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Emma Veary, Hawaii’s ‘Golden Throat’ reflects on four generations of mothers and daughters

May 15, 2008
By JON WOODHOUSE, Contributing Writer
Mountain Apple Records recently released the compilation CD “50 Greatest Songs of Hawai‘i,” a sequel of sorts to Honolulu Magazine’s “50 Greatest Hawai‘i Albums of All Time” collection. Along with popular songs by the Brothers Cazimero, Hapa, Olomana and Kalapana, the new album includes Emma Veary singing Queen Lili‘uokalani’s classic “Ku‘u Pua I Paoakalani.”

“I didn’t even know about that,” says Veary. “I just got the CD about a week and half ago in the mail. It’s an honor to be remembered.”

Revered as Hawaii’s “Golden Throat,” this 78-year-old legend has achieved numerous accomplishments over the course of an epic career, from headlining at all of Waikiki’s major showrooms and singing on the original “Hawaii Calls” radio show, to recording in England with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. A recipient of a Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts’ Lifetime Achievement award, she was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and received the Music Foundation of Hawaii Legacy Award this year.

On Saturday, Veary will be among the honored performers appearing at the Halau Na Hanona Kulike ‘O Pi‘ilani’s Ho‘oilina concert at Baldwin High School Auditorium. The special event pays tribute to the Beamer ohana, commemorating the late Aunty Nona Beamer and featuring ki hoalu virtuoso Keola Beamer; the Brown ohana, featuring the group Ola Hou; the Lake ohana, featuring kumu hula John Keola Lake and the Veary ohana.

“My two granddaughters are going to come and do a hula with us and (daughter) Robin (Kneubuhl) will accompany me,” say Veary. “We’ll be singing stuff that people remember. It’s an honor and privilege to still be able to perform.”

A couple of weeks back, Veary was a special guest at the Brothers Cazimero May Day show at the Castle Theater.

“What a thrill that was,” she enthuses. “I hadn’t performed with the boys for many years, I’ve been in semi-retired mode. Robert called me on Tuesday and the performance was on Friday. We had a half hour of rehearsal then we were on. It was a fabulous concert. We had such a good time and I had a standing ovation. Jon de Mello (of Mountain Apple) called me afterwards and said, ‘Robert came in and he’s been congratulating you all over the place.’ ”

Entertaining audiences has been a passion for this treasured artist since an early age. “I started performing professionally at 5,” she explains, typically punctuating sentences with sparkling laughter.

“In those days we weren’t an affluent family and I found out that people would pay you to perform. Wow. Of course I had to get a special dispensation from the liquor commission. My mother would accompany me and on weekends we’d go somewhere and perform. The Waialae Country Club was the place, and all the stars from Hollywood would end up going there. I would sing and got to meet all these legends like Dorothy Lamour and Betty Davis.”

Early on, she had thought about a career in opera, but a trip to New York expanded her horizons. “I went to New York when I was 14 and discovered Broadway,” she continues. “I didn’t want to sing just one kind of music, there’s operetta, opera, musical comedy, and I loved it all and could sing it all. So I started doing the ‘Kamehameha Waltz’ and ‘Paoakalani’ in a grand manner. They’re from an era when it used to be very grand.”

Teaming with legendary record producer Jack de Mello, who introduced lush orchestration to Hawaiian music, Veary recorded signature songs like the “Kamehameha Waltz” and the “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” These classics plus 23 others (like “Waikiki” and “I’ll Weave a Lei of Stars For You”) were compiled in 1996 for “The Best of Emma” CD.

Known for her regal elegance and grace, Veary was strongly influenced by her mother, revered kupuna and spiritual teacher Hannah “Nana” Veary, who imparted her wisdom in the marvelous book “Change We Must.”

Drawing from the metaphysical essence of Hawaiian culture, her mother embraced other spiritual traditions.

“Whatever my mother was studying, we all studied together,” she notes. “We participated in her spiritual journey and lived it. We were chanting in Chinese, we were chanting in Japanese, and in Tibetan, whatever she was doing we were practicing, which made for a very interesting childhood. We were constantly reading stuff that she was learning about and it became a way of life.

“I was just reading something of mother’s and it sums up what we were taught and how we lived — it’s in the book. ‘Guard your thoughts; keep them free from doubt and fear, accepting only good. Prepare your mind to receive the best that life has to offer. Become increasingly aware of the one presence, the one life, the one spirit, which is God. All sense of lack or limitation should have no place in your consciousness. Everything is possible according to your acceptance and the way spirit works through your belief.’ ”

Recounting a childhood rooted in native spirituality, Nana Veary in her book includes a startling tale of her grandmother feeding and riding a “pet” shark.

“Her real mother died when she was 6 and her grandmother raised her,” Emma explains. “She would ride Ka‘ahupahau, she took care of the shark in Pu’uloa. She was born there, and mother was a grown woman when she found out about it.”

Adopting many of her mother’s ideals and metaphysical truths, Veary has remained young in heart. “People say, ‘How do you stay so young, you look younger than your age?’ ” she reports. “I say I laugh a lot; I don’t take life for granted. That keeps you young. You just keep positive about everything, don’t think of lack.”

Touching all she encounters, Veary recalls the time she traveled to London in the late 1960s to record with the London Philharmonic. “I had a lovely compliment,” she explains. “During playbacks the musicians would usually go out and talk and smoke. But nobody got up and Jack de Mello said, ‘I have brought people to record with them and you’re the first one that they have sat and listened to the playback.’ ”

Then there was the time she was booked to perform at London’s venerable Savoy Theater, which opened its doors in 1881.

“That was a milestone,” she remembers, laughing. “A funny thing happened. There I was, a little island girl, and I didn’t know the protocol. I was told all the performers entered through the back kitchen to do their performances. I said, ‘Excuse me, I came thousands of miles not to be able to walk through your lobby. I’m sorry, if I can’t walk through the front door you don’t have an act.’ ” They made a special exemption.

The “Reggae On Da Rocks” festival on Sunday at War Memorial Stadium features Jamaican stars Freddie McGregor, Half Pint, Da’Ville, and Mad Cobra along with Inna Vision, BUBZ and the Dub 5 Band and Mele Pono. Veteran reggae artist Freddie McGregor is probably best known in the islands for his hit “Big Ship,” made popular by Brother Noland. A soulful singer, his most recent album “Comin’ In Tough” included covers of the Wailing Wailers ska tune “Love & Affection,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ooh Child.”

One of reggae’s most conscious lyricists, Half Pint recently released his latest CD “No Stress Express.” The Jamaican Star praised: “Half Pint is in true form, showcasing good lyrics, clean beats and smooth vocals … (he) sticks to what he knows best, the tried and true formula of classic reggae, and lyrics are all clean and not overly sexual or violent like most songs of today.”

One of dancehall’s most promising rising stars, Da’Ville made waves with his CD “On My Mind.” Global Rhythm noted, “This album is a prime example of what happens when R&B, pop and reggae bear a love child.”

• Tickets are $25 in advance, available at all The Water Store locations and Xenon Cellular, by calling (877) 714-7688 or online at Gates open at 3 p.m.

Congratulations to all of Maui’s 2008 Na Hoku Hanohano nominees.

Upcountry kumu hula Napua Greig scored the most nominations, with seven, including female vocalist and album of the year for her “Pihana” CD. The Barefoot Natives earned six nominations for “Slack Key Circus” including group and album of the year; and Raiatea Helm picked up five nominations for “Hawaiian Blossom.”

Other nominees include Keali‘i Reichel for his DVD “Kukahi Live in Concert,” Amy Hanaiali‘i for “Hawaiian Christmas,” Ekolu for “The Best of Ekolu” and “To the World” DVD, Maui-born guitarist Jeff Peterson for “Pure Slack Key” (and he’s included on Palm Records’ nominated “Slack Key Christmas”), producers George Kahumoku Jr. and Paul Konwiser for the Grammy-winning “Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar,” and producer (and performer) Keoki Kahumoku for “Songs From Hawai‘i Island.”

• Contact Jon Woodhouse at

Article Photos

Emma Veary shares a moment with daughter Robyn Mahealani Kneubuhl in front of artist Suzy Papanikolas’s portrait of them in Aunty Emma’s home.

The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo



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