Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sunday Music: Sol Hoopii

Sol Hoopii points at a ukulele ("jumping flea" in Hawaiian)

When my father was a child in rural Ohio, some time between 1915 and 1925, he saw a group of Hawaiian musicians perform. I always found that extraordinary, although I had no reason to disbelieve him. As it turns out, native Hawaiian Joseph Kekuku, widely believed to be the inventor of the steel guitar, had been touring the U.S. since 1904. And, he wasn't the only Hawaiian musician or musical style capturing imaginations here in the states. The ukulele, an adaption of a small Portuguese instrument, became all the rage in vaudeville as well as in middle-class parlors. Hawaiian steel lap guitar, ukulele and "slack-key" guitar (tuning the instrument to a slack, un-fingered chord) cross-pollinated the genres of ragtime, jazz and hillbilly music. Some point to Kekuku for his influence on helping turn the latter into modern country, thanks to exposing white musicians to the steel guitar.

Just some delightful postcards of old Hawai'i

Of all the Hawaiian lap steel guitarists, Sol Hoopii was considered to be one of the greatest. Born Solomon Ho'opi'i Ka'ai'ai in Honolulu in 1902, Hoopii came to the United States mainland when still a teenager. Hoopii was accomplished at blending the Hawaiian sound with a sprightly, Hot Club de France-style jazz. In 1938, he became a born-again Christian, and devoted himself to mostly playing gospel standards.

Sol Hoopii and the group The Royal Samoans (which apparently was somewhat pan-Polynesian in makeup) also contributed music to a 1932 Max Fleischer animated short, "Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle." This animation is surprising in so many ways. First, the music is a sneak-attack of wonderful, with an opening sequence live song and hulu dance. Lest you think it's an early multicultural homage, the cartoon itself includes hostile dark-skinned natives with exaggerated lips. Near the end, there are two animated dance sequences which use rotoscoping, or tracing animation directly over filmed sequences. Betty does the hulu while looking eerily naturalistic, with the exception of her giant cartoon head.

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