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Senator Inouye, Willie K and “Danny Boy”

December 30, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Spouse C. and I were among the crowd at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on a bright sunny Saturday morning – the sky was a transcendent blue, the West Maui mountains startlingly green. After signing the guestbook, my spouse C. and I sat in the Castle auditorium and gazed at Senator Daniel Inouye’s body, lying on the stage, flanked by the United States and Hawai’i State flags.

Much was made by the emcee – the affable attorney Anthony “Tony” Takitani, a Baldwin graduate, of the Senator’s ties to Maui: the Senator's mother was born in Puukolii on the West-Side, of his late first spouse who hailed from Wailuku, and of his frequent trips to Maui for dedications and political rallies.

Takitani introduced political dignitaries and community leaders, ranging from Maui Mayor Arakawa to the new Lt. Governor Shan S. Tsutsui to OHA Trustee Collette Machado, the Senator’s former field staffer on Moloka’i. There was also music including “Amazing Grace” by the Maui Choir, a hula, and the opening “God Bless America” by Maui born-and-raised Uluwehi Guerrero.

Then for the final musical tribute, Takitani called upon Willie K and the song “Danny Boy”, one of the late Senator’s favorites.

If there was a defining, heart-stopping moment, this was it. Willie K had no supporting musicians, just his ukulele. He was dressed very simply, as if he had dropped by my house for a coffee and a malasada.

The slow-moving ballad “Danny Boy” has a rich, long history, going back to 1913 – one year before the First World War and the year when Maui High opened its doors for students and eleven years before Senator Inouye was born – when the lyrics were written by the prolific Frederic Edward Weatherly, a talented English composer who wrote over 3,000 songs, plus having a “day job” as a London lawyer. He set the words to an anonymous probably late 18th century tune (perhaps played on harps) now known as “Londonderry Air” (it is the anthem for Northern Ireland – but cherished by all Irish in the global diaspora, in Australia, North America, – yet ironically written by an British subject).

During the First World War the words were taken to be about parents sending off boy soldiers being sent to battle and death in the trenches. In the 1920s “Danny Boy” became a popular funeral song at Irish wakes in East Coast cities, and by the 1930s when Daniel Inouye may have first heard it on the radio in Honolulu, there were already various singers’ (and lyrics) interpretations, and in the post-World War II period, the range of singers who have recorded the song is extraordinary, including Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Cher, Eric Clapton, Conway Twitty, and Joan Baez.

But why would Willie K’s rendition be so unique, his tenor voice transforming the lyrics into a beautiful spell-binding moment, stopping time altogether -- with just a ukulele for musical accompaniment (not an instrument that Frederic E. Weatherly would have heard in Edwardian London).

Mauian born-and-raised, Willie Kahaiali’i (Willie K is his stage name) was a child prodigy, raised in a musical family, led by his respected musician father Manu Kahaiali’i. What made Willie unique throughout his career was his curiosity about music, from the Hawaiian, Jazz and early Rhythm and Blues he heard in his childhood to his older period, when his influences included many iconic musicians in rock or Country/Western or other forms, like B.B. King.

Unexpectedly for a “local” musician (and perhaps we should never assume or stereotype), Willie K has a deep interest in another musical genre: opera, sung in Italian lyrics as the opera musical/performing genre developed in Italy, so far from Maui. Willie K’s childhood influences included Mario Lanza, perhaps one of the 20th century’s top tenor voices – a precursor to the famous Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.

He is very familiar with the “Vesti La Giubba” (“Put On the Costume”) tenor aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s late 19th century opera “Pagliacci”. This is a bittersweet scene (perhaps the most powerful in all opera) where the protagonist (Canio) discovers his wife’s betrayal, yet he puts on his clown make-up and alternately weeps and laughs to do the next show. If done well – and Enrico Caruso was the best – the singing “sad” clown scene drove crowds to tears in Europe (it is no accident that Caruso’s recording of “Vesti la Giubba” reached the first 1 million platinum sales in history).

With the Hawaii Youth Symphony, Willie K has done “Nessun Dorma” (“And None Shall Sleep”: the tenor aria piece from the Puccini classic “Turandot”) and the fun, happy, upbeat “Funiculi, Funicula” (about the Mt. Vesuvius cable car) – so he is not unfamiliar with the soaring tenor demands, a la Pavarotti, for a ballad like “Danny Boy”, which has closing high notes that put unique strains on even the best of “Irish” tenors. By spring of this year, he had perfected "Danny Boy" at a Four Seasons Resort Hotel (Wailea) concert, and afterwards concert-goers were clamoring for him to record the song for his next CD, so by fate he was already training for the closing of the celebration of the Senators's inspiring life at the MACC. He is truly a talented individual in many musical genres.

Completely entranced, listening to Willie K’s tenor voice in the silent Castle theater, as I closed my eyes, I could envision Senator Inouye smiling and nodding, a complex figure himself, with so many diverse influences, of pre-War Honolulu to far-away northern Italy where the beautiful Italian opera was born and where he was wounded in a horrific battle to the long halls of Washington D.C. -- and always back to Maui, his home island in many ways.


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