ignored the technology and just played music!
mwe3: Do you have a favorite Hawaiian island and when was the last time you were there? Favorite memory of Hawaii?
Ken Emerson: I grew up on O'ahu, and lived for many years on the island of Kauai. Those two islands hold many fine memories. In the last few years I have been spending more time on Maui and the big island of Hawaii. I have family on Maui and on The Big Island. I am planning to build a studio there.
Dean Parks: I have been to Kauai maybe 10 times, and Maui maybe 6 times. I like them both, but Kauai has been my favorite since I first visited. I was married on Kauai at a friend’s house, and my wife had lived there for 10 years before I met her.
Jim Kimo West: Well Maui is close to my heart as I used to live there but lately, I’ve been spending more time on Kaua’i. My early days out in Hana, Maui were pretty unforgettable and that’s also where I first heard slack key.
mwe3: You’ve played on so many classic albums through the years. In addition to the Aloha Radio Hawaii what are your current projects and albums as well as musical plans for 2020 and beyond. I hope this crazy pandemic finds a way to subside and things go back to normal soon.
Ken Emerson: I have quite a few projects I am working on. I will soon be releasing a single I did with Todd Rundgren, for a Reggae project, along with other musicians like Peter Rowan. I have a 4-track recording with the late Rick Hanapi, one of Hawaii's finest singers recorded on Kauai in 1983. I have some original ragtime, blues, Hawaiian and jazz guitar recordings that I am transferring from audio tape that I recorded in the mid 1970's. And with the Co-vid suppression, I have time to go through the archives with many hours of recordings, some of which will be released through 2020-‘21.
Dean Parks: I have continued to work as a session musician, even during the current quarantining time, in limited ways, including working in my home studio. I’ve had studio gear in my home since I was 14. I enjoying inventing music still, and hope to continue!