86-year-old singer continues to market her talents

Aunty Genoa Keawe[Story and photo by Mike Foley, originally published online in the BYU-Hawaii Newsroom, November 2, 2004. Note: Aunty Genoa passed away February 25, 2008]

The “Hawaiian Lady of Song,” 86-year-old “Aunty” Genoa Keawe, continues to promote her successful recording business by performing regularly in Waikiki and in special appearances around the world.

Keawe’s son and business agent, Eric Keawe — a BYU-Hawaii alumnus, partially used television interview clips by TV personality Emme Tomimbang to tell his mother’s story in the November 2 Entrepreneurship Lecture Series.

That story started when Genoa Adolpho moved to Laie when she was six years old and eventually started singing in church choirs. “In Laie we used to have a lot of concerts, and I used to love to go,” Keawe reminisced, adding that sometimes her mother would even have to “pull her ear and drag her out.”

After graduating from the 8th grade at Laie School, she got married at age 16 to Edward Aiko-Keawe, and began their family that would eventually number 12 children, 35 grandchildren, and over 50 other descendants so far — several of whom have followed her into the professional music business.

She became a pop singer during World War II, which brought her to the attention of the well-known LDS musician, John K. Almeida, who had a live radio show in those days. “I was 16 or 17 at that time. He asked me to sing For You a Lei. That was about the only song I knew in Hawaiian. I moved into Hawaiian because of Johnny Almeida. I enjoyed singing Hawaiian songs, but I still loved the pop songs,” Aunty Genoa recalled.

She started to record the first of over 150 singles under the 49th State Records label in 1946. Her career began to soar in the 1950s, and it really took off in 1961 when Robert “Lucky” Luck hired her and her musicians for $50 each per show to do his new television show on KONA TV. “I became so well known through that program,” she said.

In 1969, at the urging of fans, she started her own company, Genoa Keawe Records, and has since recorded over 20 albums and received many local, national and international awards. Son Eric noted his mother’s career has literally gone from hand-cranked phonographs to today’s digital recording technology.

“She’s worked very hard as the producer, artist, and distributor of her own recordings,” said Eric Keawe, who remembers his mother making the rounds of stores in Honolulu and Kaimuki to deliver records. “She was basically a one-man shop. You will not find that type of businessperson in today’s climate. All the artists have distributors.”

“She’s still the president and the person in charge. She continues to market herself by keeping in front of the public, especially at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort,” Eric continued, adding that he and his wife, Marlene Fernandez, whom he met when they were BYU-Hawaii students, “are very proud to say we’re BYU-Hawaii alumni.”

Over all the long years of her career, Aunty Genoa has evolved “a unique style of song,” as one fan put it, that is sometimes called “backyard music,” which is also known in Hawaiian English as chalangalang.

“Even me, I don’t know what chalangalang music is,” Keawe admitted; but that doesn’t matter to the many fans who have enjoyed listening to her sing it for over 60 years. She added that one element of the musical style is what Hawaiians call ha’i, a kind of yodeling.

Keawe is also quite well known for her uncanny ability to sustain notes — sometimes for more than two minutes, as in her “vocal signature” song, Alika. “You take a big breath, and then you breathe out slowly,” she said of the technique.

Asked the secret of her longevity, Aunty Genoa said, “I love Hawaiian music so much. I want my music to live on.” She added she’s also pleased to see the younger generation carry on “old-style Hawaiian music. Don’t forget Hawaiian music.”

Getting emotional, Aunty Genoa said, “I love Laie because this is where I was raised and went to school. This is [also] where I started going to Church. This gift that I have for song is from my Heavenly Father. The Lord has blessed me with this voice.”

In the closing moments of the presentation, Eric Keawe asked if anyone had questions for his mother. “Would you sing for us?” someone asked; and Aunty Genoa once again strummed her ukulele and launched into the lingering notes of Alika.

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