I first saw Hawaii in 1992, when I took a vacation on the Big Island. I listened to the music on the local radio and didn't like it. I fell back on the Hawaiian music station, however, because it was slightly better than the others. One afternoon I drove up the east side of the Island, tracing the slope of Mauna Loa. The turquoise sea was clear as glass all the way to the horizon, and clouds mirrored its surface. The car radio played a falsetto song, Sweet Lei Mokihana, and suddenly everything came together. I was hooked.
The singer was a man named Dennis Pavao, and though only forty years old, he was already a legend around Hawaii. Dennis had been born close to that very spot, in the Big Island town of Kalapana. Dennis was left-handed and he learned to play guitar upside-down as well, giving his strumming a unique texture. In the 1970s, Dennis formed a band with two cousins, Ledward and Nedward Ka'apana. Dennis perfected the traditional Hawaiian falsetto singing style. The range of his voice and his control over it were unique.
The Hawaiians'a polynesian language was not written down until Christian missionaries published bibles there in the early nineteenth century. For a thousand years or more, this culture's principal artifact was an oral tradition. Prior to contact with the western explorers, the Hawaiians did not sing melodies, but chanted their myths to the rhythm of gourds and lava rock percussion. When missionaries taught the Hawaiians to sing hymns [Himeni], they tapped into this deep well of culture. Almost overnight, the Hawaiians mastered western musical concepts, as though they'd been training in their sleep for centuries. Their language was especially suited to the long notes and harmonies of early Christian music, because it was compact [twelve letters] and rich in vowels.
Hawaiian women were not allowed to sing in public for a long time, so the men developed falsetto to provide the high notes of the Himeni. This is the singing that Dennis specialized in and perfected. I don't know how high he could go. Once in concert I heard him take a high song five tones higher and never lost control.
When I got back to Kailua-Kona, I went to a record store and whistled the melody I'd heard to the clerk. He handed me two CDs by Dennis. He also told me Dennis would play that afternoon, down by the water. I drove on down with my traveling companion and sat on the grass. Dennis soared in his high range while the ocean breeze perfumed us. Occasionally, a wave hit the rock break and splashed our faces. It was a complete Hawaiian experience.
A few years later I saw Dennis perform in San Francisco, at Saichi Kawahara's fundraiser for his Kapalakiko Hawaiian Band. After the show, I shook Dennis's hand and told him how much I loved his voice. He treated me like a long-lost friend. When other people in line wanted to take photos, he insisted that I stand beside him, his arm around my shoulder. I said, "Mr. Pavao, they don't want a photo of me, only of you," but he wouldn't let go. I imagined all these people going home, looking at their pictures, saying, "Who's the blonde guy?"
I saw Dennis perform just once more, on his home island of Maui. When he died from a brain aneurism in 2002, at age fifty. All Hawaii and the Hawaiian diaspora felt the loss. If you want to hear falsetto excellence today, Darren Benitez is a fine heir to that tradition.
Great energy has been spent seeking out the avant garde in culture, the edgy and dangerous. Vincent Furnier pushed his idea of dangerous when his character, Alice Cooper faked his own decapitation on stage. Currently, edgy music endlessly copies and corrupts the music of the past. People who can't play any instrument remix the work of people who could actually play instruments.
I think sincerity is edgy. Patriotism is provocative. Sentimentality is nuclear. Dennis Pavao began each of his performances with a song that dissolved all irony, God Bless My Daddy. I can't think of anything more refreshing, more at odds with the current cultural norms than this song.
My favorite song from Dennis is so simple, it only has one verse. It's an appreciation of the sound of the ocean at his birthplace of Kalapana, which was destroyed by lava from Mount Kilauea in 1990.
Good-bye, Dennis. Your voice still glides high, like God in his Heaven.