Island Mele: ‘Escape’ with Ken & Bob

Jun. 10, 2012 | 0 Comments


Ken “Lopaka” Emerson and his brother, Phil Emerson, reintroduced Hawaii to the sound of the original — acoustic — steel guitar with their debut album in the late 1970s and then as Moe Keale’s key musicians on his landmark “South Sea Island Magic” album in 1980.

‘Escape To Jazz Island’

Ken & Bob (Grass Skirt)

Ken Emerson partners here with Robert Armstrong — another afficionado of classic acoustic Hawaiian and hapa haole music — to create a delightful look back at the sound of the early decades of the 20th century. The acoustic steel guitar was being adopted and adapted by musicians of several genres back in the ‘Teens and ‘20s, and the duo combine elements of jazz, pop and the blues with hints of swing music and a few anachronisms.

They open with a medley — “Fish and Poi” and “In A Canoe” — that describes Hawaii in whimsical but consistently fond and favorable terms. The combination of compatible lyrics, the assorted acoustic instruments, and two well-worn voices is a winning introduction to the duo and its music (Note: “Fish and Poi” is not the Sean Na’auao hit and it also isn’t the “Fish and Poi” song Jack Pitman and Eaton “Bob” Magoon wrote in the early ’50s).

“Hapa Haole Hula Girl” is another old-timer that describes the romantic allure of Hawaii in ever-popular terms. “Shanghai Lil” recalls a movie from the early ‘30s and shifts the locale to where “the stars that hang high over Shanghai bring back the memory of a thrill.”

Pianist David Paquette enhances the ambiance of several selections. One of the instrumentals, “Girl of My Dreams” gives him space to stretch out and swing. “Someday Sweetheart” shows that he can sing too.

Elaine Hoffman adds a woman’s voice to the project on “Pidgin English Hula” — a precursor by almost 50 years of contemporary local comedy.

The only things missing from this well-crafted retrospective are composers’ credits and background information. Who would guess that “Pidgin English Hula” was the work of Charles E. King — generally a staunch traditionalist in things Hawaiian? Or that English steel guitarist Peter Hodgkinson wrote “Tiger Shark” during rehearsals for a BBC broadcast?

For that matter, Emerson and Armstrong deserve the credit due for adding the unmistakable riff from “Jaws” and the melody of the Chantays’ surf-rock hit, “Pipeline,” to their arrangement of Hodgkinson’s composition.

“Escape To Jazz Island” is available at
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for nearly 40 years. Contact him via email at

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